A highly organized group of advocates wearing “Vote Yes to Divest” shirts failed Saturday to persuade enough delegates to support a business resolution at the UUA General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, affirming Palestinian rights. It required two thirds of the vote to pass, but only received 54 percent (774 to 647) in a June 25, 2016, general session debate.
The amended resolution that delegates considered, “Screening Out Investments in Corporations Complicit in the Violation of Human Rights Including Palestinian Rights,” carried tremendous symbolic importance to proponents and opponents. Some advocates and many of its critics interpreted it as a statement of support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement aimed at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The resolution was initially drafted as a divestment resolution by the advocacy group Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, which submitted it early this year with signatures from more than 1,700 individual UUs. The original resolution called on the UUA to divest from five targeted corporations that “directly profit from or support the occupation and its abuses of Palestinian human rights.”
At essentially the same time, the UUA’s Committee on Socially Responsible Investing adopted a new human rights screen that removed three of the five corporations from the UUA’s investments. The UUA did not own shares in the other two corporations.
UUJME brought a substantially modified and shortened version of the resolution to GA that stripped out an explicit call for divestment. Instead, it “commend[ed] the UUA for including human rights in its socially responsible investing screens” and “call[ed] upon the UUA in future investment decisions to continue to use human rights investment screens that effectively identify corporations complicit in the violation of human rights around the world including in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Other Protestant denominations have adopted divestment resolutions aimed at pressuring Israel to change its treatment of Palestinians—resolutions that have strained the Christians’ interfaith relations with Jewish organizations.
Several GA workshops and presentations addressed either the substance of the resolution or the tensions that surrounded it. UUJME sponsored a workshop on building broad-based coalitions for peace with justice in Israel/Palestine. UUA Moderator Jim Key invited a facilitator from the Public Conversations Project to lead a four-person panel in sharing the personal values that led them to their divergent positions on the resolution.
But people at GA buzzed all week about the statement Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered in the opening minutes of the interfaith-themed General Assembly. Jacobs surprised many by telling delegates the resolution would damage UU-Jewish relations while doing nothing to advance the human rights of Palestinians.
“Actions like divestment and disengagement harden the hearts instead of bringing people together,” Jacobs said. “I would not be doing my job—my sacred job representing our movement, and my job as your true friend—if I did not say clearly that the overwhelming majority of your American Jewish brothers and sisters oppose BDS—boycott, divestment, and sanctions—because it is ultimately an effort to delegitimize the very existence of the state of Israel.”
Supporters of the resolution bristled at Jacobs’s comments. UUJME called it a “breach of right relations” on its website and said his statement was “highly provocative and, in parts, inaccurate and distorted.”
“We do not need anyone’s permission to do the right thing,” one resolution supporter said during the general session debate. “Do not be held hostage to accusations of anti-Semitism.”
Although delegates to the miniassembly rejected several attempts to add acknowledgements of past UUA resolutions affirming Israel’s right to exist, the general session did approve such an amendment.
Because the resolution in the end attracted the support of 54 percent of delegates, but not the two-thirds it needed to pass, UUJME announced, “The majority are with us.”
An earlier version of this story reported the number of votes against the resolution as 646, but the total announced at the end of the general session was 647 votes against.