Removing the Log in Our Own Eye: US Churches Seeking Justice in Palestine/Israel

Removing the Log in Our Own Eye: US Churches Seeking Justice in Palestine/Israel

Applying International Law in Palestine/Israel

“We denounce as immoral an ordering of life that perpetuates injustice…Believing that international justice requires the participation of all peoples, we endorse the United Nations and its related bodies and the International Court of Justice as the best instruments now in existence to achieve a world of justice and law.” --United Methodist Church Social Principles.

For decades, United Methodists have worked with other churches, human rights groups and the broader international community to uphold UN resolutions, human rights conventions and international law as the basis for just and lasting peace for all. Given this human rights-based approach, ending Israel’s military occupation constitutes a necessary first step for establishing equality and mutual security for Palestinians and Israel is alike. Within an international law framework, the situation in Palestine is not a conflict between two equal players, but a case of apartheid, occupation and colonization.

 The United Methodist Social Principles, which are guiding principles for the whole church, recognize the disparity of military and economic power that exists in many parts of the world. “Upon the powerful rests responsibility to exercise their wealth and influence with restraint. We affirm the right and duty of people of all nations to determine their own destiny. We urge the major political powers to use their nonviolent power to maximize the political, social and economic self-determination of other nations rather than to further their own special interests.” (Para. 165B)

In the US, churches often play a critical role in movements for justice – including efforts to end Israel’s military occupation. Yet US churches are divided on the conflict in Palestine/Israel. Christian Zionists are some of the most ardent supporters and funders of Israeli settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. Some churches are reluctant to criticize the government of Israel and focus their criticism almost entirely on Palestinian violent resistance.

At the same time, many church congregation members are challenging longstanding human rights violations in the occupied territories and urging the international community to step in to protect civilians. Ironically, United Methodists and others who espouse a universal framework of human rights and international law as applicable to all, are attacked for being one-sided and anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.

To be clear, movements for human rights and social justice are often charged with being one-sided when they prophetically stand in solidarity with the oppressed and speak truth to power. The United Methodist Church has a long history of working with oppressed communities to uphold human rights and international law. In 1960, the Methodist Church General Conference made a commitment to build a Church Center for the United Nations in New York City. The Church Center has served as a peoples’ gathering place to confront the governments of the world and hold them accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law. Ironically, as churches supported the peoples of Africa in achieving independence from colonial and apartheid rule throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Israel was embarking on an active colonial project of building settlements and imposing apartheid policies on occupied Palestinian land while it was supporting those same colonial and apartheid regimes in Africa that the churches opposed.

Challenging Billions in US Military Aid to Israel

“A king is not saved by his great army; the war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” --Psalm 33:16-17

Each year Israel receives more in US foreign aid than any other state. Since Israel is required to use most of the roughly $2-3 billion in taxpayer aid it receives each year on US-made weapons, most of the money in fact goes to US military companies. These arms companies are big campaign contributors to members of Congress from both political parties. While such aid clearly benefits US arms producers, arms dealers, their shareholders, and many congressional campaigns, it will not help Palestinian civilians.

The United Methodist Church has long raised questions about military aid rather than economic development in countries around the world. The 1968 Book of Resolutions included a study document on “The Middle East” that first challenged the sale of arms to nations in the Middle East. Since 1976 the General Conference has adopted resolutions that call for United Methodists to “oppose the continuing flow of arms from all sources to the Middle East. ”The Social Principles have long declared, “that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled.”

Yet income-tax payments by US Christians fund military occupation and apartheid bypass roads. In addition, United Methodist pension funds profit from companies involved in business that perpetuates violations of Palestinian human rights. We have decades of resolutions supporting the equal rights of Palestinians and Israelis, yet millions of church investments profit from Palestinian suffering.

The New Testament was written in a context of Roman colonial rule, discrimination, and military occupation in Palestine. It also took place in the midst of an active armed resistance movement (the Zealots) against colonialism and occupation. So, if we want to understand fully the meaning of biblical texts for today, it is helpful to listen to Palestinians who are facing the same dynamics of military occupation, colonial control of their land and apartheid-like discrimination.

One of the goals of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries is: “Seek Justice, Freedom and Peace.” This is at the heart of the United Methodist Church’s priority to end poverty. It expresses the kind of solidarity needed today: “We will participate with people oppressed by unjust economic, political and social systems in programs that seek to build just, free and peaceful societies.” Instead of blaming the victim, or offering charity to the victim, this goal challenges us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and follow their lead in demanding justice. The call by hundreds of Palestinian civil society organizations for nonviolent action of “boycott, divestment and sanctions” embodies such a demand for justice.

