To whom do we listen?
A reflection on divestment in South Africa and in Palestine
by Leon Spencer
To whom do we listen? That was a critical ethical question when the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa, including church leadership, called for economic sanctions and divestment. It is a critical one now in the face of the appeal from Palestinian Christians and others from within Palestine for similar actions by the international faith community.
Many of us seem to have a hard time seeing the South Africa-Palestine parallels, but they are there. Both have or had populations defined as undesirable – Palestinians and black South Africans. Both restrict or restricted land, denying access based upon race and ethnicity. Both require or required identity documents. Both limit or limited a voice in political affairs. The list of injustices goes or went on and on. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in 2010 of going to the occupied territories and witnessing “the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children,” and finding “this humiliation familiar to me and [to] many black South Africans.”
Part of our difficulty in the United States is to accept the reality of the injustices Palestinians experience every day, far more difficult than it was to accept in apartheid South Africa. But even when we do, we have trouble deciding what if anything to do about it, and that was true in apartheid days as well. Political realities in our country provide considerable obstacles to anything deemed critical of the State of Israel, just as fears of “radical” black governments, and corruption and failures in independent Africa, provided excuses to avoid strong action against a “stable” South Africa. For both, we found or find it hard to be a prophetic voice.
Divestment remains for many of us an especially unacceptable method to secure justice. In South Africa, some voices in the western Church acknowledged the injustice of apartheid but called for a moderate evolutionary approach toward change; divestment, they said, would harm the economy and lead to even more suffering. We risk saying the same for Palestine.
Which is why the question, to whom do we listen, is so important. If leaders of the churches and civil society in South Africa had opposed divestment, it would have been unethical for the churches in the West to have gone ahead anyway. After all, the “local initiatives” principle of the Ten Principles of Partnership in the Anglican Communion has justice as well as companion diocesan applications. But they did make those calls, challenged by a “Kairos Document” (1985) that criticized a moderate “church theology,” called for a “prophetic theology,” and declared that now was the “moment of truth.” To their credit, key ecumenical as well as Anglican Church leaders in South Africa called for divestment. And eventually, also to their credit, the Episcopal Church embraced economic sanctions. Despite American church critics who felt “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime was the preferred witness, we listened.
Now we face a similar situation. Inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle, Palestinian Christians issued their own “moment of truth” document, “Kairos Palestine,” in 2009. In it they called for “a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel,” with the goal of “a just and definitive peace that will put an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories,” leading to “security and peace for all.” The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest and head of the important Sabeel Ecumenical Center in Jerusalem, was a signatory; four days later the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, joined other “Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem” in declaring that “we hear the cry of hope that our children have launched in these difficult times.”
To whom do we listen? Of course we do not have to do what others tell us if the action violates our conscience. Besides, tactics and strategies naturally engender debate among those deeply committed to confront injustice. But it is appropriate for us to ask how well engagement and investment, dialogue and patience, are working for us since 1948, when both the State of Israel and South Africa’s apartheid regime came into being, and to ask ourselves whether failing to support a local call for potentially additional economic pain to a people already suffering pain is but an excuse for an ineffective witness.
To whom do we listen? Maybe Archbishop Tutu, who wrote that “we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand as relentless settlement activity forecloses on the possibility of the two-state solution…. This harsh reality endured by millions of Palestinians requires people and organizations of conscience to divest from those companies – in this instance, from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard – profiting from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians. Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land.”
Or maybe Dr. Ateek: “For twenty years now, [we have been] eating, drinking, telling each other our stories, not to mention hugging and embracing, meanwhile Israel was feasting on our land…. We feel the ongoing agony, pain, and oppression of our people – our homes demolished, our land confiscated, our olive trees uprooted, our human and political rights denied and our dignity trampled. After over 40 years of misery we only hear ‘the Episcopal Church does not endorse divestment or boycott.’
“The occupation is not over,” he continued. “The settlements are expanding, our suffering continues, and the international community is unable to halt the injustice. Consequently, we see boycott, divestment, and sanctions as nonviolent direct action for the common good. We thank God for those people – Christians, Muslims, and Jews who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Thank God for people of conscience who are lifting up their prophetic voice! Thank God for all those, religious and secular people that are standing with us in our nonviolent struggle. By the mercy of God we will not allow the prophetic voice to die.”
Or maybe we listen to the Old Testament prophets themselves, whose approach to injustice was hardly a call for patient engagement toward evolutionary change.
To whom do we listen?
The Rev. Dr. Leon Spencer served as the executive director of the Washington Office on Africa (1998-2004) and as the consultant in the establishment of the Anglican Archives of the Middle East at St. George’s College in Jerusalem (1991-95). He is a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina.