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Interview: Church-based BDS and the Jewish voices beside it

As more U.S. churches vote on divestment, Jewish Voice for Peace aims to provide key support to a movement often accused of anti-Semitism. An interview with JVP’s advocacy director Sydney Levy.

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Activestills.org

This week, three more U.S. churches are voting on resolutions to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. A United Church of Christ (UCC) committee unanimously approved a divestment resolution Sunday night with a final vote by the church’s general assembly expected Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Episcopal Church is debating no fewer than seven resolutions related to Israel and Palestine this week at their national gathering in Salt Lake City. However the head of the U.S. church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, directly opposes divestment. A vote may come as early as Tuesday. The Mennonite Church USA’s national convention in Kansas City begins tomorrow, with broad institutional support for a resolution to withdraw “investments from corporations known to be profiting from the occupation and/or destruction of life and property in Israel-Palestine.”

While final results in all three church decisions may not be known for several days, one can anticipate the response from major Jewish American organizations. If last year’s divestment vote by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) is any indication, expect accusations that the resolutions are “one-sided,” “divisive,” and “demonizing.”

While these same organizations have withheld public comment as of this writing, you can expect more of the same. There is no indication that the collapse of the peace process, the bloodshed in Gaza, and the brazenness of the Netanyahu government have in any way affected their response to the broad movement of boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel.

But there are other voices — Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in particular — who are part of the conversations taking place within and about these church-based efforts. Over the past year, JVP’s Facebook “likes” have grown to more than 212,000—compared to 109,000 for AIPAC and 29,000 for J Street, both of which oppose BDS.

I recently spoke with Sydney Levy, JVP’s advocacy director, who is currently in Cleveland supporting the UCC divestment resolution.

(l-r) Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rev.  Emily West McNeill of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network and Anna Baltzer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. (photo: endtheoccupation.org)

(Left to right) Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace, Rev. Emily West McNeill of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network and Anna Baltzer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. (photo: endtheoccupation.org)

What do you see as JVP’s unique role in supporting these church divestment efforts?

We support divestment from companies that are connected to the oppression of Palestinians. We support those efforts whether they happen on campuses, whether they happen in churches or elsewhere.

The issue with churches that is particularly important for us is that from the Jewish side of the Israel lobby, there is an attempt to basically coopt interfaith relations between Jews and Christians to pretend that the only way to have a normal relationship is if Christians agree not to criticize the Israeli government.

When we go to these churches — and we have a long-standing relations with them — we remind them that in this issue, as with many other issues, Jews are divided. There’s a growing number of Jews who are coming to our side, so it is not fair or appropriate to put on hold all interfaith relations because of Israel. We are showing how you can have interfaith relations based on principle as opposed to conditions of convenience.

Churches have been relatively shy because of their concerns about relations with Jewish communities. Because of their understanding of the issue they have moved slowly. For churches in particular, my hope is that this is a wake-up call. What we are telling them is that now is the time to take action.

International Christian activists join Palestinians for a Catholic mass in a West Bank olive grove as a form of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli separation barrier that threatens to further divide land belonging to the town of Beit Jala, March 14, 2014.

International Christian activists join Palestinians for a Catholic mass in a West Bank olive grove as a form of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli separation barrier that threatens to further divide land belonging to the town of Beit Jala, March 14, 2014. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Last year a number of Jewish leaders predicted that the PCUSA’s divestment vote would have ‘devastating’ consequences for interfaith relations. Is there any indication that this has taken place?

When we were in Detroit last year, we were saying to the Presbyterians what I think is true: whatever decision they were going to take — for or against divestment — they were going to have a number of Jews upset at them. So their job is not to please the Jews. Their job is to follow their conscience and to do so based on principle.

The proof is in the pudding. Yes, some people have been upset. On the other hand, other Jews have been very grateful for the Presbyterian resolution, and at the end of the day, the sky has not fallen. That’s an important lesson for all of us to remember: that the backlash is not so great.

Interfaith relations are based on the concept of friendship among different faiths, on standing by each other as friends, understanding that people are acting according to their own ethical values. Whether you agree or disagree with the person, if you believe that the person is acting ethically, you are not stopping your friendship.

How would you advise church leaders or others respond to the accusations leveled at BDS: It’s ‘anti-Semitic,’ ‘one-sided,’ ‘unfairly singles out Israel’, etc.?

There is no church that we have worked with that has not taken these issues seriously; the issue of anti-Semitism weighs heavily on their minds. Both because of the historical tradition of the churches and because in the present, nobody wants to be accused of being bigoted.

What is important to remember is that all of these resolutions coming from churches address specific policies of the state of Israel. They do not target Jewishness or Judaism. They’re very careful because they’ve thought about these issues. I have worked with some of these church leaders and they’re extremely principled people. Painting them with a huge brush and saying all of this is anti-Semitic is so rude and offensive and untrue — I cannot express it in any other terms.

