The top legislative body of the United Church of Christ has voted to divest from companies with business in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, in a sign of the growing momentum of a U.S. protest movement against Israeli policy.
The denomination’s General Synod endorsed the action on a vote of 508-124 with 38 abstentions during its Tuesday meeting in Cleveland.
The liberal Protestant group with 1.1 million members is the latest to take such action. Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to sell stock in a few companies whose products are used by Israel in the territories. The United Church of Christ resolution was broader.
Delegates are calling on the denomination’s financial arms to sell off stock in any company profiting from what the church called human rights violations arising from the occupation. The church also voted to boycott Israeli products made in the territories.
Peter Makari of Global Ministries, an agency that is part of the United Church of Christ, said the resolutions “reflect our urgent concern for the worsening effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian people and lives, including the disparity in rights and power.” The church affirmed Israel’s right to exist, along with a “sovereign, independent” Palestinian state.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the denomination’s policies have “reflected the most radical politics for more than a decade and in no way reflect a moral stance or reality-based position.” In 2005, the United Church of Christ passed a resolution calling for “economic leverage” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and had accused Israel of widespread human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
“People of faith ought to be acting to help Israel and the Palestinians to renew efforts to achieve peace, rather than endlessly demonizing one party in the conflict — in our view, the aggrieved party,” Nahshon said.
Later at the meeting Tuesday, a resolution failed that would have labeled the Israeli occupation as South African-style apartheid. The measure required a two-thirds majority to pass, but delegates were nearly split, with 312 in favor and 295 opposed, along with 31 abstentions.
The votes are occurring as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, is gaining strength on U.S. college campuses and in many places in Europe. The Israeli government and many Jewish leaders have condemned the movement as anti-Semitic and an attempt to delegitimize Israel. Makari said the United Church of Christ vote was not “a blanket endorsement” of BDS, “but it’s in the spirit of the call.”
The BDS movement grew from a 2005 international call from Palestinian groups as an alternative to armed struggle over control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967 and Palestinians seek for an independent state. BDS advocates say the movement, based on the campaign against South African apartheid, is aimed at Israeli policy, not Jews, in response to two decades of failed peace talks and expanded Israeli settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The two major financial arms of the United Church of Christ — a pension board and investment fund — together control nearly $4 billion. However, each is guided by directors who can decide whether to follow the call for divestment. If the financial agencies do sell off stock, the economic impact on Israel is expected to be negligible. Still, the vote aims to bring moral pressure for change from within the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally.
“We’re on the precipice of a new political moment,” said Lev Hirschhorn, a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the BDS movement.
Two smaller U.S. religious groups had earlier divested in protest of Israeli policies: the Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, and the Mennonite Central Committee.
Last year, the 12.8 million member United Methodist Church, which has rejected churchwide divestment, revealed plans to sell holdings in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system. Then in January, the Methodist pension board issued new investment guidelines meant to prioritize human rights. Methodists advocating divestment to pressure Israel say the guidelines have led to no concrete action.