Joy Sutter of Salford (Pa.) Mennonite Church didn’t fully understand the Israel-Palestine conflict until she visited the region last year.
“I needed to see the oppressive wall, hear the stories of the people, see the occupation of the land and get a grasp of the injustices of the everyday existence of the Palestinian people,” said Sutter, a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board.
Leonard Dow, pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, returned from a similar tour in April. In a sermon comparing the Israeli separation wall that divides Palestinian land in the West Bank to the physical and spiritual divisions in U.S. society, he reflected that living behind a wall affects everyone.
“A dividing wall creates in the builder a false sense of what constitutes justice,” he said. “Because every day you have to tell yourself the lie that ‘separate but equal’ is God’s will.”
Sutter’s and Dow’s “Come and See” tours resulted from a response to the Kairos Palestine Document, in which Palestinian Christians describe the reality of Israeli oppression and call for a nonviolent response. Part of the Mennonite answer to that call was a commitment to expose church leaders to the reality in Palestine.
“Though I considered myself relatively well informed, I was not prepared for the scale and intensity of military occupation which we witnessed,” said Andre Gingerich Stoner, MC USA’s director of holistic witness. “As we learned about land confiscation and massive settlements, checkpoints, house demolitions and detention without charges, we also got glimpses of the human cost of daily humiliation and dehumanization.”
“I know the Mennonites are really ahead of other churches in their stance because you’re a peace church,” said Nora Carmi, a Palestinian Christian who spoke to Sutter’s group on behalf of Kairos Palestine in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. “But still there are people in all communities who cannot see that justice is for everyone and not only for one group of people.”
Some people believe the Bible calls Christians to unconditional support of Israel, said Tom Harder of the Mennonite Palestine Israel Network, or MennoPIN, which was created as a way to educate the church through the many Mennonites who have visited, lived and worked in Palestine and Israel.
“But our task as Mennonites is to follow Christ’s call to work toward God’s peaceable kingdom,” he said.
At the MC USA convention in Kansas City June 30-July 5, delegates will consider a “Resolution on Israel-Palestine” drafted by MennoPIN in consultation with MC USA leaders, agencies and congregations as the next step in the church’s response to the Kairos call.
The resolution states: “Israel’s military occupation of Palestine is sinful, based on injustice and must come to an end; . . . as U.S. citizens we are complicit in this sin due to our government’s significant and longstanding military support for Israel.”
The resolution then commits MC USA to “withdrawing investments from corporations known to be profiting from the occupation and/or destruction of life and property in Israel-Palestine.”
The Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ will consider similar resolutions in June. These measures follow actions by Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church last year to divest from specific companies involved in the occupation. Several Quaker bodies have implemented related measures, including an “Israel- Palestine Investment Screen” developed by the American Friends Service Committee that Mennonite Central Committee adopted in 2013.
While the MC USA resolution does not list specific companies, it requires investments be regularly evaluated. It also urges “individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products that enable the military occupation to continue, including items produced in Israeli settlements.” All Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are considered illegal under international law.
“Our human rights and military screens catch the companies directly tied to the violence and human rights abuse in this conflict region,” wrote Everence’s chief investment officer, Chad Horning, after his “Come and See” experience.
He notes Everence must rely on its partners to discern the involvement of companies with more subtle connections to the occupation through the world of global finance.
Despite efforts to base such measures on consistent principles of human rights and international law, past resolutions have been sharply criticized. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called the Presbyterian action “one-sided.” Others leveled stronger accusations.
The MC USA resolution has not yet encountered organized opposition. But some Jewish groups have reached out to MennoPIN with offers of support.
“Supporting justice and basic human rights for Palestinians is not anti-Jewish,” said Naomi Dann of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Divestment is a political tactic that targets the complicity of multinational corporations in the oppressive actions of a nation-state, not Jews as individuals or as a people.”
Alex Awad, dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College, is not interested in making Israelis lose money.
“I’m interested in Israelis coming to the peace table genuinely,” he said. “And [boycotts, divestments and sanctions] may be one factor — not the only factor, but maybe one factor — to draw them to the peace table.”
Awad met with many of the “Come and See” groups and will speak at the convention. While the groups’ experiences demonstrate how visiting the Holy Land remains the most powerful way of transforming perspectives on the conflict, Awad’s testimony may bring a glimpse of that reality to Kansas City.
“The time is right to ask delegates of MC USA to make a public witness to the need for peace with justice in Israel-Palestine,” said MennoPIN’s Tom Harder. “Helping delegates come to a more informed understanding of the conflict — including biblical, theological and historical perspectives — will be key to the resolution’s passing.”
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance journalist who worked for MCC in Palestine and Israel from 2010 to 2014. He now lives in Oslo, Norway.