In an unexpected move, the United Methodists decided on Tuesday to call on the church’s mission agency to withdraw its membership in the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (USCEIO).

Based in Washington, D.C. the USCEIO is a vehemently anti-Israel umbrella organization for the boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) movement. Its main goal is to end “all U.S. support and aid” for Israel.

USCEIO logo

The plenary vote on Petition 60198 (End Coalition Support) came during the church’s leading policy-making event.

As we noted in an earlier post, United Methodists meet once every four years to revise church law and adopt resolutions on a variety of moral, social, and public policies. From May 10th through tomorrow 864 delegates from across the United States and around the world have been convening at the quadrennial General Conference (UMCGC) in Portland, Oregon to consider over 1,000 resolutions.

The vote to cut ties with the pro-BDS national coalition could have far-reaching repercussions if it ends up serving as an example for other progressive mainline churches in the U.S., which in recent years have enlisted in a propaganda war against Israel.

And the irony is certainly delicious: USCEIO has been anticipating that 2016 would be “the biggest year yet” for church divestment and was spearheading a publicity campaign to ramp up support. For some months it had been encouraging people to sign petitions, and follow and ‘like’ the efforts of BDS member groups within these liberal Protestant churches via emails and social media.

UCEIO, Huge News on church divestment

So there’s plenty of good reason to be pleased with the outcome of Petition 60198.

Still, the passage of one petition doesn’t mean that the BDS war against Israel has suddenly come to an end within the United Methodist Church.

The General Conference hasn’t sent packing the “well-oiledUnited Methodist Kairos Response (UMKR), which for years has been successfully pushing a vehemently anti-Israel agenda within the church. In fact, on Tuesday it also passed another UMKR-endorsed petition which is being hailed by the subgroup as a “welcome ray of light”.

UMKR on Facebook, logo and banner

Those who’ve been working for years to rid their beloved church of a malicious strain of anti-Zionism that has taken root within it still have their work cut out.

Methodists Urge Mission Agency to Sever Ties with US Campaign

The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) issued a press release on the passage of Petition 60198 encouraging disaffiliation from the anti-Israel coalition USCEIO:

Portland, OR—United Methodists have voted to encourage church boards and agencies to end their affiliation with an organization that promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Delegates from across the 12.1 million-member denomination adopted a proposal asking to conclude agency affiliation with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation on a vote of 478 to 319 (60 percent to 40 percent) during their quadrennial General Conference meeting in Portland, Oregon. The General Conference was asked by its public policy arm, the General Board on Church and Society (GBCS), to divest its financial holdings from companies that do business with Israel. Instead, the conference voted to encourage the United Methodist mission board, the General Board on Global Ministries (GBGM) to divest from the anti-Israel coalition, one that GBGM itself was heavily involved in helping establish.”

Petition 60198 offered the following brief “rationale” for asking the GBGM to cut ties with USCEIO:

The one-sided political coalition’s website reveals that its agenda includes seeking to ‘isolate Israel economically, socially, and culturally,’ and promoting ‘comprehensive divestment’ against Israel, while overlooking anti-Israel aggression. Blaming only one side while ignoring the wrongdoing of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran will not advance the cause of peace”.

John Lomperis, United Methodist Action Director at the IRD and an Elected General Conference Delegate to the UMCGC, commented on the vote:

John Lomperis comment on vote, press release

John Lomperis at IRD

UM Kairos Disappointment

Tuesday’s vote was a let down for the UMKR and its supporters.

As we noted in our prior post, the group was already having a hard time getting delegates to support its four divestment resolutions.

Kairos-UMC Divest Protest

The resolutions asked the denomination to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard, which all sell non-lethal security and counterterrorism technology and equipment to Israel, on the grounds that they’re “companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands”.

Christians in Holy Land ask for divestment

The petitions were already defeated by the church’s Finance Administration Committee over the weekend.

But Tuesday’s plenary vote, while non-binding, was really the nail in the coffin for these proposals (in any case, it’s “rare”—but not impossible—for the General Conference to revive proposals once committees have voted them down).

Basically, the UMKR’s resolutions “pretty much went down in flames”.

Coming on the heels of that defeat, the passage of Petition 60198 was undoubtedly a major bummer for those who had hoped the General Conference would vote to “increase pressure on Israel”.

One delegate from Ohio, the Rev. Armando Arellano, reportedly said that leaving the USCEIO would be a “mistake” because the group is “neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israel, but pro-equal rights for all”.

