US Methodists urged to divest from profits from occupation
The push for divestment continues as the Methodist General Conference enters its second week
By Anna Baltzer and Sydney Levy, Mondoweiss
At this moment, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is holding its General Conference in Tampa, Florida. About one thousand delegates are considering whether to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. We are talking about companies with a solid track record of human rights violations: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. Caterpillar produces the bulldozers that have been responsible for the demolition of innumerable Palestinian homes and the uprooting of full orchards. Motorola Solutions produces equipment used to maintain surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank. Hewlett-Packard provides on-going support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank which deprive Palestinians of the freedom of movement in their own land and allows the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control.
The UMC holds shares in these three companies valued at $35 million. The church acknowledges that divestment from these companies has no financial implications, meaning that divestment can be achieved without causing any financial loses to the church.
Palestinian Methodist Missionary and Pastor Alex Awad outside the Tampa convention center where the Methodist divestment vote will take place. (Photo: Anna Baltzer)
The delegates will cast their vote sometime this week (the exact timing has not been set yet.) To the extent that we will be able to tweet from the convention floor, we will do so under hashtag #churchdivest. The group leading the effort, United Methodist Kairos Response, can be followed at @UMKairosResp. While it is impossible at this moment to predict the result of the vote, we can already start taking stock of what has become clear at the convention this past week. Here are five of them:
NUMBER ONE: Everyone agrees the occupation is wrong and must end.
Whether you are for or against divestment, the consensus in the church is that the Israeli occupation is wrong and must end. In fact, the church has taken a position against Palestinian home demolitions as early as 1988, among dozens of resolutions condemning Israel’s discriminatory policies for more than forty years. The petition to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard does not seek a new policy. Rather, it seeks to align the church’s investments with its long-held resolutions and values. The United Methodist Book of Discipline discourages investment in companies “that directly or indirectly support the violation of human rights.”
NUMBER TWO: Everyone agree that the companies in question have been uncooperative or unresponsive.
The General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the UMC, Jim Winkler, recently stated:
“As someone who has been involved in the discussions by UM agencies and ecumenical partners with Caterpillar for six years, I would like to share critical issues we have repeatedly raised with the company. Regrettably, in all of these meetings, including one last week, Caterpillar has told us it has no intention to change any of its business practices relating to the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Chief Investment Officer of the church’s General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, David Zellner, testified in committee last week and described efforts to ask CAT to change its behavior as “futile.”
NUMBER THREE: There is disagreement about what to do next.
Zellner opposes divestment. He prefers an alternate approach, namely that the church ask corporations to sign onto a set of principles of ethical business conductand then consider divestment only for companies that refuse to sign these principles. Since the principles are unenforceable, nothing would stop the companies from signing on the dotted line in order to avoid divestment while doing nothing to change their behavior.
Mr. Winkler supports divestment. He said it best when he said:
“this is first and foremost a moral issue, yet sadly Caterpillar offers only misleading interpretations of the law and irrelevant arguments as a basis for continuing their sales. The question before delegates is whether our church should profit from the sales of equipment which are clearly used in ways that violate human rights.”
NUMBER FOUR: Charity is not a substitute for justice.
Some who oppose divestment within the church talk about the need to invest in the Palestinian economy rather than divesting from companies profiting from the occupation.
While investment is not objectively bad, it cannot overcome the obstacles imposed on the Palestinian economy by the wall, the checkpoints, and the home demolition which damage property and impede the free movement of workers, goods, and services. We have heard this again and again from the Palestinians themselves at the conference, including from Pastor Alex Awad, a United Methodist Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem and crosses the checkpoints daily on his way to Bethlehem Bible College. Speaking to UMC delegates, Awad urged them to stand with Palestinians, to stand for justice, and to recognize that these companies are causing real harm to real people. He spoke eloquently about the need for Palestinians to live with dignity and to be able to provide for themselves, rather than waiting for charity to try to compensate for the unjust system of occupation under which they suffer.
NUMBER FIVE: International delegates get it.
About 40% of the convention delegates come from abroad. There is a large of contingent of delegates from Latin America, Africa, the Philippines, and beyond. The Latin American caucus has endorsed the divestment resolution wholeheartedly. Many African delegates with whom we’ve spoken are in support as well. Some of them have made the connection between the use of Caterpillar bulldozers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are used in mines to extract minerals from the ground in ways that are harmful to the environment and to the well-being of workers and communities where many of the delegates live. Others come from countries torn by war and violence and they relate to the daily violence that the military occupation imposes on the lives of the Palestinians. Not all of them use the word “occupation,” however. But when we explain what we are talking about, they get it. “Colonialism,” we’ve heard more than once.
Of course, many U.S. delegates get it too. In a few days, we will know where the balance lies. We will then learn whether the United Methodist church has the strength to stand by its values or is prepared to cast them aside in order to avoid controversy.
The church agrees that the occupation is wrong and that the complicit target companies have shown no signs of change. Thus, ultimately, this vote is not about the occupation but about whether to listen to Palestinian voices, the voices of the oppressed, who are calling for divestment. Will delegates assert that they know better than the Palestinians themselves what is needed for Palestinian freedom?
Regardless, the conversations in the corridors, in committee, and on the plenary floor are sure to leave their mark on hundreds of delegates now forced to face their very own financial connections to the oppression of the Palestinian people
Anna Baltzer is National Organizer at the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Sydney Levy is Advocacy Director at Jewish Voice for Peace. Both organizations are working as allies of the United Methodist Kairos Response, the grassroots initiative from within the church that is shepherding this historic divestment measure.
To the Delegates at the UMC General Conference in Tampa
Jerry Haber, The Magnes Zionist
To the Delegates at the UMC General Conference in Tampa
Before I say anything, before I try to convince you of anything, I want to express my deep sympathy with you as you face a dilemma concerning the divestment issue. As one who has believed in the importance of improving the relations between all faiths for my entire life, as a Jew who attended a Christian high school, and who then went on to study Islam and Arabic philosophy in college, I do not envy your position.
Whatever your decision, you will make some people very unhappy. On the one hand, you may damage relations with many Jews, including Jewish organizations with whom you do good work. As Christians who are deeply aware of the troubled history of Christian-Jewish relations, that may be very, very difficult, a source of pain to Jews and Methodists alike.
On the other hand, if you vote against divestment, if you amend the resolution, or substitute something “positive”, such as investing in Palestinian businesses, you will have caused enormous pain to those Palestinian Christians who are crying out for support in their struggle for civil and human rights, for the fundamental right to live a life of dignity.
I write you as an American Israeli, an orthodox Jew, a resident of Jerusalem, a professor of Jewish thought, whose children and grandchildren live in the State of Israel. For the last thirty years of my life I have observed almost first-hand the increasing oppression of the Palestinian, the settlements, the bypass roads, the eviction of long time residents from their houses, the destruction of houses, the expropriation of lands, public and private, the unjust allocation of natural resources – and the suffering that has resulted.
I have seen how some members of the Jewish community have allowed their hearts to be hardened to the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians, how they have justified it through appealing to Israeli security needs, or when that tactic fails, by diverting the conversation to some other catastrophe going on somewhere. It is no doubt true that on any day of the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, something worse is happening to some other people somewhere else on the globe. But I am hard-pressed to think of another people whose suffering has gone on for so long. And, as an Israeli Jew, I am implicated in that suffering.
Sadly, I have heard some members of the Jewish community question the motives behind the divestment campaign, given that today – and every day — there is some other worse injustice elsewhere. The insinuation is there – “If you are singling out Israel for moral opprobrium, the only explanation can be that you are…” well, I cannot even type the rest of the sentence, so ashamed I am of the sentiment.
I have also seen how other members of the Jewish community have become aware of, and then involved with, the struggle for the basic civil and human rights of the Palestinians. That process will continue, as Jewish supporters of Israel free themselves of the indoctrination to which they have been subjected, as they witness first-hand the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the refugee camps, and as they reach out to people of good will of all faiths to help them help the Israeli government do the right thing.
For that is what this struggle is about. It is not a question of finding a middle way, a compromise, that will make both sides happy/unhappy. There is no symmetry of suffering here. Both sides have caused pain to each other. But only one side controls the life, liberty, land, and resources of the other.
Divestment is a symbolic act. Not a single Israeli will be hurt by it. And while some Palestinians will no doubt suffer economically, much less than did the South African Blacks during that divestment campaign, it will be for a cause and a tactic that all people of good with can rally around – the cause of justice and the tactic of non-violent protest.
The main question is not whether Christians from around the world should show solidarity with Palestinian Christians. The main question is whether people of good will — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others – will show solidarity with each other.
The injustice towards the Palestinian people is first and foremost my problem, as an Israeli Jew. I am not asking you to do the work for me. I am asking you to join hands with those Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and do the right thing.
If you do that, I assure you that members of the Jewish community will help you to explain your decision to the public, and to the Jews who will not understand – yet – your decision.
Vote yes on divestment, and you will be part of a worldwide effort to get Israel to wake-up to its obligations, to show the consequences of its actions. And you will also show the Palestinian people that they have not been forgotten and that there is hope for them – and for the Jewish people of Israel, as well
Highly contested Methodist divestment initiative fails, but supporters see partial victory
By Ali Abunimah, electronic intifada
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church today failed to pass a measure to divest from companies profiting from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses of Palestinians.
United Methodist Kairos Response, the group pushing for divestment, issued this statement shortly after the highly contested and watched vote:
United Methodist Church Fails to Align its Words with its Actions
Today, United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR) did not get the decision that we had hoped for, as the General Conference plenary voted against a motion calling for divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights and denial of Palestinian freedom. The conference faced a choice between standing with the oppressed as Jesus did, or yielding to fear. It appears that they yielded to fear as a result of misinformation spread about the consequences of supporting divestment.
However, we have achieved a great victory nonetheless. We have succeeded in raising awareness amongst the general public and in our churches about the suffering of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, living under Israel’s nearly 45-year-old military occupation, and the colonization of their lands. The brutal reality of the Israeli occupation can no longer be hidden, and the myth that Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of Muslim pressure has been exposed as false. Palestinian Christians who traveled 6,000 miles to share their reality told delegates that they suffer alongside their Muslim neighbors from Israel’s occupation.
Though the Pension Board has chosen to keep church funds in companies that profit from the occupation, a number of annual (regional) conferences within the church have already divested. Individual United Methodists will also do so. Friends Fiduciary, the large Quaker financial services corporation, voted last month to divest from Caterpillar. Other churches will soon follow the Quakers.
This issue has brought together conservative, moderate and liberal leaders in our own denomination, as well as others, who support justice and human rights for all, and we believe our shared experience in advocating for this issue will result in closer working relationships on other issues as well. The quest for justice unites people in ways that go far beyond theology, ethnicity, or politics. Deep and lasting interfaith friendships have been forged through this initiative. We have been humbled by the rabbis and other Jewish supporters who traveled to Tampa to stand with us.
Despite this disappointment, our efforts to inform and educate United Methodists and others about the plight of the Palestinians, and the ways in which church investments further their suffering, will continue, as will the global struggle for peace and justice for all the peoples of the Holy Land.
[For the reference to Kairos see A cry of hope in the absence of all hope posted this page]
By Laurie Goodstein, NY Times
The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, voted against two proposals on Wednesday to divest from companies that provide equipment used by Israel to enforce its control in the occupied territories.
The closely watched vote, at the church’s quadrennial convention in Tampa, Fla., came after months of intense lobbying by American Jews, Israelis and Palestinian Christians. After an afternoon of impassioned debate and several votes, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a more neutral resolution calling for “positive” investment to encourage economic development “in Palestine.”
However, the Methodists also passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and calling for “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
An international movement for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” has gained steam as the peace process in the Middle East has come to a virtual standstill, and allies of the Palestinians have argued that these strategies could pressure Israel to stop building settlements and return to the negotiating table.
The divestment question has come up repeatedly over the years in mainline Protestant churches, which have long cultivated relationships with Palestinian Christians and regularly send delegations to Israel and the occupied territories. These denominations support hospitals, schools and charities in the territories.
The Presbyterian Church USA will vote on a divestment measure at its general assembly, which begins on June 30 in Pittsburgh. (The Presbyterians voted for divestment in 2004, then backed off at their next general assembly two years later.)
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, recently came out against divestment and boycotts, and instead urged Episcopalians to invest in development projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, rejected divestment in 2007 and 2011.
In Tampa, many delegates took to the floor to testify that they had traveled to the Holy Land and met with Palestinian Christians who were suffering and increasingly desperate for an end to the occupation. But in the end, they listened to some Jewish leaders and fellow Methodists who warned that divestment was a one-sided strategy that penalized only Israel.
The Rev. Alex Joyner, a Methodist pastor in Franktown, Va., and a member of an antidivestment caucus called United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, said: “We are all concerned about the suffering and the ongoing occupation, because it is hurting Israeli and Palestinian society. But what the church has said is we want a positive step, and we reject punitive measures as a way of trying to bring peace.”
The Methodist delegates in Tampa, primarily occupied with proposals for church reorganization plans, were lobbied heavily on the divestment question. Divestment advocates dressed in bright yellow T-shirts passed out literature and sponsored free luncheons for delegates. Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal American Jewish group that supports divestment, sent several organizers.
Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote an article in The Tampa Bay Times likening the Israeli occupation to apartheid and saying that divestment could be as effective in Israel as it was in South Africa.
On the other side, more than 1,200 rabbis representing every stream of organized Judaism signed a letter, mailed to the delegates before the convention, beseeching them to vote against divestment. They argued that the tactic “shamefully paints Israel as a pariah nation, solely responsible for frustrating peace,” and said a vote for divestment would “damage the relationship between Jews and Christians.”
The divestment resolution called specifically for pulling investments in the church’s pension funds out of three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Advocates for divestment say that Caterpillar supplies the bulldozers and earth-moving equipment used by the Israel Defense Forces to clear Palestinian homes and orchards; that Hewlett-Packard provides, sometimes through subsidiaries, biometric monitoring at checkpoints and information technology to the Israeli Navy; and that Motorola supplies surveillance equipment to illegal settlements in the West Bank and communications equipment to the occupation forces.
In two separate votes, divestment was defeated by a 2-to-1 ratio. Susanne Hoder, a Methodist from Rhode Island and a spokeswoman for a group for divestment, the United Methodist Kairos Response, said: “Though we did not get the decision we hoped for, we have succeeded in raising awareness about the persecution of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. We have awakened the conscience of the churches and pointed out the inconsistency between our words and our actions.”
Ms. Hoder said that four geographic regions, or “annual conferences,” of the Methodist Church — Northern Illinois, California Pacific, New York and West Ohio — had already voted to pull out their own investments. “We expect that more United Methodist conferences will do this,” she said.