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IZAIA - Israel, Zionist & International Affairs

May 27, 2008

On May 22, 2008 Hadassah’s National Advocacy Department hosted a Conference Call with Ethan Felson to discuss the United Methodist Church and the Israel Divestment Agenda. Below you will find a summary of Mr. Felson’s analysis as well as a question and answer session. 

Notes from Conference Call with Ethan Felson: Analysis of the United Methodist ChurchIsrael Divestment Agenda

Thursday, May 22, 2008, 3:30 pm

Biography & Introduction

Ethan Felson is the Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). In his capacity as JCPA’s Director of Domestic Concerns, Ethan works with JCPA’s 14 national and 125 local agencies to shape consensus on a broad range of domestic issues and to help the community relations field convey that consensus to elected officials, the media, civic leaders and others. In the interfaith arena, Ethan has helped coordinate the response to divestment and corporate action proposals by the mainline Protestant churches, the reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion, as well as the evolving relationships between the Jewish community and other religious groups including Evangelical Christians and Muslims.

Mr. Felson has recently returned from the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) General Assembly in Fort Worth, TX, where he witnessed the overwhelming defeat of five different anti-Israel divestment resolutions. 

Ethan Felson’s Analysis

  • The United Methodist Church (UMC) is the largest Christian denomination in the U.S., with 8.4 million members in the U.S. and 11.1 million internationally. The UMC is therefore very powerful. 
  • There was a serious concern that the Methodists would be the next denomination to support divestment from companies doing business with Israel.
  • Only about a half dozen of the Church’s local chapters from around the country support divestment.
  • United Methodist Women, a large department of the Global Ministries Board, with a budget of almost $30 million, produced deeply disturbing materials including a children’s book, a teacher’s guide, and a “Mission Study” which turns the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its head.
    •  Zionist leaders were described as terrorists; David Ben Gurion is called an “extremist”
    • The birth of the State of Israel is called its “original sin”
  • Our approach to combat this is to emphasize that such language by the United Methodist Church takes a step back from balance and fair play.
  • The churches do not want to be seen as unfair.
  • Hadassah and the JCPA have been working together with other Jewish organizations to start a dialogue with the Methodists.
  • A national campaign is not enough. The UMC is diverse and members, leaders, and conference delegates come from all over the country.
  • We learned that talking to the Methodists was all about local relationships. It was very helpful at the General Conference to be able to say, “Hi, I work with so and so in San Antonio.” 
  • This angle will also be helpful with other Christian denominations. The issue of divestment will be coming up for the Presbyterians in a couple of weeks. 
  • Help and leadership from Hadassah is needed to engage United Methodist Women and help them understand how extreme their approach has been. Local relationships are key.
  • Grassroots leadership is needed to engage groups on the local level within the Jewish community. 
  • Hadassah and the JCPA will work together to develop effective training and “leave-behind” materials.
  • We need to identify the right people who can take advantage of existing relationships they have with Methodists in their communities.
  • In talking to the Methodists, we are not going into a room of enemies. Most UMC women do not even know about the women’s division materials and would be ashamed to be associated with them. 
  • We need to remember that Jews and Christians sometimes speak in different tones. Even if we speak in our quietest tone, we may still be perceived as yelling. 
  • Remember, we are not teaching a history lesson. We need to speak calmly and help Methodists understand that we share a goal of peace; we want to end the suffering of the Palestinians and the Jews. 
  • The next steps are identifying Jewish leaders for this outreach, developing training materials, training, identifying with whom we will meet, and then doing the work of dialogue and advocacy.

Question & Answer Session

Question: Can you tell us about your experience at the UMC’s General Conference in Texas? What resolutions were discussed and what was the overall feeling in the room?

Answer: The UMC holds a General Conference every four years, meeting for 10 days. This year the Conference was held in Fort Worth, TX. They focus on “holy conferencing” and meet in a convention setting to deal with the major issues of the day. Prayer is an important part of “holy conferencing.” Any Methodist can introduce a resolution. At this Conference there were 1,600 resolutions. There were five anti-Israel divestment resolutions. All of these resolutions were defeated. Several other resolutions critical and supportive to Israel were debated. Divestment was not the big issue at the convention – homosexuality was. To discuss resolutions, attendees break into committees, sub-committees, and working groups. The tone throughout the Conference was very civil.

Question: Were any resolutions passed that were anti-Israel?

Answer: Two resolutions passed that called for “socially responsible investment.” They were innocuous. There was also a resolution condemning the security barrier and alleged Israeli international law violations. There had been a move to amend it in a good way which was almost successful. The final was not what we wanted and it passed by a two-thirds vote. A resolution concerning holy land tours passed. A resolution calling for a more balanced approach for peace making almost passed – the vote was 52-48 (to reject).  

Question: Can you explain what the holy land tours resolution was about?

Answer: This was a resolution that has passed in the past. It states that people should go to the holy land to study and hear all voices. This year it was proposed that the resolution be amended to note that one should do so in a way that does not harm the local population – it included a call to avoid hotels and tours that are Israeli owned. Almost all of the anti-Israeli language was taken out on final passage. The resolution did, however, commend the UMC Women’s Mission Study. 

Question: Were there any references to the terrorist activities happening?

Answer: There were resolutions that condemned terror; however, the word “terror” does not have the same resonance in some of the churches. Many of the influentials strongly oppose President Bush and the “war on terror.” Instead of using the word terror, they tend to use “violence” and to condemn “violence against Israelis and Palestinians.” 

If you have any questions regarding this call, on-going divestment activities, or any other issue concerning Israel, please contact the IZAIA department at (212) 303-8169 or IZAIA@hadassah.org.

Share this backgrounder with your friends, family, and contacts and make sure to visit the Advocacy and the Zionism and Education Sections of the Hadassah website for continuing updates and more information: http://www.hadassah.org/advocacy

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