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Jeff Walton May 1, 2012
Alex Awad addressed a luncheon on Monday at United Methodist General Conference. (Photocredit: Institute on Religion and Democracy)
Pleading with delegates at the church’s governing General Conference to divest from three companies that do business with Israel, two speakers from United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR) are promising it will prompt others to follow.
“Tomorrow, if you vote to divest, there will be celebration all over Jerusalem, Palestine and even Israel,” predicted General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) missionary Alex Awad to a lunchtime gathering the day before the expected vote.
Legislation worded to force the United Methodist pension board to sell its holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions was not adopted in committee. UMKR is encouraging delegates to the denomination’s governing body to support a minority report instead. UMKR argues that the three companies profit from Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, and that the denomination is subsequently benefitting from their financial investment there.
Awad was joined Monday by Dalit Baum, a corporate researcher and activist. While the GBGM missionary touted his evangelical Christianity, Baum was introduced to the more liberal audience as a gay rights activist. The luncheon was sponsored by the Common Witness Coalition, an umbrella group of left-leaning unofficial United Methodist caucuses including the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
“I am a very conservative evangelical Christian, probably more conservative than Billy Graham,” asserted Awad, who has sought out evangelicals to cushion expected support from liberal delegates at General Conference. Insisting that he was not coming to General Conference as a United Methodist political activist, Awad instead portrayed himself as “an eye witness to discrimination.”
“Because of where I am working, I see violence and injustice every day,” claimed Awad, who commutes from his home in Jerusalem to Bethlehem Bible College where he serves as academic dean.
Awad sought to deflect an argument that U.S. Christians should positively invest in Palestinian businesses rather than negatively divesting from ones conducting business with the Israeli military. The Presiding Bishop of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and some other American religious institutions have voiced support for that strategy. Saying that “Investing is like giving charity to Palestinians,” Awad compared it with financially assisting an incarcerated person – good, but not sufficient until the incarcerated person has been freed.
Flatly stating that “we are asking you to divest,” Awad mentioned that foreign investment had gone into building a harbor and airport for those in Gaza, but that they sat unused due to sanctions against the territory and were not of economic help.
Israeli bombing rendered the airport runways unusable during a military operation against the Gaza strip’s governing Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction.
Advising that United Methodists “do justice in the land,” Awad suggested that adopting a policy of divestment would be following in the footsteps of faithful men and women in scripture. Quoting Proverbs 14:31, the Palestinian Seminary Professor read: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
Following Awad, Baum insisted a strategy of divestment was not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian; it was about being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.
“As an Israeli Jew I am complicit in all of these crimes, but as an American, so are you,” Baum charged, reiterating criticisms of the three companies from her past presentations at General Conference.
Naming Motorola Solutions as a supplier to “the most radical settlers on the West Bank,” Baum insisted that even though the Israeli projects of the three corporations resulted in a very small profit “we don’t want to be associated with it.”
Baum also singled out Hewlett Packard for providing an identification system used at Israeli-manned West Bank checkpoints. Complaining that “those that collaborate get a magnetic card,” the San Francisco-based Israeli researcher dismissed the project as “a small system for a huge corporation,” and one that it could easily eliminate if prompted.
Caterpillar was lastly condemned as becoming the “symbol of the occupation” by Baum.
“They have the right to choose selling through military channels, they can stop that,” Baum insisted of the Illinois-based manufacturer of earth moving equipment, which she charged was used by Israelis to “destroy whole neighborhoods.”
Baum concluded by announcing that the Friends Fiduciary Committee had recently informed pro-divestment activists of their decision to divest the Quaker group from its Caterpillar holdings.
Making a final plea that the United Methodist Church is “one of the largest ethical investors,” Baum promised that “others will follow” a move to divest and that “the corporations might start to answer our phone calls.”
“Where before in our lifetime did we have a chance to effect change in the Holy Land in our lifetime?” Baum asked. “Never.”
A plenary session of the United Methodist General Conference is scheduled to vote on resolution 21071, and the minority report favored by UMKR, on May 2.
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