The United Church of Christ’s top legislative body voted last week to divest from companies doing business in Israel, joining ranks with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which passed a similar resolution at its General Assembly last summer.
But while the UCC’s General Synod overwhelmingly endorsed the divestment resolution, such action may have little effect on local relations between Jews and individual churches affiliated with the UCC.
“The General Synod speaks to the churches, but not for the churches,” said the Rev. Liddy Barlow, director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, a coalition of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations that issues policy statements and promotes church unity. Barlow, who is an ordained minister in the UCC, attended the General Synod, which was held in Cleveland.
Just two months ago, Barlow traveled with Rabbi Jamie Gibson to Israel, along with 13 other interfaith pairs from throughout the country, to get a firsthand perspective of the complexity of issues in the region. Upon her return, she told The Chronicle, “I am now able to engage the issues with more depth and nuance than I had before.”
Barlow, noting the diversity within the UCC, explained that the Synod’s passage of the divestment resolution “does not mean it is endorsed by individual churches,” and she does not believe it will negatively impact local relations between Jews and UCC churches.
“Our churches and pastors have longstanding relationships with Jewish clergy here,” Barlow said. “I don’t think we need to let this statement affect local relationships.”
The UCC has about 1.1 million members and more than 5,000 congregations nationwide. The divestment resolution, which passed by a vote of 508-124 with 38 abstentions, is broader than that adopted by the PC (USA), which voted to sell its stock in just three companies doing business with Israel.
The UCC’s “Just Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” calls for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP or its successors, G4S, and Veolia Environnement plus its subsidiaries, and to “boycott goods identified as produced in or using the facilities of illegal settlements located in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Barlow said she was “disappointed” in the vote, but “I think locally we will be OK.”
The fact that Barlow is opposed to the resolution, “is very important with us locally,” said Gibson, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, who works on fostering interfaith dialogue among members of Pittsburgh-area clergy.
“We’re looking at the UCC decision on a national level,” he said, but added that he believes the vote was “wrongheaded and shortsighted.”
“We will continue to work with local United Church of Christ ministers as we always have,” Gibson said. “And I am very much heartened by the fact that Liddy Barlow and others here are heeding the call for more investment in Israel and the territories rather than take the stand that the Palestinians [encountered on the recent interfaith trip] told us directly does not help Palestinians.”
The Pittsburgh Jewish community, in recent years, has seen a lot of progress in interfaith cooperation at the local level, according to Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“The CRC, in general, seeks partners for peace,” Roman said, but cautioned that divestment resolutions such as the one passed last week by the UCC are not helpful in achieving that goal.
Roman considers most of Pittsburgh’s local churches to be “partners for peace,” he said.
“Liddy [Barlow] is a partner for peace and a believer in the peace process, and I have 110 percent confidence in her leadership as an advocate for peace,” said Roman, who, during his tenure as CRC director, has addressed more than 30 local Christian congregations.
“But all these divestment resolutions do is further embolden a few types of hostile actors and entities whose purpose is to destroy Israel rather than build an atmosphere that can lead to a just and fair solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” Roman said.
Those who benefit from the passage of the UCC resolution include Hamas and others who support a “one-state solution,” he added.
“Arab dictatorships and terror organizations benefit from these declarations because the attention is turned away from compromise and toward punitive measures that entrench radicals and obstructionists on the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic camps’ sides,” Roman said, adding that those who applaud divestment resolutions include “white supremacist groups, the KKK, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and ISIS. A vote for divestment is a vote for the dissolution of sanity and peace and the very process that supposedly leads to a two-state solution.”
While acknowledging that a two-thirds majority of delegates voted in favor of the UCC’s divestment resolution, Barlow, who was not a voting delegate at the Synod, remains unconvinced that they were all well educated on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“I think the delegates voted with good intentions,” she said, “but without a full understanding of the situation in the Middle East.”
One of the lessons Barlow learned while on her recent interfaith trip to Israel, she said, is that “the conflict doesn’t just have two sides.”
She noted that while there was “a strong interest” among the Synod’s delegates to hear the voices of Palestinian Christians during the assembly, there was an absence of mainstream Jewish voices, although representatives from the pro-BDS movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, were present.
“Personally,” Barlow said, “I think [the discussion] would have been enriched with more diverse Jewish voices.”
Despite the passage of the resolution, the General Synod has no authority to enforce it among individual churches, noted the Rev. David Ackerman, conference minister for the Penn West Conference of the UCC. The Penn West Conference is comprised of more than 100 congregations throughout Western Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“We often agree to disagree,” said Ackerman, who served as a local pastor for 21 years but has never been to the Middle East.
“I am far more qualified to pray for justice and healing and peace in the Middle East than I am to comment on how to accomplish it.”
Ackerman had no vote at the Synod, and lamented the possibility of negative fallout from the adoption of the divestment resolution.
“As far as this resolution works against healing and peace and justice, it is grievous to me,” he said.
In the past, the UCC has recognized Israel’s right to secure borders, and “has called anti-Semitism a sin,” Ackerman noted.
“I don’t want our Jewish neighbors to say this is an act of anti-Semitism. I don’t think that is where the Synod is coming from. They are trying to make a distinction between the policies of the [Israeli] government and the Jewish people.”
“While the Synod made its pronouncement, we in Western Pennsylvania are not of one mind on this and we want to work on having a good relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters and our Palestinian brothers and sisters,” Ackerman added.
Divesting funds from companies doing business with Israel likely will have little effect on furthering the peace process, said the Rev. Douglas Patterson, senior minister of Smithfield United Church of Christ in downtown Pittsburgh. Patterson has been to Israel six times throughout his 40 years as an ordained minister.
“It’s very difficult for any organization to make a sound statement pro or con simply by the divestment of funds,” Patterson said. “But it brings the issue to the forefront for us to talk about.”
The divestment issue, he noted, is a “hot topic” right now.
“I think a lot of times in Protestant Christian denominations, people jump on the bandwagon without even understanding why,” Patterson said. “I’m not diminishing the actions of the General Synod. But we are a congregationally based denomination, and the resolution is not binding. Our congregation could say it is way off base. But it does bring the issue to the forefront.”
If the topic is raised in his own congregation, Patterson said, he will work to “come up with an objective point of view as responsibly as we can.”
“It’s so difficult to pick one side and throw everything you have into that,” he added. “There are some black and white issues. But for the most part, here, we are talking gray. The Palestinians suffer, and the Jews fear for their safety.”
A separate resolution that would have labeled the Israeli presence in the West Bank as South African-style apartheid failed to secure a required two-thirds majority to pass. A majority of delegates, however, did vote in favor of the apartheid resolution, with 312 in favor and 295 opposed, along with 31 abstentions.
The UCC, according to Barlow, “has a long history of being on the forefront of many social justice issues.”
Last week, the Episcopal Church took up, but failed to pass, a similar divestment resolution; the Mennonite Church considered a divestment resolution, but deferred it for two years.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.