The week before last, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America became the 9th North American Christian denomination to adopt some measure of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (“BDS”), voting to implement an investment screen restricting church investments in corporations that profit from human rights abuses against Palestinians.
At the same time, across the Pond, two dioceses of the Church of Sweden (also Lutheran) sponsored a Kairos Palestine summer camp to consider ramping up the pressure on Israel by increasing the Church’s support of and participation in the BDS movement.
Disestablished in 2000, the Church of Sweden is no longer the state church, but 63% of the country are members, and it is an influential force in Swedish politics.
About 40 of its peace workers, together with a Roman Catholic and a few from the Uniting Church in Sweden (a recent merger of the Baptist Union of Sweden, the United Methodist Church and the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden) gathered at a modest beach-side hotel in Skane, on Sweden’s cool and windy Southwest coast. Virtually all had traveled or lived in Palestine, and knew what was happening on the ground there.
I was invited to share the work of Jewish Voice for Peace (“JVP”) on BDS and Palestinian liberation generally. I found a receptive audience. It was clear that their patience with Israel and its oppression of Palestinians was running out.
The camp was convened by a dynamo named Anna Karin Hammar. She is a priest and the sister of the Swedish Church’s 40th Archbishop and Primate since the Reformation. A feminist undaunted by the fact that all 40 were of the male persuasion, the Rev. Dr. Hammar ran to succeed her brother in 2006 and actually garnered 10% of the vote. (The female 42nd Archbishop, installed in 2014, finally broke that clerical glass ceiling). Anna Karin, as she was known at camp, is now the Church’s coordinator with the Christians of Palestine, who in December 2009, drafted “A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering,” now known as the Kairos Palestine Document. Her first trip there was in 1988, during the First Intifada.
In 2012, the Swedish Church’s Synod passed a resolution recommending that its local churches heed the call of the Kairos Palestine Document to cancel investments, impose sanctions and boycott companies and products from the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian areas, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and to demand that the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza be lifted.
Impatient at the response, or lack of one now, four years later, Anna Karin did not mince words. The increasingly difficult plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza “called for less talk and more action,” she said in her initial presentation to the camp. “We have waited 41 years” as the situation has gotten worse and worse in Israel and the Occupied Territories. “We are cowards,” in not sufficiently challenging both the Swedish Churches and Government to change strategies to do more to assist Palestinians engaged in non-violent resistance, and to press Israel to change its oppressive policies. “BDS may be the only chance to liberate both Palestinians and Israeli Jews from the occupation. We should have nothing to do with the Israeli banking system,” and there should be “no military cooperation between Sweden and Israel” until Israeli occupation of Palestinian land ends.
“Apartheid is worse in Palestine than it was in South Africa because it is killing daily life there,” where the Christian community “is diminishing and increasingly marginalized, so that migration appears to many to be the only realistic solution.” In South Africa, she noted, India and Sweden spearheaded the BDS movement. Now, it is South Africa which is spearheading an ecumenical Christian BDS movement in Palestine, with an office and paid staff. It is time, Dr. Hammar concluded, for Swedish Christians and their congregations to get on board.
Staffan Graner, of Jews for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (“JIPF”), the Swedish analog to JVP, told the camp that the call to BDS is just starting to percolate among Sweden’s small Jewish community of 20,000, 0.2% of the country’s 9.6 million people. (The 1.4 million Jews in Europe constitute about that same percentage of the European population).
JIPF was founded almost 35 years ago in response to the Israeli operation in Lebanon in 1982. For virtually of that time, JIPF has stood for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiation between the parties of an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, creating an independent Palestinian state, and supporting the Israeli peace movement.
But in December 2014, in response to the operation laying waste to Gaza, JIPF joined the call of the European Jewish Network for a Just Peace (“EJJP”) for recognition of the State of Palestine and a BDS campaign against the occupation. EJJP is the federation of European Jewish organizations working for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, and its member organizations in Belgium, United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Italy Austria and Germany endorsed the December 2014 call along with JIPF. At its annual meeting this past March, recognizing the diminishing and increasingly marginalized role of the Israeli peace movement, JIPF passed a BDS resolution of its own against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and Israel’s isolation of the Gaza Strip, to encourage Israel to enter serious peace talks with the Palestinians.
JIPF now joins the BDS initiative specifically to “advocate sanctions against business, insurance companies and other economic operators whose activities support Israeli occupation and settlements,” and to boycott fruit, food, wine and other goods from illegal settlements on occupied land. It calls on all companies, banks, insurance companies and pension funds that directly or indirectly operate in, invest or sell goods and services to or from illegal settlements on occupied land, to phase out these activities immediately.
JIPF’s resolution also calls upon Sweden, the European Union and all its member states to stop buying or selling arms supplies from or to Israel, to stop all forms of military or police cooperation and any civilian research collaboration that promotes the Israeli occupation machinery, and to boycott companies that supply military equipment to, or participate in military or police cooperation with, Israel. Finally, JIPF now calls for modifying the European Union Association Agreement with Israel (their “free trade” agreement) to make it conditional upon Israel’s phasing out of the occupation, settlements and blockade of Gaza.
Graner’s mother, now 82 years old, came to Sweden from Vienna in 1939 as a refugee. Israel became a beacon of hope and safety, in which she invested a lot of loyalty, he said. But now, having watched Israelis grow ever more harsh over the years in its treatment of Palestinians, she is the librarian and secretary of JIPF, advocating that oppression should not happen to anyone, especially at the hands of the Jewish state.
With a paid membership of only 180, and chapters only in Stockholm and Gotenberg, JIPF is a few years behind JVP here, with its 10,000 paid members, more than 60 chapters across the country, a growing grassroots base of 200,000 on its email list, a paid staff of 25, a Rabbinic Council, an Artist Council, an Academic Advisory Council, and a youth wing. But support is inexorably growing among both Christians and Jews in Sweden and Europe as the Israeli government moves ever rightward. Just this week, the Portuguese government withdrew from a joint EU-funded project with the Israeli Ministry of Public Security, the Israeli National Police and Israel’s Bar Ilan University aimed at unifying police interrogation methodologies, after coming under heavy pressure from civil society groups campaigning for an end to cooperation with Israel, and after Portuguese political parties denounced routine torture by Israeli Police and the role of the Ministry of Public Security in the illegal detention of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
From the first day of the camp, I spoke frankly of how difficult it is, even when one knows the facts on the ground, to find one’s voice – to say out loud that the Israeli oppression of Palestinians is wrong and must end. For a Jew, it means overcoming the powerful pull of tribal loyalties and having to endure the painful accusations of Jewish self-hatred one often encounters. For their part, European and American Christians tend to be silenced by the long history of Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, the fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, and the fear of offending, and impairing good interfaith relations with, Jews for whom such criticism of Israel can be deeply emotional and troubling.
These are difficult obstacles to the advocacy of the altruistic Jewish, Christian and human values of justice, fairness and equality in Israel-Palestine. They were immediately recognized and understood at the camp, and the theme of finding one’s voice – finding the wherewithal to speak out in support of Palestinian liberation – became a unifying theme which resounded in the discussion at the final session of what lessons could be taken back to one’s individual congregations.
Marianne Ejdersten, the Director of Communications for the World Council of Churches (“WCC”) made a presentation to the camp which suggested that the WCC may also be losing patience with Israel after the detention this past May of WCC representatives and staff from 13 countries arriving at Ben Gurion Airport for a planned meeting in Beit Jala of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change. They were reportedly held for hours of interrogation and intimidation in prison-like conditions for up to three days. At the time, the WCC characterized the incident as “shocking” and “unprecedented.”
Later that month, a South African church activist travelling to Palestine to join the Christian Peacemakers Team was detained, strip searched and deported from Israel because he answered truthfully that he supported the BDS movement and believed that Israel was an apartheid state.
The WCC has 348 churches representing more than half a billion Christians in 110 countries and territories. In describing its history of efforts for peace in the Holy Land on the page of its web site entitled, “WCC and the Palestinian Conflict,” the words BDS, boycott, divestment or sanctions are not mentioned. There is only mention of the 2005 meeting of the WCC Central Committee in which it reminded its member churches “with investment funds, that they have an opportunity to use those funds responsibly in support of peaceful solutions” to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and encouraged them “to give serious consideration to economic measures that are equitable, transparent and non-violent,” and to avoiding economic links to illegal activities related to the Israeli occupation.”
The WCC has a World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel coming up next month, at which all its member churches are “encouraged to make . . . acts of advocacy in support of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Edjersten told the camp that the WCC has a new president and chair of international affairs, wanting to work in a prophetic voice, and a leadership meeting coming up in China in November at which any one of 25 leaders could propose to move the organization from “encouraging serious consideration” to a more committed response to the Kairos Palestinian Document.
As more Christians and Jews around the world continue to lose hope that Israel will reform itself without the outside pressure that was needed in South Africa, they will increasingly find their voice to speak out in support of Palestinian liberation, and they will increasingly find their way to BDS. At the conclusion of this Swedish camp, a letter to the congregations of the Church of Sweden was adopted, with the support of a retired bishop of the Church in attendance, and without dissent, to strongly support a boycott of the Israeli occupation. Their letter says that the churches now face a clear choice: whether to stand up for a just peace by taking part in the boycott of the Israeli occupation, or to betray the Palestinians’ call for solidarity in their non-violent resistance To these men and women, to these peace workers of faith, hope and love, the choice is clear.