One “unjust system” that we must confront today is the US use of the veto at the UN. Since 1970, half of US vetoes blocked the international community from criticizing Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. One third of US vetoes blocked international criticism of apartheid regimes in southern Africa. Thus the US has repeatedly used the veto to protect military occupation and colonial rule from international criticism and sanction at great cost to civilians in southern Africa and Palestine. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference declared, “The United Methodist Church call[s] upon the United States, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to accept the authority of Security Council resolutions, to refrain from vetoing resolutions, and abide by Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, as well as all other relevant UN resolutions and International Court of Justice rulings, that provide a framework for bringing this conflict to a just and permanent end.”

Just as the anti-Apartheid movement turned to boycott and divestment as non-violent, moral, economic measures by churches, universities and trade unions to end unjust corporate support for South African Apartheid, so too churches and activists today are taking up nonviolent, moral actions like divestment to end corporate support for Israel’s longstanding violations of international law.

Morally Responsible Investment, Divestment & the United Methodist Church

For many years, the United Methodist Book of Discipline has included the following guidelines on Socially Responsible Investment:

“It shall be the policy of The United Methodist Church that all general boards and agencies, …annual conferences, foundations, and local churches, shall, in the investment of money…endeavor to avoid investments that appear likely, directly or indirectly, to support violation of human rights…The boards and agencies are to give careful consideration to shareholder advocacy, including advocacy of corporate disinvestment” --2004 Book of Discipline, ¶ 716

For years churches have engaged companies on a myriad of social justice issues with the notable exception of profiteering from Israel’s military occupation. Following the 2004 General Conference resolution reaffirming long standing opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and following the International Court of Justice advisory opinion (July 2004) that Israel’s separation wall violates international law, Annual Conferences (regional bodies of the United Methodist Church) began to join Presbyterians, college campuses and grassroots movements calling on companies to stop profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, campaigns modeled on the anti-Apartheid divestment movement in solidarity with the people of South Africa.

The 2005 New England and Virginia Annual conferences were the first to adopt calls for a divestment process from companies profiting from military occupation and the building of settlements under the principle of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI). This principle involves nonviolent, moral, economic measures by investors aimed at changing unjust behavior as well as corporate profiting from unjust behavior. While church activists have succeeded in getting pension funds and foundation endowments to write letters and file shareholder resolutions, these large financial institutions within churches have rarely initiated divestment from companies. Only as grassroots calls for divestment grew did larger church investors like pension funds begin to engage companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation.

Such grassroots, nonviolent, moral efforts seek to break the flow of profits, corporate support and military aid that help sustain Israel’s military occupation, settlement expansion, and ongoing displacement of Palestinians. They might also sever the flow of dollars from companies which give generously to US Congress members, who then repeatedly vote billions of dollars in further arms shipments to Israel.

The Social Principles include a section on ‘corporate responsibility.’ “Corporations are responsible not only to their stockholders, but also to other stakeholders: their workers, suppliers, vendors, customers, the communities in which they do business… We support the public’s right to know what impact corporations have in these various arenas so that people can make informed choices about which corporations to support” (Para. 163I). The hard work comes in trying to hold specific companies accountable to Palestinian communities where their business activities have wrought such devastation.

General Conference only rarely adopts resolutions for boycotts of specific companies. There exist precedents for such resolutions, including one against Dutch Shell Oil for its support of South African Apartheid, Nestle for its production of dangerous infant formula, and JP Stevens for its systematic abuse of workers’ rights. More recent resolutions have supported boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle for these companies’ abuse of farm worker rights and working conditions. The real work of corporate accountability work takes place not at General Conference, but through General Agencies, Annual Conferences and United Methodists active in ecumenical and grassroots coalitions.

In late 2001, the Women’s Division and Global Ministries were among several US church organizations that helped launch the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation based on freedom from occupation and equal rights for all under international law. The US Campaign now includes over 250 organizations and represents the broadest interfaith effort to change US policies towards Palestine/Israel. Since 2002 the US Campaign has included corporate accountability and divestment work in its advocacy of Palestinian human rights.

Caterpillar: Symbol of Corporate Complicity

Many US and international groups have specifically worked to challenge the US-based Caterpillar,callingonthecorporationto stop selling bulldozers and other equipment used by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian homes and build apartheid roads and the Wall on Palestinian land. Perhaps more than any other company, Caterpillar has come to symbolize corporate complicity in human rights violations of collective punishment. For 20 years, the United Methodist Church has called on the government of Israel to “cease destroying Palestinian homes” (1988 General Conference), but the demolitions continue.

