The United Methodist Church’s General Conference meets every four years to vote on issues central to the future of the church. This year the conference is meeting in Tampa, Florida—and some hot-button issues are on the agenda—among them the call for the church to divest from firms doing business in Israel.
On Tuesday the conference voted against a motion that the church divest from three international firms that have business interests related to Israel’s military rule in the Palestinian territories: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.
Two thirds of the delegates voted against the motion. On Monday May 1st, the day before the vote on Israeli divestment was expected, Bishop Tutu of South Africa published an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times, an article the conference attendees gathered in that city no doubt read. In his impassioned op-ed piece Bishop Tutu, renowned for his leadership in the anti-Apartheid struggle that led to the end of White rule in South Africa in 1994, called for a similar set of divestment campaigns to “to force an end to Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory.”
Campaigning against the Israeli occupation is not a new cause for the former Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984. And confronting the indignation of Jewish and Evangelical Christian supporters of Israeli government policies is not a new experience for him.
This set of experiences was reflected in the tone of Bishop Tutu’s letter. Referring to his support for the divestment motion he wrote that:
I have reached this conclusion slowly and painfully. I am aware that many of our Jewish brothers and sisters who were so instrumental in the fight against South African apartheid are not yet ready to reckon with the apartheid nature of Israel and its current government. And I am enormously concerned that raising this issue will cause heartache to some in the Jewish community with whom I have worked closely and successfully for decades. But I cannot ignore the Palestinian suffering I have witnessed, nor the voices ofthose courageous Jews troubled by Israel’s discriminatory course.
In this latest iteration, the Bishop’s case against Israeli policies was framed as a response to a letter sent in April to the United Methodist Church. Signed by 1200 American and Canadian Rabbis, the letter called on the church to back away from criticizing Israel. It noted that:
A one-sided approach damages the relationship between Jews and Christians that has been nurtured for decades. It promotes a lopsided assessment of the causes of and solutions to the conflict, disregarding the complex history and geopolitics. Furthermore, it shamefully paints Israel as a pariah nation, solely responsible for frustrating peace.
Tutu’s response was equally pointed:
While they are no doubt well-meaning, I believe that the rabbis and other opponents of divestment are sadly misguided. My voice willalways be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-Semitism that all sensible people fear and detest. But this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing and for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonize the West Bank and advance racist laws.
It seems that Tuesday’s vote against the divestment motion was something of a landmark in Christian-Jewish relations. In a reversal of the dominant historical paradigm, the Rabbis may have bested the Archbishop.