Methodists, divestment, and Tutu

On May 2, delegates at the United Methodist Church general assembly voted against two proposals to withdraw church investments from companies doing business with Israel. These divestment proposals were intended as a way to pressure Israel to withdraw its military presence from all areas that most of the world considers to be Palestinian territory, which includes parts of Jerusalem itself, as well as most of ancient Judea and Samaria.

The UMJC had joined with three other international Messianic Jewish organizations to warn the Methodists against divestment (, so we’re thankful that the church made the right decision. But the battle is hardly over. The Presbyterian Church (USA) votes on virtually the same proposal in July, and other mainline Protestant denominations will keep on considering similar moves. In addition, the Methodists did pass “a strongly worded resolution denouncing the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and calling for ‘all nations to prohibit the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.'” (

Now,  “prohibit[ing] the import of products” means a boycott, and that’s part of the anti-Israel strategy: to employ the same means–boycotts, divestment, and sanctions–that helped overturn the apartheid regime in South Africa. So anti-Israel advocates are determined to stick the apartheid label on Israel. Just before the Methodist vote, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu made this strategy explicit in an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times (the Methodists were meeting in Tampa), claiming “that Israel becoming an apartheid state or like South Africa in its denial of equal rights is not a future danger . . .  but a present-day reality,” and speaking of the “colonization,”  “occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.” (

Now arguing that Israel is NOT an apartheid state is like responding to the question, “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Furthermore, Israel’s critics systematically set two other rhetorical traps: 1) they describe Israeli policies in Judea and Samaria as expressions of Israeli racism rather than as conditions within a complex military-political deadlock; 2) they never deal with the history of the deadlock. In other words, why does Israel maintain a military presence in these Arab-majority population areas? Israel’s opponents think that simply by labeling this as “the occupation,” they’ve proven that it must be ended immediately, regardless of history and context–and regardless of the fact that it’s from the unilaterally unoccupied Gaza Strip that Israel endures an endless barrage of rocket fire aimed at its civilian population.

So, rather than argue against details of the “apartheid” and “occupation” accusations, I’ll simply suggest that Rev. Tutu is ignoring history. I can’t really engage his criticism because it begins with a false premise. The white presence in South Africa resulted from a colonial incursion; the Jewish presence in the Eretz Yisrael resulted from a return to an ancient homeland. The increasing waves of Jewish returnees in the late 19th-early 2oth centuries joined a Jewish remnant in the ancestral homeland that had been there all along, and that was growing steadily since the 1500s. Furthermore, these returnees didn’t seize land by conquest, but by purchase and legal settlement.

Tutu and his ilk claim that Israel has blocked a two-state agreement with the Palestinians and must be pressured back to the negotiating table through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Again, this view ignores history. After WWII, the world community recognized that the Jewish settlement in pre-state Israel had as much claim to the land as its Arab inhabitants (which had significantly increased  since the expansion of the Jewish population). That’s why the UN voted to partition the land into a Jewish-majority area and an Arab-majority area, with Jerusalem (and its Jewish-majority population) left as an international zone. The Jews reluctantly accepted this two-state solution and the Arabs rejected it, attacking Israel and losing a chunk of territory in the process. Likewise, after the 1967 war, when Israel took control of areas of Judea and Samaria formerly held by Egypt and Jordan, the Arab nations declared regarding Israel, “no negotiations, no peace, no recognition,” effectively rejecting a two-state solution again. Finally, at what should have been the culmination of the 1993 Oslo process, Yassir Arafat walked away from an once-in-a-lifetime offer for Palestinian statehood by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

I, for one, see the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians as a tragic deadlock, unsustainable, and bad for both Israelis and Palestinians. But there’s no silver bullet to fix it, and I suspect those who are promoting the silver bullet of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions have an unspoken agenda that does not include recognition of Israel as the legitimate homeland of the Jewish people.


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