By withdrawing from the coalition,” he said, “we are withdrawing our commitment to be an agent of peace and justice”.

That’s an odd comment to make regarding an organization like the USCEIO.

The Anti-Defamation League lists it as among the “Top Ten” anti-Israel groups currently operating in the United States. According to the ADL, the USCEIO makes the cut due to its

fixation on delegitimizing Israel and convincing the American public that Israel is an international villain that deserves to be ostracized an isolated”.

USCEIO Campaign Ad | Credit: ADL

USCEIO Campaign Ad | Credit: ADL

The watchdog organization NGO Monitor documents that activists affiliated with the USCEIO view Israel’s founding as a “catastrophe” that needs to be undone by enabling Palestinian refugees to return to their homes—a goal that repudiates the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and would effectively mean the demise of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

The USCEIO’s leadership and staff are also notorious for employing language about American Jews and major Jewish organizations—like AIPAC—that’s frequently conspiratorial. In particular, as we highlighted in a prior post, Josh Ruebner, the organization’s policy director, has a nasty habit of hurling ugly slurs at Jewish Americans who care about Israel’s future. The ADL notes that back in 2013 in an article for The Hill, a congressional media outlet,

Ruebner described AIPAC supporters as ‘Israel-first’ lobbyists, a reference to the anti-Semitic charge that Jews are more loyal to Israel than the U.S.”

Ruebner was back at it last summer:

Ruebner, Israel Firster

Of course, none of this is even remotely consistent with peace, justice, or human rights for all.

Petition 60868

The decision by the United Methodists to call for the breaking of ties with the USCEIO is a positive development. It may signal a willingness to chart a new course with regard to the church’s anti-Israel activism.

But the church isn’t there yet.

United Methodists already strongly oppose the alleged “illegal” occupation of Judea and Samaria/the West Bank and east Jerusalem. (As we noted in a recent post, the claim of illegality is erroneous. Israel’s occupation is lawful; the territory that Israel captured in the 1967 war is contested, but the reality is that Israel has the stronger claim to these lands under international law).

Also egregious was the church’s recent decision to drop five Israeli banks and one real estate and construction company from its pension fund. It essentially placed them on a blacklist for their alleged involvement in the “mistreatment of Palestinians” and financial support of “illegal Israeli settlement”.

It’s a move that the Anti-Defamation League condemned as a “barely disguised expression of anti-Semitism”.

But the UMCGC in Portland didn’t rescind it.

In fact, another Petition (60868), which also passed on Tuesday in the conference plenary, reaffirms the United Methodist Church’s commitment to end the occupation “through the boycott of good produced in the occupied territories”. It also reiterates opposition to “continued military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem” and “the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements”.

Even worse—it acknowledged the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD), Kairos USA, and Kairos Palestine’s “request for support of the wider Church”.

As we noted in a prior post, Kairos adopts the supercessionist doctrine that because the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, they have been shunned by God and “replaced” by the Christian Church. Basically, it’s an enormous “theological fail” in which a political critique of Israel “bleeds into religious critiques of Jews and Judaism”.

Bottom line: if Petition 60198 is a step forward, Petition 60868 is a step back.

Emails from UM Kairos’s Susanne Hoder

The UMKR presents itself as a moderate group committed to non-violence and justice.

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

But Susanne Hoder, the group’s co-President, doesn’t appear to be very reasonable—or interested in facts.

She has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing against all non-Jews in Israel. In an op-ed she wrote, Hoder described Israel as a “society obsessed with ethnic purity and intent on purging non-Jews from the region”. In another essay she calls on “followers of Christ” to “unite against Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Christians and Muslims”.

Hoder’s charges are absurd. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where freedom of religion is respected. It’s the one county where the Christian community is thriving.

Gabriel Naddaf, Christians Thrive in Israel

Hoder penned several emails to her church subgroup on Tuesday and Wednesday. I received both via a colleague who is privy to the UMKR’s listserv but wishes to remain anonymous so that she can continue to get information about the group’s activities and agenda.

In one email Hoder writes:

[We are] finding ourselves stretched and challenged…UMKR is being well represented, and our call for justice is getting out…we find ourselves in a General Conference that seems to be very far to the right of previous conferences in its decisions thus far. Progressive causes many of us support are not faring well…there is a strong sense that the church is moving further to the right of many fronts…we can still pray for a courageous amendment on the floor that would call for more divestment…”

It sounds like sour grapes. But in another email sent to the UMKR listserv yesterday Hoder was much more upbeat.

She heaped praise on Petition 60868, arguing that it could be a way to achieve the church’s backing on countering anti-BDS bills (a total of 8 U.S. states have now enacted legislation preventing state agencies from affiliating with boycotters).

Hoder also wrote that she viewed this petition as “an endorsement for past divestment action, hopefully paving the way for more to follow”.

In Hoder’s words:

[Petition 60868] is a welcome ray of light in a dark place…[it] specifically lifts up the Kairos Palestine call and recommendations of our UM missionaries for concrete action…”

Basically, based on Hoder’s messages, the UMKR is now licking its wounds—and lashing out at a perceived growing “right wing” movement in the denomination that it claims is putting a crimp on its so-called “progressive” agenda.

But it also doesn’t see the defeat of the divestment proposals, or the passage of Petition 60198, as any cause for deep despair.

Susanne Hoder | Co-President of UMKR | Portland, Oregon | May 2016 | Credit: FaceBook

Susanne Hoder | Co-President of UMKR | Portland, Oregon | May 2016 | Credit: FaceBook

Explaining the BDS Failures in Portland

In an article written earlier this month, Susan Warner, who serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute and is the co-founder of Olive Tree Ministries, a pro-Israel Christian group, anticipated that the Methodists would “restart the BDS war against Israel” at their quadrennial conference in Portland.

Warner’s prediction wasn’t unreasonable.

Other liberal mainline churches—the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Chris—have all passed resolutions in recent years boycotting and divesting from the State of Israel. So it wasn’t far-fetched to assume that the UMC would also follow in their footsteps.

But things haven’t turned out that way.

As we noted in our prior post, a host of factors were working against the UMKR during the 11-day General Conference—even before Wednesday’s surprising plenary vote to encourage the church’s disaffiliation from the USCEIO.

Democratic frontrunner and lifelong Methodist Hillary Clinton’s open letter last week calling divestments and boycotts “counterproductive to the pursuit of peace” undoubtedly made UMKR’s agenda a tougher sell.

Hillary Clinton Celebrates Bicentennial of her Washington, D.C. Church | September 2015 | Credit: PBS NewsHour

Hillary Clinton Celebrates Bicentennial of her Washington, D.C. Church | September 2015 | Credit: PBS NewsHour

The absence of a large Jewish Voice for Peace contingent also deprived UMKR of a coterie of Jewish enablers who in the past have noisily invoked their Jewishness at church gatherings as a way of legitimizing proposals to demonize and isolate Israel.

JVP at the UCC, 2015, photo 2

And at this particular General Conference, the UMKR was also competing with a host of other controversial issues dominating the attention of conference attendees—like the church’s marriage stance and its position on active gay clergy.

Other issues at UMCGC culture wars

Other issues at UMCGC 2016

But by far the most significant reason for the UMKR’s uphill battle in Portland has been the church’s changing demographics and growing Africanization.

A Global Church | UMC African Worship | Credit: You Tube

A Global Church | UMC African Worship | Credit: You Tube

Many theologically conservative African delegates in Portland, the vast majority of them steeped in the Bible, the Christian Gospels, and traditional church teachings, were bound to view the UMKR’s sour attitude towards the Jewish people and their homeland with suspicion—if not outright derision.

Couple this with the intimate knowledge that Africans have with an actual system of strict racial segregation. It’s a familiarity that would render ludicrous the UMKR’s depiction of Israel as an apartheid state.

No doubt too African delegates would have some understanding of Israel’s security concerns and the challenges of counterterrorism. As Dexter Van Zile, Christian Media Analyst for CAMERA, puts it:

Not all is lost. Many of the delegates to the General Conference come from Africa. They have witnessed jihad up close and personal and will likely have a much more sympathetic view of Israel’s predicament than many of the delegates who live in the relative safety of the United States”.

Credit: cnn.com

Credit: cnn.com

Conclusion

The United Methodist Church’s center of gravity is shifting away from the U.S. and its liberal wing.

So what happened in Portland vis-a-vis the UMCGC’s stance toward Israel—the defeat of four anti-Israel divestment resolutions and the unexpected vote to urge a separation from a “top ten” Israel-hating organization—may be a sign that United Methodists are developing a new and better perspective.

It’s certainly a series of positive moves for this church.

Comments to UMCGC announcement, praise

But it would be a mistake to write off the BDS contingent.

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

Credit: FaceBook

The General Conference which wraps up tomorrow also demonstrated that this vehemently anti-Israel church subgroup has retained its institutional footing and will remain an influential force for the foreseeable future.

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman