Conscious consumers: How Mennonite Church came to support BDS

Christian consumers: How the Mennonite Church came to boycott Israel
6 min read
10 July, 2017
Analysis: After two years of educational initiatives and deliberation, the Mennonite church has urged its congregations to 'avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence', writes Daoud Kuttab.
A demonstration organised partly by the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an initiative among Mennonite congregations [Getty]

Two years ago, the Mennonite Church held its biannual convention in Kansas City, Missouri, and was asked to take a position on calls by Palestinian Christians to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.

The resolution was not voted on, but delegates committed to spending the coming years undertaking further discussion and research.

The delegates met again on July 6, 2017, in Orlando, Florida - and the resolution calling for divestment from "companies that are profiting from the occupation" was again put to them.

The 548 delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution. Ninety-eight percent of the delegates supported the resolution to "urge individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in settlements".

What happened in this two-year period, and what brought about this major turn-around?

Jonathan Brenneman, coordinator of the Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking for the Mennonite Church, USA, explained the initiative to educate and discuss with Mennonites the intricacies of the Palestinian conflict. "At the 2015 Kansas City biannual event delegates unanimously voted that they wanted more education on how to better support partners in peace making," said Brenneman.

As people who seek to follow Jesus in daily life, we know that how we spend and invest our money is an important part of our faith life

Brenneman, who was tasked with educating delegates, began a process that included both spiritual and political instruction. Reverend Alex Awad, a retired pastor from Jerusalem, was dispatched to preach and discuss the situation in Palestine throughout Mennonite churches.

At the same time, a joint Palestinian-Jewish team of speakers was also asked to travel around the US educating the church on issues of human rights. Palestinian human rights attorney Jonathan Kuttab and various speakers from Jewish Voice for Peace toured the US visiting some 25 locations over a two-month period, speaking jointly on issues regarding Palestine and Israel.

The educational blitz produced impressive results.

  Read more: Can London's Palestine Expo help redress Israel bias?

The text of the resolution states the following: "As followers of Jesus and his gospel of reconciliation, we long for peace, security, justice, and flourishing of all people living in Israel-Palestine, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Palestinian people have suffered injustices, violence, and humiliation, including the Crusades, colonialism, and since 1967, life under Israeli military occupation and in refugee camps throughout the Middle East."

Making this admission and turning their words into commitments, the Mennonites resolve to take real action.

"As people who seek to follow Jesus in daily life, we know that how we spend and invest our money is an important part of our faith life. Concerns about simplicity, fair trade, and sustainability guide our individual and institutional purchasing decisions," reads the resolution.

"We urge individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in settlements. Likewise, Mennonites have spent years developing investment strategies that reflect our deepest convictions. We want to invest in peace with justice, not to profit or benefit from the suffering of others."

 
The peaceful Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement has
gained significant momentum in recent years [AFP]

The Mennonites also turned to their own three-billion dollar investment management arm saying: "We ask Everence, on behalf of Mennonite Church USA, to periodically convene representatives of Mennonite related organizations and agencies involved in the region, in order to share counsel and review investment practices for the purpose of withdrawing investments from companies that are profiting from the occupation.

"We urge all Mennonite Church USA agencies, related organizations, and members to similarly review their investments."

The two-year research period also revealed the role that Mennonites had with regards the Holocaust. Brenneman told The New Arab that it appears some Mennonites of German heritage had either a direct or indirect role in what happened.

This relationship was revealed in a book by Harvard University's Ben Goossen, entitled 'Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era'.

Mennonites have spent years developing investment strategies that reflect our deepest convictions

The discoveries of the historic role by Mennonites in German nationalism could have easily given the drafting committee and the working group cold feet.

But instead, and with the advice from Lutheran Reverend Mitri Raheb - a member of the working group - this newfound information helped the group to come to terms with the past, without making Palestinians pay for the sins of western Christian anti-Semitism, according to Brenneman.

As a result the finalised draft included some courageous admissions of past mistakes, and a genuine willingness to deal with them and to follow up on relationships with Jews as well as Palestinians.

The issue of the Palestinian academic calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions proved a little more troubling for Mennonites

The resolution lists these confessions and laments, and follows up with a commitment to rectify these wrongs. It states: "We confess that we, as Mennonites, as Christians, and as Americans, bear some responsibilities for the injustice and violence that both peoples have experienced historically and currently. We commit ourselves to take active and specific steps to redress these harms.

"On one hand, we will oppose military occupation and seek a just peace in Israel and Palestine; on the other, we will seek deeper relationships with Jewish communities and actively oppose anti-Semitism."

However, the issue of the Palestinian academic calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions proved a little more troubling for Mennonites. While they had no problem with adopting the economic divestment part of BDS, the idea of with the idea of an academic boycott was more difficult to accept.

"Our values and principles as a Church include the concept of dialogue and discussion. We couldn't in all honesty support the BDS calls for academic cultural boycott. Even though some could see the benefits of this strategy, we could not speak to it in a unified voice," said Jonathan Brenneman.

The issue of the eventual solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was also discussed in detail. The resolution drafters chose to avoid pre-determining the result of negotiations.

So rather than making public support for either a one-state or two-state solution, the Mennonite Resolution takes a much more comprehensive view. "This resolution does not advocate for any particular solution or any particular vision of statehood. Within both communities there are many differing ideas on this matter. Both Israeli and Palestinian people desire to live in safety and freedom and it is ultimately up to them, not Mennonites, to determine what that will look like."


Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab