By Revd Colin SMITH, Methodist minister and vice-chairman of Methodist Friends of Judaism.
The British Methodist Church has a proud history of working for justice and fairness and for racial and gender equality. In the 18th Century, John and Charles Wesley, the founding fathers, had a ministry to the poorest in society, caring for them in body, mind and spirit. In the 19th Century, many early trade unionists were Methodists. The Labour party was said to have owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.
But in recent years, the Methodist church has shown signs of being less than fair. At the 2010 annual Methodist conference, a biased group produced a heavily anti-Israel report entitled Justice for Palestine and Israel – but it was without justice for Israel. The Jewish community in Britain and abroad was understandably outraged. You do not achieve peace or reconciliation by taking one side in a dispute and refusing to listen to the other. The situation in Northern Ireland proves that.
Earlier this year, a group of Methodists founded the Methodist Friends of Judaism and the then Chief Rabbi came to our Golders Green inaugural meeting. We adopted three aims: To celebrate the contribution of Judaism to not only Christianity but the world; to raise awareness of the historic and continuing presence of anti-Judaism within the Christian Church; and to challenge anti-Semitism in whatever guise it manifests itself.
I spoke on the third aim, critical of the 2010 report. I said it was “part of being a democracy” that we can criticise and even strongly oppose a government’s policies and Israelis do just that.
“But somewhere there is a line that is crossed by some Christians, including Methodists, and they are often those who are most concerned for justice and peace. It’s to do with treating the only Jewish state differently and saying it’s worse than anywhere else and must be boycotted as an apartheid state.”
At this year’s London Methodist conference, the church’s faith and order committee declined to produce a report on Christian Zionism. It noted the 2010 report used the word “complex” no fewer than 11 times to describe the historical, political, religious and cultural dimensions of Israel-Palestine.
But a small group within the conference brought a notice of motion “expressing concern over the continuing occupation of the West Bank”. The motion began with four contentious statements about Israel, including the suggestion the “deteriorating situation in the West Bank” was evidenced by “the large number of detentions of children by the Israeli Army and the alleged abuse they suffer while held by the military.” How is something evidenced by something that is alleged?
These anti-Israeli statements were removed after objections. Rushing to conclude business, the conference passed the rest of the notice of motion,
directing the Council “to ensure the joint public issues team prepares a briefing document for the Methodist people upon the arguments for and against the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement” and for a report based on this to be brought to the 2014 conference. The conference didn’t agree to support BDS but, in a misplaced spirit of fairness, asked to have pro and con arguments.
There is no fairness in considering the pros and cons: they aren’t morally equal. To single out Israel for boycott (especially in view of Jewish history), disinvestment and sanctions is anti-Semitic. There are so many countries with appalling human rights records but the Methodist Conference has never debated boycotts for them.
Most Methodists have no truck with anti-Semitism. Methodists are fair-minded and compassionate people but they are presented with stories from one side in a long-standing, sensitive situation. They aren’t encouraged to hear the different voices.
The Methodist church is now holding an online consultation on BDS and anyone can submit comments. Some of us think a consultation that allows anyone in the world to respond is a bit odd.
We very much hope fairness will win and that the Methodist people will be encouraged to hear the different stories from Palestine and Israel without boycotts, sanctions or disinvestment. In any case, Methodists are independent minded people.
They are quite capable of boycotting boycotts.