CHURCHES: Loewenstein/Churches standing up to ‘pro-Israel’ politicians
The Australian Jewish News (AJN) was outraged. Its editorial in late July condemned the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA) for a resolution calling on Australians to boycott Israeli goods made in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The AJN wrote that the move contributed to a global campaign to ‘delegitimise’ Israel and lent ‘credence to the perception of an apartheid state.’
Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Robert Goot, in a letter to the National Council of Churches’ general secretary, alluded to the Churches’ alleged complicity in the Holocaust. The motion ‘revived painful memories for Jews in Australia of earlier times in Europe when churches allowed themselves to be swept up in the tide of popular prejudices against the Jewish people.’ Any moves to end West Bank settlements, illegal under international law, were framed as unbalanced and biased against Israel and Jews.
Relations between the Jewish and Christian establishment remain strained despite meetings with representatives to calm the atmosphere.
The Zionist establishment was equally offended by the resolution calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and cessation of terrorist acts on all sides.
The NCCA’s move is in fact remarkably level-headed and fits comfortably with a growing global movement to increase civil pressure on Israel to reverse its colonisation program.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is a loosely-connected collection of church groups, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims determined to act where political leaders have failed. There is no united vision, no definite prescription to solve the conflict and no hierarchy or leadership. Its overall goal is to bring justice for the Palestinians who have been living under occupation for decades.
Susanne Hoder, a member of a ‘divestment task force’’ set up by the Lawrence-based New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, recently told the Boston Globe that after first visiting Palestine in 2004, ‘I was shocked. I came back with a clear sense that as churches, we shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines.’
It should be noted that the NCCA is only calling for a boycott of goods produced in the illegal Jewish colonies, not a wholesale boycott of Israel itself. It is a position supported by the US-backed Palestinian Authority and is already having a noticeable effect on the settlers’ bottom line.
The response from the organised Jewish community in Australia and beyond has been apoplectic, accusing pro-boycott groups of anti-Semitism and spreading ‘anti-Israel propaganda’. However, as explained by American Zionist leader Mitchell Plitnick:
‘The pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should be embracing the boycott of settlement products. The reasons are both ideological and practical. Ideologically, we need to draw a distinction between Israel and the settlements, and we need to make opposition to the latter as uncompromising as support of the former… Boycotting settlement products and civil action to divorce Israeli businesses from the settlements are acts that are very much in Israel’s interests and can effectively promote peace. But if we leave such actions only in the hands of those who do not care or are openly hostile to Israel, we are abdicating a powerful tool.’
Increasingly the NCCA is joined by churches across the world. In particular the British Methodist Church agreed this year to a resolution that called for a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. Christine Elliott, the Church’s Secretary for External Relationships, said in an official press release that, ‘The goal of the boycott is to put an end to the existing injustice. It reflects the challenge that settlements present to a lasting peace in the region.’
Dr Stephen Leah, a Methodist preacher and member of the churches conference, told the Electronic Intifada that Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement render impossible the sort of inter-faith meetings that critics of the Methodist motion say they support. It is a view shared by growing number of key unions in Australia who just this year resolved to boycott Israeli goods from settlements. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society has been condemned for similar moves but has defended itself in a recent statement.
Opponents of any kind of BDS remain in denial about the current state of Israeli politics. This includes threats to institute laws to pressure all citizens to pledge loyalty to a Jewish state, fascist leanings of the Netanyahu government, the ongoing siege on Gaza and expansion of West Bank settlements.
BDS is growing, like the surge against apartheid South Africa decades ago, because Western leaders refuse to acknowledge what they are backing. Being ‘pro-Israel’, understood as in the declarations of Barack Obama, Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, is simply code for doing nothing.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.