Methodist Fini

It’s time to wrap up with last week’s Methodist story and move onto other topics.  Before doing so, however, it’s best to take a pause and reflect on exactly what the Methodists did and did not do during their most recent General Conference vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.

At the highest level, what they did is easy to demonstrate since it’s the same thing they did four years ago.  Indeed, it’s the same thing every Mainline Protestant Church has done for the last two decades which is declare their devotion to peacemaking, call for reconciliation between the opposing sides in the conflict, and ask members to work and pray for an end to war in the region (and the world).

If you look at any of the resolutions regarding the Middle East that were presented at the Methodist Conference, discussed in committees and/or brought to the floor for a vote, you will find language that either began as calls for prayer for reconciliation or ended up speaking that language when the majority of committee members or plenary voters decided to align various proposals to their overarching message of peacemaking.

The only reason why this sentiment had to be processed through dozens of divestment and various other anti-Israeli resolutions is that those resolutions were brought into the organization by a small minority within the church whose top priority is to get the Methodists to put their overall brand on this or that partisan proposal condemning Israeli for that or this “crime” (or calling on the church to move directly to the punishment phase by reconsider divestment proposals already rejected over and over in the past).

Because the only barrier to bringing forth a resolution is self control (i.e., a willingness on the part of issue advocates to think through the consequences of pushing an issue within the wider church before submitting one or twelve resolutions), nothing prevented anti-Israel partisans from clogging the agendas of various committees with calls to condemn Israel for building a security barrier, Apartheid, settlements or any other accusation.  This low barrier to entry also explains why you saw a number of pro-Israel resolutions brought before these same church councils, as supporters of Israel within the church decided two could play the game of partisanship at the Methodists’ quadrennial conclave.

Now I’m ready to concede that within the Mainline Protestant churches, support for Israel probably falls below the recent all-time high of 70% within the US as a whole.  But the other key percentage to keep in mind is that 100% of delegates to the Methodist General Conference are passionate in their concern about the Methodist Church.  Which is why Middle East passions cooled as various partisan resolutions made their way through committees and onto the plenary floor, eventually playing out as a set of votes that confirmed the church’s long-standing principles of “Yes” to peace and “No” to taking sides in a conflict that is nowhere near as black and white as BDS partisans insist it is on their blogs and Twitter feeds.

Which is why BDSers spinning that one or two resolutions squeaking through committee with enough anti-Israel language intact (while ignoring votes that went against them, other than their one big divestment loss which they had played up too much to pretend never took place) is so disingenuous, if not preposterous.  For if the Methodists put their brand on any message last week, it was a message that negotiation and reconciliation should win out over conflict and blame – i.e., the very opposite of the principles motivating BDS.

As a final thought on the subject, when BDS got all of that momentum in 2004 after the Presbyterians passed their one and only divestment motion (one they promptly rescinded in 2006), very few people were aware of the efforts Israel’s foes were putting into lobbying (or conniving) to get churches and other well known civic organizations to join their campaigns.  Given this lack of awareness, it was easier to convince a broader public that a divestment vote by a well-known church represented the true sentiment of the organization (providing – it was hoped – an example that other institutions should emulate).

But that was eight years and at least five General Assemblies and Conferences ago (and that’s just counting the Methodists and Presbyterians – never mind the other churches that have met during this period and also rejected BDS).  And during this period, partisan lobbying (on both sides) taking place in church debates was well known and highly publicized.  Which means that even among those who do not follow these issues closely, claims that the aspirations and goals of the Methodist Church align with those of the BDS movement ring empty and false, for the very reason that they are just that.

The one other downside of presenting the Methodists, Presbyterians, or other Mainline Protestant churches as taking sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict (based on selective interpretation or outright fraud) is that this no longer lets the BDSers bathe in the warm glow of these church’s centuries-long names and reputations.  Rather, it taints those centuries-old institutions with the dishonesty, negativity and hypocrisy of the BDS “movement,” making it that much more difficult to take these churches seriously when they make moral pronouncements on any subject.  Which is why it is in the interest of the churches (never mind Israel and its friends) to get the BDS virus out of its system once and for all.

As I’ve said in the past, Israel will do just fine regardless of how the Methodists or Presbyterians vote this time or next.  But for churches fighting decline and other crises, the last thing they need is to tie the BDS anchor around their neck just to please a bunch of activists who are boycotters first, Methodists or Presbyterians second (if at all).


It’s astounding how rapidly the mask comes off the minute the divestment brigade doesn’t get what it wants.

For weeks, the BDSers invested countless hours into writing, phoning and pressing the flesh with delegates to the soon-to-be-finished 2012 Methodist General Conference, quoting scripture, telling teary (and context-free) tales of Arab suffering, and generally playing their traditional pre-BDS-vote role of Dr. Jeckyl.

But once the vote was taken and BDS lost yet again, out came snarling Mr. Hyde, storming the stage at the conference and marching up and down in an impotent rage, resembling nothing so much as a collective four-year-old throwing a temper tantrum after discovering he really wasn’t going to get his way.

You actually didn’t have to wait until the vote was cast to begin to get a sense of what would happen the minute the Methodists didn’t do as they were told. On blogs, on Twitter, and on countless Web pages it was all smiles in the run-up to the conference, and even through committee hearings (which ended up transforming the original anti-Israel divestment petition into a neutral pro-peace, pro-investment initiative).

But once divestment became the minority opinion (requiring the plenary to reject the majority anti-divestment position in order for BDS to pass), suddenly panic laced with hostility began to creep into the online conversation.  The quotes from scripture and John Wesley were still there, but they were attached to finger wagging and threats of holy retribution if the Methodists didn’t do what the boycotters were telling them was the only choice God himself would permit.

Years ago, a friend and I used to collect videos (on VHS!) of wacky television preachers from various Evangelical denominations pouring forth threats of fire and brimstone which would strike down all non-believers unless they repented immediately.  But none of this prepared me for the holy fury that enwrapped the Internet during the hour-long final plenary debate when actual voting Methodists finally put the whole divestment mishagas to rest (at least for another four years).

Suddenly Methodists and non-Methodists BDSers were ratcheting up their holy hysteria up to 11,000, insisting that only a vote to reject the majority opinion and immediately embrace divestment would have any meaning, with options for investment and peace-making condemned as a betrayal of everything the Methodists stood for (at least as far as the BDSers were concerned).  And when the vote finally went against them they marched, both literally in the halls of the Tampa Convention Center and across the Web, demonstrating to all (including, one hopes, the Presbyterians scheduled to ringlead the same circus in a few months time) the true face of BDS.

Given this video and paper trail, it’s kind of amazing that the boycotters are even trying to put a brave face on the conference results, highlighting a few pebbles they can pick from the rubble (notably, routine and toothless condemnations of Israeli settlements that have been repeated at various Mainline conferences for years – along with similar votes condemning Hamas and other forms of Palestinian militancy such as suicide bombings).  Given that none of this impressed Team BDS when they were claiming that the divestment vote was the only genuine issue, I’m not entirely sure why they should be taken seriously now that they are trying declare victory after losing the one fight they had already insisted was the only one that mattered.

But, then again, it’s never been clear to me why the divestniks should be taken seriously about anything, especially since their behavior clearly indicates that to them the Methodist (and Presbyterian) churches are not centuries-old institutions with a wide range of critical issues to deal with, but rather are simply playthings that exist only to pass BDS resolutions and – failing that – to absorb the level of abuse usually reserved solely for the Jewish state and its supporters.

The Methodists Say No

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.