The Role of U.S. Churches in the BDS Movement

When Palestine was for Palestinians.
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A Jew reciting a prayer: “He is wearing a Turkish tarboush, and although he prays in Hebrew his everyday language is Arabic.”

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Faith-based groups have long been at the frontlines of human rights movements in the U.S., observed Samirah Alkassim, program manager of the Palestine Center, as she introduced a Feb. 4 panel examining the role of churches in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

David Wildman, executive secretary for human rights and racial justice of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries, began making a Biblical case for BDS by noting that it was Black History Month and that the film “Selma” had just been released.

The white clergy in Birmingham had asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not to bring his “extremist radical kind of ideas” to their city, Wildman said. Dr. King replied with a letter asking, “Wasn’t Amos an extremist for justice? Wasn’t Jesus an extremist for justice?” It’s OK to be called extremists, Wildman assured his audience. He described BDS as “an extremely passionate action for nonviolent, moral, economic change.”

Churches must do what the U.S. government has not, explained Wildman, who helped found United For Peace and Justice and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. When Washington blocks international efforts—and uses its vetoes at the U.N. to block apartheid practices in South Africa and Israel—it’s time for civil society (which includes churches) to turn to nonviolent actions like boycott and divestment.

Churches focus on divestment partly because they have pension funds and holdings, Wildman noted. The first U.S. divestment efforts on behalf of Israel/Palestine began during the second intifada in 2001 and 2002, when Israel used Caterpillar bulldozers to level homes in the Jenin refugee camp

. If companies are involved in doing harm it is morally responsible not to invest in those companies, Wildman argued, adding, “It’s been a 10-year struggle for Presbyterians to get to the point where last June of 2014 they did vote to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard.”
 A week earlier, Methodists had divested from G4S, a British company involved in private prison work.

Wildman noted the efforts of “attack groups” whose main agenda is to silence moral nonviolent actions and voices within the churches. The answer to naysayers, he said, is to explain that “we are against all forms of discrimination,” including anti-Semitism (meaning anglo Jews only) , as well as the identity-based discrimination of Israeli checkpoints and laws that treat people differently strictly on the basis of identity.

BDS is a way to challenge the whitewashing that happens in our churches, in U.S. media and in the halls of Congress, Wildman stated. He ended with a fabulous quote from the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel: “Because they lead my people astray, saying ‘Peace’ [or peace process] when there is no peace, and because when a flimsy wall was built, they cover it with whitewash.

Therefore, tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall.” Wildman concluded, “That was Ezekiel a long time ago. So the Wall today also can’t be covered in whitewash, it cannot stand, and through nonviolent actions of boycott, divestment and sanctions, it too will fall.”

The next speaker, Philip Farah, a Palestinian American Christian born and raised in Arab East Jerusalem, described the origins of his organization, the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP). As church activists proposed divestment resolutions they were bombarded from all sides—by Zionists, pro-Israel folks, Christian Zionists and Jewish Voice for Peace —but, church leaders said, they weren’t hearing from Palestinians.

A group of Americans of Palestinian Christian heritage got together in 2013 to rectify that problem. PCAP is a nonsectarian, ecumenical alliance of Palestinian American Christians that seeks to provide a clear voice and presence in U.S. faith-based communities.

“We are a very small group,” Farah admitted, “and Christian Zionists number in the millions and are extremely well-funded. We focus on the grassroots. Martin Luther King and others have recognized that historically everything that’s good in this country really starts in the streets.”
When you are able to reach the church communities you are in the mainstream, Farah emphasized, and tell the many Palestinian Americans who are very reluctant to be engaged in the struggle, “You are absolutely not alone.”

Churches often perceive the idea of divestment and boycott as a negative thing, Farah added. They don’t want to do negative things, they want to do positive things, and many want to invest. Also, churches don’t want to “rock the boat.” They don’t want to be provocative and they don’t want to seem anti-Semitic.

So when PCAP speakers visit churches they describe faith leaders who played extremely important roles in the emancipations of their people, like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Catholic Workers founder Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Bishop Abel Muzorewa.

“They were very provocative,” Farah said. “They very much rocked the boat. These were not passive leaders. They did not at all avoid controversy.” Churches played a vital role in emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, ending the war in Vietnam, the BDS movement against apartheid in South Africa, the Sanctuary Movement to end the U.S. support for Central American dictatorships and death squads, and many more struggles. Churches can help end the Israeli occupation.

“We are relatively small in numbers and resources compared to AIPAC and all of its friends in Congress,” Farah concluded, “but our voice can carry.”          

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