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Jeff Walton April 24, 2012
California-Pacific Bishop Mary Ann Swenson shares her support for anti-Israel divestment during a press conference in advance of the UM General Conference. (Photo credit: IRD)
United Methodists are profiting from the Israeli military’s presence in the West Bank, according to an activist group seeking to end the denomination’s investments with companies doing business there.
In an April 24 press conference proceeding the start of the Methodist’s quadrennial General Conference in Tampa, Florida, speakers with United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR) insisted they are seeking to divest from companies that financially benefit from a West Bank occupation, not divestment from Israel itself.
UMKR is calling for the assembled 988 delegates from across the 12-million-member global church to instruct the denomination’s pension board to divest holdings in three companies. The petition is called “Align United Methodist Investments on Resolutions on Israel-Palestine,” authored by the church’s General Board on Church and Society.
The proposed resolution calls for the United Methodist Church to divest from Caterpillar Tractor, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. Divestment activists have targeted Caterpillar for years, citing use of the company’s bulldozers by the Israeli Defense Forces for demolition on the West Bank. Motorola is criticized for providing camera and radar equipment used in the separation barrier, while Hewlett Packard security technology equips Israeli checkpoints within the West Bank. Each of the companies is profiting from Israel’s presence in the West Bank, according to UM Kairos Response. So the church is financially benefitting from the military presence that previous General Conferences have opposed.
At the church’s 2004 General Conference, 98 percent of delegates voted to oppose occupation, according to Susanne Hoder, a spokesperson for UMKR.
“This is the position of the church,” Hoder pronounced. “We do not believe it is appropriate for the church to profit from a situation that we overwhelmingly oppose.”
UMKR argues that the United Methodist Church has a policy against investing in weapons manufacturers, and Israel is using earth-moving equipment, and other technologies, for military purposes.
“Our effort is for the church to make a sincere cut from these companies,” Hoder summarized. She compared a potential decision to divest from the three companies with the church’s existing policy of not investing in tobacco companies due to Methodist teachings against cigarette smoking.
Hoder said the group was formed in response to “a call from Palestinian Christians” and that it represents persons from every United Methodist Annual Conference “plus overseas.” It remained unclear if the statement included the fast-growing conferences in Africa, who did not appear to be strongly represented among the activists clad in yellow polo shirts at the press conference. Approximately 40 percent of delegates to the 2012 General Conference will be from overseas jurisdictions, mostly Africa.
Among the press conference speakers was United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land with nine other woman bishops from four U.S.-based denominations.
“I saw that what we were trying to do wasn’t enough, and that we needed to make changes,” Swenson recalled of her November trip and meeting with Israeli and Palestinian women over 10 days.
Defending the focus on Israel, United Methodist chief lobbyist Jim Winkler explained: “We have an inordinate interest because this is where Jesus came from.” As the general secretary of the Capitol Hill-based General Board on Church and Society, Winker complained of little result from the 40 years’ worth of General Conference statements calling for an end to occupation.
“When we finally begin to put our money where our mouth is, suddenly we have the attention of the world,” Winker assessed, calling divestment “a major step forward,” and dialogue “unsuccessful.” He insisted: “It is time for this denomination to say ‘we’re not going to put up with this anymore.”
Also promoting divestment was a United Methodist missionary of Palestinian background. "I have really seen this [oppression by Israel],” shared Alex Awad, Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College. Describing daily “suffering” at Israeli checkpoints, Awad, who is sponsored by the church’s General Board of Global Ministries, asserted the targeted businesses are “bringing a lot of suffering” to Palestinian people.
Awad noted that people in the Gaza strip have only six hours of electricity each day, apparently assigning blame to Israel, rather than the Hamas officials who govern the territory.
The group also heard from Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian whose family holds a property deed dating from Ottoman rule in 1916. Surrounded by six Jewish settlements, Nassar’s family has chosen to remain on the West Bank rather than sell the property, even though it does not have running water or building permits.
“We refuse to be enemies,” Nassar announced of his family’s relationship with Israelis, saying that remaining on the property served as a witness.
“The Kairos Palestine document beseeches the world to come to our aid,” explained Sandra Tomari, another Palestinian Christian on the panel. “These are not punitive measures; these are designed to bring a power balance.” She was citing a manifesto against Israeli policies from some Palestinian church officials.
Tomari touted divestment from South Africa in the 1980s as an example of previous United Methodist action, equating Israel with the racist Apartheid state.
“The companies don’t even return our calls at this point,” Tomari reported of the firms targeted for divestment.
UM Kairos Response organizers made a special effort to highlight Jewish voices that favored divestment and stood against what were termed “establishment” Jewish figures.
“Our community is not monolithic, we are not marching in lockstep on divestment,” asserted Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, admitting that his own congregation was not of one view on the matter.
“If I could get my congregants to see it with my own eyes, they would understand,” Rosen asserted. “Engagement is not working, that is why selective divestment is important.”
Reporters were given the opportunity to speak with panelists, and IRD was directed to speak with Jewish volunteers who supported the divestment proposal.
Asked what she would say to United Methodists who are critical of divestment, Dalit Baum, an Israeli Jew and a pro-Palestinian economic activist from San Francisco, singled out Caterpillar Tractor’s bulldozers as “tools of war.”
“As Methodists, they are invested in very specific crimes on the ground,” Baum asserted. Baum noted that the United Methodist Church does not invest in weapons manufacturers such as Boeing or United Technologies, saying “we are asking for consistency.”
Baum also claimed that most Hewlett-Packard revenues come from security technology, not from computer sales.
“We feel corporations have no conscience,” Baum determined.
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