Protestant Churches Split Over anti-Israel Divestment Resolutions

Pro-boycott stance damages Jewish-Christian relations, say Jews involved.

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JVP's Carolyn Klaasen watching a United Church for Christ committee debating divestment from companies linked to Israel's occupation. June 2015
JVP's Carolyn Klaasen watching a United Church for Christ committee debating divestment from companies linked to Israel's occupation. June 2015Credit: Christopher Hazou

NEW YORK – It was one step forward and a step and a half back for the anti-Israel BDS movement this week. On Thursday, just two days after the United Church of Christ passed a measure requiring divestment from companies connected with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted down a similar resolution, while the much smaller Mennonite Church postponed any boycott decision to 2017.

At its 30th General Synod, which met this week in Cleveland, Ohio, the United Church of Christ (UCC) passed a measure boycotting products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Another resolution, calling on the UCC to recognize Israel’s activity against the Palestinians as “apartheid,” won a narrow majority, but failed to meet the two-thirds vote threshold required for the mainline Protestant denomination to adopt a new position.

Two days later, however, a voice vote among the approximately 300 Episcopal bishops indicated “overwhelming” opposition to the divestment proposal, said Emily Soloff, national associate director for interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who was present for two days of the church’s 78th General Convention, in Salt Lake City.

Concern for the potential damage that might be done to the church’s relations with the American-Jewish community played a major role in the bishops’ decision to oppose the measure, she said.

The difference in the votes signals an emerging split between two mainline Protestant denominations over endorsing boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The Episcopal Church has 1.9 million members and the United Church of Christ just under 1 million. Its membership dropped from nearly 1.3 million members in 2004 to 980,000 in 2014, according to the UCC’s own study. The Pew Research Center’s recent study, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, found that liberal Protestant churches lost 5 million members between 2007 and 2014, while the American-Jewish community held steady.

A third Protestant denomination, the Mennonite Church U.S.A., voted to table consideration of an Israel-Palestine-related divestment resolution until its 2017 convention, spokesperson Annette Brill Bergstresser told Haaretz. The Mennonite Church U.S.A., with about 95,000 members, is far smaller than the other denominations that have taken up the issue.

Divestment resolutions have been intermittently debated at some Protestant denominational conventions for several years, and in 2014 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed a BDS measure. The UCC’s adoption of that policy adds momentum to a strategy that most in the Jewish community view as damaging – both to the ultimate goal of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to relationships between the communities.

But both the Episcopalian and Mennonite decision seemed to blunt what had been portrayed in midweek as a major breakthrough for BDS following the UCC’s divestment decision, which was approved by a significant majority of 508 in favor, 124 against and with 38 abstentions. The decision was swiftly and roundly condemned by mainstream Jewish organizations.

UCC stance 'smacks of Nazi boycott'

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis called the UCC move “a shameful episode.” Ethan Felson, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the move “poisons the well for reconciliation” between Israel and the Palestinians. Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, said, “The UCC’s one-sided view singles out Israel and, shockingly, ignores any Palestinian accountability. UCC have been deluded by their Palestinian advisers that peace can be achieved through demonization of Israel.”

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, director of the National Council of Synagogues, whose umbrella covers Judaism’s liberal movements and whose focus is Christian-Jewish dialogue, was even harsher. UCC’s new position “smacks of the Nazi boycott of Jewish merchants and goods,” he said.

At the same time, Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, said that none of the multinational companies named in the UCC resolution – including Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola – will be harmed by UCC selling its shares, nor will there be any major economic impact on Israel. “The media attention is more significant than the financial impact,” Sandmel told Haaretz from Rome, where he attended a conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

Jewish support for BDS

Members of the BDS-supporting Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), who attended the UCC and Episcopalian conferences, are eager for attention to be drawn to the power of divestment from companies whose products are used in any way to maintain the occupation.

Carolyn Klaasen, a doctoral candidate in Hebrew Bible at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary, and Jesse Yurow, a JVP staff member from Oakland, both sported “Another Jew Supporting Divestment” T-shirts. “UCC has found in JVP interfaith partners who can work with them on this,” Klaasen told Haaretz. She was one of nine JVP supporters to attend the UCC gathering.

Yurow, one of five JVP members who attended the Episcopal Church gathering, said he had recounted to delegates “my experience in Israel and my own grappling with the occupation and the human-rights abuses taking place. I spoke in support of the resolutions that called for divestment from corporations complicit in and profiting off of human rights abuses,” he told Haaretz.

'Chilling effect on Jewish-Christian ties'

Both Felson and Marans claimed the decision made by UCC leaders does not reflect the sentiments of the church’s rank and file. These votes “signal that the leadership [of the denominations] is out of touch with the commitments of and support for the State of Israel, that crosses religious lines in the United States,” said AJC’s Marans.

In a statement issued following the vote, Don Hart – president of the UCC’s United Church Funds, which manages some $800 million in church endowment assets – said, “United Church Funds has heard the outrage of generations of Palestinians living under Occupation. We have witnessed the abuse inflicted on the people of Hebron, Jericho and Jerusalem.”

However, Rev. Richard Walters, the church’s director of corporate social responsibility that oversees the much larger $3 billion UCC Pension Funds, said cautiously, “We need to examine this text, because we’re not yet sure what we can and can’t do.”

Even Rev. John Dorhauer, newly elected president of UCC, expressed ambivalence about his denomination’s resolution. “I will be obligated as the officer of this denomination and by mandate of the General Synod to speak publicly about the action taken here. But I will do so with a deep awareness at the pain I will cause to people who I care about deeply,” he told the Huffington Post. “And I will do so, to be quite frank, wondering if the benefits of our divesting from those companies is equal to the cost of the relationships we have with people who are critical to our movement toward justice, not just in Palestine but in many other places.”

Marans seemed to confirm Dorhauer’s concerns. “There has been a chilling effect on Jewish-Christian relations in recent years as a result of multiple initiatives from churches on Israel-Palestine,” he said. “We will have to evaluate the future of AJC’s approach to UCC. That will require thoughtful reflection, but I promise it will not be business as usual,” he added.

Those involved in interfaith dialogue for the Jewish community say their focus has shifted from national to local relationships with Christian ministers and educators.

AJC’s Marans spoke with Haaretz as he readied to depart for Israel, where he will be a leader of the Christian Leadership Initiative, cosponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute. This year has 18 participants and 60 alumni from past years, including Christian denominational leaders and seminary presidents. “We are educating leading Christians on the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel to the American Jewish community,” he said, calling it “the important job of enabling Christians at the highest level to understand Jews as they understand themselves. To understand Israel in all its diversity, but also how it factors into Jewish identity today. This is a critical piece of what is missing in the conversation.”

No matter what resolutions pass at denominational conventions, added Marans, “the job goes on.”

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