In a move deeply concerning to much of the pro-Israel community, the United Church of Christ voted overwhelmingly last week to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s control of the West Bank.
The vote passed at the church’s synod on Monday in Cleveland by a vote of 508-124 with 38 abstentions, according to the church’s Palestine/Israel Network, which backed the resolution.
“It is in that spirit of love for both Israelis and Palestinians, and a desire to support Palestinians in their nonviolent struggle for freedom, that the United Church of Christ has passed this resolution,” said the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC, which submitted the resolution to the synod.
The vote shortly preceded Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s call for a bipartisan campaign against the BDS movement earlier this week. In a letter to Haim Saban, a Los Angeles businessman and major Democratic Party donor, Clinton expressed “alarm” over the BDS movement, and wrote that “we need to make countering BDS a priority.”
Many Jewish and Protestant groups condemned the UCC vote, expressing concern over the broader implications of the motion.
Mark Tooley, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative research institute affiliated with the Methodist Church, said that while the vote will likely have few repercussions for Israel, it is nonetheless “disturbing.”
“The fast-declining United Church of Christ’s vote today to divest from and boycott businesses doing business with Israel is sad but fortunately mostly inconsequential,” he wrote in an email to the Jewish Week. “Having lost over 50 percent of its membership, and now below one million members, the once prestigious and influential denomination likely speaks for few of even its own few remaining members.”
Still, burgeoning anti-Israel sentiments among a segment of Evangelical elites is “more worrisome,” and requires a thoughtful counter-strategy, he said. He cited an increasing number of evangelicals in evangelical schools and independent Protestant organizations endorsing pro-Palestinian activism.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, stressed that despite declining numbers of UCC members (a 2015 Pew study reported that UCC comprises .4 percent of the American population, or just 1 percent of all Protestants), the denomination still speaks largely for left-wing segments of mainline Protestant groups.
He called for revitalized efforts among Jews, Evangelical and Catholics to unite and push back. “These resolutions will just whet the appetite of likeminded groups, unless there’s a united response,” he said.
The vote came just two days before President Barack Obama signed into law a controversial trade measure that also contains landmark legislation combating the BDS movement in Europe. However, just hours after winning praise from the Jewish community for signing the trade bill, which requires all U.S. trading partners to reject boycotts of Israeli products, the Obama administration announced it would overlook countries that boycott products from Israeli settlements, prompting criticism from many mainstream Jewish groups.
The UCC divestment motion is the broadest passed so far by a church. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last year divested from three companies that provide Israel with security equipment used in the West Bank. Though the Episcopal and Mennonite churches considered similar measures last week, the Episcopal Church on Thursday overwhelmingly rejected the resolution to divest from Israel, while Mennonite Church USA voted to delay the decision on divestment until its next general assembly two years from now.
Still, according to UCC representative Rick Walters, the resolution will have few practical ramifications within the denomination.
“It’s more advice than anything else,” he said, noting that the wording of the resolution was “very vague” and didn’t list any specific Israeli companies.
Members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group that advocates heavily for BDS, agreed the vote was primarily symbolic.
JVP member Carolyn Klaasen, who attended the general synod in Cleveland along with 8 other representatives, said the committee members displayed “great moral clarity” by voting to divest. While some concerns were raised that the vote would “hamper interfaith relations,” there was little wavering about the inherent value of divestment, she said.
Klaasen became interested in JVP after she stayed with a Palestinian family living in a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, she said.
“They told me about how their movements are greatly restricted every time a Jewish holiday rolls around,” she said.
Mainstream pro-Israel groups, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the UCC vote.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described the resolution as a “misguided and counterproductive maneuver to demonize Israel under religious pretenses.”
“In recent years, the UCC has been part of a chorus of churches that pin sole responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on just one side — Israel. While neither side is blameless in the conflict, a position that assigns exclusive accountability for the continuation of the conflict to the Jewish state is deeply skewed and raises troubling questions,” the statement read.
Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, noted that the UCC General Synod ignored any culpability on the part of the Palestinians.
“Blatantly absent from the 2015 UCC resolutions is any mention of Hamas, the terrorist group that still controls Gaza and instigated last summer’s war with Israel by firing thousands of rockets and missiles and building an extensive tunnel network to infiltrate Israel to harm and kill Israeli civilians,” said Marans.
Though the vote was deeply upsetting to many, ignoring the broader consequences of the motion would be shortsighted, said Donohue.
“We can condemn them strongly, we can repeat talking points, but if we don’t get together and take action, this is just going to continue,” he said. “The impact of this vote will be determined by our response.”