A version of this piece originally appeared in The Oregonian.
Portland is hosting an event [the week of May 9, 2016] that could have a significant impact on the search for Middle East peace. If the United Methodist Church General Conference votes to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, all the mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S. will have taken a principled stand for Palestinian freedom through boycott and divestment, joining the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and others.
During the endless “peace process” of the past few decades, Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law and official U.S. policy have grown relentlessly, leaving Palestinians with fragmented pockets of land divided by settlements, walls, Israeli-only bypass roads and military zones.
At the same time, Israeli society has shifted dramatically to the right politically. According to a Pew poll released in March, nearly half of Israeli Jews want to expel Arabs from Israel, while 79 percent believe Jewish citizens should be given preferential treatment over Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population.
This follows years of racist incitement from Israeli political and religious leaders and the passage of a slew of anti-democratic laws targeting critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The word apartheid is now used to describe Israel by many expert observers, including diplomats, politicians, mainstream Jewish leaders and human rights activists. No fewer than four former Israeli prime ministers have compared Israel’s nearly 50-year-old occupation to apartheid. Meanwhile, the U.S. sends Israel over $3 billion in military aid annually and provides almost unconditional diplomatic protection, preventing Israeli leaders from being held accountable for their actions at international forums like the United Nations.
The problem with promoting dialogue and engagement as a replacement for boycotts and divestment, as some supporters of Israel argue, is that Israel — the much stronger party — has made it absolutely clear it will settle for nothing less than Palestinians accepting permanent subjugation. Nor does dialogue work when Israel is enforcing an oppressive occupation that steals Palestinian land and water, destroys Palestinians homes, imprisons Palestinians by the thousand, tortures and abuses them and denies them the most fundamental rights, including the right to peaceful protest.
Many Jews like myself find it increasingly delusional to claim that Israel is a democracy. In Israel, Jewish privilege is institutionalized in the legal system, housing, education and health care, and the opportunities afforded to Jewish citizens. Israel may be a democracy for Jews, but not for its Palestinian citizens.
To be clear, United Methodist supporters of divestment are not asking for boycotts and divestment from Israel. They are focused only on the occupied territories, which the international community, including the U.S., does not legally recognize as part of Israel.
It was only when churches and other organizations began divesting from South Africa that apartheid finally came to an end there. Conditions are no less horrifying for Palestinians today. Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, are asking Christians and other people of conscience to join their struggle for freedom and to act consistently with their basic moral teachings.
As a Jewish American, I am proud to stand with my Christian brothers and sisters in the U.S. and Palestine, to support boycott and divestment as powerful tools to bring occupation to an end.
When all else has failed to bring peace, their courage should inspire us all.
Editor’s note: Since original publication of this opinion piece,the United Methodist General Conference did not approve the amendment to divest from illegal settlements in the occupied territories. They did adopt a petition on behalf of the Palestinian village of Wadi Foquin. The graphic above is taken from “Israel & Palestine: A Very Short Introduction,” by Jewish Voice for Peace.