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United Church of Christ passes divestment resolution

Connecticut Conference United Church joins boycott of Israel

By Cindy Mindell

The United Church of Christ (UCC) is the latest entity to call for economic sanctions against Israel. At its General Synod held in Cleveland last month, the group adopted a resolution entitled, “A Call for the United Church of Christ to Take Actions toward a Just Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The vote was 508 in favor, 124 opposed, and 38 abstentions.

The resolution calls on all United Church of Christ entities to divest holdings from a list of companies “that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and people” and to “boycott products made by companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.” Specifically, the resolution names the international companies Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, Motorola, Veolia Environment, and G4S, and the Israeli companies SodaStream, Ahava, and Hadiklaim dates.

In addition, UCC congregations and members are encouraged to “advocate with Congress to ensure Israel’s compliance with U.S. laws, related to the $3.1 billion of military aid that the U.S. sends annually to Israel, and in light of Israeli human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories;” and “continue to engage in interfaith dialogue, including with Jewish colleagues and organizations.” Members are also urged to study the Kairos Palestine Document, issued by Christian Palestinians in 2009.

The vote was spearheaded by the UCC Palestine-Israel Network, with delegates encouraged at the synod by representatives of the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace. Delegates heard from Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, a controversial Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem who has often spoken out against Jewish claims to the Land of Israel.

The BDS resolution against Israel was the only Middle East-related matter debated at the synod. No mention was made of the actions of Islamist groups, even the brutal violence against Christians perpetrated by ISIS.

There is dissent among the UCC ranks.

After the synod, a group of delegates opposed to the resolution announced the formation of UCC Clergy for a Just Middle East Peace. In a press release, Rev. Jane Willan, pastor of the Congregational Church of Grafton, Mass. and one of the leaders of the new group, stated, “The UCC’s decision to divest from these companies will in reality have no impact on the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It will not end the occupation; it will not bring peace or security. The main problem is that in the UCC we have listened to one side and one side only in this conflict. So we have developed a pretty skewed perspective. The vote for divestment was an unhelpful move and one which we believe the UCC will ultimately reverse.”

The UCC joins a growing number of religious and other organizations to join the worldwide boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, launched by Palestinian civil-society organizations in 2005. These churches include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, which both called for similar divestment last year. On the heels of the UCC General Synod vote, the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) rejected three BDS resolutions and the Mennonoite Church USA, which tabled a divestment resolution until their 2017 convention.

In October, the Connecticut Conference United Church of Christ (CTUCC) passed a resolution, submitted by the board of deacons of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, to divest from companies “profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian Territories by the State of Israel” and to encourage church members to boycott products “made in the occupied Palestinian territories.” The Old Lyme church is home to Tree of Life Educational Fund, a pro-Palestinian non-profit organization known to host anti-Israel speakers at events held around the state.

CTUCC is one of 11 U.S. state conferences in the denomination to adopt BDS-related resolutions, according to Rev. Jim Moos, executive minister of United Church of Christ’s Wider Church Ministries. While delegates’ ballots are confidential and it is not known how the 50-member CTUCC delegation voted, the General Synod resolution is not a directive to the denomination as a whole, explains Rev. Kent Siladi, CTUCC Conference Minister. UCC is organized into four “settings:” Synod (national), Conference (statewide), Association (geographical grouping of churches), and local churches.

“In the governance structure of the United Church of Christ, there would be no such a thing as a ‘mandate,’” he says. “No one setting has jurisdictional authority over the other. We are in covenant and have the responsibility to carefully consider each setting and their resolutions and/or ministries but each setting operates as an autonomous body.”

“Each local church decides whether or not it will consider the resolution and whether or not it will follow the suggestions made in the resolution,” Siladi says.

The recommended economic actions may not have teeth in most Connecticut churches, as the CTUCC has no investment holdings in the companies listed in the resolution.

Siladi emphasizes that CTUCC members will continue in interfaith efforts. “Many of our congregations have longstanding relationships with other churches and other faith expressions in the local communities,” he says. “We are certainly aware of the need to continue to be in relationship and dialogue with one another.”

Local Jewish organizations, which interact with specific UCC churches, are taking a wait-and-see approach. The choirs of Beth El Temple in West Hartford and the (UCC) Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford performed together as part of the 2013-14 Beth El Music Series, co-conducted by Cantor Joseph Ness and Mark Singleton. At present, there are no plans to bring the choirs for any upcoming programs. While it is not yet clear how the resolution will play out at the Immanuel Congregational Church, Ness says that the Beth El Choir will not perform with any organization that supports BDS.

Rabbi Joshua Ratner, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New Haven, says that he is “deeply disturbed and pained by the resolution,” which joins a movement “whose founders have made clear that [BDS] is not about justice and equality, but about eliminating Israel altogether. The resolution, like others before it, reveals a complete ignorance of the complex and fraught history of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, laying blame solely with Israel.”

Nevertheless, Ratner stresses that the resolution should not be the final word on Jewish-UCC relations. “Last year, after the Presbyterian Church voted to divest, we continued to meet with local church leaders to discuss ways we could move forward at the local level,” he says. “We intend to do the same with UCC churches in and around greater New Haven. We want to convey to church leadership why we are so saddened by the vote, hear from them about why they voted the way they did, and discuss constructive paths forward.”

In addition, because the work of JCRC is multi-faceted, “it behooves us to continue cultivating areas of common ground on domestic public-policy issues with UCC partners so that we can work together in these areas and, in so doing, build deeper relationships,” Ratner says.

Laura Zimmerman, Associate Vice President for Jewish Public Affairs at the JCRC of Greater Hartford, echoes the sentiment. “We have strong partnerships within the UCC community and look forward to more engagement and conversations with representatives of the UCC church,” she says.

CAP: (UCC) Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford.

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