When I am in the United States, and not in Gaza, I sometimes have difficulty identifying activism that will actually make a difference on behalf of Palestinians. When the call went out for volunteers to travel to Tampa to speak to delegates at the United Methodist Church General Conference, where a resolution in favor of divestment from three companies that facilitate the occupation was heading for a vote, I didn’t hesitate to hop on a plane and GO. Although I do not identify as any one denomination today, I was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist. Here is an account from Day Two of the conference.
Delegates to the United Methodist Church General Conference (UMGC) were shown Wednesday a vision of what the future could look like if Israel were to finally end its control of the Palestinian territories. At a lunch sponsored by the United Methodist Kairos Response*, a Palestinian Christian joined an Israeli Jew to talk about what occupation looks like and what it will take to achieve a just peace.
The clear message from both: Palestinians have suffered for too long, and words are no longer enough. Resolutions condemning home demolitions, settlement expansion, wall building, etc. – which the UM began adopting in 1988 – must be backed up with tangible action if the church is to maintain its position of moral leadership. If the UMGC passes Petition 21071 (“Aligning UMC Investments with Resolutions on Israel/Palestine”), the church pension fund – the largest of all religious institutions in the United States – will divest its holdings in three American companies that help enable the occupation: Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions. And, it will serve as an inspiring example for the Presbyterian Church, which will vote on a similar resolution in July.
Seventy people were expected at the lunch; more than 300 showed up. And word in the hallways was that this petition had generated more attention than any other. That attention wasn’t always welcomed, particularly when it came in the form of calls and emails from outside the UM community. Rabbis from across the country had reportedly been calling delegates for the past week, urging them to vote “no.” However, when our cadre of “yellow shirts” — wearing “I Support Divestment; Ask Me Why” placards on our backs – spread out throughout the hallways, the response was polite and mostly positive. The delegates didn’t always tip their hand regarding which way they would vote, but most were willing to listen.
In the evening de-briefing sessions, the consensus so far is that if we can get the petition to the plenary floor, it will pass. It’s committee politics that is the main hurdle, and the primary opposition is coming from the Pension Board itself. It’s not that the members support the occupation. Rather, we’re told, they fear that excluding companies for products that account for only a small percentage of their business is a “slippery slope,” leading to more and more exclusions – a violation of what they see as their fiduciary responsibility. (Note, however, that there are approximately 300 other companies that already are prohibited as investments, such as those that make alcohol and tobacco.) One member of the board who attended our press conference raised another issue – that by “staying at the table, the door remained open to dialogue.” Yet other “in the know” UMs tell us that Caterpillar, for instance, has made it very clear they do not intend to stop its sales to Israel.
As committee politics plays out over the next several days, my hope is that those 300+ delegates keep in mind what they heard from Daoud Nasser and Dalit Baum.
Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian Christian who founded Tent of Nations just south of Bethlehem (West Bank), told the story of his family’s ongoing struggle to hold onto the land that his grandfather purchased in 1916 from the Ottomans. Despite the fact that his family can prove its ownership, and that it has paid taxes throughout the years to each successive controlling government, the Israeli government has tried since 1991 to turn it into a settlement (joining six others that already surround it).
Since the Israeli government has forbidden Daoud Nassar and his family from building any further permanent structures on their land, they rely on tents and a network of natural caves.
“My father died in 1976, when I was just seven,” Daoud told the delegates who packed the room. “It was his wish that we use our land not just to farm, but to run a peace camp that demonstrates that all of the residents can live in peaceful co-existence. We call it ‘Tent of Nations’ and our motto is ‘We Refuse to be Enemies.’”
Unfortunately, instead of focusing all of his efforts on his outreach, Daoud has been forced to channel more than $150,000 of his own and donated resources into the legal battle to keep his land from being confiscated, while also warding off belligerent settlers who have attempted to cut down his olive trees, destroy his water tanks and build roads for their own use on his property. And soon, if the “apartheid wall” continues to be constructed across and into the West Bank, the farm will be cut off and isolated from Bethlehem as well.
[A personal note: I stayed at Tent of Nations for a week in 2008, and one of my most lasting memories was standing outside of the main building one night, looking down into the valley at a settlement side by side with one of the few remaining Palestinian towns. The former blazed with lights, and the latter was illuminated by only a dim glow. The disparity in resources was glaringly obvious.]
Looking down from Daoud’s mountain, the Israeli settlement is to the right of the Palestinian village.
“My mission is to help other Palestinians remain connected to their land; too many are choosing to flee if they can,” said Daoud. “But we are happy to live in peace with whomever our neighbors are. We might have differences of opinion, but at the end we must listen to each other.”
Daoud was followed by Dalit Baum, PhD, a Jewish Israeli and co-founder of the website Who Profits from the Occupation.
“We keep talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like it is symmetrical. But it is not,” Dalit said. “What you have here is a system of ongoing colonization, segregation and repression. And the three companies from which we are asking the United Methodist Church to divest help keep that system in place.”
- Motorola Solutions has developed a motion-detection system specifically for a “virtual fence” around settlements that it has given the brand name “Moto Eagle.” Simply put, the surveillance system assures that broad swaths of land are “Palestinian-free.”
- Hewlett Packard makes biometric tracking equipment for checkpoints that is used by Israelis to collect and store handprints from Palestinian travellers, allowing them to be tracked and, often, denied passage.
- Caterpillar became the symbol of occupation after a driver of one of its bulldozers ran over and killed activist Rachel Corrie in the Gaza Strip. “In 2006 in Lebanon and in 2008 in Gaza, the front line of the Israeli military was a line of unmanned Caterpillar bulldozers, sent in to level all neighborhoods,” said Dalit. “These bulldozers are sold, and used, as weapons.”
“The United Methodist church should not be involved in financing the manufacture of equipment used to colonize, segregate and repress,” said Dalit. “It’s that simple.”
*What is the “Kairos Response”?
‘Kairos’ is one of two Greek words for time. Kairos refers to a significant time of opportunity — a decisive moment — rather than ‘chronos,’ which refers to the simple passage of time.
The United Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), is named for a document issued in Bethlehem in December 2009 and that has mobilized Christians and many others around the world.
In “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth,” Palestinian Christians called on churches around the world to “stand against injustice and apartheid, and work for a just peace in our region. We call on them to revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land.”
In turn, Kairos Palestine took its name and inspiration from a 1985 document written in South Africa, calling on churches to work to end apartheid practices there. That document galvanized opposition to apartheid and has served as an example for others writing from their own contexts to call attention to unjust and oppressive practices.