The United Church of Christ passed a resolution last week calling for the boycott and divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The resolution, which passed 508-124 at the 30th General Synod in Cleveland on June 30, was submitted by the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC, which represents 167 UCC congregations in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia and West Virginia.
Jewish leaders called the resolution disturbing and tragic yet not surprising.
[pullquote]“It contributes nothing to peace. … BDS will never be the way that Israelis and Palestinians will come to a peaceful solution.” — Ron Halber, executive director, JCRC of Greater Washington[/pullquote]
“I think the United Church of Christ’s decision to divest from Israel is deeply disappointing and demonstrates a lack of knowledge of Middle East reality, and is a terribly flawed statement that assigns total blame to Israel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “It contributes nothing to peace. … BDS will never be the way that Israelis and Palestinians will come to a peaceful solution.”
While proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement known as the BDS movement claim they are showing support for the Palestinian people, as a UCC statement said, Jewish leaders and those on the other side claim that the movement aims to dismantle the State of Israel, and often cite anti-Semitism as part of BDS.
The UCC is not the only church discussing BDS. The day after the UCC vote, the Mennonite Church USA voted to table a BDS resolution until the next assembly convenes in two years. The following day, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church rejected a motion endorsing the BDS movement. But like the UCC, the Presbyterian Church and United Methodists have also passed BDS resolutions.
“We know that academic organizations and professional organizations and religious groups are being targeted by the BDS movement to come out in favor of BDS, so it’s not ultimately surprising to us, but also disheartening,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, “and we have a lot of work to do. I think that’s what these votes keep telling us.”
Local UCC churches deferred comment to the Central Atlantic Conference minister, the Rev. John Deckenback, who said this resolution is consistent with the UCC’s stance since 1967 that Israel should end the occupation and move toward a two-state solution.
“There’s absolutely nothing in this resolution that delegitimizes Israel,” Deckenback said. “The current policies of the government of Israel is what we’re rejecting.”
Halber said the resolution “is not worth the paper it’s printed on” and “totally one-sided.”
“They can say [what they want]. The reality of the BDS movement is it’s designed to stigmatize and delegitimize Israel out of existence,” he said. “They’ve chosen the side that calls for dismantlement of Israel.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over BDS in a letter to top Democratic party donor Haim Saban. The letter called for a bipartisan effort to fight back against BDS.
“This is not the path to peace,” she wrote. “We need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.”
Local efforts to combat BDS are underway in Maryland, Tolle said. In the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session, language was included in the budget that condemned academic boycotts of Israel. Halber also sees the need for coordinated national efforts to combat BDS, and the Jewish community needs to let it be known that this resolution does damage the relationship between the Jewish community and the UCC.
A variety of other Jewish organizations expressed their disappointment with the UCC vote.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Israel Action Network called the resolution “deeply skewed” in a joint statement.
“The UCC General Assembly Synod decision occurs in the face of relative silence to the humanitarian catastrophe currently facing Christians and other minorities in many other Middle East countries as well,” the groups said. “The resolutions evidence a lack of recognition of the steps Israel takes to protect religious minorities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel is the only country in the region with a growing indigenous Christian population.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the vote “a travesty and a tragedy.”
“The UCC has voted to support the anti-peace BDS movement that will not improve a single Palestinian life but only succeeds in encouraging those seeking to demonize and weaken the Jewish state and her supporters around the world,” Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said in a statement.
Even the UCC’s newly elected general minister and president, John Dorhauer, expressed mixed emotions.
“I will be obligated as the officer of this denomination and by mandate of General Synod to speak publicly the action taken here. But I will do so with a deep awareness at the pain that I will cause to people who I care about deeply,” he said according to various reports. “And I will do so, to be quite frank, wondering if the benefits of our divesting from those companies is equal to cost to the relationships that we have with people who are critical to our movement towards justice, not just in Palestine but in many other places.”
Deckenback, who has worked with the Baltimore Jewish Council and has traveled to Israel with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, said that he plans to continue to meet with Jewish groups, and several members of the Jewish community expressed their disagreement to him but agreed conversations need to continue.
“There will continue to be dialogue and friendship,” Deckenback said.