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A Primer on Divestment in Mainline Churches

In the past few years, a growing number of mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. have voted to divest from companies doing business with Israel – or have embarked on a campaign to do so. The language of the resolutions varies, but they all share important characteristics:

· A denial of the religious, regional and racist nature of the war against Israel;

· A singling out of Israel for condemnation;

· An effort to portray Israel's efforts to defend itself against terrorism in the harshest terms possible and;

· An unwillingness or inability to acknowledge the motive and consequence of Islamic terror on Israeli society.

While the stated goal of the resolutions is to "let Israel be Israel" and call her back to the biblical principles of peace and justice (a call not extended to her adversaries), the result is increasing political isolation for the Jewish state. Problems associated with Israel's defense policy, such as the impact of the separation barrier on Palestinians, are treated as theological problems, while attacks on Israel are portrayed as justifiable acts of desperation. Below is a short primer about the divestment campaign.

1. The primary source of the anti-Israel narrative in mainline churches is the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a group that routinely characterizes Israel’s efforts to defend itself as human rights tragedies, but which has never offered a full-throated condemnation of Palestinian attacks against Israel, nor has it spoken honestly about the threats to human rights posed by Islamic terror gangs in the West Bank or Gaza. Sabeel lays the suffering of Palestinian Christians at Israel’s feet. More seriously, it uses deicide imagery to whip up hostility toward the Jewish state, portraying it as a modern-day Christ-killing nation. Clearly a line has been crossed from legitimate criticism to demonization, but mainline Protestants have yet to criticize Sabeel’s use of Christ-killing imagery against the Jewish state, and instead have broadcast this message to Christians in the U.S. without context and without scrutiny.

2. The mainline church’s cases for divestment and against Israel’s separation barrier are based on a narrative offered by Palestinian Christians – whose community is beholden to violent Palestinians they live amongst, who publicly blame Israel for their suffering, yet remain silent about the impact Islamic violence has on their own communities. The proponents of divestment in the U.S. want their followers to relate to the powerlessness of the Palestinian Christian community in relation to Israel, but refuse to acknowledge Christian vulnerability in the face of Islamic dominance – either in Palestine or the wider region.

3. Protestant missions to the Middle East have been a failure in terms of promoting growth in the numbers of Christians in the Holy Land. The missions however, have been hugely successful in creating a cadre of anti-Israel activists amongst Protestant clergy, who upon their return to the U.S., offer up unrelenting criticism of Israel. The opportunities for evangelizing in the Middle East are constrained by the lack of religious freedom imposed by Muslim dominance, which makes conversion a one way street – from Christianity to Islam. Instead, mainline churches send missionaries to pursue an agenda of social justice in the Holy Land, where during their term of service, they are under the influence of politicized Palestinian Christians who bear witness about Israel's sins and keep silent about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the violence of Hamas and the Arab anti-Semitism – and anti-Christian attitudes – that pervade their society. This message is rebroadcast to Protestants in the U.S. who in turn ratify this narrative by approving divestment resolutions.

4. While mainline Protestant churches routinely assert they want a two-state solution that respects Israel’s right to exist, their unwillingness to address the problems of Palestinian society encourages the creation of a state that by its very nature represents a threat to Israeli safety. The leadership of mainline Protestant denominations has demonstrated a persistent unwillingness to discuss anti-Semitic Friday sermons broadcast of Palestinian Television, the growing lawlessness of Palestinian society and the use of Christian homes by Muslim terrorists to launch attacks against Israelis. If mainline Protestants are truly interested in promoting a two-state solution, they need to promote an honest discussion about what that state should look like. They have not.

5. Divestment resolutions are putatively religious documents that have political consequences. The Arab press does not pay any attention to the nuanced language of the documents, but merely reports that another denomination has condemned Israel.

6. Divestment itself is a secondary goal of the campaign, which is intended to portray Israel as the worst human rights abuser in the Middle East. (Meanwhile, Protestant leaders in general have done little to address the slavery and slaughter of Christians in Sudan by a self-declared jihad conducted by Islamists in Khartoum.) One student at the University of Michigan described the divestment campaign on college campuses this way: "What we want is not actual economic divestment from Israel. Everyone knows that the US will never pull investments out of Israel like that. Instead, we are looking to shift the dialogue to whether or not to divest from Israel, without extraneous discussion of the basics. We hope that in 10, 20 years the public will just take for granted the premises that Israel is an apartheid state, and then we can move from there." Clearly, the goals of the divestment campaign have little to do with changing Israeli policy or promoting peace, but with the economic and political isolation of Israel. Already, the Palestinian Authority has increased its calls for boycotts against Israel.

7. Mainline Protestant condemnation of the separation barrier that has saved so many lives is motivated by Christian notions of pacifism that church leaders have been unable to convince Americans to embrace. No where is this more evident in the “Tear Down the Wall” resolution which tells Israel to take down the separation barrier without asking the Palestinians to stop suicide attacks against Israelis. This resolution, recently endorsed by the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, ignores Israeli efforts to minimize the barrier’s impact on farmers and to speed passage through checkpoints. Moreover, it suggests the barrier was built in a vacuum, not after an orgy of violence, the Second Intifada that killed more than 1,000 Israelis in the span of four years. For a small country like Israel, that’s the equivalent of 40,000 U.S. citizens murdered by terrorists.

Lay members of Protestant churches in the U.S. have not exercised appropriate oversight over their leaders. Despite protestations that general assemblies and synods do not speak for entire denominations, resolutions passed by these bodies contribute to the notion that Christians in the U.S. are turning against Israel.

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