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In BDS debate, both Jewish feelings and Palestinian lives matter

As the BDS movement grows, U.S. churches find themselves caught between a history of anti-Semitism, and a desire to stand alongside Palestinians.

Text by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org

A Palestinian activist with a sign reading, "Boycott the Occupation", faces Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against the occupation and separation wall in the West Bank village of Al Ma'sara, November 9, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian activist with a sign reading, “Boycott the Occupation”, faces Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against the occupation and separation wall in the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara, November 9, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

In recent weeks, three U.S. churches considered resolutions to divest from occupation-complicit corporations. The United Church of Christ passed its measure with a landslide vote. The Episcopal Church’s resolution was rejected by its House of Bishops. And the Mennonite Church USA—my church—tabled its resolution for two more years.

These were only the most recent examples of churches considering some form of boycott, divestment and sactions (BDS) to apply economic pressure on Israel. Last year, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a divestment resolution, and the United Methodist Church and various Quaker bodies have taken similar actions.

Criticism following this round of debate was no surprise, and it’s easy to dismiss fundamentalist gems like this one by Earl Cox in The Jerusalem Post:

Anyone who supports a BDS campaign against Israel and claims to be a Christian is not telling the truth…. G-d will say to those counterfeit Christians, ‘Depart from Me. I never knew you.’ … They occupy church pews on Sunday but their knowledge of His Word is only superficial.

Cox doesn’t mention that the “depart from me” quote is taken from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 7—which begins with Jesus’ apt advice: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

It usually takes a right-wing fundamentalist with a literalist interpretation of the Bible to explain why all the stuff Jesus said about “blessed are the peacemakers” and “love your enemies” and “as you have done to the least of these you have done to me” have nothing to do with, say, Palestinian children in Gaza.

In response, I could be a left-wing fundamentalist and say that only true Jesus-following Christians support BDS. But I won’t. I know there are many reasons why people who actually care about things like peacemaking and human rights can’t get with BDS—some moral, some relational, some pragmatic (as in, people will stop donating to my church or organization if I support BDS).

What I can’t stand are accusations by self-described progressives or liberals against BDS that are simply untrue. These accusations come in the form of a question: What are these churches doing about [fill in the blank with thing ostensibly worse than Israel]?

While previous posts by myself and Dahlia Scheindlin drill down on this shopworn smear, a recent blog post by Mark Gammon on the religion site Patheos takes the “singling out” accusation to new levels, attempting to out-liberal the liberals by asking:

Have these denominations turned toward their own government’s moral failings? Have we divested from those who do business with the United States military, recognized by many worldwide as a tool of oppression? For that matter, have we given real thought to the fact that our ability to divest is predicated on our participation in an investment banking system that privileges profits over people – and has shown more than its fair share of moral and legal evil?

Gammon accuses BDS activists of a “breathtaking lack of historical consciousness” concerning Jews while displaying breathtaking ignorance about liberal activism. Every major mainline denomination has an advocacy office in Washington, DC, that lobbies on an array of social justice and human rights issues. I know because I’ve worked with several of these coalitions on issues like Latin America solidarity, domestic poverty, and anti-war activism.

Photographic evidence that Protestant clergy protest things other than Israel. An demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Washington, DC, 2002. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Photographic evidence that Protestant clergy protest things other than Israel. A priest marches in a demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Washington, DC, 2002. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

In this context, it is not, as Gammon suggests, “hard to explain why Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has become a central liberal Protestant cause.” It is precisely because Israel has received more U.S. foreign aid than any other country—most of it military—that liberal activists are particularly interested. It would be a double standard if they were not.

If anything, BDS advocates could be excused if their activism was proportionate to the amount of their tax dollars at play. But every single church in question also provides significant humanitarian aid and human rights advocacy regarding the very countries often invoked as BDS foils: Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Myanmar, etc.

