Methodists Boycott Israel, Citing “New Covenant” With God

So, the Methodists now support a partial boycott of Israel. Israel is, as far as I can tell, the only country which they are boycotting.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council said the Methodists’ annual conference should “hang its head in shame” for passing a policy which calls for a boycott of goods from “illegal” Israeli West Bank settlements and blames Israeli occupation as the “key hindrance” to Middle East peace.

Lord Sacks said the implications of the decision would “reverberate across the hitherto harmonious relationship between the faith communities in the UK”.

He blasted the report as “unbalanced, factually and historically flawed” and offering “no genuine understanding of one of the most complex conflicts in the world today. Many in both communities will be deeply disturbed”.

Delegates at the conference in Portsmouth overwhelmingly passed every recommendation of the report, which also included a call to review whether Zionism was compatible with Methodist beliefs.

The seconder of the “Zionism” motion is Stephen Leah, a Methodist vicar in charge of the York PSG:

I personally would like to have divestment going a little bit further into the full boycott of Israel, but I know how much I can get away with in the churches sometimes. […] Churches are paranoid about being critical of Israel sometimes, they want to be balanced all the time, we must put pressure on church leaders.

It is absolutely vitally important to understand the theology behind the Methodists’ position. The proposer of the motion is the Rev Nichola Jones of Friends of Sabeel UK. Watch her explanation, couched in a very particular religious logic, here (at 73 mins):

In the Bible we learn of the Chosen People. Who are they and what were they chosen for? Genesis tells us again & again that God chooses Abraham and makes a covenant with Abraham & his heirs: a covenant being a two-sided agreement with obligations on both parties, like marriage……Of course, Israel today is not the same as Israel in the Bible: in the Bible, Israel refers to the people of Abraham’s descendants, who are in covenant with God. Israel today is a modern, secular state, created in 1948…….

For years I cherished the Galatian text…now I read it properly: ‘In Christ there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek (we could say Jew or Arab): we are all one in Christ.’ We are heirs of Abraham, and so inheritors of the promise of Abraham. Jesus, who makes with us a new covenant which transforms us utterly, never speaks of the land or owning it: he speaks of the Kingdom & joining it and invites us to do so. He teaches us God is not a racist God with favourites, but God loves all his children & blesses them

This is an expression of a Christian religious doctrine: Supercessionism. The logic is that Jews were originally in covenant with God. However, Jews breached their Covenant. Therefore, God sent Jesus to earth to create a new Covenant, not with the Jews, but with the Christians.

For good measure, the Rev Nichola Jones implies that for Jews to continue to claim that there is an extant Covenant between them and God is “racist”.

Here’s a question for you. Do you think that religious doctrine makes a good basis for political action? If you heard a ‘settler’ type claiming that Jews must retain sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank, because God had promised it to him, would you challenge it? I would.

Now, as an atheist, I have no problem with Supercessionism. I don’t believe that God did make a covenant with Man through Noah or Jesus, or with the Jews through Moses. If Christians want to believe that they’re party to a New Covenant with God, one which renders Judaism obsolete, then they are at liberty to do so. Although that belief has been connected with the oppression and murder of Jews in the past, it is not inevitable that it will do so again.

However, what the Methodists have done is to base a boycott on the theological position that Jewish religious beliefs in their Covenant are racist, and that in any case, Jews have breached their Covenant with God, as a result of which they are no longer the “heirs of Abraham”. This is the mirror image of the position of the religious settler.

The justification for the continued existence of the State of Israel is not theological. Rather, it is a product of a United Nations resolution, and the right in international law to self determination. Moreover, we know perfectly well what would happen to the Jews of Israel were Hamas to take power, because they’ve made that very clear in their own Covenant:

The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.” (related by al-Bukhari and Moslem).

There is no discussion of Hamas’ genocidal antisemitic theology in the report on the basis of which the Methodists took their decision to boycott.. That is because the only theology that these Methodists were interested in was the version of Christian thinking that explains why the spiritual claims of Judaism are wrong.

We’re used to boycotts being pushed by Communist groups, who base their position on a critique of capitalism (in which Jewish self determination is a particular problem). We’ve also seen then being advanced by Islamist groups, who have their own theology (in which Jewish self determination is also seen as a particular problem).

However, is it not quite remarkable to hear the proposer of a motion, at the Methodist Conference, justify practical political action in terms of Jewish loss of “Choseness”?   I really do wonder whether any of those voting for the motion based their decision on a recollection that Jews are said to have procured the death of Jesus, after which they proclaimed “His blood be on us, and on our children”.  Am I wrong to do so?

I appreciate that the theological dimension of this affair may not ring alarm bells with other atheists. Atheists, generally speaking, tend to underestimate the extent to which religious justifications matter to believers. That is a fatal mistake. Theology shapes the way that many religious people see the world. It will be natural to people like the Rev Nichola Jones to understand the Middle East conflict, not essentially as a land dispute between two peoples, but rather as a great supernatural struggle between Jews clinging to an old bargain with God, which they have betrayed and rendered void, and those of the New Covenant.

This is what seems to be happening now:

In a blistering joint statement, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council said the report’s authors had “abused the goodwill of the Jewish community, which tried to engage on this issue, only to find our efforts were treated as an unwelcome distraction”.

The conference “swallowed hook, line and sinker a report full of basic historical inaccuracies, deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of Jewish theology and Israeli policy,” they said.

Calling the outcome “a very sad day” for Methodist-Jewish relations”, they said it would “cause the enemies of peace and reconciliation to cheer from the sidelines”.

I can understand their fury.

I know that there are many Christians who are also sickened by the decision by the Methodists to punish Israelis and nobody but Israelis, on this theological basis.

Quite honestly, I cannot see how Jewish religious institutions can continue to engage with the Methodists.


The Methodists justify their stance on Comment is Free