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church identified Caterpillar as one of several companies to challenge, calling on it to stop profiting from occupation. For five years now, several church investors along with Jewish Voice for Peace have filed shareholder resolutions with Caterpillar to examine the misuse of their equipment by the Israeli government. While the company denies these efforts have any impact, they have changed the time and location of their annual meeting to a much more remote place. Caterpillar management changed their procedures to severely limit shareholder discussion – much of which aimed to expose Caterpillar complicity in human rights violations by Israel.

In 2008, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) submitted a petition to General Conference calling for United Methodists to divest from Caterpillar until it ends its role in Israeli occupation and the destruction of Palestinian homes. Just before General Conference, GBCS met twice with the CEO of Caterpillar, Jim Owen, himself a United Methodist. Based on these discussions, Caterpillar sent a letter to GBCS on 7 April 2008 that stated, “we expect our customers to use our products in environmentally responsible ways and consistent with human rights and the requirements of international law.” They also agreed to a meeting with religious shareholders. GBCS then withdrew its divestment petition from General Conference in order to pursue the human rights cause directly with Caterpillar and other religious shareholders.

In corporate accountability work, shareholders often withdraw shareholder resolutions when company management agrees to meet on specific issues. When meetings produce substantive changes in corporate policies and practices then filing the resolution will have served as a catalyst for change. If little change ensues then socially responsible investors often reintroduce resolutions to keep pressing the company to end unjust actions. Shareholders and human rights advocates continue to press Caterpillar. An ecumenical group of denominational investors will closely monitor Caterpillar dealerships and contracts until the company ends all involvement with home demolitions, uprooting of trees, building of settlements, bypass roads or the Separation Wall.

A Growing Call for Divestment

From 2005-07 ten United Methodist Annual Conferences adopted resolutions calling for challenging and divesting from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation. The New England Annual Conference has done the most extensive research and activism of any group. After adopting a resolution in 2005 they formed a research task force which identified and documented over 100 companies supporting or profiting from Israeli occupation, settlements or other violations of international law. They then wrote letters to many of the companies asking them to stop all business activity in violation of international law. In some cases, companies replied saying it was not their responsibility. But the New England United Methodist task force sent further letters citing the Nuremberg Principles and the moral obligation of companies to ensure that they do not engage in activities violating international law.

Finally, in June 2007, New England Methodists placed 20 companies that had all refused to change their practices on a divestment list. This process serves as a model for other churches. The research is being widely shared not only with US churches but with churches, trade unions and activists in Europe, the Philippines and Palestine/Israel who are doing similar work.

The 2008 United Methodist General Conference

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets once every four years and is the only body that speaks on behalf of the whole church. The United Methodist Church is a global church with some 25-30% of its membership in countries of Africa, Europe and in the Philippines. General Conference adopts broad policies and principles designed to guide church actions. The work of implementing such principles goes to agencies and local churches.

Six Annual Conferences along with the Methodist Federation for Social Action and several individuals submitted divestment petitions to the 2008 General Conference, which took place from 22 April – 2 May in Fort Worth, Texas. They all outlined a process of corporate engagement that included divestment as a last step if a company refused to end its involvement in violations of international law stemming from Israel’s military occupation, the Separation Wall and settlements. Because these petitions all involved investment decisions they were referred to the Finance committee.

 The Finance Committee rejected all divestment petitions with mandatory procedures but adopted one on Sudan which only encouraged United Methodists “to prayerfully consider divestment” as well as one creating a Socially Responsible Investment task force to develop more explicit church-wide guidelines in the area of human rights. The plenary later affirmed the committee recommendations. Many churches and pension funds were also reluctant to take the lead on divestment regarding apartheid South Africa. Instead, many chose other forms of shareholder activism short of divestment.

Critics quickly and wrongly hailed these decisions by General Conference as a rejection of ‘divestment from Israel’ with language suggesting the resolutions were anti-Semitic. However, none of the petitions proposed divestment from Israel but rather selective divestment from US companies profiting from military occupation, the building of settlements, bypass roads and the separation wall that all violate international law.

Opponents of divestment do not offer alternative nonviolent strategies, but seek to equate challenges to companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation with criticism of the right of Israel to exist and with anti-Semitism. Such attacks are meant to intimidate and stifle churches from taking up nonviolent actions. Yet at General conference, it seemed the long standing reluctance of church financial institutions to support divestment for any reason was the main factor in blocking a mandatory church-wide divestment process.

