Why Presbyterians Should Support BDS

The following is a speech I wrote for Medea Benjamin, co-founder of human rights organization CODEPINK, to encourage the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to divest from corporations that profit off of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

On 20 June 2014, the church voted in favor of divestment.

What is the BDS movement? And why should Presbyterians support it?

BDS stands for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” It is a movement that calls for citizens and institutions around the world to put economic and political pressure on Israel, not to call for an end to Israel. It is a movement that seeks justice for the Palestinians, Israel’s indigenous Arab population.

It is a movement with three simple demands:

  1. the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian land,
  2. full equality for Israeli Palestinians, and
  3. the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

I have seen many anti-BDS ads and heard many anti-BDS rumors; they have all been misleading, and even wrong. BDS is not anti-Israel; BDS is anti-occupation. BDS is by no means against the existence of Israel; BDS is against the construction of internationally illegal settlements on Palestinian land; BDS is against the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and forced removal of Palestinian citizens.

BDS is not racist or anti-Semitic; in fact, the opposite is true. BDS is an explicitly anti-racist movement. BDS demands an end to the Israeli government’s institutionally racist policies. What many don’t know is that, although Israel is a Jewish state, not everyone in it is Jewish. 75% of Israelis are Jewish; over 20% are Arab. Yet these Arab citizens, descendants of Israel’s indigenous Palestinian population, do not share the rights of their fellow Jewish citizens. They live in a society that is not unlike Jim Crow South in our country, only 60 years ago. And, just as white Americans had a strong leadership role in the fight against racism in their country, Jews play a very important role in the BDS movement, in the fight against Israeli racism. I myself, as a Jew, support BDS wholeheartedly, because BDS is about human rights, BDS is about human dignity.

The BDS movement it not a political movement. It is not left-wing; it is not right-wing. It is not religious. It is a campaign for basic human rights. Its proponents do not agree on everything. What they do agree on is that Israel must end its discrimination against Palestinians. Some proponents support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that would grant Palestine its own separate state; others support a one-state solution, one that will unite all Palestinian and Israeli territories into a single state, one that doesn’t confer special privileges to those of a particular race.

This what BDS is. But, you might be wondering, why should Presbyterians support it?

The reasons abound.

First and foremost, as Christians, you must never forget, Jesus Christ himself was a Palestinian Jew. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in what is today the Palestinian West Bank. Since 1967, the West Bank has, against international law, I might add, been military occupied by the Israeli government.

Palestinians live in a police state. They have no freedom of movement. In order to travel, they must move through military checkpoints. Even if they are bleeding to death, even if a mother’s water has just broken, and they must go to the hospital, even if their life depends on it, they must stop at the military checkpoint. Between 2000 and 2005, 67 Palestinian mothers were forced to give birth at Israeli military checkpoints. 36 babies died.

If Jesus were born today, he would have been born into these prison-like conditions; he would have faced intense, violent discrimination and persecution from the Israeli government. We must never forget that.

Many people see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious conflict, but, at the heart of it, it isn’t at all. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about politics; not religion. I have heard many people say “Why even bother, people have been fighting in the Middle East for hundreds of years.” Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, however, along with many other scholars, has shown that this is not true. Before 1947, the year in which the war that founded Israel began, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in relative peace. In this war, from 1947-’48, Israel engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign, forcibly expelled over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and massacring many Palestinian towns. Palestinians today refer to this event as al-Nakba, or “the catastrophe.” That same historian Ilan Pappé, an Israeli Jew who supports the BDS campaign, wrote an entire book about this, called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

You see, the conflict is not about religion. Over 10% of the world’s Palestinian population is Christian. Palestinian Christians, however, have endured horrific discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Israeli government. Many were forced to flee the country and take refuge elsewhere.

As Americans, Israel has everything to do with us. The US sends $3.5 billion of military aid to Israel per year. That is enough to feed half of the world’s hungry children. But that money is going to support egregious human riots violations. And that money is our money. Those are taxpayer dollars. We are paying for it.

The US is virtually alone its its unflinching support of Israel. In 2012, the UN overwhelmingly voted for Palestinian statehood. 138 countries, including almost all of the world’s superpowers, voted to recognize Palestine; only nine countries voted against it, mostly the US and Canada and small ally countries. Palestine still doesn’t have a state, but that is what we are working for with BDS.

Last year, George Bisharat, a professor of law at the University of California, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that, now that Palestine has statehood status, it can take Israel to the International Criminal Court for a wide variety of crimes, including bombing civilian areas and targeting infrastructure.

Israeli officials have known this since 1967, when Theodor Meron, then legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and later president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, wrote to one of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s aides: “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

The first stipulation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council in November 1967, was “[w]ithdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Israel, almost 47 years later, is still in fragrant violation of this resolution.

As Presbyterians, the reasons to support the BDS movement are only stronger. Presbyterians have a strong tradition of commitment to social justice issues. In the words of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the “Presbyterian Church’s commitment to justice is core to its identity and understanding as followers of Jesus Christ.” The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has been deeply involved in human rights efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leon, Haiti, and more. The PCUSA also pressured countries, especially Russia, to adopt the optional protocol of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Israel has faced heated criticism in recent years for violating this convention. Just last year, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child released a report showing the Israeli government has illegally arrested and tortured thousands of children in recent years. In just the first 13 years of the 21st century, Israel murdered 1,518 Palestinian children. That is one every three days. Imagine that was your child.

Former President Jimmy Carter himself called Palestinian liberation the most important human rights issue of today. In 2006, at the UK’s annual Hay Festival, a national cultural festival Bill Clinton called “The Woodstock of the mind,” Carter said, and I quote, “[o]ne of the greatest human rights crimes on Earth is the starvation and imprisonment of 1.6 million Palestinians.”

At the time, Israel had been imposing a blockade on Gaza, one of the two primary Palestinian territories. The Israeli government was refusing to allow food and medicine into the territory. A senior Israeli official explained the idea was “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Israel went so far as to limit the number of calories of food they were allowing in. Health officials calculated the smallest possible number of calories Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians would need to survive. No more food was let in.

Because of this blockade, 10% of Palestinian children in Gaza under 5 have their growth permanently stunted by malnutrition. Because of this blockade, 58.6% of schoolchildren, over a third of pregnant mothers have anemia.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and countless human rights organizations spoke out against the blockade. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a strong supporter of Israel, criticized the blockade; he spoke out in support of the Palestinians, saying “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”

This shows the power of social movements to inspire positive change. 800,000 people, two-thirds Gaza, relied on UN aid in order to survive. Because people cared, because people organized, because people, people like you and me, spoke out against injustice, the Israeli blockade of the West Bank ended.

The BDS movement is the same kind of grassroots movement.

This is why I, as a Jew, as an American, as a human rights activist, support the BDS movement. This is why I encourage you, all of you, as Christians, as Presbyterians, as Americans, a human beings, to support the BDS movement.

Micah 6:8 reads “God has told you, o mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

The BDS movement calls for justice for the Palestinian people. The BDS movement calls for the end of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories. The BDS movement calls for the end to Israeli racism. The BDS movement calls for the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The BDS movement calls for human rights for all Palestinians.

If we seek justice, if we love kindness, if we wish to walk humbly with God, supporting the BDS movement is the perfect means to do so.