Invest in Palestine or divest from companies supporting Israeli occupation, that's the question before United Methodist Church

05/01/12 Janelle Irwin
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Delegates of the United Methodist Church are considering divesting from three companies who provide products to Israel which aid the occupation of Palestine. A final vote on the measure is expected sometime this week at the church’s general conference at the Tampa Convention Center. The petition, presented by an inter-faith group, has been heard in two committees already, but the version recommended for a final vote has been altered considerably by a series of amendments. David Wildman, a supporter of the petition, said the process has so far abandoned the original intent.

“The amendments dropped divestment as a process and changed the language from ending our financial involvement with the occupation to prayerfully exploring peace-making strategies and considering possible investments in Palestine. And it changed from all general agencies of the United Methodist Church that are all responsible to implement the mandates of general conference to just the general board of pensions.”

That majority report would also require companies that do business with the church to abide by a code of conduct. But Wildman, who is the executive secretary for human rights and racial justice for the General Board of Global Ministries, said officials from Caterpillar have publically stated that it wouldn’t make a difference because their code of conduct only applies to employees. Supporters of the United Methodist Kairos Response – the group that drafted the original version– want all church investments in Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard dropped. Wildman is hoping that the measure’s goal can still be achieved if instead of the altered proposal selected by the Finance delegates accept what’s called a minority report. But the Finance committee is recommending the amended version of the petition to the full delegation.

“So, it made a recommendation by one vote – 37-36 – to go with this watered down call for prayer and exploration and signing on to non-binding principles that have no impact. That will come as the recommendation from the committee. And then the minority report which was the shortened version of the original petition will be debated.”

According to their website, the United Methodist Church will take a stance against the human rights violations associated with the occupation through their upcoming World Week for Peace in Palestine this summer. But the church has supported positive investments in Palestine rather than divestment from companies who do business with Israel. And that is what could continue to happen if the amended version of the Kairos Response petition is approved. John Wagner, convener of the United Methodist Kairos response, said there are a lot of reasons for delegates to shy away from divestment measures.

“There are people in this country who work for Caterpillar or Motorola Solutions or Hewlett-Packard and they love their jobs, love their company and that’s important to them. We understand that…”

“We have people in our denomination who feel very strongly that Israeli Jews need to occupy the whole of historic Israel – this is for theological reasons. But I would say, those numbers are not huge and it tends to be more of a feeling that this is unimportant and I think that is often dispelled by going and visiting.”

Regardless of the outcome, supporters of the United Methodist Kairos Response are glad they’ve gotten this far. Warren Clark, a volunteer with the group, said just the fact that the church is seriously considering divestment is an eye opener for other religious and non-profit groups.

“I think it is the beginning of a change in our understanding of what is going on in Palestine and Israel among the general American public.”

And Linda Schulze agreed. In April a segment aired on the show 60-Minutes. It portrayed what is happening in Palestine beyond the sights most tourists see. Schulze said stories like that aren’t heard often enough.

“Most of what we here comes from the perspective of Israel and so we know that side of things whether we realize it or not. So, it was particularly important to hear what’s happening on the ground from the perspective of the Palestinian Christians.”

The group was founded in October of 2010. Its intention was to follow the lead of the original Kairos initiative in South Africa which called for global support of ending apartheid there. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu was an activist in that effort. He wrote an op-ed for today’s Tampa Bay Times expressing his support of divestment from Israel. In it he writes that the Rabbis who think that selective divestment will harm the relationship between Christians and Jews are “sadly misguided”. Now John Wagner is leading that same effort for Palestine.

“Palestinian Christian leaders – and there are Christian Palestinians, a lot of people don’t know that – issued a similar call for non-violent measures to see that the system of occupation there where their land is being systematically removed from them be challenged by the international community and particularly by the churches. So, our organization is one of many that has been trying to respond to this.”

They are hoping to help people like Alex Awad who is a Palestinian Christian and lives in East Jerusalem in a village called Beit Safafa. He traveled to Tampa for the church’s general conference hoping to see followers of the Methodist denomination make a change. Awad said his town is a model of what the rest of the country should look like because Jews, Christians and Muslims live together there with little conflict. But further away from his home in the West Bank things aren’t so good. That’s something Awad blames on Israel’s leadership.

“But we have an Israeli government that is very far right and extremist and they are committed to building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that is the problem. The problem is not with the average Jew or with the average Palestinian. The problem is with the government that insists on expanding Jewish settlements.”

Kairos means “the time is now” in Greek. Awad and other supporters find that name fitting because of the sudden surge in Palestinian support. The United Methodist Church’s general conference is held every four years. The vote on the divestment measure is expected anytime between now and Friday when the conference adjourns.

Craig and Cindy Corrie were guests on Last Call with Sean Kinane. They spoke about their daughter Rachel who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003 when she was crushed by a bulldozer made by Caterpillar. The Corrie's are now advocates for divestment from companies supporting the Israeli occupation.

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