An Awakening: American Churches Embrace Targeted Economic Actions in Response to Kairos Palestine – Susanne Hoder

May 22nd, 2013 I’ll never forget my first encounter with an elderly Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem.  We discussed the desperate reality on the ground for families whose homes were being destroyed, their farmland and wells confiscated.  With a look of deep hurt he asked me, “Why are American churches not doing anything to stop this?”  I could only tell him that churches back home didn’t know.  If they did, I assured him, it would be different.  I was certain followers of Christ would unite against Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Christians and Muslims, which is so apparent to those who witness it.

A decade later, despite first-hand accounts from people of every faith, many American churches are still in the dark about Israel’s treatment of non-Jews.  However, others are responding decisively to a historic call which has been signed by thousands of Palestinian Christians since its publication in 2009.   Known as Kairos Palestine [1], this urgent missive to the churches of the world cries out for an end to complacency.  It asks for concrete actions to help end the occupation and discrimination that confront Palestinians daily.  The Kairos document followed the Amman Call of 2007 and the Berne Perspective in 2008, which said “No more words without deeds.” Kairos Palestine was unique in that it called for specific steps – including boycott, divestment and sanctions – which have successfully ended oppression in other countries.

The wheels of church policy turn slowly, and for those of us who have seen the destroyed homes, uprooted trees, and confiscated wells, the pace of change is maddeningly slow.  Yet in 2013, there has been tangible action from several major denominations in the US, and there are promising signs from others.

Last year the United Methodist General Conference approved a measure calling on all nations to forbid the import of settlement goods.[2] Groundbreaking research has been done by United Methodist volunteers to identify settlement companies exporting products to the United States and US companies importing them.[3] The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society will be approaching US government agencies with these lists, urging that the products be banned.

Within the United Methodist Church, a global grassroots movement called United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR)[4] has urged the UMC to align its words with its actions.  For years, the denomination has called for an end to the occupation.  Yet church investment portfolios show significant holdings in companies that enable the occupation to continue.  Encouraged by UMKR, a number of regional United Methodist conferences called for divestment from these companies, and several UM foundations have already divested.[5] Others will consider resolutions to divest this summer.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its 2012 General Assembly to call for boycott of settlement products.[6] Its highly respected Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) has formed a boycott committee and has endorsed an interfaith campaign against SodaStream.[7] The boycott committee meets frequently through conference calls and has developed a Boycott 101 section on its web site.[8] This guide identifies some of the settlement products being imported to the United States, offering suggestions and steps for local churches to boycott them.   IPMN also provides resources for contacting stores that carry the products, and informing the communities about them.  From Rochester to San Francisco, Presbyterians are leafleting retailers and writing to managers, asking that these products be de-shelved.

IPMN is encouraging an expansion of the boycott to include US companies sustaining the occupation in a variety of ways.  An example is Hewlett Packard, whose biometric scanners are used as a discriminatory tool at checkpoints in the West Bank to control the movement of Palestinians in their own lands.

A measure calling for divestment of church funds from three American companies profiting from the occupation came within two votes of passing at the last Presbyterian General Assembly.  Instead of divesting, the General Assembly voted to invest in Palestine and has been sending leaders on trips to the region to find suitable projects for investment. For reasons discussed later in this article, that has been difficult. Divestment will be reconsidered at the next policy session in 2014.

Big strides for justice were made in 2013 when both the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee announced investment screens of 29 companies involved with the occupation.[9] These companies are being removed from portfolios and will be ineligible for future investment until they end their role in Israel’s occupation.

The United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network (UCC PIN)[10] was founded in January of 2012.  It has a Steering Committee of 20 people. With their support, the UCC national ministry staff has taken two bold stands in the last year. The denomination’s General Minister and President, and the Executive Minister for Wider Church Ministries joined other Christian leaders in asking Congress to investigate the use of military aid given to Israel by the US.[11] UCC PIN is encouraging local church groups to take this request personally to their Congressional representatives. The UCC Collegium of Officers (the top national officers in the UCC) signed a special Advent letter encouraging church members to boycott certain products that support Israel’s occupation.[12]

UCC PIN has joined the US Campaign to End the Occupation and has endorsed the Kairos Palestine Document, the Call to Action of Kairos USA, the Soda Stream boycott and the Hewlett Packard boycott. One of its Steering Committee members has become a liaison to United Church Funds and will be meeting with the Ecumenical Action Group (EAG), which focuses on shareholder resolutions and other forms of corporate engagement to end complicity in Israel’s occupation.