Now we have to explain to the churches that this is not a confusion that comes out of nowhere. When Netanyahu goes to Paris or to Washington, D.C., and he says that he is the prime minster of all the Jews, and that Israel represents all the Jews, that is wrong. That is not true. When he says that, he implies that if you criticize Netanyahu and his government, you are criticizing all the Jews.

I believe that the churches are doing really hard work on this, and that those who are committed not only for human rights for Palestinians and for peace for Israelis are also committed to the fight against anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, Jewish groups that are part of the Israel lobby mischaracterize the resolutions. They characterize them as not being friendly to Jews when really the resolutions are not about Jews—they are about Israeli policies. The Israel lobby is actually making the fight against anti-Semitism less effective when they confuse the issue.


A Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli activist confront heavily armed Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against the occupation and separation wall in the West Bank village of Al Ma'sara, April 5, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli activist confront heavily armed Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against the occupation and separation wall in the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara, April 5, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Why do you see BDS as necessary as opposed to other less confrontational tactics?

Every tactic is important. The question is do they work? Dialogue, for example. Dialogue is important but at the end of the day, having Israelis and Palestinians meet together and dialogue — that is not going to bring peace in Israel and Palestine. That’s just not going to let you go very far unless you solve inherent conditions of inequality that are present. That’s the problem with dialogue—it’s important but it’s not enough.

Then there’s the peace process. The United States government has failed in trying to solve this issue. Every Israeli government since 1967 has been pushing for more settlements in the West Bank — this is part of Israeli policy from labor to Likud. But we are now in a particular government in Israel that is very vocal about it and is more right-wing than other governments, if that is even conceivable.

So under the circumstances, what people already knew becomes more obvious and more verbalized. It’s not just about Netanyahu saying that he did not support a two-state solution, it was him saying that too many Arabs were coming to the polls on election day. Racism in Israel is not new. These are things that we have been discussing for a long time. But now you have them verbalized from the prime minister.

So there is no political process at this moment. We know that the Obama Administration is not engaging in any peace process anymore. The United Nations has failed because of the U.S. vetoes. Governments have failed. The answer is with us.

How do you respond to BDS critics who insist that ‘positive investment’ in Palestine is a better approach?

One does not take the place of the other. When I hear about positive investment — which is investing in the Palestinian economy — that is an important thing to do. But you need to have a Palestinian economy to invest in. You need to have an economy where goods can go in and out, where there are customs, where the economy is not kidnapped by the Israeli economy — and that’s what we’re seeing now.

The churches have already invested money in the Palestinian economy. The Europeans have invested money in solar panels for Palestinian villages that should have had electricity and they don’t because Israel does not connect them to the grid. You know what happens to those solar panels? The Israeli army has destroyed them.

On the other hand, boycott and divestments work. We have seen them working. We have seen that because of the boycott of SodaStream the factory is moving away from the West Bank. We have seen Veolia is minimizing its interests in the Israeli-Palestinian economy in the parts that relate to Palestinian oppression. They got out of the business of segregated buses in the West Bank. They didn’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts. They did it because there were many people across the globe that kept on reminding them that it was shameful and that there were economic consequences for doing that.

Activists protesting Israel's attacks on Gaza stand in front of pro-Israel counter-protesters during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, DC, August 9, 2014.

Activists protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza stand in front of pro-Israel counter-protesters during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, DC, August 9, 2014.

To what factors do you attribute increased support for BDS and JVP over the past year?

Particularly since last year, particularly since the attack on Gaza, what we are seeing in growth in JVP is a reflection of the failure of other Jewish institutions in the United States [that are] trying to sweep what is happening in Israel under the rug, trying to explain it — as if it’s explainable. It’s not working anymore. So you have more and more Jews who are looking for answers.

If other Jewish institutions are going to be using universal language, are going to be addressing Jews in a mature way about what is happening in Israel-Palestine, what is happening with the occupation, they will grow too. But if they keep on hiding this issue or using fear tactics — or in the worst cases, using Islamophobia — then yes, they may grow in some circles, but largely they are going to see JVP continue to grow. We are providing a home to the large number of Jews who are saying that what is happening is not okay.

We want the Jewish community at large to address this issue thinking about Israelis and Palestinians as human beings that are equally endowed with human rights, and not only as a conversation about what is good for the Jews what is good for Israel.

There is a challenge to every American Jew, every Israeli Jew who has questions about BDS, if you believe that Palestinians are being oppressed. If you don’t, then we should have another conversation. But we can go company by company. If we are talking about Caterpillar: there are 20,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem that are under threat of home demolition. That means that at any moment, day or night, a bulldozer can come, they throw your stuff into the street and they bulldoze your house.

