Opinion: Coercive economic actions are ineffective in Israel/Palestine conflict

Mar 28, 2016 by

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I share the longing of many others in the Mennonite church for an end to the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and I grieve the suffering of Palestinian people. But I have reservations about the boycott-and-sanctions movement against Israelis because it is likely to be counterproductive. Christians, who have deep roots in the traditions and sacred texts of Judaism, should build reconciling relationships rather than coerce or make threats.

People of the United States carry particular responsibility for wrongs in the West Bank because of the enormous military aid our country provides to Israel ($3 billion per year, more than to any other country). What can people of conscience in the U.S. do about injustice in the West Bank? We must not remain silent.

If Israeli occupation of the West Bank were driven primarily by economic interests, boycotts and sanctions might have effect. But the settler movement is largely ideological and theological, unlikely to respond to economic pressure. Boycotts or sanctions that communicate we are going to hurt you may have unintended consequences.

I have learned from the extraordinary 2013 book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by progressive Jewish author Ari Shavit. The first line reads, “For as long as I can remember I remember fear.” It may be difficult for us to see modern Israel, with its wealth and military power, as living in fear. But in fact many Jews today feel vulnerable, for valid reasons. They cannot forget the incomprehensible slaughter of Jewish people in Western Europe in the 20th century and the fact that nations surrounding Israel have tried on several occasions to destroy the modern state.

Countless Jews in Israel tell of parents and grandparents who died in gas chambers. Today some Jews in Europe are asking whether antisemitism there has again reached a point that Jews should leave the continent. The danger is existential, and at least one nation in the Middle East has repeatedly expressed desire to annihilate Israel. None of this justifies the actions of settlers in the West Bank, but it puts them in context.

Most people who promote boycotts or sanctions do not hate Israel or the Jews. But that is the way many Jews read such actions. Threats and coercion may simply increase the sense of victimhood and vulnerability for a people in post-traumatic stress. Boycotts and sanctions may induce Jewish Israelis who live in fear to seize every bit of turf possible, motivated by a belief that Jews have to look out for themselves because nobody else will.

I do not have a formula for what will bring justice to Israel/Palestine, aside from the power of the gospel to change hearts and minds. But my understanding of conflict transformation makes me want to build relationships on both sides of this grievous conflict.

Perhaps instead of promoting boycotts or sanctions, we could:

  • Buy stock in companies involved with Israel, then go to shareholder meetings and speak up for justice.
  • Appeal to American politicians and lawmakers to stop writing checks for more weapons for Israel.
  • Support moderate voices and the beleaguered peace movements among Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Educate ourselves biblically and theologically so we do not fall for millennial ideology that makes Christians give uncritical support to Israel. (See the new book by Walter Brueggemann, Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.)
  • Unite in fervent prayer for healing in the West Bank and let the world know Mennonites are doing that.

Before we imagine that we can make an impact on the behavior of Israeli Jews in the West Bank, we will have to build enough relationship with them for them to trust our motives and friendship. My impression is that Mennonites in North American are not even close to that level of trust-building. Our support for sanctions or boycotts might only add to a dangerous polarization and sever ties we need for the hard work of reconciliation.

J. Nelson Kraybill, Mennonite pastor and president of Mennonite World Conference, leads Bible study tours to Israel/Palestine.


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  • Berry Friesen

    If I follow Rev. Kraybill’s reasoning, I will stop my boycott of stock market securities related to pornography, tobacco or military production until I have built a relationship with the workers and managers of such companies.

    I also will end my refusal to patronize businesses that pay their workers slave wages because the owners of those businesses might take it personally.

    Please, that would be absurd; our actions speak for us. We oppose the illegal annexation of the West Bank by Israel. Thus, we do not invest in or buy products produced by businesses that are operating in the West Bank. This conveys no hostility and is easy for the world to understand because it is such a common moral exercise. Why complicate it, Rev. Kraybill?

    Whether our actions will be “effective” in changing the policies of the Israeli state is beyond Kraybill’s or my capacity to predict. But as we have been taught by our Mennonite teachers, effectiveness is not our primary basis for deciding how to act.

    By the way, many Jews living in the US and some living in Israel also refuse to patronize or invest in companies doing business in the occupied territories of Palestine. They too have decided to act justly.

  • Peter Janzen

    It’s also very easy for us who don’t live under the threat of being stabbed in our throat on our way to work (no, this wasn’t in the West Bank, it was in Tel Aviv) to sit back and judge the actions of those who do as repeating Jim Crow, no?

  • Lisa Schirch

    A third way is to both support Palestinian calls for nonviolent resistance and to reach out to Jewish communities at the same time. Mennonites have historic relationships with Jews. We were both persecuted by Protestants and Catholics. We both have been chased out of other countries. We lived together for centuries in the same isolated villages. There have been Mennonite-Jewish marriages throughout history. We have the same last names. Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch languages are strikingly similar. Early Anabaptists went to Rabbis to help them translate the Bible. Yet all this historic relationship has not translated into real action to build relationships with Jewish communities. Nelson Kraybil- it would be great if Mennonite World Conference would take on this task. Mennonites could be in a position of both working for justice and creating opportunities for relationship and understanding. We can both oppose occupation and recognize our historic relationships with Jewish communities. We can both support safety and security for Palestinians and Israelis. We can work against Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. We can apologize and lament Mennonite failures to protect Jews during the Holocaust and take in Jewish refugees in its aftermath. We can apologize and lament to Palestinians that our participation in Christian persecution of Jews created the dynamic that led to the ongoing suffering of Palestinians, who are paying for the crimes of European Christians. But the narrow approach the church has been taking to this region does not allow this type of peacebuilding. We can do better.