The UCC is a prime example of a church already engaged in socially responsible investing that screens out investments in military contractors. Most other mainline liberal denominations do the same. Another major part of socially responsible investments is shareholder activism that attempts to influence corporations to behave more ethically. The UCC in particular engaged in shareholder engagement with corporations complicit in Israeli human rights violations, such as Caterpillar, whose equipment is used to demolish Palestinian homes. Divestment was considered only after years of such advocacy failed to produce results.

Palestinian children watch as a Caterpillar digging machine demolishes a Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah to make way for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, January 9, 2011. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian children watch as a Caterpillar digging machine demolishes a Palestinian property in Sheikh Jarrah to make way for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, January 9, 2011. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

These churches have not “singled out” Israel. If anything, they’ve been extremely slow and hesitant precisely because of their historical consciousness. While there are certainly anti-Semitic elements within the ranks of the BDS movement—just like there are extreme elements within every activist movement—virtually all of the church resolutions include confessions of Christendom’s shameful history toward Jews, denunciations of anti-Semitism, and distinctions between the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

It is only because of the ongoing failure of the peace process and the call of Palestinians themselves—who can be excused for “singling out” Israel—that any of these churches have been willing to take a bolder stance.

But the heart of Gammon’s criticism is not the intention of BDS, but its effect:

The problem is singling out Israel as a special object of moral opprobrium while failing to acknowledge the Church’s role in cultivating a sense of existential threat among Jews. If Christian BDS supporters have to make a point of clarifying that they are not being anti-Semitic, certainly something has gone awry.

My translation: Christians can’t tell Jews that BDS isn’t anti-Semitic because Christians are primarily responsible for creating their existential fears in the first place.

This is where I would usually quote a bunch of Jewish supporters of BDS, including Israelis, to prove that BDS isn’t anti-Semitic. They don’t pretend to be “representative”—because they’re not arrogant enough to claim to speak for an extremely diverse community. But Jewish Voice for Peace is growing as the only nationwide Jewish pro-BDS organization in the U.S. and even liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart have lately been saying interesting things like, “Jewish kids are overrepresented in the BDS movement,” and arguing that mainstream Judaism must be willing to include “Jewish kids who are not Zionists, including the Jewish kids who are involved in the BDS movement.”

But while I think it’s good for church-based BDS advocates to lift up the voices of Jewish supporters, I also realize that one can also quote Clarence Thomas on civil rights. On questions of existential fears, I need to keep listening to the conversation taking place within the Jewish community.

As a white Christian man, I have no right to tell a Jew not to be afraid of me. Or people of color. Or women. I can only try to be an ally by standing with these communities when they are threatened.

Young Muslim women stand hand-in-hand in front of the Oslo Synagogue during the "Ring of Peace" vigil, February 21, 2015. The vigil was organized by Muslim youth in solidarity with Norway's Jewish community following anti-Jewish attacks in Denmark and other parts of Europe. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Young Muslim women stand hand-in-hand in front of the Oslo Synagogue during the “Ring of Peace” vigil, February 21, 2015. The vigil was organized by Muslim youth in solidarity with Norway’s Jewish community following anti-Jewish attacks in Denmark and other parts of Europe. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

As a member of a privileged group, I cannot tell a historically oppressed group when they should or should not feel offended or threatened. But the complexity comes when churches are responding to the call of Palestinians—a group that is not only fearful for their safety, but actually discriminated against on a daily basis.

Here is where notions of power, privilege, and liberal theology’s preferential concern for the oppressed clash: is it more important to avoid hurting Jewish feelings than it is to avoid hurting Palestinian bodies?

And that is at the core of divestment: not profiting from companies who are complicit in violations of human rights and international law. We are not just complaining about Israeli violations. We’re suggesting that churches should not profit from them.

Earlier this week I wrote for my own church publications the day before editing testimony collected by my Activestills colleague Anne Paq from victims in Gaza.