If you believe that that is unethical, then what are you doing about it? Dialogue? Are you dialoging with Palestinians about it? Are you waiting for the U.S. government to solve this issue?

Those are questions that the Jewish American community needs to ask itself. We have our answers. People can have other answers. But we cannot just ignore the questions.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance journalist and member of the Activestills photography collective.

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    1. Robert

      Main problem with BDS is that it quite simply will not change Israeli government policies. If anything it will contribute to the domestic siege mentality that Israeli governments have loved to foster. It wasn’t BDS that overthrew Apartheid in South Africa. There came a moment when the organized South African people made it unenforceable.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Chemi Shalev reports today:

      “The U.S. State Department on Tuesday punched a big hole in Israel-led efforts to induce the Obama administration to regard boycotts of settlements as identical to boycott of Israel proper. In doing so, it provided the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby with yet another painful lesson in the pitfalls of being too clever by half and biting off more than one should chew.
      A special statement issued by the State Department Press Office on Tuesday afternoon made clear that while the administration “strongly opposes” any boycott, divestment or sanctions against the State of Israel, it does not extend the same protection to “Israel-controlled territories.” Rather than weakening efforts to boycott Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, as Israel supporters had planned, the State Department was actually granting them unprecedented legitimacy.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. bar

      Jewish fig-leaves for antisemitic actions by churches that ignore human rights violations by multiple other countries and groups while targeting the…Jewish state. In other words, people like Levy are nothing more than props, except for the fact that they are involved in pushing this strain of antisemitism. Levy is welcome to explain to all of us how this church, for example, in its entire history, has only divested from two countries, South Africa and Israel. If he can justify that, while millions of Syrian refugees hope to find new homes and millions of Tibetans dream of self-determination and thousands of Iranians are tortured and killed by their own government, then I’d be surprised.

      Oh, and I almost forgot, while this church, with its Jewish helpers who represent a tiny fraction of the Jewish community, focuses on democratic Israel where the Christian population is thriving, it ignores the Middle Eastern countries and groups that have made the lives of their Christians a living hell.

      As I read this example of bias by a church group, and the other article on 972 justifying the bias of a UN body, and in the newspaper about a White House that violates the legal process in the USA to excuse itself from taking a stand on boycotting Israel, I can only ask 972 writers and editors how blind they can remain to what they’re seeing unfold before their eyes?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Your accusations are refuted here:


        “But as new voices rise up, the Israeli government and its allies are trying to shout them down with an unchanging refrain of anti-BDS slanders. Apart from broad-brush charges of anti-Semitism, these opponents often accuse churches of unfairly “singling out” Israel while ignoring Islamist violence in Syria and elsewhere.
        Here are three reasons why they’re wrong….”

        Reply to Comment
        • bar

          Actually, that article demonstrated why my comments aren’t refuted.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            LoL! OK Bar, sure, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one and let others decide. Wow.

            Reply to Comment
          • Cowboy

            I get a kick out of Ben/Brian/HimduJew et al laughing like a fool without an ounce of self-awareness. He ran out of people to mimic (YR is his model of choice lately, that is where he got those Latin legal terms that he can’t define. This particular article by Ryan Mathew Broderick Rcoky Blier is a piece of shit. How many antisemites do you know who are aware of or admit to being an antisemites when trying to sell some bullshit church abortion? Brian needs to be beaten like that black honor student which became an Internet sensation

            Reply to Comment
    4. Cowboy

      Any reason that this Ryan Roderick Relly fellow repackages and republishes the same ninsensical material every third day? Must be a summer intern somewhere.

      Reply to Comment
    5. David Grant

      Bravo for Jewish Voice for Peace and the American churches that have supported BDS. It is quite obvious that opposition to Zionism is not the same as Anti-Semitism. The people motivated to support BDS are motivated by social justice and fairness and Anti-Semites simply hate Jews for being Jews and hate others as well. I think the movement of the churches in the US hopefully will motivate other Protestant churches and the Catholic Church to follow through.

      Reply to Comment
      • Cowboy

        David says: “people motivated to support BDS are motivated by social justice and fairness”.

        Really? Their actions and excuse making tell us that human rights are not universal. They are doing a piss poor job at executing your statement above

        Did you ever wonder why so many antisemites are attracted to BDS? If so, why do you suppose that is the case? If not, why is your head up your ass?

        Reply to Comment
        • David Grant

          You know that you have hit a nerve when the Anti-Semite charge is trotted out. That is the sign of desperation. The fact is that the case for supporting Israel’s actions become more difficult as the oppression becomes harsher. The supporters of these actions will have to rationalize their beliefs whereas Lia and others don’t have to.

          Reply to Comment