Only if you understand the centrality of the Mainline Protestant churches to the BDS strategy can you begin to grasp why the BDSers put so much time, energy and resource into yesterday’s Methodist vote, and why they will be doing just as much (if not more) to get the Presbyterians to vote yes on divestment in a few months.
The role the Presbyterians played between 2004 and 2006 (when divestment was briefly church policy) in anchoring the entire BDS “movement” is one reason why regaining church support continues to be such a high priority for the boycotters.
The year 2004 resembles 2011 very much in terms of a divestment “movement” making lots of noise, but having little to show for its efforts. In ’04, the Presbyterians threw BDS organizations a lifeline, giving them at least one major example of institutional support they could capitalize on, which they did for the next two years before the Presbyterians rescinded their divestment stance in 2006. Given this history, today’s BDSers (whose bombast of impending victory stands in such sharp contrast to the triviality of the actual results they’ve received after more than a decade of effort) are starved to repeat this briefly successful past.
It’s also hard to minimize the significance role churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists play in defining the boundaries of progressive political positions, especially with regard to foreign policy issues. As Rabbi Poupko points out in Looking at Them Looking at Us (which I continue to urge everyone to read), within the US it is the Mainline Protestant Churches (not the universities, not the unions, and not secular grassroots organizations) that provide the support, funding and foot soldiers for dissent on issues of foreign policy. Thus, church support is absolutely vital if the BDSers are to be successful in their efforts to define their issue as central to a progressive political agenda.
Which makes yesterday’s rejection of BDS by the largest progressive Mainline church (the fifth such rejection by the Methodists and Presbyterians in the last six years – never mind the other Mainline churches that either rejected divestment or never gave it the time of day) so significant. For if the BDSers themselves insist that support for their efforts within Mainline Protestantism legitimizes their claims to representing progressive values, the overwhelming rejecting of BDS by those very institutions illustrates that boycott and divestment continue to be embraced by nothing more than a small (albeit noisy) unrepresentative minority.
It was intriguing to watch the run-up to yesterday’s vote (as well as coverage of the vote itself) play out on Twitter. Like most online BDS debates, the boycotters dominated the airwaves; spending weeks quoting scripture, painting pictures of unvarnished Palestinians suffering, making their usual comparisons to Selma and Apartheid South Africa, and insisting that divestment was an obvious (indeed, the only) moral choice the Methodists could possibly make.
As the vote got closer, language turned harsher, with pleas for charity and witness soon replaced by an insistence that any vote against the BDS position would represent a betrayal of both man and God, punishable by fire and brimstone. And when their calls to reject the majority opinion (which replaced divestment language with language of positive investment and engagement) and embrace a minority opinion (that left the original divestment language intact) went unheeded, up popped the familiar tweet of someone who was stunned when all votes turned against divestment (having followed one-sided Twitter feeds that seemed to imply an impending BDS victory).
This lopsided online coverage had an equivalent in the physical world (leading to even more surprise and anger when the Methodists simply did what they and every other Mainline church chose to do before: say no to BDS). For while the boycotters pulled out all the stops to lobby for their cause in Tampa this week (flying down speakers and arm twisters, distributing expensive materials in multiple languages, and bombarding delegates with calls and letters in the run-up to the event), I can’t seem to find any equivalent level activity from Israel’s supporters.
Certainly the letter signed by over 1000 rabbis helped counteract BDS claims that Jews, rabbis and Israelis (outside of a marginal fringe) support BDS resolutions. And I know Jewish organizations have maintained good relations with members within the UMC who oppose not just divestment but the general anti-Israel animus they find within the church. But our side’s lobbying and even commentary seems to have been kept to a minimum (which may mean we simply counted on church members to show the same common sense they’ve shown with previous votes on the matter).
In the case of this blog, I gave the Methodists a wide berth largely because I’m not that familiar with them and their governing procedures, having only lived through their last General Conference in ’08, during which I did little more than comment on their overwhelming no vote. But the Presbyterians are another story, one we’ll be returning to many times over the next several months, both to cover the next major BDS battle of the year, but also to provide a powerful illustration of what an organization does to itself when it lets boycott, divestment and sanctions in through the front door.