The Methodist conference: Let’s call this victory what it is

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Step by step the longest march can be won …
A song I remember from my United Methodist Sunday school

Congregants gather outside the Church of Saint Porphyrius, Gaza, Palestine (Photo: Joe Catron)

It says a lot about Israel’s declining status, and the rising influence of Palestinian-led civil society efforts to demand accountability for its crimes, that a boycott measure like the one United Methodists adopted at their General Conference 2012 this week could pass a major church body in the United States with minimal notice. The Palestinian BDS National Committee sifts its points of practical consequence:

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church decided yesterday to call for an explicit boycott of all Israeli companies “operating in the occupied Palestinian territories,” knowing that this constitutes the absolute majority of Israeli corporations. This and the overwhelming support for the “Kairos Palestine” document and its call “for an end to military occupation and human rights violations through nonviolent actions,” which include boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), will pave the way forward for further action by the Church to hold Israel accountable for its colonial and apartheid regime.

Of course a majority of conference delegates voted to refuse divestment from military contractors bearing directly responsibility for atrocities against Palestinians. In doing so, they effectively absolved themselves of responsibility for implementing the very principles they had embraced only moments before. This decision was simply shameful, rejecting the liberatory essence of the Wesleyan tradition, the contemporary churchhistorical Christianity, and Biblical instruction, as well as direct appeals from fellow Christians and other Palestinians living under apartheid. Future generations of Methodists will, I believe, count it alongside infamous votes on slavery as a stain on the annals of their denomination. (It was also exactly what one might expect from the leaders of a church.)

Nevertheless, the Tampa Convention Center was a site of victory. The forces of liberation, freedom, and justice claimed territory; colonialism, occupation, and apartheid were forced into retreat. Not only did outrage from the pews force leaders of the United States’ third-largest religious organization to endorse boycotts of Israel’s colonial expansion, it also pushed the denomination into an untenable position. The rejected divestment resolution had been carefully entitled “Aligning United Methodist Investments with Resolutions on Israel/Palestine.” Today, the church’s investments are less aligned with its resolutions than ever. This institutionalized hypocrisy will haunt it over the four years until its next General Conference.

James M. Wall has analyzed the strategy behind the two resolutions:

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, which [anti-segregation layman W. Astor] Kirk once directed, and which is now under the direction of Dr. Jim Winkler, came to the 2012 Conference armed with resolutions from six difference annual conferences.  They came prepared.

These UMC anti-occupation leaders coupled a boycott resolution that lacked specificity, with a divestment resolution that named names. They hoped to win on both resolutions, but they knew they could lose one or both.

The boycott resolution passed, while the divestment resolution lost. But the open discussion that followed the introduction of both resolutions exposed the issue to the wider church and to the secular public in ways that Israel does not appreciate.

None of this is really a political debate over money. It is a media war with a moral bite, a public image struggle which Israel is desperate to win and which they most certainly lost in Tampa, in spite of all the spinning by Israel’s US allies.

Gloating from relieved Zionists, and dejection by crestfallen supporters of Palestinian rights and aspirations, over Wednesday’s votes only make sense as products of an assumption that we are winning, while they are losing. The question in Tampa was how much power would shift; the answer, it seems, was less than we had hoped and they had feared. Surely the emergence of this consensus also deserves our celebration, no less than our concrete gains at the General Conference!

Meanwhile eight of the church’s Annual Conferences, along with two affiliated organizations, have divested from their own holdings in occupation profiteers. Momentum has built for other divestment initiatives, including those of the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Canada. And thousands, if not millions, of United Methodists and others have gained new insight into Israel apartheid, understanding of the lives of Christians and other Palestinians struggling under it, and knowledge of the BDS movement against it.

For all of this, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude and respect to the activists and delegates who fought the ground war in Tampa, struggling for every last inch they could take, making action inevitable. Their Web pages and articles informed us, their tweets updated us, their pictures encouraged us, and a few of them delivered what must certainly have ranked among the most inspiring speeches of any Annual Conference – not to mention the countless tasks that weren’t apparent thousands of miles away! I thank them, and hope to be there with them next time. “You are the light of the world.”

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I can’t seem to get worked up about the Methodists backing the brutal Zionist regime. They’ve also shown themselves to be anti-gay bigots this week. Does anyone expect better from American Christians?

I agree with those who say that BDS activity, today, which is merely at a “civil society” level, is mostly about education — not about economic clout. It is possible, too, that the BDS-lite (OPTs only BDS) that some favor (Methodists, Beinart, MJR) is JUST AS GOOD (although my gut tells me it is not) as Total-BDS (all Israel institutions, culture, sport, diplomacy, transport) because it has the same educational value as total-BDS without carrying… Read more »

I am not sure if “defeat” and “victory” are good categories here. I guess “a measure of progress” is a better one. The situation on the ground that activism is addressing is affected by Israeli mentality as small nation (tribe if you will) with “chip on the shoulder”. Basically, they do what they can get away with. From that perspective, Israel is not unique only in what it can get away with. Subjected to sanctions… Read more »

I suggest reading the full text before calling this either a victory or a boycott. All they do is call for their members to “read and study” the Kairos document and “take up its call for non-violent action”. Non-violent action is a vague term and doesn’t have to mean a boycott. They commend a report that calls for boycott of goods emanating from the settlements (not all companies doing business with the settlements), without actually… Read more »

The problem for Israel and Zionists supporters, is that once you understand the history, when you smear away all the greasy hasbara and subterfuge, it’s a criminal operation that the US should be against. At this point, in the history of the world, Israel is fighting for tiny gains in their continued occupation. They can survive with their 67 borders, but they love to cheat the system – hiding behind the legs of the US… Read more »