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United Church of Christ Approves Divestment to Aid Palestinians

The United Church of Christ, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, overwhelmingly approved a resolution Tuesday calling for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation or control of Palestinian territories and to boycott products from Israeli settlements.

Approval came at the church’s general synod in Cleveland, where delegates voted 508 to 124 in favor, with 38 abstentions. It was one of two resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debated at the church, which has nearly one million members and more than 5,000 congregations nationwide.

The second resolution, which would call the actions of Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip acts of apartheid, was still under debate Tuesday afternoon.

If that second measure is approved, the church would be the first in the United States to officially describe Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians as apartheid. That analogy that has been used increasingly by critics of Israel, while many Israel supporters regard it as unjustified and anti-Semitic.

The United Church of Christ’s boycott resolution reflects what supporters call the growing momentum of a movement, known as boycott, divest and sanction, to pressure Israel over the unresolved Palestinian issue and the long-paralyzed Middle East peace process.

“The church considers Tuesday’s actions a next step in the U.C.C.’s involvement with peace in the Middle East,” the church said in a statement.

“As disciples of Jesus, we hear and seek to heed his call to be peacemakers, responding to violence with nonviolence and extending love to all,” the Rev. John Deckenback, conference minister of the church’s Central Atlantic Conference, which submitted the boycott resolution, said in response to the vote. He called the outcome a reflection of the church’s “spirit of love for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Religious activists in the United Church of Christ have been among the most outspoken in recent years over what they regard as Israel’s repression of Palestinians and their aspirations for an independent state. The activists have repeatedly said they support Israel’s right to exist but disagree with its policies.

The boycott resolution was the second such measure passed by the United Church of Christ in the past decade but was by far the strongest and most specific. The first resolution, passed in 2005, called in broad terms for the use of economic leverage, including boycotts and adjustments in foreign aid, in seeking to advance the rights of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied lands.

The Israeli government, which has become increasingly concerned by the B.D.S. movement, reacted swiftly to the United Church of Christ’s boycott resolution, describing the church’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as distorted and historically biased against Israel.

“The U.C.C. resolutions on the Middle East conflict have reflected the most radical politics for more than a decade, and in no way reflect a moral stance or reality-based position,” said Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Afffairs. “People of faith ought to be acting to help Israel and the Palestinians to renew efforts to achieve peace, rather than endlessly demonizing one party in the conflict — in our view, the aggrieved party.”

Two other American churches — the Episcopal Church and the Mennonite Church — were also debating Israel divestment measures this week at their conventions.

Last year the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a resolution to divest from three companies that it said supplied Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory. With 1.8 million members, the church remains the largest to endorse divestment at a churchwide convention.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his subordinates have denounced the B.D.S. movement, describing it as a new form of terrorism to delegitimize Israel.

B.D.S. supporters, including a growing number of American Jews, have called such criticism a scaremongering and divisive tactic meant to thwart legitimate debate about the Israeli occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war.

Representatives of Jewish Voice for Peace, an advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif., that has endorsed the B.D.S. movement, attended the United Church of Christ meeting as observers. They said they welcomed the boycott resolution and described it as a reflection of growing impatience with what they called Israel’s intransigence.

“Progressives are speaking up, and it’s only a matter of time until Israel is held accountable for its human rights abuses and violations of international law,” said Lev Hirschhorn, a Jewish Voice for Peace board member, in a statement released after the vote.

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(via NY Times)