Catholics too are taking action. Pax Christi joined other religious groups in the US in publishing an abridged version of the Kairos Palestine Document.  In January 2013, Pax Christi International called for accurate labeling of goods produced in the settlements and “an active ban of settlement products.”[13]

As early as 2007, the National Coalition of American Nuns stated, “We encourage a boycott of Israeli goods in order to hasten a more just civil order in the Holy Land….we call for divestment from Caterpillar, municipal boycotts of CAT machinery, and a consumer boycott of other CAT products.”[14]

A key disappointment has been the stance of the Episcopal Church in the US, which “does not support boycott, divestment, and economic sanctions against the state of Israel.”[15] In 2013, the Episcopal Executive Council voted to invest $500,000 in the Bank of Palestine, despite overwhelming evidence that such “positive investment” is meaningless when companies cannot get goods to market, workers cannot reach their jobs and vital resources such as water are withheld from Palestinians.[16] Many capital projects built with donor funds have been destroyed by Israel, including roads, water cisterns, solar panels and power plants.  The Bank of Palestine has its work cut out to find secure projects for these church funds. Fortunately, key groups within the church, including the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the Palestine Israel Network, have called for BDS, and support for these groups among Episcopalians is growing.

Though the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) has also refrained from endorsing boycott or divestment, it has promoted sanctions that would end US military aid and housing loan guarantees to Israel.  Its Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine states “ELCA has 1) urged that no U.S. funds be used for military assistance; 2) called for a freeze on all Israeli settlement activity; 3) opposed further housing loan guarantees to Israel unless and until the construction and expansion of settlements in the occupied territories is stopped.” [17] ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson joined with 14 other Christian leaders in signing a 2012 letter[18] requesting hearings about the use of military aid to Israel to ensure compliance with US and international human rights law.  The letter questioned the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel.  (More on this “Letter of 15” will be in tomorrow’s article here on Ecclesio.)

Kairos USA, which Mark Braverman described for Ecclesio this week, has made a tremendous contribution to educating American Christians about the call of Kairos Palestine.  Kairos USA’s Call to Action is inspiring.[19] It encourages Christians to translate concern into action and “to become educated about the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.” The endorsements it has gathered from a theologically diverse mix of church leaders are impressive.

We must not stop with declarations. When importers of settlement products are named in their communities, when settlement goods are de-shelved, banned and taxed, and when investors adopt selective screens, the edifice of occupation will crumble.  The tools for accomplishing this are available.  We need only the determination to replace words with action.

US connections to the occupation have been identified. American consumers and investors can speak with their economic choices. In the prophetic tradition of justice to which Christ called us, American churches must lead the way.  As Kairos Palestine tells us, “the time is now.”

[1] The Kairos Palestine Document, 2009.

[2] Opposition to Israeli Settlements on Palestinian Land, Resolution 6073, adopted May 2, 2012.

[3] Seizing the Mandate, published by United Methodist Kairos Response in February, 2013.

[4]UM Kairos Response web site.

[5] The West Ohio, New York, and Northern Illinois conferences (regional governing bodies) of the UMC.

[6] “220th GA Passes Boycott.” July 6, 2012.

[7] Interfaith SodaStream Boycott web site.

[8]Israel Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., “Boycott 101.”

[9] “Companies Violating AFSC’s Investment Screen.” “Mennonite US Board Acts for Peace Through Its Investments”, by Cheryl Zehr Walker,
March 26, 2013.

[10]UCC Global Ministries web site.

[11] “UPDATED: UCC and Disciples join Christian leaders in letter to Congress outlining human-rights violations in the Middle East”

by Anthony Moujaes, UCNews, March 20, 2013.

[12] “Let us respond to Christ’s message of hope with justice and peace: An Advent Pastoral Letter from the National Officers of the United Church of Christ” November 21, 2012.

[13] “Pax Christi International Calls for an End of Settlement Policy by Israel.”

[14] Nat’l Coalition of American Nuns, “Commitment to Peace.”

[15] “Episcopal Church Policy on Israel/Palestine.”

[16] UM Kairos Response, “Why Investing in Palestine Cannot Work Without Ending the Occupation.”

[17] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Our Faith in Action, Justice, Israel and Palestine.

[18] Religious leaders ask Congress to condition Israel military aid on human rights compliance

[19] Kairos USA web site.

Susanne Hoder founded the Interfaith Peace Initiative, helped establish the United Methodist Divestment Task Force in New England, and co-founded United Methodist Kairos Response.  Since first visiting the Holy Land in 2004, she has worked to end Israel’s occupation and persecution of Palestinians.  She led a United Methodist study group to the West Bank in 2010 to document companies involved with the occupation, and has published research on companies that import products from illegal settlements to the United States.

The Israeli wall inside Bethlehem annexing a Christian family’s land to Israel (photo: Susanne Hoder, UMKR)

thanks to: Susanne Hoder

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