Christian organizations come together to take boycott, divestment action as Rafah campaign continues

(RNS) — Amid global outrage over an Israeli airstrike that killed at least 45 displaced Palestinians sheltering in tents in Rafah, a coalition of Christian groups is calling for a boycott and divestment of companies “supporting Israel’s military oppression of Palestinians.”

“As Christians, we seek to illuminate the sacred dignity of all people. We have tirelessly advocated for our U.S. government to stop the mass slaughter in Palestine,” the organizations wrote in a Wednesday (May 29) statement.

“Yet, more leverage is needed,” the statement continued.

Citing the New Testament story of Jesus overturning sellers’ tables in the Temple, the organizations called “economic non-cooperation with injustice” a core practice of nonviolent resistance within the Christian tradition.

The letter links to a list of companies that American Friends Service Committee, a major advocacy organization for Quakers, has identified as involved in specific human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories and Israel. 

The signatories of the letter include the Alliance for Baptists, American Friends Service Committee, Christians for a Free Palestine, Friends of Sabeel North America, Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace and Pax Christi USA.

More than 36,000 people have been killed and more than 81,000 injured in Gaza, according to health officials there, since Israel began a military operation in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which left an estimated 1,200 people dead and more than 200 taken captive.

FILE - Palestinians inspect the damage of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Jabaliya refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Israel and Hamas have both been accused of breaking the rules of armed conflict. Hamas killed hundreds of civilians and abducted scores more when it attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel has bombarded Gaza and told more hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes. The United Nations says it is collecting evidence of war crimes by all sides. But holding perpetrators to account for it is often difficult. (AP Photo/Abdul Qader Sabbah, File)

Palestinians inspect the damage of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Jabaliya refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Abdul Qader Sabbah, File)

Eli McCarthy, a peace activist involved in organizing the letter, said organizers had already heard from additional Christian organizations interested in pledging to join the collective boycott efforts, including the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network.

“The Christian call to boycott and divestment deepens our practice of active nonviolence. It illustrates how the way of nonviolence challenges us to withdraw our cooperation from the resources and material power which enable injustice and mass atrocities,” McCarthy told Religion News Service in an email.

The letter also specifically highlights a boycott campaign against Chevron organized in part by the American Friends Service Committee as well as anti-fossil fuel advocacy groups. “The Chevron corporation supplies Israel’s war machine with light and power via the operation and co-ownership of the major gas fields off the coast of occupied Palestinian land,” the organizers of the Chevron campaign wrote on their campaign page.

Chevron began producing natural gas again on a platform 12 miles offshore from the Gaza Strip about a month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, according to The New York Times.

Judy Coode, communications director for Pax Christi USA, told RNS: “We have to keep doing creative and more significant actions to have a real change in the Middle East. We support any nonviolent effort to draw attention to this issue and make people in this country aware of how we’re connected to this crisis.”

The Christian organizations, which have all previously been involved in peace activism in various ways, are also advocating for a military embargo, which they explain would involve governments, unions and universities ceasing to do any business with Israeli military and security companies.

The letter comes after more than 3,000 people, including college students and professors, were arrested at protests calling for universities to divest from Israel. It also comes a week after the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for war crimes and crimes against humanity for Israeli and Hamas leaders.

The effort echoes an international strategy known as BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which aims to exert economic and social pressure on Israel’s government to force it to uphold Palestinian rights. The movement draws inspiration from the boycotts used during the fight against apartheid in South Africa. However, the Christian letter organizers emphasize that they are not calling for sanctions, which makes their strategy different from BDS.

The Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Israel organizations have denounced BDS as antisemitic because they argue that the movement calls for “the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state.”

Despite those concerns, several Christian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and Mennonite Church USA, as well as the United Methodist Church’s pension board, have all approved specific divestment measures long before Israel’s current military campaign.

In the letter, the Christian organizations write, “This strategy of nonviolent non-cooperation is not against the existence of the state of Israel, but is for the sacred dignity, well-being, security, and human rights of all Palestinians as well as Israelis.”

This article has been updated to clarify that the letter’s organizers are only calling for boycott and divestment, not sanctions.

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