BDS as the Third Way

09/03/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2016
FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from
FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. In boardrooms and campuses, on social media and in celebrity circles, momentum seems to be growing for a global pressure campaign on Israel. The atmosphere recalls the boycotts that helped demolish apartheid South Africa a quarter century ago. Israel and its partisans can be expected to mount a ferocious defense, but their public relations Achilles' heel may be the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

When a Palestinian Christian says, "If the only choice is between violent resistance to the Occupation or submission, you must understand that for us, submission is not an option," it needs to be heard not as a threat or ultimatum, but as a plea. The urgency of that plea has grown more and more apparent this summer as violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem against Palestinians by Israeli settlers, extremists, and soldiers grows and as the world's attention has been redirected by the Iran nuclear deal and by other crises in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. The fact that no presidential candidate has given serious attention to the plight of Palestinians is indicative of the problem. Will the world offer Palestinians a viable and hopeful alternative to violent resistance?

When the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopted a resolution in June by a landslide vote (508-124 with 38 abstentions) to support divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to boycott products made in West Bank Jewish settlements, the church joined its Palestinian partners in seeking a third way between violence and submission. It was an affirmation that non-violent resistance is the only faithful way forward in the face of stalemated negotiations and growing Israeli intransigence.

Just as the church is calling to boycott the games and merchandise of the Washington Redskins NFL football team to protest its continued use of a racist name and logo that demeans Native Americans, so is the church calling for divestment to advance Palestinian freedom and equal rights. After years of quiet meetings with owners, pressure by public officials, and peaceful protests outside of stadiums, boycotts are one of the few options left for people desiring to protect the dignity and humanity of their neighbors. It took the slaughter of nine church members in South Carolina to finally convince that state and numerous other municipalities and universities that Confederate flags, statues, and names must come down from public spaces and buildings. Must change require bloodshed?

For decades the United Church of Christ has denounced violence on both sides of the conflict and has affirmed the goal of a negotiated solution to the conflict in the Middle East in which security, economic viability, the protection of human rights and the extension of the full rights of citizenship are available to Israeli and Palestinian alike. The church has worked with many partners in Israel who share this hope along with their Jewish allies in the United States. Our quarrel is with the policies of a government which has built massive settlements on occupied territory, constructed walls that inhibit the freedom of movement for Palestinians and steal their land, demolished homes, and erected a security structure that controls almost every aspect of Palestinian life. The church knows that this is not only unjust, it is a path toward an ever-escalating cycle of violence that imperils Israeli and Palestinian alike.

When farm workers in the United States were able to obtain contracts that helped lift the living standard of their families, or when Black South Africans won the right to rule their own country, it was not because those in power had a sudden change of heart or because violent insurrection overwhelmed those in control. Justice came because religious and civil society groups as well as governments and corporations joined forces with the struggle, adding their economic clout through targeted boycotts and divestment to demand change, altering the world's moral vision and persuading those in power that it was in their own interest to negotiate a just resolution to conflict.

To support boycotts and divestment today is to risk becoming the object of intimidating accusations of anti-Semitism and, for some public universities to risk funding from state legislatures threatening to punish institutions that join in the global movement. But faithfulness requires courage in the struggle. The United Church of Christ General Synod took a bold step this summer, not to shame or to isolate Israel, but to seek a third way that responds to a Palestinian Christian plea that submission or violence not be the only options available to them.