The Church of England has declined to pursue anti-Israel divestment. But the smaller and less prudent British Methodist Church has just voted full speed ahead at its recent governing Conference to boycott Israeli products that profit from the “occupation,” drawing the condemnation of Britain’s chief rabbi, Baron Jonathan Sacks.
Lord Sacks decried the Methodist anti-Israel initiative as “unbalanced, factually and historically flawed” with “no genuine understanding of one of the most complex conflicts in the world today. Many in both communities [Jewish and Christian] will be deeply disturbed.” He also warned that the boycott would “reverberate across the hitherto harmonious relationship between the faith communities in the UK.”
Methodism in Britain was of course once a formidable religious movement famous for fostering piety, thrift, industry, charity, and public service. Its spiritual and demographic collapse in the 20th century has turned much of the shrinking denomination over to ever more brazen forms of political correctness as it struggles for relevance. Its dwindling congregations are largely populated by grey heads, and some venerable old Methodist church buildings have become restaurants or, at least in one case, a mosque. No longer interested in spreading Christianity per se, British Methodist elites often fill their time with left-wing political crusades, the jeremiad against Israel’s “existing injustice” being just one recent example.
Typically Methodist political posturings in Britain arouse little notice. But Britain’s Jews have definitely noticed British Methodism’s attack on Israel. A special joint statement from Britain’s Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews noted that the recent Methodist Conference had “swallowed hook, line and sinker a report full of basic historical inaccuracies, deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of Jewish theology and Israeli policy.” They pronounced the Methodist action to be “extremely serious and damaging,” as “Israel is at the root of the identity of Jews and of Judaism, and as an expression of Jewish spiritual, national and emotional aspirations, Zionism cannot simply be ruled as illegitimate in the way that the Methodist Conference has purported to do.”
The Jewish groups also suggested the Methodist Conference should “hang its head in shame, just as surely as it will cause the enemies of peace and reconciliation to cheer from the sidelines.” Although not receiving prominent media play in Britain, the anti-Israel Methodist action likely will be broadcast throughout the anti-Israel international blogosphere, and perhaps some Arab state media, for its supposed pro-Palestinian solidarity. Of course, key proponents for British Methodist anti-Israel boycott included diehards like Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions as well as Anglican priest and anti-Israel crusader Stephen Sizer, plus a Methodist minister with Friends of Sabeel UK.
British Methodism ostensibly will boycott goods from “from illegal Israeli settlements” based on a plea last year from the reflexively anti-Israel Swiss-based World Council of Churches: “The Methodist Conference notes the call of the World Council of Churches in 2009 for an international boycott of settlement produce and services and the support given for such a boycott by Christian leaders in Palestine in the Kairos document, Palestinian civil society and a growing number of Jewish organizations both inside Israel and worldwide and calls on the Methodist people to support and engage with this boycott of Israeli goods emanating from illegal settlements.”
It’s a nice, if unpersuasive touch, that the British Methodists felt obliged to claim a “growing number of Jewish” groups are urging anti-Israel divestment, at the insistence of “Christian leaders” among the Palestinians. Their call for boycott was accompanied by a 54 page report ironically called “Justice for Palestine and Israel,” whose verbosity and turgid prose are common for declining, bureaucratic churches.
With Christian charity, the British Methodists insist their anti-Israel boycott is not about “revenge but rather to put an end to the existing injustice, ‘liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice, using tools of non-violence, for justice, peace and security for all,’” quoting from a Palestinian “Kairos” proclamation. And while this particular British Methodist boycott is supposedly aimed only at products from “illegal” Jewish settlements, the church report notes approvingly that “some Methodists would advocate a total boycott of Israeli goods until the Occupation ends.” No doubt. An organizer of the British Methodist stance pretty much has admitted that the partial boycott is a politically realistic incremental step towards a more comprehensive boycott. He reputedly acknowledged: “I know how much I can get away with in the churches sometimes. […] Churches are paranoid about being critical of Israel sometimes, they want to be balanced all the time, we must put pressure on church leaders.”
And likely more than a few British Methodist elites regard the whole enterprise of modern Israel as an “illegal settlement,” even if not admitting so for the moment. Unsurprisingly, with so much church energy and venom plowed into the anti-Israel project, British Methodism has lost 10 percent of its membership last in the last several years. Now down to about a quarter million members and plunging, the British Methodists seemed determined to shun their noble history in favor of an ignoble political crusade.