Many Finance Committee delegates look to the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (Pensions) for guidance on petitions. Leading up to General Conference, Pensions openly opposed divestment petitions in presentations and on their website. Their argument against divestment was primarily based on financial considerations. They also argued that by holding shares, rather than divesting, they had more opportunity to influence a company’s unjust behavior.

In a web statement entitled, “Position on Divestment,” there is a startling disparity and disconnect between the description of divestment relating to Sudan and to Israel/Palestine. The section on Sudan begins with the humanitarian crisis on the ground and then points to legislation adopted by the US Congress as well as local governments, universities and others. It concludes by suggesting the board may divest from one company if it does not change quickly.

By contrast, a section entitled, “Fiduciary Responsibility and Israeli-Palestinian Divestment” makes no mention of humanitarian conditions facing Palestinians on the ground. Instead it mentions its 74,000 plan participants (clergy and staff of general agencies) and states that “[d]ecisions regarding our investments, by necessity, must be solely for the future benefit of these plan participants” (Emphasis added). The lack of US government action, and that “no major U.S. institutional investor has adopted a similar strategy of divestment” are given as arguments against divestment. Such rationale cannot be found in the United Methodist Discipline and Social Principles which list human rights, not US government action or widespread action by other investors, as criteria for divestment.

Pensions’ position statement further declares that “[t]f the General Board were to divest from the many companies manufacturing or selling products or services purchased by Israelis who live in the occupied territories, we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to hire investment managers—our screening requirements would be so restrictive, investment managers would decline to comply.” Such a statement greatly mischaracterizes the divestment petitions and investment realities.

New England Annual Conference listed 20 companies on their divestment list in 2007. Pensions already excluded most of these as weapons manufacturers. Pensions already has a list of 633 companies on its “Failed/Ineligible Investment List” that are excluded for production of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and weapons or for large military contracts. Yet, not one company is excluded for human rights abuses!

The argument that no investment manager could be found is simply false. Pensions itself already has an optional portfolio with stronger social screens that excludes all of the companies named for profiting from Israel’s military occupation such as Caterpillar and Motorola! The argument that shareholders have more influence on a company than those who divest is not an either/or one. Institutional investors can place a company like Caterpillar on a ‘no further purchase’ list while using their existing shares for ongoing shareholder advocacy.

To get a full sense of what happened at General Conference we must examine the other petitions relating to Palestine/Israel. All of the one-sided petitions that uncritically supported Israel while ignoring the suffering of Palestinians were submitted by individuals and were soundly rejected. One to oppose any discussion of apartheid in relation to Israel was defeated by a show of hands. One that singled out Hamas for criticism was also defeated. One specifically entitled,“ Oppose Divestment from Israel” was widely rejected.

At the same time, five petitions submitted by general agencies to update existing resolutions (on Holy Land Tours, on Opposition to Israeli Settlements, on Fair Trade products like Palestinian olive oil, on UN resolutions on Palestine/Israel) and add a new one condemning all violence and coercion, all passed. Those based on human rights for all, on international law, and on our biblical calling to be peacemakers – all passed. In general, the real work of General Conference occurs in the committees. The plenary accepted the committee recommendation on 98.6% of all petitions. Most of the petitions submitted by General Agencies are adopted as they have gone through a prior process of discussion and approval.

If we take all these decisions by General Conference together, it seems that while General Conference rejected specific recommendations for a mandatory church-wide divestment process, the mandate in the Discipline for Socially Responsible Investment and possible disinvestment remains the responsibility of each agency and annual conference. An amendment added more explicit reference to human rights in the Middle East, Sudan and China in the newly established Task force on Socially Responsible Investment. Thus the committee affirmed the human rights basis on which divestment petitions rested while not yet affirming the specific step of divestment for the whole church.

It remains the task of Annual Conferences and General Agencies to be good stewards, seekers of justice, and protectors of human rights through nonviolent shareholder advocacy with our investments. One Annual Conference has already introduced a new divestment resolution at its session in late May 2008. More divestment resolutions are likely in 2009 at regional and local levels. Like the movement seeking an end to Apartheid in southern Africa, there are a variety of nonviolent strategies that are all useful to end systemic discrimination and violence. There will continue to be plenty of healthy debates within churches on nonviolent actions like shareholder advocacy, divestment, ending military aid, and supporting direct action through accompaniment of civilians in the occupied territories.

