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United Church of Christ Votes to Divest from Companies Complicit in Israeli Occupation

UCC members vote overwhelmingly in favor of divesting from companies that profit from Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. (United Church of Christ?Flickr Creative Commons)

UCC members vote overwhelmingly in favor of divesting from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. (United Church of Christ?Flickr Creative Commons)

A major US mainline Protestant church has overwhelmingly voted to sanction companies profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

The United Church of Christ (UCC), which has more than 5,100 churches and nearly 1 million members in the United States, passed a resolution on Monday calling for boycotts and divestment from companies that benefit from the occupation during its General Synod in Cleveland, Ohio. The vote was 508 in favor of the resolution, 124 against and 38 abstentions.

“Together we ended UCC complicity in a brutal 48-year-old military occupation,” said UCC’s website in the wake of the vote. “Together we stand one step closer to human rights and equality for all Palestinians and Israelis.”

“As disciples of Jesus, we hear and seek to heed his call to be peacemakers, responding to violence with nonviolence and extending love to all,” said UCC Rev. John Deckenback. “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.”

UCC, which has a history of supporting traditionally progressive social causes including same-sex marriage equality, abortion rights, the United Farm Workers and the Wilmington Ten, began pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts in 2005, largely in response to calls by Palestinian Christians living under the oppression of Israeli occupation.

The 2009 Kairos Palestine document, which called on Christians around the world to help fight the illegal occupation, also inspired BDS efforts with its mission to achieve an end to the occupation through peaceful means like those used by historic civil rights champions including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Tutu, whose anti-apartheid efforts earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, is also a UCC archbishop emeritus who has long advocated for a boycott of Israel, which he accuses of practicing apartheid. His support for BDS has been unwavering, even as he has been labeled an anti-Semite and called a “black Nazi pig” by Israelis and other Zionist supporters. Tutu had urged UCC to approve the divestment resolution.

“Calling me anti-Semitic will not stop me from speaking out for justice,” Tutu wrote in a June 17 letter to UCC members. He continued:

“We grieve over Israel’s decades long oppression of Palestine and Palestinians: The illegal occupation, the expanding West Bank settlements, the separation wall, the siege of Gaza, the manipulation of water rights, the network of checkpoints and settler bypass roads, the detention of people without charges, the travel restrictions, identity cards, and disruption of every aspect of daily life for Palestinians. We condemn the brutality of Israel’s policies. But we do not condemn Judaism or Jews.

As South African, we recognize institutionalized racism when we see it. We have experienced the corrosive effects of segregation, and have witnessed the healing power and joy of reconciliation. It is unconscionable to remain silent, or neutral, in the face of injustice. Neutrality maintains the status quo and compounds the injustice.”

Tutu reminded Christians of their “duty to side with the oppressed” and to “name evil and clearly oppose it.”

Palestinian Christians welcomed the news of the UCC General Synod vote.

“In approving this resolution, the UCC has demonstrated its commitment to justice and equality,” said Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, who travelled to Cleveland for the UCC synod. “For Palestinians living under occupation or facing systematic discrimination as citizens of Israel, enduring the destruction of their homes and businesses, the theft of their land for settlements, and living under blockade and siege in Gaza, this action sends a strong signal that they are not alone, and that there are churches who still dare to speak truth to power and stand with the oppressed.”

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which also supports the BDS movement, praised UCC for taking “a strong stand for a just peace.”

“I’m honored to be here as the UCC took a courageous step to put their words into action and divest from occupation,” said JVP board member Lev Hirschhorn, who was present for the UCC vote in Cleveland. “My conversations at the General Synod have shown me that we’re on the precipice of a new political moment. Progressives are speaking up, and it’s only a matter of time until Israel is held accountable for its human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

But mainstream Jewish groups denounced the UCC resolution as biased, one-sided and willfully ignorant of Palestinian terrorism against Israel.

“The UCC’s one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process singles out Israel and, shockingly, ignores any Palestinian accountability,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “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,” Marans said.

Last year, the Presbyterian Church became the largest and most prominent US religious group to endorse divestment from companies that aid in Israel’s illegal occupation and settler colonization of Palestine. The Quakers and Mennonites have also joined the BDS movement, and last year the pension board of the United Methodist Church divested from G4S, a security company that sells equipment used to oppress Palestinians.

US Christians have a complicated relationship with Israel. While many harbor negative views of Jews, who they blame for killing Jesus Christ, many also believe that Israel must control the Holy Land as a prerequisite for the ‘return’ of Jesus, after which time almost all Jews will perish, according to the Bible. US evangelical Christians are particularly fervent in their support for Israel, although that support has been waning somewhat in recent years.

In support of the UCC resolution, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and social justice organization, shared its list of companies complicit in some of the worst Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. These include:

Caterpillar, “over its supply of tools to the Israeli military which have been consistently and systematically used in violations of human rights and in war crimes,” including bulldozers used to destroy Palestinian civilian homes and farms and even kill American peace activist Rachel Corrie.

Motorola, for providing encrypted smartphones to Israeli forces used to coordinate and conduct attacks against Palestinians.

Hewlett-Packard, which supplies technology used by Israeli forces at checkpoints and elsewhere to restrict Palestinian freedom of movement and mark Palestinians for discriminatory treatment.

G4S, for its involvement in human rights violations in Israeli prisons and the illegal military occupation of Palestine.

Veolia Environment, a French company which built the Jerusalem Light Rail Project, which connects the city with illegal Israeli settler colonies in the occupied West Bank.

SodaStream, which has vowed to close its factory in the illegal Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim following a high profile international boycott campaign, but which still benefits from Israel’s displacement of Palestinians in Naqab.

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