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Churches Divest from Companies Feeding Violence

The pictures of Israeli civilians watching and cheering from a hilltop at the heart-rending massacre of people in Gaza by tanks and aircraft are chilling.
Gaza is neither a state nor a country. It has no army.

Sandwiched between Egypt on one side and the Israeli army on the other, the mostly defenseless Palestinians have been slaughtered in more than two weeks of relentless bombing by one of the most powerful militaries on earth, armed to its teeth by the United States and its European allies.

Disgracefully, the U.S was the only state that voted against a recent United Nations’ Human Rights Commission resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Several European Union states abstained.

The typical Orwellian newspeak of “Israel has the right to defend itself” flounders in the face of the horrendous statistics: More than a thousand Palestinians killed while the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets is counted as less than a dozen.

This is the way Israel has fought its wars in recent decades—showing contempt for international laws and the rules of military engagement.

I have often enough commented on the hypocrisy and double standards of U.S. administrations when it comes to human rights, a hypocrisy that undermines the efforts of all of us who seek to hold our own governments accountable for crimes against humanity.

If the U.S. government and its timid European allies cannot be pressured into defending human persons in Palestine, to whom should we turn?

The Israeli military machine is dependent on Western business corporations. This raises the question of corporate responsibility regarding international law and human rights.

Israel procures a significant amount of its military hardware from U.S.-based defense companies, a fact that solidifies the connection between U.S. foreign policy and business agendas.

I am glad, therefore, to learn that the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June to divest from three companies—Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard (HP)—that sold equipment to Israel that facilitated illegal activities, such as the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, building an apartheid-like wall of separation, and the use of military drones in heavily civilian areas.

“Hewlett-Packard provides bio-scanners that are used to racially profile Palestinians and to track and control their movement,” explained Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition that has mobilized support for boycott and divestment efforts.

“It is no overstatement to say that many of these campaigns have dramatically shifted the discourse around Israel/Palestine—in the mainstream media, on university campuses, in the church pews and beyond—in an unprecedented way,” she said.

In 2012, the United Methodist Church passed resolutions supporting the boycott of products made in Israeli settlements.

The Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corp. divested its stockholdings in Caterpillar, HP and Veolia Environnement, a French water, waste and transport management company involved in the construction of a tram system being built by French engineering companies on occupied Palestinian land.

A year later, several Methodist regional conferences also voted to divest, and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) board of directors unanimously decided that MCC (U.S.) would not “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians, Israelis and other people groups.”

These are, admittedly, small steps. But several small steps can precipitate a social avalanche.

Corporations with internationally renowned brand names (such as the three above) are quick to respond to criticism with pious pronouncements about their ethical policies and commitments to respecting rights.

However, reading Motorola’s human rights policy shows that the company only addresses internal employee issues, such as safety in the workplace and fair working hours.

Of course, it is not fair to blame business corporations for the use to which their products may be put by their buyers. But shouldn’t they be more discerning in their sales?

Wouldn’t we be right to blame somebody who knowingly sold alcohol to an alcoholic or cigarettes to a schoolboy?

The 2011 United Nation’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” called on business enterprise to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

The document also calls on them to understand the “concerns of potentially affected stakeholders by consulting them directly… In situations where such consultation is not possible, business enterprises should consider reasonable alternatives such as consulting credible, independent expert resources, including human rights defenders and others from civil society.”

Ignorance of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was largely the reason for the shocking complicity of many European Christians in Europe’s centuries-long maltreatment of the Jews.

Today, it is still ignorance of the Bible, especially the New Testament, coupled with ignorance of the 20th-century history of Palestine, which has led to the shocking betrayal by many American Christians of their brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank.

Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.