STUART REES, Churches Support for the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement


Bernie Sanders, US Democrat candidate for the Presidency has caused controversy by criticising what he calls the cruel, racist policies of the government of Israel towards Palestinians. But it’s time that such comments were seen as not unusual, even taken for granted.

On April 30 in St. James Church Sydney, Christians seeking lasting peace for the people of Palestine and Israel, known as the Palestine/Israel Ecumenical Network (PIEN) will express views similar to Bernie Sanders’. They will announce their support for the BDS campaign for Palestinians’ rights to self determination.

That policy is courageous but could be regarded as unexceptional. BDS is a world-wide, non-violent, international law based movement. It seeks to end Israeli control of Palestinians lands, secure equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel and foster the right of return for peoples expelled from their homes in 1948.

The PIEN policy focuses on the activities of the former Hewlett Packard corporation (HP). Known as a manufacturer of desk top computers and printers, the company’s successors facilitate systems which sustain Israel’s illegal occupation. They provide equipment for the Israeli population registry and ID systems. All Israelis and Palestinians are required to carry an ID card which indicates their ethnicity and religion, a means of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews.

In 2007 the Israeli Prison Service contracted HP to develop and maintain an information system to include all prisoner records, details of prison management, human resources and intelligence. By February 2019, over 5000 Palestinians were held in Israel jails including at least 220 children.

Hewlett Packard has also provided technology for the Israeli navy in charge of enforcing the illegal blockade of Gaza since 2007; and it gives IT services to the Israeli Border Police.

The call to Australian churches to support this boycott has important precedents. In December 2009 , the Kairos statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem asked what theology could be found which justifies crimes perpetrated against a whole people and the dispossession of their lands.

That statement,’a moment of truth’, was a reminder that in Gaza, on the West Bank and in numerous refugee camps, Palestinians were dying, not just living in a state of hostility and conflict. The statement referred to life becoming unbearable. ‘We are dying every day, oppressed every day, thrown into prisons every day and we are expelled from Jerusalem with our children every day.’

In alliance with the Kairos statement, PIEN encourages Christians to pressure the Israeli government to end its occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza and its disregard of international law. Against this principled stand there is likely to be a backlash. Robot-like, intellectually lazy charges of ant-Semitism are usually circulated in reaction to any criticism of Israel.

In response to any backlash, Australian Churches should stress the moral and legal base of the BDS movement. Chapter One, Article One of the UN Charter says, ‘All people have the right to self determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’

This right to self determination confronts Israel governments’ ethnic cleansing as the condition for establishing a Jewish majority state, even though international law teaches that no benefits can be derived from illegal acts, that no right or law can be derived from injustice or from the commission of a wrong.

In that regard Martin Luther King taught that a boycott meant withdrawing from an evil system. Such an act, he said, was not heroic but a moral obligation.

The French human rights campaigner Stephan Hessel stressed that not to take action against injustice was to lose touch with one’s own humanity.

International jurist Richard Falk sees the BDS movement as ‘a hopeful way of writing the future history of Palestine in the legal and moral language of rights, not in the bloody deeds of warfare.’

Boycotts against people and governments are legitimate even in Israel’s eyes. The government of Israel called the world to boycott Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Hamas government in Gaza. Yet a boycott of companies which profit from the oppression of Palestinians is somehow called illegitimate. In a world where might is considered right, it has become a crime to boycott the criminal, a crime to fight violation of international law.

In their policy stand, PIEN is in good company. US churches, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church and several Quaker bodies have divested from Israel and international companies. In the UK, the Quakers will not invest in any company profiting from Israel’s military occupation. In South Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and other leading members of the Episcopal Church say that investment in companies supporting Israel’s military occupation makes the Church complicit in the injustices suffered by Palestinians.

Support for the BDS movement depends in part on distinguishing between the inalienable rights of an Indigenous population and the acquired rights of a colonial settler population. It depends also on emphasising the religious, ethical, legal and political grounds for the boycott of corporations.

In pursuit of a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, PIEN’s policy is a significant initiative, a way of opposing inhumanities and promoting humanity.

Stuart Rees, OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize


Stuart Rees OAM, human rights activist, poet, novelist, author of books on social justice. Recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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5 Responses to STUART REES, Churches Support for the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement

  1. Avatar paul walter says:

    They’ve been able to “sell” Israel and Palestine under the terms they have framed that, so it is little surprise that they can then get away with the blatant genocide involving the Yemen.

    The pitch has been that it is necessary to arm Saudi to the teeth and murder millions of Yemenis with the excuse being of an unlikely threat from isolated Iran, but it makes lots of money and gets attention away from the running sore that is Palestine.

    And if they can get away with what they have got away with throughout the rest of the Middle East and West Asia, maybe even the crushing of the Iranis becomes plausible..

  2. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    I recall when the Jewish community [albeit singled out for ongoing atrocities not withstanding the Nostra Aetate document just ten years earlier] and World Council of Churches offering their support for the church in Argentina for crimes committed against their own during the dictatorship and they declined………

    • Avatar Lynne Newington says:

      The Politics of Memory
      The Human Rights Movement and
      the Construction of Democracy in Argentina

      … a given moment, the representatives of churches linked to the World Council of Churches proposed to the highest authorities of the Catholic church the establishment of a Vicarfa de la Solidaridad in the style of the Chilean church.
      We were ready to renounce our own identity as evangelical churches and fully
      support such an initiative if the Catholic church so decided. We were informed
      that the Argentine church was not ready to follow the Chilean experience and
      that all the work in relation to human rights was going to be handled by
      Caritas…. For us that meant the death of all initiatives.

  3. Avatar Rivka T. Witenberg says:

    It always surprises me how people react to Israel and the Palestinians situation. Palestinian leadership who again and again have negated any dialogue or the possibility of a state of their own and instead took to violence is being lauded as heroes. Revisit, for example, what President Rabin offered Arafat a life time ago. Everything he wanted was on the table and yet he negated it.

    On the hand, for example , the Kurds, the Tibetan, the Yazidis, the Muslim communities in China and Myanmar have no BDS movement attached to their cause and very little protest from the international community in comparison to the Palestinian cause. Why?

    When Israel left Gaza they left a thriving agricultural industry with extensive glass houses which were left for the community there. They were smashed to pieces by the Palestinian the very next day. It is a cause which is often simply virtue playing. The situation is a complex and difficult one and whilst Israel are not always doing the right thing, the Palestinian leadership is doing nothing for their people except building up false hope and encouraging violence.

  4. Avatar Ian Bersten says:

    The Palestinians have rejected every offer of a settlement for decades now. Once the Arab armies attacked Israel in 1948 Israel was able to gain land through conquest which is apparently legitimate. It must be because I don’t see Stuart Rees complaining about the occupation of North Cyprus by the Turks. It seems that being anti-Israel is more important than being pro-Christian. Stuart Rees might like to explain that.
    As to the behaviour of the Israelis I wonder whether Stuart Rees would like to make a comparison with what the Jordanians did when they occupied the territory that they conquered after the 1956 war. Israel has done nothing comparable to this.
    Israel hasn’t done nothing comparable to this.
    It is fairly obvious that the Palestinians want to do what they have always stated they wanted to do namely, throw the Jews and Israelis into the sea which is exactly what Ataturk did in Smyrna 1922 to the Christians in Turkey. Is Stuart Rees complaining about that?
    Stuart Rees support for BDS has achieved very little so far and seems unlikely to do so. He and the Palestinians should make greater efforts to find constructive solutions which benefit the Palestinians rather than the destructive solutions which have made their lives so miserable. It is a shame that the Palestinian leadership has preferred to spend money on terrorism and terrorists rather than benefiting their own population.
    Ian Bersten

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