LONDON (Jun. 16)
A move by the Anglican Church to discuss divestment from Israeli businesses supporting the “occupation of Palestinian territory” is causing grave concern among the British Jewish community. Coming close on the heels of the motion by Britain’s Association of University Teachers to sever ties with two Israeli universities — a decision subsequently overturned following an international outcry — the Anglican move has sparked fears of a new push for boycotts of the Jewish state.
Of added concern is that the Anglican move follows last year’s decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest its holdings in Israel, with other denominations considering similar moves.
The proposals will be raised at next week’s Nottingham conference of the Anglican Consultative Council, which represents an estimated 77 million members in 38 Anglican provinces around the world, from South America to Africa to Asia.
The proposals come in the form of a study by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network, a body some Christian and Jewish leaders describe as a radical fringe group, which also will be reporting on issues such as homosexuality and AIDS.
The network will present the findings of a 2004 trip delegates took to the region, during which they were “exposed to the draconian conditions of the continuing occupation under which so many Palestinians live,” according to an official statement.
Particularly appalled by the “continuing policies of illegal home demolitions, detentions, checkpoints, identity card systems and the presence of the Israeli military that make any kind of normal life impossible,” the network concluded there was “little will on behalf of the Israeli government to recognize the rights of the Palestinians to a sovereign state to be created in the West Bank.”
“We are fearful that the Christian presence in the Holy Land is dwindling,” adds a source within the Anglican Church. “Our constituency are the Palestinian Christians. They are losing ground every day, they can’t go to work, can’t go to church. So the well-off and educated are leaving Palestine and the community is drying up.”
British Jewry, which long has enjoyed close relations with the country’s Christian community, is preparing to lobby hard against the proposals, with community leaders planning to join with other groups to oppose the Anglican campaign, having learned valuable lessons from the success of their efforts to overturn the university teachers’ motion.
A spokesman for the Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, confirmed that Sacks was “making representations, along with other community organizations,” to get the community’s point of view across.
Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum, a body promoting dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims, said he also had been in talks with Christian leaders on the subject.
“It’s not helpful to the peace process at all, and only a minority in the church support this, the same as with the [academic] boycott,” Sternberg said.
Condemnation also has come from within the church community. Geoffrey Smith, chairman of the Christian Friends of Israel lobby group, wrote to Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, the highest-ranking office in the Church of England, to express his concerns about “a very one-sided report.”
Rowan’s predecessor, Lord Carey, strongly criticized the concept of sanctions.
“Israelis are already traumatized and feel that the world is against them,” he said at the launch of a new human-rights initiative. “This proposal, if it is agreed, would be another knife in the back. Christians who owe so much to the Hebrew Scriptures and to Israel itself should not be among those who attack Israel in such a way.”
“The Anglican community takes very seriously its commitment to interfaith relations, and this is particularly true now when there is so much turmoil and trouble in the world,” Anglican Communion spokesman Jim Rosenthal said in response to communal criticism. “The church consistently calls for dialogue in the world and we hope this dialogue will be a force for healing and reconciliation.”
The network will present its findings at the main council meeting, after which a number of outcomes are possible. The council may formally receive the report but take no action, or it could call for a specific resolution, appoint study groups or send a church delegation to further research the situation.
Those lobbying against the divestment report have an encouraging precedent: Last month, the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group rejected calls from pro-Palestinian activists to withdraw nearly $365,000 worth of shares in the Caterpillar group, which manufactures armored bulldozers the Israeli army uses to demolish the homes of suspected terrorists and uncover arms-smuggling tunnels.
The Nottingham conference “is of concern,” says Jason Pearlman, spokesman for the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry. “But we have gained assurances from some sections of the church that they will not divest.”
Still, as Smith points out, the consultative council will be dominated by foreign delegates, including Riah Abu-Assal, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, who is expected to press forcefully for divestment.
“Out of 80 people at the conference, only eight are from Britain,” Smith said. “The majority are from overseas, where we have very little leverage.”
Pro-Israel campaigners can’t afford to be complacent, all too aware of the 2004 decision taken by the 3-million member Presbyterian Church (USA), which has assets of some $7 billion, to begin divesting from companies that contribute to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Similar moves are being discussed by the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.
The 2.3-million member Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion and has an investment portfolio of some $3.6 billion, also is considering whether to withdraw funds from Israel.
Although the consultative council has no power to issue orders, it can make recommendations to be considered in each constituent country. That could have a strong psychological effect, say campaigners, who warn that the simple fact that the issue has been raised in an Anglican country stands to further chip away at Israel’s image.