The decision last week by the largest Protestant denomination in the United States to withdraw its pension fund’s investment in five Israeli banks will have little substantive effect on the Israeli economy, but may play a greater symbolic role among supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

The Methodists’ decision signifies a new BDS tactic; targeting selected, smaller Israeli targets. Wikimedia Commons

That is the reaction of spokespersons for several national Jewish organizations to the announcement that the pension board of the United Methodist Church has placed Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Israel Discount Bank, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot and First International Bank of Israel on a list of companies in “high-risk” countries in which it will not invest for human rights reasons.

The church’s funds remain invested in 18 other Israeli companies.

The first-such step by a pension fund of a major American church, in reaction to the banks’ financing of construction in Israel’s Palestinian territories, involves an estimated few million dollars (the precise total was not announced) of the Methodists’ total $20 billion pension fund portfolio. But it may represent a new tack in BDS strategy — picking selected, smaller Israeli targets, in lieu of widespread boycott of Israeli businesses.

“This development adds a new level of perniciousness. … The tactics of the BDS movement include finding even the most miniscule vehicle and exaggerating its impact,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations at the American Jewish Committee. “BDS is rarely substantive in its economic impact. Its purpose is demonization of Israel. Each inroad and avenue yields a collective effect in the BDS movement’s attempt to link Israel with the most repressive regimes on the planet and destroy hopes of a two-state solution.”

Other countries in which the Methodist church does not invest its pension funds include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria.

Jewish representatives who spoke with The Jewish Week pointed out that the national gathering of the Methodist church has twice rejected pro-BDS resolutions in the last half-decade. “This [latest] initiative reveals a frustration with previous failures to convince Methodists to join the anti-Israel mantra,” Rabbi Marans said.

“It is difficult to predict how what one church does will affect another,” said Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of interfaith affairs. “Each church has its own structure, its own internal politics. But certainly the trend is worrying.”

With more than seven million members, the United Methodist Church is the largest protestant denomination in this country.

The pension board’s decision “is counterproductive and sends the wrong message,” said Ethan Felson, senior vice president and general counsel at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We all hope they will turn back from this kind of blacklisting.”

Two Methodist groups, United Methodist Kairos Response, which supports the BDS effort, and United Methodists for Constructive Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, have publicly disagreed over the pension board’s action last week.

Mark Tooley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian think tank affiliated with the Methodist Church, said the pension board’s action “will mostly just embarrass the United Methodist Church and point out how out of touch church agencies are with most church members. It “potentially … gives encouragement to extreme pro-divestment groups that otherwise lack credibility or much of a following.”

steve@jewishweek.org