  • Byron Rempel-Burkholder

    A key reason for supporting BDS is that across the board, our Christian brothers and sisters in the occupied territories are advocating it as one of the last remaining nonviolent means available to pressure Israel to end the occupation. See the Kairos document of 2009, which continues to be a strong and comprehensive theological statement of the Palestinian church on what it is experiencing these days. It is found at the Kairos Palestine website: http://www.kairospalestine.ps/content/kairos-document

  • Philipp Gollner

    Kudos to the MWR for demonstrating the significance of an independent Christian press that functions as a forum for various voices.

    Narrow dichotomies, often spoken in echo chambers, still drive too much of our denomination’s and our partners’ engagement with the region, its history, and Christian involvement. Moving beyond these might give the church the courage to chart a course that will allow it to give to and receive from all involved. That is who we can be – instead of responding to one kind of black vs. white fundamentalism with another, and instead of rigidly aligning ourselves with a movement that has a concerning track record of toxicity, revisionist history and stalled momentum.

    • Berry Friesen

      Oh my, Philipp, you do have a knack! “Narrow dichotomies,” “echo chambers,” “black vs. white fundamentalism,” “rigidly aligning,” “concerning track record of toxicity, revisionist history and stalled momentum.” Yikes!

      Still, I am easily persuaded by the directness and simplicity of Byron’s reminder below: Palestinian Christians living in Palestine and Israel and with whom Mennonites have worked for decades have asked us to support BDS.

      May the day come soon when you sit face-to-face with our Palestinian brothers and sisters and tell them what you think of their request for support of BDS.

      • Philipp Gollner

        What makes you think that Mennonites don’t also have brothers and sisters who have been harmed or targeted by the words and deeds of the movement we are (finally openly) asked to join?

        The only place that simplicisms will get us to is the Western Christian bully pulpit.

        • Berry Friesen

          Philipp, you mean the Palestine-Israel conflict is complicated? Thank you for that insight; let’s you and me figure it out, OK?

          So how should we factor in the call from those living in that complexity, the ones who will lose jobs when the illegal factories close yet still want us to stop buying the goods those factories produce?

          And how shall we weigh the harm done to those who will lose the lucrative profits from stolen land, illegal operations and oppression? Shall we be fair and balanced when weighing justice and injustice?

  • Dale Welty

    It is the Jews who are rightfully occupying the land permanently deeded to them by God as recorded in various verses in the Old Testament. In fact, the current nation of Israel does not even occupy all the land God permanently deed to them. The fact that Israel became a nation in 1948 on the land deeded to them by God was no accident. The religious left is clearly on the wrong side of this issue. God bless Israel. Dale Welty

  • Dale Welty

    Bruce, First, I don’t speak metaphorically. I don’t think Hitler used DNA
    to identify the six million Jews he killed. Further,
    who knows the DNA of Abraham? After hundreds of years
    as slaves in Egypt, God knew who his people were when he
    brought them out. Rahab did not have bio Jewish DNA,
    yet she is listed in the Hebrew Hall of Faith and is in
    the genealogy of Jesus. Secondly, I must revise one
    sentence in my comments to read as follows:”The fact
    that Israel was rebirthed as a nation in 1948 on the
    land permanently deeded to them by God was no accident”.
    The Holocaust by Hitler became the primary event that
    led to the rebirth of Israel as a nation in 1948. U.S.
    President Truman signed the document recognizing Israel
    as a nation against the advice of nearly all of his
    close advisers. Further evidence that God was
    involved. I have learned that Truman read the Bible
    through three times in his early age which I believe God
    use in his decision to recognize the rebirth of Israel.

    In Genesis 12:1 is the promise of land for his people,
    verse 2 is the promise that his people will be a great
    nation, and verse 3 is a promise his people will be a
    blessing to all people. Generally speaking, God is not
    in the real estate business, however, because he is God
    he did promise land to his chosen people (De 7, 10 &
    26) as is recorded in Genesis 12:1 and confirmed in Gen
    13, 15, 17,26, 35,48, 50. Ex. 6, 15, 33. Deu. 3, 11.
    Jos. 1 and Ezek. 26.
    The rebirth of Israel is a
    reminder that God, in this case of his chosen people, is
    in the real estate business. Please note this is an
    unconditional, everlasting promise. Further, In Rev.21,
    it talks about the New Jerusalem, not New York, New
    Paris, New London or New Tokyo. As Christian, we are
    grafted in. The Bible
    says He, Jesus, came unto his own-the Jews (John 1:11 & 12).
    Dale Welty

  • Dale Welty

    Bruce, yes to all you have stated in your last paragraph as nothing is
    to hard for God. But that does not negate what God states in Genesis
    12:1-3. It is in God’s plan to rebirth the nation of Israel because
    they are his chosen people God has the final say on this issue as I have
    provided in my earlier comments. The Abrahamic Covenant was not conditional nor did it have an
    expiration date, therefore it is an everlasting covenant.
    If you want to dispute the facts and the supporting scripture that the
    Jews are the rightful possessors of the territory in the nation of
    Israel, so be it. I choose to believe what is said in numerous verses
    in scripture on this issue. Dale Welty

    • Bruce Leichty

      Yes, Dale, but do you also accept that everyone who claims to be a Jew is a Jew — and do you honor relevant Scripture on that subject to the same extent that you honor your own favorite Scriptures? Apparently the author of Revelation was not inclined just to take everyone at his word; see Rev. 3:9.

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