The Global Christian Church taking action for ‘Costly Solidarity’ Today

In the global struggle against colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa, the World Council of Churches took a bold step in 1968 when it created its Program to Combat Racism. Much of the program lent nonviolent support to peoples’ movements suffering from, and resisting, the brutal oppression of colonial regimes across southern Africa. The churches were subjected to harsh attacks for this program including accusations that the WCC was aiding terrorists. Those so-called terrorists included former President Nelson Mandela and the current governing party of South Africa, the African National Congress. Despite these attacks, the WCC’s moral courage to stand for justice in the face of systemic oppression contributed greatly to eroding support for unjust rule.

It is important to note that the WCC did not create a program for dialogue in the midst of colonialism. Churches understood that only a program aimed at challenging systemic injustice would help build just and lasting peace for all. What is emerging today among the global church is a similar movement for justice: an ecumenical program to end military occupation and human rights violations through nonviolent actions.

In June 2007, 130 representatives from churches in the holy land and around the world met in Amman, Jordan to issue, “The Amman Call: Churches together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” The Call expresses the urgent call from Palestinian Christians, “No more words without deeds. It is time for action.” It seeks to mobilize broader church actions that embody “costly solidarity.” The final paragraph expresses the pledge of the global ecumenical movement to “risk reputations and lives to build with you bridges for an enduring peace among the peoples of this tortured and beautiful place – Palestine and Israel – to end these decades of injustice.”

Since the 2006 WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a number of US churches met with Palestinian Christians to hear their pleas for greater nonviolent economic measures to end corporate support for Israel’s brutal military occupation and ongoing colonization. An ecumenical working group of denominational socially responsible investors, including United Methodists, has formed and is undertaking similar nonviolent measures with companies involved in Palestine/Israel. Hundreds of letters and several shareholder meetings with company managements have taken place. Shareholder resolutions on human rights and foreign military sales, like the ones with Caterpillar, were filed for the first time with ITT, Motorola and United Technologies. The World Council of Churches Amman Call included workshop recommendations to identify five companies for coordinated nonviolent economic measures from churches globally.

To date, these efforts have yet to produce changes in company practices. But many more church investors are now trying to do something about corporate complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights. Companies are also on notice that they must account for their profiting from military occupation. Each year that military occupation continues, that settlements keep expanding, and that companies continue to profit from business that perpetuates these human rights violations, church investors will be forced to account for their reluctance to support divestment. Now, more than ever, grassroots Christians need to keep pressing church pension funds and other investors to take stronger actions to end corporate support for military occupation and settlements.

Praying with our Feet: the March for Justice in Palestine/Israel

On 10 June 2007, many church members joined with the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and over 100 other groups in a national mobilization to end all US support for 40 years of Israeli occupation and human rights violations. The Call to End all US support for Israel’s Military Occupation involves ending both military and corporate support. Two manifestations of these efforts are ongoing work targeting Caterpillar and Motorola. Since Motorola makes cell phones in addition to surveillance equipment and fuses used by Israeli settlers and the military, it is more vulnerable to a consumer-based campaign and boycott. Boycotts are often easier for churches to support than divestment because a boycott can be implemented by a wider group of consumers and not just investors. Ending corporate support will not happen with one decision, but will require a steady effort by grassroots churches and other activists pressuring those who make investment decisions to demand corporate accountability to protect Palestinian human rights. There are several crucial next steps that churches are and should be taking in support of the BDS campaign:

• Grassroots church folk who have called for divestment are now moving to implement it on a local and regional level as they continue to press for a church-wide process.

• Church pension funds and other investors should facilitate more in-depth corporate research on companies profitingfrom military occupation and settlements, and make such research widely available for use by local churches and individuals.

• Church institutional investors are working on further shareholder resolutions that will press companies to change, or at least document their refusal to end unjust behavior.

• Church pension holders are beginning to press the board of Pensions that they do not want their pension funds invested in companies profiting from military occupation. Twenty years ago pension holders played a key role in demanding that Pensions exclude military companies from their pension funds.

• As churches join in signing on to the WCC Amman Call they can focus efforts on several companies like Caterpillar or Motorola through a variety of actions from letter writing to shareholder resolutions to boycott to divestment.

• Link opposing military occupation of Palestine with opposing military occupation of Iraq. Several companies exploit both situations for massive war profits.

• Delegations to Palestine/Israel of church investment staff. When they meet with Palestinian and Israeli human rights advocates as well as Palestinian businesses, they will see the profound constraints military occupation and settlements place on the whole Palestinian economy. “Positive investment” is not a substitute for divestment: both are needed.

• As more churches study the manifestations of apartheid and colonialism imposed on the whole Palestinian society, support for nonviolent actions of boycott and divestment will grow. Involvement of the South African Council of Churches in a US Campaign sponsored Anti-Apartheid tour in November will greatly strengthen church involvement in the work of BDS for the long haul.