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Economic Leverage as Tool to Fight IDF Occupation

Friends of Sabeel—North America
Voice of the Palestinian Christians

Washington Report, January/February 2006, pages 60-61
Christianity and the Middle East

Sabeel Conference Considers Economic Leverage as Tool to Fight Israeli Occupation

By Sister Elaine Kelley

FOR DECADES North American and European churches have composed countless, careful statements on the conflict in Palestine/Israel. They prayed for peace, passed resolutions, established missions on the ground, invested in institution-building for Palestinian Christians and engaged the international community in dialogue, delegations and declarations. Finally, after 38 years of Israeli military occupation of Palestine, some Christian denominations have crossed the great divide from making statements condemning the occupation to taking action that could result in economic consequences for corporations profiting from it. And the movement is growing. One Haaretz headline called it the “divestment snowball.”

It began in June 2004, when the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA adopted a resolution calling for “a process of phased selective divestment” from multinational corporations involved in Israel’s illegal occupation. The target, clearly stated in the Presbyterian resolution, is the occupation—not, as opponents claim, the state of Israel itself or all businesses operating in Israel. The Presbyterian Church Mission Responsibility Through Investing (MRTI) Committee’s strategy of phased, selective divestment named five such corporations: Caterpillar, well-known as the manufacturer of the armored D9 bulldozers Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes; ITT Industries, which provides electrical equipment and communications to the Israel Defense Forces; United Technologies, which makes military equipment used by Israel; Motorola, which supplies wireless communications; and Citigroup, reported by the Wall Street Journal in April 2005 as having moved funds from charitable sources to “terrorist organizations.”

Israel-Firsters React
The reaction by Israel-firsters to the Presbyterian initiative was swift and brutal. In an August 2004 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Alan Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel, wrote that “The Presbyterian Church (USA) has committed a grievous sin” and that the resolution “bursts with bigotry.” When the World Council of Churches, The United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, American Friends Service Committee, and The Episcopal Church USA passed resolutions on what is accurately called morally responsible investment (MRI), as opposed to divestment, critics quickly organized a negative media campaign through the Internet and in major newspapers around the world. One Jerusalem Post article called the MRI strategy a “cycle of demonization” in which “radical church leaders” channel charitable funds to “extremists such as Sabeel.”

After a year of negative media about the growing church movement, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Christian group Sabeel and its support organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, proposed a gathering of key church representatives working on various economic strategies. A planning committee of Sabeel, the World Council of Churches, KAIROS (the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives), and the United Methodist Church organized an international conference on “A Call for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Israeli Occupation.” Held Oct. 26 to 29 in Toronto, it was aimed at representatives of churches actively pursuing economic leverage strategies, as well as those interested in learning more about it. The event was inspired by a document of the same name, published by Sabeel and available online at .

Fifty-seven co-sponsors funded and promoted the event including, in addition to those on the planning committee: Brothers of the Christian Schools, Christian Brothers Conference U.S./Toronto (who operate Bethlehem University); Episcopal Peace Fellowship; Presbyterian Peace Fellowship; Pax Christi USA; Christian Peacemaker Teams; Jewish Voice for Peace; and the Muslim Canadian Congress.

Sabeel’s Rev. Naim Ateek and Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (Staff photo E. Kelley).

Close to 200 church representatives from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Brazil, and South Africa participated in the event. Speakers included Rev. Naim Ateek of Sabeel in Jerusalem; South African theologian Farid Esack; Michael Mandel, professor at York University’s Osgoode Law School in Toronto; Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; and Bishop Dom Luiz Prado of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network, from Sao Leopoldo, Brazil.

A coalition of pro-Israel groups targeted the Toronto event, as well as three other October Sabeel conferences held in Chicago, Cedar Rapids and Denver. Headlines called Sabeel a “fraudulent peace group” and its series of conferences “a racist roadshow.” The Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado sent a two-page letter to 40 of the 78 co-sponsors of the Denver conference urging them to withdraw their support, citing Sabeel’s “disturbing and often extreme views,” and the one-sidedness of the conference program. Similar attempts were made in Chicago and Cedar Rapids. Not a single co-sponsor withdrew, however.

“The reaction to what the Presbyterian Church did was far stronger and more coordinated than anything anyone could possibly have imagined,” said Rev. William Somplatsky-Jarman, a member of the Presbyterian Church’s MRTI Committee.

E. Kim Byham of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church USA, and its liaison to the Committee on Social Responsibility in Investments, was a member of the church’s April 2005 delegation to Israel-Palestine, which made the recommendation that resulted in the resolution unanimously passed in October. Contrary to media reporting, Byham noted, the Episcopal Church is putting into action an MRI strategy similar to the Presbyterians. While the Episcopal Church has not yet named corporations to engage on the issues, both churches hope to change the behavior of corporations—a process that begins with positive engagement. “The issue was brought home to me how difficult it is for a church to craft a careful response,” Byham added. “The United Church of Christ had bent over backward with a document that was balanced, emphasizing the sins of both sides. I couldn’t imagine anything more balanced, yet representatives of the Jewish community said the UCC reports were as bad as the Presbyterians’.”

Nathan Wright of the United Church of Christ, Global Ministries, shared a play-by-play of the UCC process which resulted in the passage of a resolution supporting the use of economic leverage. After several UCC conferences had passed resolutions, Nathan, then living in Beit Sahour, asked the YMCA in Jerusalem to send a letter to Global Ministries supporting a church divestment initiative. “Sabeel went one step further,” Wright said, “sending a personal letter to every single conference,” including a copy of the Sabeel document on morally responsible investment. Prior to the convening of the summer General Synod—the gathering of the UCC’s 39 conferences—the Massachusetts conference came out with a substitute resolution encouraging economic support for both Palestinians and Israelis. Describing the move as “an obvious attempt to derail us,” Wright, although not at the Synod, reported that there was hot debate in the midst of intense media attacks by Jewish organizations.

According to David Wildman of the United Methodist Church General Board of Global Ministries and the U.S. Campaign Against Israeli Occupation, a sense of urgency has moved activists toward divestment. The strategy has created much resistance, he said, because “It shifts the locus of decision-making from the government to the much wider circle of churches, universities, trade unions, and pension funds.” Calling it “an exciting process,” Wildman noted, however, that some are nervous about it.

Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, former special consultant to the Geneva-based World Council of Churches General Secretary on Palestine and Israel, described the WCC as an elaborate structure of clergy and laity, of alliances and networks that can forge a global movement with immense potential to effect change. This past February, the WCC commended the action of the Presbyterian Church and urged its member churches worldwide to consider economic measures to end Israel’s occupation. Explaining the international legal definitions of sanctions, boycotts, divestment, and morally responsible investment, she noted that it only made sense for the WCC governing body, which has made clear and bold statements since 1948 on its Israel/Palestine policy, to support divestment as a way to ensure “that it is not in any way contributing financially to what it says is illegal or immoral.”

One lesson from the conference was to beware of what one reads in the papers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for example, was reported to have defeated a divestment proposal. The Lutherans are not completely out of the mix, however. Lutheran Pastor Rev. Mitri Raheb from Bethlehem, who works in partnership with the ELCA, was a guest speaker at the June 2004 Presbyterian Assembly which passed the divestment resolution. There he stated, “Divestment is important because it is a way for the churches to take direct action. For too long, the churches have simply issued statements—and that is not enough.”

Apparently, the ELCA has taken his advice to heart. In its 2005 Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine, the Church adopted a resolution condemning the Israeli annexation wall and left the door open on investments. As it stated in the section on Stewarding Economic Resources, “The ELCA will seek to expend God-given economic resources in ways that support the quest for a just peace in the Holy Land” which may include “managing collective or personal investments with concern for their impact on the lives of all Holy Land peoples who suffer from the ongoing conflict.”

The Sabeel conference was a first step in alliance-building and networking among denominations working on economic strategies. As Wildman pointed out to the audience, “Nonviolent strategists are the greatest threat” to oppression, and are demonized precisely because they proceed from a moral basis.

Meanwhile, the movement grows. Jewish individuals and organizations have stepped forward to support what the churches are doing. A year ago Israeli human rights lawyer and refusnik Shamai Leibovitz wrote, “I believe that selective economic pressure is the most effective way to end the brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and bring peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians.”

Speaking at the Toronto conference, Liat Weingart of Jewish Voice for Peace said that JVP was the first U.S. Jewish organization to come out in support of the Presbyterian decision. Stav Adivi of Courage to Refuse, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and others have expressed support for the churches’ actions. And in September, at its annual plenary session in London, European Jews for a Just Peace passed a declaration expressing support for the call of over 170 Palestinian NGOs for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law.

With a renewed sense of urgency the churches have acknowledged that the situation in the Holy Land will not change without determined action involving risk and criticism—from the media and, indeed, from their own congregations. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends published this question in its online newsletter: “Israel’s Occupation: Is It Time For Divestment?”

According to many attending the Sabeel conference in Toronto, that time is long overdue.

Sister Elaine Kelley is administrative director of the Portland, OR-based Friends of Sabeel-North America (

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