United Methodists Reject Divestment

Victory against the anti-Israel Christian movement.

Despite fierce targeting by the international anti-Israel lobby, the 12 million member global United Methodist Church soundly defeated anti-Israel divestment at its governing General Conference last week in Tampa.

The margin was over 2-1.  African delegates, who comprised 30 percent of the total, were key, as were U.S. evangelical delegates, joined by numerous moderate and liberal U.S. delegates.  United Methodist rejection almost ensures that the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly will reject anti-Israel divestment next month, leaving the divestment movement with almost nowhere to go among U.S. religious groups.

But sadly, the divestment debate among United Methodists frequently demonized Israel, with one intemperate delegate from Montana comparing the Jewish nation and the firms who do business with it to companies who facilitated the Nazi Holocaust.    She was preceded by a delegate from Oklahoma who cautiously tried to point at the threats against Israel, only to be chastised by the presiding bishop, who apparently disapproved of criticism aimed at Hamas.

“Of course we care about the Palestinians and what they have gone through—the loss of land, the loss of homes, the wall,” the Rev. Earl Long opined.  “But we also care for the people of Israel and what they too have gone through.”  He cited a “small, radical, fringe, terrorist Palestinian group who is set on their destruction and resorts to suicide bombing.”

Rev. Long was not even able to name Hamas before he was interrupted by presiding Bishop Warren Brown of Sacramento, who chided him: “Just [to] remind the speaker that the body has adopted a rule to avoid personal attacks of persons.” So even to imply criticism of Hamas is apparently an unacceptable “personal attack,” at least according to Methodist standards of hyper political correctness.

There was no such interruption or chiding for the delegate who levied her Nazi comparison against Israel.  Margaret Mary Novak of Montana, while urging anti-Israel divestment, suggested: “I would just ask us all to imagine that we were United Methodists in the 1930s and ’40s, that our Board of Pensions held stock in the very successful manufacturing firms in Germany that bid and received the bids to manufacture the ovens for the concentration camps. At what point would we decide it was time to divest? How much evidence would we ask for before it was time to stop the wholesale destruction of people?”

Bishop Brown merely reacted by asking Novak whether her Nazi comparison was a “speech for or against” the divestment proposal.  It was, she clarified, decidedly for. Evidently likening Israel to the Third Reich is so unexceptionally routine that the bishop was unclear about Novak’s intent.  Novak is vice president of the Foundation for United Methodist Communications.

More temperately, a Texas delegate pointed out that Israel has legitimate security concerns.   “The small state of Israel, which we support politically, is surrounded by enemies who wish it to be destroyed and will not have peace until it is destroyed,” said Henry Lessner.  “We are only adding fuel to the fire and giving more people more reasons to think they have more support to get rid of Israel.”  But getting rid of Israel as a Jewish democracy, while comparing it to Nazi Germany, seems to be the objective of pro-divestment activists.  Massachusetts minister We Hyung Chang, leading the charge for an Israel stance, displayed a map ostensibly showing ever expanding Jewish territorial expansion against the Palestinians.  The first map showed the region before Israel’s1948 founding, by implication disputing Israel’s basic existence.

The Oklahoma minister, Rev. Long, pointed out that Israel no longer suffered from routine suicide bombings since building their much condemned security wall.  “Would you want al Qaeda living in your backyard?” he asked.  “Those who are set on destroying you?”  This time, Bishop Warner did not chide him for lack of courtesy to suicide bombers.   Virginia delegate Alex Joyner pointed out what should be obvious: “Israel is not solely culpable in continuing the occupation and it’s not solely capable of ending it.”   In reaction to heated anti-Israel rhetoric, North Carolina delegate Ken Carter said he was “concerned” about implications that Christianity is “detached” from the Jews.  He reminded his fellow United Methodists that “we also as Christians have a relationship to Judaism and Israel,” since the Scriptures say “they are the root system and we are the branches.”

Nigerian delegate John Simon Jatutu, like many African delegates, was more direct: “We all know that Israel is surrounded by its enemies. It is a small country but all the Arabs are looking at it to destroy and even eliminate it from the face of the earth.  Without standing firm to protect itself from all these attacks from outside, one day we will wake up to discover that Israel is no more.” He also noted that undermining Israel would only hurt the Palestinian Christians whom Israel’s critics like to cite.  “The Muslims in the Arab countries are looking for a way to make sure that it takes over the Holy Land completely.” He accused anti-Israel activists of “using” Palestinian Christians.

Only several days before, the Islamist terror group Boko Haram attacked several Nigerian churches, killing 27 Christians.  There are over 400,000 United Methodists in Nigeria, but the General Conference said not a word, preferring to focus on Israel.  No doubt African delegates, especially from Nigeria, noticed.

In the end, 73 percent of delegates supported “positive” investment to help Palestinians. Earlier, only 33 percent had directly supported anti-Israel divestment.  After the votes, dozens of angry demonstrators interrupted the General Conference to protest the overwhelming result against them.  They hadn’t even come close, despite their extensive, and expensive, lobby campaign.

The day before, United Methodist missionary-activist Alex Awad, portraying himself as an “eye witness to discrimination” against Palestinians, had promised these activists:  “Tomorrow, if you vote to divest, there will be celebration all over Jerusalem, Palestine and even Israel.”   After the vote, Awad angrily compared divestment’s rejection to Christ’s crucifixion.

“Once again shouts of injustice prevailed over the shouts of those who yearned to see actions promoting justice in Palestine,” Awad lamented of the votes against divestment.  “And I watched with pain my people being crucified again.”  He accused The United Methodist Church of defying God:  “A Church that is not ready or willing to hear the voice of the oppressed and stand with justice is out of sync with the will of her Head and Maker.”

Such hyperbolic rhetoric has fortunately failed to persuade any major U.S. church to back anti-Israel divestment.  Undoubtedly anti-Israel activists will regroup.  But the divestment cause seems to be meeting a well-deserved death.

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