Special Report: Ten US Christian Denominations Now Sanction Israel
Ten U.S. Churches Now Sanction Israel (To Some Degree, and with Caveats)
By Steven Sellers Lapham, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2019, pp. 51-53
SUMMER IS THE SEASON when many Christian denominations in North America hold a major conference to reaffirm their faith, discuss issues of the day, attend workshops, and review and set policies. At these meetings in 2018, six U.S. churches passed resolutions that strongly affirmed the human rights of Palestinians, about 5 million of whom live under Israel’s military occupation today. Some of these statements advanced earlier efforts by these same churches.
A total of ten major U.S. denominations have gone a step beyond statements of affirmation; they are now materially participating, to some degree, in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to hold Israel accountable to international law (see sidebar). These are the Alliance of Baptists, Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonite Church USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), Roman Catholic Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, as well as the World Communion of Reformed Churches (a confederation that overlaps some of the above).
The context in 2018 could not have been more compelling. The U.N. had forecast that Gaza could become unable to sustain human life by 2020 as a result of Israel’s siege (blockade of ingress/egress of people and resources by land, sea, or air). During the Great March of Return last year, along the fences and wall—the “cage”—that separates Gaza from Israel and Egypt, Israeli snipers shot thousands of Palestinian demonstrators. According to Amnesty International, Israeli sharpshooters killed 150 Palestinians at the protests and wounded at least 10,000 others. [Note: since this report came out, the casualty figures have risen to at least 277 dead, 28,000 injured.]
This overwhelmingly nonviolent campaign also included many celebrations of Palestinian culture, but the casualties were terrible. In May alone, as President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu feted the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, at least 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 wounded.
The Israel-Palestine conflict seems to have entered another period of heightened state-sanctioned violence—this time in an era of instant news images created by on-the-ground participants. For example, an unauthorized video taken through an IDF sniper’s rifle scope as he tracks and then shoots a Palestinian man dominated the news cycle in Israel for a day after it went viral. The video and its impact were generally ignored by the U.S. media, but shared by U.S. Christians who follow events in the Middle East.
The assertive Christian church statements of 2018 are the culmination of years of educating and organizing by concerned individuals in the various denominations. Many U.S. denominations have, in previous years, published statements on this issue, developed curricula for congregational study on the Middle East, or responded to the Kairos Document, a manifesto of hope for liberation authored by Christian Palestinians in 2009.
These statements may also suggest that the enormous sacrifice of predominantly youthful Palestinians at the fence has elevated their campaign of nonviolent resistance in the eyes of much of the world to the historical significance of the South African struggle to end apartheid, of India’s struggle for independence from colonial British rule, and of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Whether these statements and actions by major U.S. Christian denominations will lead to any dialog with Zionist-friendly Evangelical churches in America, which claim 20 million members, remains an open question. Most of the latter have taken an unconditional pro-Israel-at-any-cost stance. In the political sphere, few observers would deny the fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which can tolerate no criticism of Israel, is the most powerful foreign lobby in Washington, DC.
Unless some conditions are placed upon the $3.8 billion dollars that the U.S. gives annually to Israel, the institutional violence in the occupied territories is not likely to lessen. Israel is the only recipient of U.S. military aid that is not required by law to spend it on American-made weapons.
Church and institutional endorsements of Rep. Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) bill may indicate one way forward. The “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act” (introduced as HR2407 in April 2019) was endorsed by at least 39 denominations and organizations.
In sum, more than 80 million church-going Americans belong to congregations that have endorsed sanctions to some degree against Israel for its violation of the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories and Jerusalem.
We would be remiss not to mention the efforts of Jewish organizations that are critical of Israel’s occupation and support the BDS movement. Jewish Voice for Peace, with 75 U.S. chapters and 13,500 members, is perhaps the largest, but there are others, such as Americans for Peace Now, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. These groups were, in the summer of 2018, actively protesting the policies of the Trump-Netanyahu axis and organizing to uphold the right of Palestinians to resist occupation and participate in shaping their future. As the group If Not Now states, “We will be the generation that ends our [Jewish American] community’s support for the occupation.”
1. The Alliance of Baptists, with 65,000 members, passed a resolution in 2017 opposing “efforts by Congress and state legislatures to punish entities that engage in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or that provide sanctuary for immigrants.” In 2016, the Baptists “affirmed the use of BDS strategies and comprehensive education and advocacy programs to end the 49-year Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land.”
2. The Church of the United Brethren in Christ, with 23,000 members, took a stand in 2006, when the Brethren Benefit Trust divested “from ownership of Caterpillar Corporation and any other company that sells products that are used routinely as weapons of destruction or death in Israel and Palestine.” Recently, the Brethren joined others in divesting from HP Inc. (Hewlett-Packard Company). Early in 2010, members of On Earth Peace (a Church of the Brethren agency) were arrested, jailed, and deported as they tried to enter Israel.
3. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has 76,000 members. The American Friends Service Committee (the humanitarian services arm of the church) took a position in 2012 in support of BDS and the right of people to use economic activism tactics as tools for change in Israel and Palestine, after having passed a divestment screen (screening an investment portfolio reflects an organization’s ethical stances) in 2009. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was the main provider of aid for Palestinian refugees forced from their lands and homes in 1948. The Friends Fiduciary Corporation investment firm, serving over 300 Quaker institutions in the U.S., has dropped its holdings in HP Inc. and Veolia Environment. Those actions were the result of a preexisting investment screen, and are explicitly not part of BDS.
4. The Mennonite Church USA, which has more than 75,000 members, approved a resolution by a majority of 98 percent in 2017 calling on “individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in [Israeli] settlements.” The church explained, “The Palestinian people have suffered injustices, violence, and humiliation, including…life under Israeli military occupation and in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.”
5. The Presbyterian Church (USA), which represents 1.5 million Americans, voted overwhelmingly in support of the international BDS campaign in 2018. Members voted on a slate of resolutions put forth by the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN). The church also opposed congressional and state anti-BDS legislation, instead calling on Americans to “defend and advocate for the constitutional protection under the First Amendment for all United States citizens.”
6. The Roman Catholic Church has 70.4 million members in the U.S., making it the largest denomination in the nation. The Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men voted in March 2016 to “join the boycott of settlement products and companies profiting from settlements.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not made a similar statement. Pax Christi, a Catholic peace and justice organization, is a leader on this issue.
7. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has 155,000 members. Its Socially Responsible Investing Committee adopted a human rights investment screen in 2016 focusing on conflict zones. Human rights violations by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories came under scrutiny. As a result, the UUA divested from HP Inc., Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar Inc. A resolution specifically mentioning Palestine and calling for a broader, secure, and long-lasting commitment to screening out investments in corporations complicit in human rights violations in Palestine/Israel was not adopted by the delegates to the 2016 UUA General Assembly.
8. The United Church of Christ (UCC), with 850,000 members, voted in 2015 to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The UCC Christ Palestine-Israel Network (UCC PIN) stated that the resolution was “the culmination of a process that began in 2005 to end the Church’s complicity in Israel’s nearly half-century-old occupation and other abuses of Palestinian human rights.” The 2005 resolution stated, “economic leverage can be used to support the development of Palestine and Israel as two independent, secure, economically viable states.”
9. The United Methodist Church (UMC), with an estimated 7 million members, divested from five Israeli banks on the grounds that they contribute to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot are among 39 companies blacklisted in 2018 by the UMC pension fund for failing to meet the guidelines of a human rights investment policy. An Israeli construction company, Shikun & Binui, was also excluded for involvement in settlement building. The pension board’s assets in 2014 were valued at $20.9 billion.
10. The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), has 232 member churches on six continents. In 2017, WCRC called on its members to “examine their mission, education, and investment relationships with Israel and Palestine in light of the witness of Palestinian Christians and to respond as they understand the Reformed communion’s commitments to human rights and the protections of international law.” The WCRC is the largest association of Reformed churches in the world, with 11 member denominations in the U.S., including two (UCC and Presbyterians) appearing on this list.
Readers might wonder: Where do the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America stand on these issues? Both denominational conventions passed resolutions in 2018 expressing strong concern for Palestinian human rights, although both stopped short of supporting any BDS action.
The Episcopal Church, with 3 million members, rejected a resolution at its General Convention in 2015 to withhold financial investment in the occupied territories of Palestine under Israel control. In July 2018, however, the General Convention approved Resolution D027, which condemns the use of lethal force by Israel against unarmed Palestinians—and by Palestinian forces against civilians. The Convention had previously approved B021, supporting the resumption of humanitarian aid to Palestinians; B003, regarding the status of Jerusalem as shared Holy City; and D018, reflecting on the deterioration of negotiations toward a two-state solution.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), with 3.5 million members, overwhelmingly approved a resolution in 2016 calling on the U.S. government to halt all aid to Israel [$3.8 billion per year] if the building of settlements continued. It also demanded that Israel “end its occupation” and recognize a Palestinian state. In 2018, ELCA condemned the use of lethal force by Israel against unarmed Palestinians and by Palestinian forces against civilians. Contrary to some reports, ELCA does not technically participate in divestment against Israel, as there was a 2007 Assembly action prohibiting it. In 2016, however, the ELCA Assembly voted to develop a human rights social criteria investment screen that is based on the teachings of the church and, in the case of Israel and Palestine, to base this screen on the concerns raised in the 2009 “ELCA Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine.”
Steven Sellers Lapham is a volunteer with Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East; Voices from the Holy Land Film Series; and Freedom 2 Boycott in Maryland.