The General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC), meeting later this month, will consider two resolutions calling for divestment from Israel and another labeling the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as akin to "Apartheid." None of the resolutions would advance the cause of peace and all should be rejected. However, charges that the resolutions are anti-Semitic in nature are unfair. UCC members, in consultation with partners in the Middle East, have brought these resolutions forth because of deplorable human rights conditions faced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Still, the adoption of the resolutions will fracture opportunities for the just peace needed in the region.
We can begin with discussion of the Apartheid resolution. Apartheid was the system of government that the white minority of South Africa used to rule over the black majority population. It was brutal and sadly supported by much of the world for many decades. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have long argued that Israel has perpetrated human rights crimes against Palestinians. Tragically, Hamas (funded by Iran) has conducted terrorist acts aimed at Israeli citizens. The legitimate government of Palestine has routinely condemned these terrorist acts but the government has little control (in large part due to Israeli interference). Still, is this Apartheid, as we understand it?
Not according to Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth, authors of Boycotting Israel is Wrong: The progressive path to peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Mendes and Dyrenfurth write:
This accusation is intended to turn Israel into a pariah state, and so justify the application of the same boycott measures that were originally used against the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Factually there is little if any resemblance between Israel and South Africa. South Africa was a racist state based on a small white minority oppressing a large black majority. In contrast, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not race-based, but rather a clash between two legitimate competing nationalisms.
Many nations, including our own, have failed to live up to the ideal of human rights our churches would hope for. The UCC has not called for sanctions on Iran, a nation with a terrible human rights record and a promise to destroy Israel, but we have wisely argued for diplomacy with Iran to resolve differences. You have to ask what makes Israel the nation we would label an "Apartheid" state in the way former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration routinely compared Saddam Hussein's Iraq to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany?
So what about divestment? Clearly the policies of Israel need to change for a peace to emerge. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has created such chaos that President Obama said this week that potential peace talks with Netanyahu contain "so many caveats, so many conditions, that it is not realistic to think that those conditions would be met any time in the near future," according to The Hill. "The danger here is that Israel as a whole loses credibility," concluded the president.
J Street, the U.S. based Jewish peace group, has spoken out strongly against a divestment strategy while at the same time issuing statements critical of many Israeli policies. Regarding BDS, they say:
For some, the BDS movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism. While concern about the present and future of the Palestinian people is both legitimate and warranted, these concerns do not justify categorically delegitimizing and demonizing another people. J Street recognizes the legitimate and urgent concerns related to peace, justice and human rights that have motivated calls on college campuses and beyond to boycott certain Israeli products or divest from U.S. companies that support continuing Israeli policies of occupation and settlement expansion, or for governments to impose sanctions on Israel. We recognize that the sluggish pace of diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution motivates some of these efforts. However, the urgent need for peace will not be reached through alienation. J Street believes that a peace resolution will be reached through international, and more specifically regional, cooperation. Long-term progress will be achieved through diplomatic means, not isolation.
Both UCC resolutions regarding divestment that will be debated at General Synod mention the Kairos Document, a Palestinian Christian publication, that does not explicitly endorse a two-state solution. A two-state solution remains the only viable option that would provide full protection for all. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, America's first-ever elected Muslim in Congress, tweeted out just yesterday: "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates physical, emotional scars for kids in the region. We need a two-state solution." Not all BDS proponents agree. When the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ debated this issue last fall there was a call from the podium for a 1-state solution and a motion to re-affirm support for a 2-state solution did not receive a second to allow debate.
Mendes and Dyrenfurth note that many BDS supporters "call for the establishment of a 'secular democratic state' of Palestine."
This so-called one state solution, which would see a single, non-Jewish state magically created between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, ushering in the end of the State of Israel after 66 years of existence. Thus, BDS is justly regarded by many as a war against Israel by means other than war.
Peace will only come to Israel-Palestine when a coalition - both in the region and worldwide - becomes strong enough to force difficult concessions on all sides. As Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite noted at a recent forum discussing the UCC resolutions, the UCC and other mainline Christians might have a powerful impact by putting pressure on U.S. evangelical Christians which are funding much of the settlement activity in Israel. Those settlements are among the biggest obstacles to peace. Cut off the money supply and you create a real game changer. That and more can be done in interfaith partnership that advances a 2-state solution, which affirms the human rights of all.
Until then, the adoption of resolutions by U.S. Christians that threaten the State of Israel while destroying interfaith relationships at home (while producing no real change for Palestinians) seems ill-considered. We have better options.
Another resolution being considered at General Synod - "Urging Socially Responsible Investment Practices" - ought to be adopted. It "calls for diverse approaches for leveraging the church's assets to further its social justice witness, and highlights alternatives to divestment that still achieve the goal of socially-responsible investing," according to UCC News. In Palestine, the Pension Boards of the UCC and United Church Funds are already investing in projects to increase economic opportunity and power for Palestinian workers.
Learn more from this forum held at Chicago Theological Seminary: