Two important voices reflecting on the defeat of a divestment resolution Wednesday by the general conference of the United Methodist Church. First, Ali Abunimah, followed by Rebecca Vilkomerson. Abunimah:
Perhaps, some may conclude, the battle is too tough and what worked against South Africa can never work against Israel.
This is a mistake. In hindsight, people forget just how long and tough the battle for divestment from apartheid South Africa was.
After today’s vote, I was reminded of this Associated Press headline from 12 July 1987 that I came across a few years ago: “Church of England rejects divestment from South Africa"....
From the perspective of 2012 it scarcely seems believable that there was even a debate about this.
Remember that Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, yet even he could not sway the leaders of his church at that point. Tutu, who was on the right side of history, made the same arguments for divestment from Israel as he did in the 1980s in a recent Tampa Bay Times op-ed hoping to sway the United Methodist Church:
A quarter-century ago I barnstormed around the United States encouraging Americans, particularly students, to press for divestment from South Africa. Today, regrettably, the time has come for similar action to force an end to Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory and refusal to extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens who suffer from some 35 discriminatory laws.
But didn’t everyone divest from South Africa? Wasn’t it a no-brainer? The article from 1987 reminds us that it wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
Tutu had to work hard to convince churches, universities and companies to do what was right. And many of the arguments made against divestment from Israel were made a generation ago to oppose measures to punish South Africa.
And here is a note that Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace sent out to her membership.
It's late on a long and frustrating day but i wanted to give you an update and some context about the Methodist vote today.
Today the Methodists voted against divestment. As you all know, we spent a great deal of time and energy in the hopes that this would be a breakthrough moment for divestment efforts in the U.S. JVP had an amazing team, led beautifully by Sydney Levy, that included rabbis, students, lawyers, and tweeters (can we call that a profession now?) on the ground in Tampa at the Methodist Conference, and so many of you who made calls, mailed postcards and otherwise worked to make this happen over the last several months. Anna Baltzer of the US Campaign to end the Occupation was there the entire time, and did an equally incredible job mobilizing members of her coalition. And of course, our partners within the church, the United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), has been preparing for this vote for years and generously opened up space for us to join them as allies as they led the work in their church. It was an enormously effective partnership that involved a lot of others as well.
While it is undeniably disappointing, we also made huge strides. We worked with an incredible inter-faith, inter-ethnic alliance of people and organizations and learned an enormous amount in the process. The Methodists did pass a strongly worded condemnation of the settlements and call to boycott settlement products, and there is clearly a consensus in the church that the occupation is wrong and must end. The voice of Palestinian Christians, who represented all Palestinians under Occupation, was front and center.
In February at the Penn BDS conference I attended a session about the South African struggle against apartheid. We were reminded that the ANC was founded in 1912, and that boycott efforts started as early as the 1950s. As Ali Abunimah reminds us in this article (worth the click!), even as late as 1987 the Anglican Church in England declined to fully divest from Apartheid South Africa. Of course this time around, the Church of England has already divested itself from Caterpillar--in 2006!
The lesson is that there are a lot of defeats that come before the victories, and even defeats can bring us closer to the day when justice arrives. While the need to end Apartheid or to pass civil rights legislation now seems overwhelmingly obvious, in their times they were enormously contentious, and the same arguments used then against action were used today. I hope and believe that we are on the same trajectory!
For your reference, here is JVP's official statement on the vote.
The Presbyterians will be considering divestment at the end of June in Pittsburgh, and we have a lot of work to do before then! You can keep up with it all at www.rabbisletter.org, and we will most definitely be letting you know how you can be involved.
Enormous thanks to all the many many people who worked so hard on this. Onward!