Anne interviewed Ahmed Al-Hashash, a school administrator from Rafah who lost seven members of his family. Israeli missiles killed his wife and all of his sons in the street as the family fled their home. With his own hands, Ahmed pulled shrapnel from the body of his four-year-old daughter Meena because no doctor was available to treat her wounds.

Ahmed Al-Hashash and his daughter Meena near their home in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Ahmad's wife and sons were killed by an Israeli missile strike during Operation Protective Edge last July. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Ahmed Al-Hashash and his daughter Meena near their home in Rafah, Gaza Strip. Ahmad’s wife and sons were killed by Israeli missile strikes during Operation Protective Edge last July. (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

I thought about Ahmed and Meena as I recalled comments made by fellow Mennonites that divestment was too “edgy” and that boycotts could actually “harm” Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements. I thought about how the term “one-sided” loses all meaning when a single Palestinian family loses more loved ones than all the civilians killed inside Israel combined.

I’m still angry that my church did not pass its very carefully worded resolution, which did not even mention “divestment” or  “boycott” in order to be less controversial. They didn’t vote “no”—they just decided to wait two more years to vote. As a historically pacifist church, we tend to avoid conflict at all costs—even when “the least of these” are the ones who pay.

Israeli activist Sahar Vardi said it better than I could:

I have no doubt that the Mennonite church will divest from Israeli occupation. It’s just a question of time, time in which more and more Palestinians lose their lands and personal freedoms, more Palestinians and Israelis lose their lives, and your church keeps making profit off of this.

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    1. BigCat

      @ Ryan Rodrick

      What you should know about BDS

      QUESTION: What is BDS?

      “Boycott is act of hate, not peace”

      – Shimon Peres

      “The BDS movement is anti-Semitic terror of a new type.”

      – Yitzhak Herzog.

      “BDS leaders are ‘out and out anti-Semites’”

      – Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid party leader)

      “All who join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel “are effectively promoting the dissolution of the Jewish state whether or not that is their intention.”

      – Cary Nelson (Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois)

      The BDS-movement against Israel is a “CULT”, a “GHETTO”, “dishonest”, “silly”, “disingenuous” and “a whole lot of leftist posturing”, whose goal is to destroy Israel, says Norman G. Finkelstein.

      “They don’t want Israel. They think they are being very clever. They call their three-tier: we want the end of occupation, we want the right of return; we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever because they know the result of implementing all three is WHAT? What’s the result? YOU KNOW AND I KNOW – WHAT’S THE RESULT?! THERE IS NO ISRAEL. THERE IS NO ISRAEL – FULL STOP!”

      – Norman G. Finkelstein, who is also a virulent anti-Israel critic!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iggdO7C70P8

      As Pedro X correctly said: “BDS is all about violence and hatred. It seeks to harm Israelis in the belief that somehow if enough harm and hatred is brought to bear on Israelis, Israelis will accept Palestinian demands, such as an unlimited wrong of return, and commit national suicide. Some Palestinians support BDS because it fits in with their culture of hatred and desire to see the Jewish state destroyed and replaced with another majority Arab state as the leader of the Palestinian BDS movement promotes. BDS is simply racist.”

      There you have it.

      972moderators: what is the reason why you suppress my posts?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      More BDS propaganda by Beiler. For instance:

      “Anne interviewed Ahmed Al-Hashash, a school administrator from Rafah who lost seven members of his family. Israeli missiles killed his wife and all of his sons in the street as the family fled their home. With his own hands, Ahmed pulled shrapnel from the body of his four-year-old daughter Meena because no doctor was available to treat her wounds.

      I thought about Ahmed and Meena as I recalled comments made by fellow Mennonites that divestment was too “edgy” and that boycotts could actually “harm” Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements. I thought about how the term “one-sided” loses all meaning when a single Palestinian family loses more loved ones than all the civilians killed inside Israel combined.”

      What Beiler omits to mention is that 4 of the family members were Hamas operatives actively engaged in war fare against Israel. Hamas claimed four of the family members as their own fighters on their day of their deaths. See their pictures at elder of ziyon:

      http://elderofziyon.blogspot.co.il/2014/08/fake-civilians-of-day.html#.Vak_KnnbJMw

      So why does Mr. Beiler talk about innocent civilians? Why does he and ActiveStills conceal the involvement of terrorists in civilian areas and homes? These Hamas fighters used their own relatives, who knew their involvement in terrorism, as human shields. Terrorists and their family members who live with them have no immunity from being killed.

      So why does Mr.Beiler and 972mag continue to misrepresent military deaths and the death of human shields as non-combatants? Why does he downplay the Israeli losses as if the strike on one group of terrorists is more harm than all damage and destruction caused by attacks against Israel during the war? It is propaganda against Israel to further hatred against Israel and to advance the aims of anti-Semitic groups which belong to BDS movement.

      When people like Mr. Beiler shamelessly lie about the circumstances of deaths in Gaza to further demonize and hurt Israel and Israelis, one wonders about the morality of these people and the churches which call themselves Christian. Is it moral to incite hatred and hostile actions against Israelis based on lies and Mr. Beiler’s hatred of Israelis?

      Shimon Peres call these people who advocate boycotts of Israel as haters. He said:

      “Boycott is act of hate, not peace”

      Yitzhak Herzog states:

      “The BDS movement is anti-Semitic terror of a new type.”

      So what do you call Christians who invent false claims against Israel? Haters and Anti-Semites would be a good start.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      On the other hand, the South Africans ought to understand these things:

      http://www.bdsmovement.net/2015/bds10-boycott-movement-leaders-address-press-conference-13214

      Local and international journalists heard from a range of figures including Chief Mandla Mandela, member (ANC) of the South African Parliament and grandson to the late leader Nelson Mandela, Marcel Khalife, prominent Lebanese musician and UNESCO Artist for Peace, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace.

      Chief Mandla Mandela joined via video link and said:

      “We are here as the Mandela family to give our unwavering support to the cause of the Palestinians people because this is what my grandfather would have wanted.”

      “We call on the entire South African people, as we enjoy our freedom that we won with the support of Palestinians, to join every effort aimed at ensuring the freedom of Palestine.”

      “The Palestinian people supported us through our darkest days. Now it is for us as South Africans to join hands in support of the Palestinian cause and ensure that our brothers and sisters also realise their freedom.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. bar

      Not only is BDS antisemitic in that it singles out Israel like no other nation – and Israel is the only Jewish state, of course – but it’s also antisemitic because it seeks to destroy the refuge Israel has become for the Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim states. These refugees and their descendants comprise over half of Israel’s Jewish population. They cannot go back to their destroyed communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, etc. and lost far more property and land than the Palestinian Arabs. Furthermore, BDS is antisemitic because it seeks to undermine the Jewish majority’s democratic decision for Israel, a Jewish state built in the Jews’ (and Jesus’s Jewish) homeland, to be the country of Jewish self-determination.

      BDS is anti-semitic and no spin can get around it.

      Apologists for this bigotry claim the problem is that churches need to address Palestinian needs. Churches can and should, but not by targeting Israel. Israel has offered peace deals and statehood to the Palestinian a number of times, always to be rejected. Israel has allowed Palestinians to govern themselves, with 98% of them living either under Palestinian Authority or Hamas rule. When violence decreases, so many security measures Israel implements that make life harder for average Palestinians. This is why in 2007 you had 700 checkpoints and today you have 11 (eleven). On the other hand, both the PA and Hamas are brutal authoritarian regimes that make the lives of their people miserable, and sometimes deadly. If churches would stop supporting them, they’d be weakened and perhaps their people could gain democratic rights. Instead, by targeting Israel, these groups receive indirect support and continue to grow and thrive.

      The list of mistakes made by churches supporting BDS is much longer, but I’ll finish with an example of why the choice to target Israel is so biased and appears steeped in some churches’ historic hatred of Jews. The writer claims that since Israel is the largest foreign recipient of US funding, he and the boycotting churches are right to focus on Israel. Poppycock. The US has a $500 billion a year trade relationship with China, an undemocratic country (unlike Israel) that kills its own citizens (unlike Israel), offers them no freedom of speech (unlike Israel), jails journalists for reporting and lawyers for defending human rights (unlike Israel) and commits ethnic cleansing in Tibet in an occupation that has lasted for decades and in which policy has been to erase Tibetan culture and usurp it with Chinese (unlike Israel’s occupation where Palestinian culture is maintained and respected and where Israel’s gov’t isn’t trying to erase their nationhood). You would think that long before targeting a democracy fighting for its existence, churches would target America’s largest trading partner and hit it in its pocketbook. Nope. Not even close. Israel’s the target.

      Shame on the churches and the shills – particularly Jewish ones – who encourage their antisemitism. Double shame for doing this in a region where Christians everywhere OTHER than Israel are being killed, harmed or fleeing for their lives.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      The attacks of Whiplash and Bar impress me for demonstrating what a dialogue of the deaf we’ve got going here. Whiplash demonizes Beiler and Bar writes as if she just read the headline and not a word of what Beiler actually writes. It seems to me you, not Beiler, are demonizing, with gusto, Whiplash. What gives you the right to declare that Ryan Roderick Beiler hates Israelis and is an anti-Semite to boot? Why do you feel so entitled to that leap of logic? Your simplistic spin on one example used thoughtfully and complexly by Beiler, your blanket propagandistic use of the word “terrorist,” complete with statements such as “terrorists and their family members who live with them have no immunity from being killed,” your dismissal of the concept that anybody in Gaza could be an innocent civilian and all are guilty of choosing to be ‘human shields’ and deserve death, your frank demonizing of Mr. Beiler–none of this negates Beiler’s larger argument about the churches and divestment choices. That argument is rational, complex and nuanced. You started right off the bat with basically “everybody and their mother is a terrorist who deserves no quarter” and do not grapple with Beiler’s actual argument. Beiler’s essay is far more thoughtful and nuanced and morally discerning than anyone could ever guess by reading your attack on him. Bar, you also write in a way takes no account of what Beiler is actually saying and displays the kind of ignorance about liberal activism that Beiler attributes to Mark Gammon. Beiler’s series on this subject–this is his third essay in the past month–is excellent–as is Dahlia Scheindlin’s essay on the same subject. Taken together, they offer a compelling argument as to why these churches are not singling out Israel whatsoever, that in fact, if there is any singling out of Israel going on it is in the *opposite* direction: showing a forbearance and reticence and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt that these churches have not shown towards others. The remarkable truth is that Israel is repeatedly given a pass on the occupation that other nations would not get. Bar, in previous essays Beiler and Scheindlin showed why these churches’ extensive efforts in an array of troubled situations across the globe show that they are not singling out Israel. Your response is to ignore all that and all those countries and quickly move on, for rhetorical purposes, to the one area they did not mention: Tibet. Forgive us if it has escaped us just exactly how Israel’s 48-year occupation and aggressive creeping annexation accompanied by the mantra that “the Palestinians are an invented people” demonstrates how “Palestinian culture is maintained and respected and where Israel’s gov’t isn’t trying to erase their nationhood.” Forgive us if it has escaped us the secret foreign aid the US is supplying China. Forgive us if it has escaped us how opposing the belligerent occupation of the West Bank in favor of two states living side by side in peace and security is an effort to destroy the refuge Israel has become or “the Jewish majority’s democratic decision for Israel.” These are emotionally-laden arguments not substantiated by facts.

      Very thoughtful and thought-provoking writing and reporting, +972. Great job.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Henrik Larsson

      In Sweden some people are bojkotting Israel by not buying Israelian products in the supermarket

      Reply to Comment