The World Council of Churches Must Come Clean About Support for BDS
The World Council of Churches (WCC) had a chance to draw a line in the sand. It had a chance to show the world that it took the plague of antisemitism seriously, and understood that ugly dishonest polemics about Israel undermine the ability of Christians to promote peace in the Holy Land.
The organization also had a chance to come clean and admit that, yes, the WCC has been an ardent and persistent supporter of the BDS campaign that falsely portrays Israel as a singular human rights abuser on the world stage — and in so doing, has fomented a plague of hostility towards Israel and Jews.
Instead of pretending that the WCC never supported BDS, the group could have declared that it is now doing what it can to distance itself from the bigoted and discredited movement that it previously embraced.
WCC officials also had a chance to admit that by singling out the Jewish state for condemnation — while ignoring actual crimes against humanity in places like China and Syria — their organization had given Jews throughout the world every reason to regard Christians and the ecumenical movement with suspicion.
But instead of engaging in an act of metanoia, the WCC’s leaders in Geneva (and one of its activists in South Africa) hardened their hearts against the truth, and doubled down on the lies they’ve told about events in the Holy Land (and themselves as peacemakers).
With their refusal to confront their mistakes, leaders and staffers at the WCC have demonstrated once again that they see Jewish survival and self-determination as stumbling blocks to Christians who, after all, purport to follow Jesus — a Jew himself.
The controversy began on February 6, 2021, when Rev. Frank Chikane, a prominent member of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, made false and incendiary comments during a webinar to promote a 27-minute film about the pro-Palestinian activism of Michel Sabbah. He falsely reported that people die every day as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declared, among other things, that “the blood of the people of Palestine will be sought from” Israel’s supporters.
I wrote about Chikane’s hateful comments in an article for this site. But instead of responding with the appropriate shock and remorse, the WCC did what politicians do when they are in trouble — they tried to shoot the messenger in a dishonest and evasive media advisory.
In its advisory, the WCC’s interim general secretary Ioan Sauca said my article was inaccurate because the WCC “has never called for an economic boycott of the State of Israel.” It also quoted Rev. Frank Chikane as being from the ANC in order to declare that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the WCC when he made the comments he did. (So much for a ringing condemnation of his anti-Israel polemics.)
The notion that the WCC has not promoted the BDS movement is simply laughable.
The media advisory declares that the WCC does not “espouse economic measures against Israel,” but in reality, the WCC has been a primary and central supporter of the BDS movement in progressive Christian circles for years.
In 2005, the WCC’s Central Committee commended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA for approving a a 2004 overture that initiated “a process of phased, selective divestment of multinational companies operating in Israel.” The committee also encouraged WCC member churches to “give serious consideration” to adopting similar strategies targeting Israel.
After that 2005 statement, the liberal Protestant publication Christian Century published an article from Religion News Service that said the organization had come out in favor of “divestment.” When shown this article, WCC officials said the 16-year-old article was inaccurate.
These days, the WCC’s support for BDS flows through two of its institutions, the first being the Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF), which was established in 2007 at a WCC meeting in Amman, Jordan.
According to a summary produced by the Presbyterian Church in 2010, the PIEF met for two years, “encouraging the writing of a defining statement from our Palestinian partners,” which later became known as “Kairos Palestine.” The same PCUSA report declares that the PIEF met again in December 2009, “in Bethlehem, Palestine, and there witnessed the unveiling of a Palestinian Christian statement: ‘Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth, A Word of Faith, Hope, and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering.’”
In addition to declaring the Israeli presence in the West Bank a “sin against God and humanity” (without offering one word of condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, incitement, or pay-to-slay policies), the Kairos Palestine document promotes — you guessed it — BDS. The document, which is posted on the WCC’s website, calls for “the beginning of a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.”
“I cannot see how the WCC is not for BDS,” said Rev. Dr. Jill Schaeffer, former associate visiting professor of ethics at the New York Theological Seminary, who staffed the human rights desk for the World Alliance for Reform Churches from 1985-1991. “All of their actions are for BDS.”
Two employees of the WCC, one former and one current, helped write “Kairos Palestine.” The current WCC employee who helped write the document is Yusef Daher, who works at the WCC’s Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre (when he’s not posting hateful anti-Israel messages on Facebook).
The former WCC staffer who helped write the document is Rifat Odeh Kassis, who in 2005 and 2006, served as international manager for the WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) — which provides shock troops for the BDS movement (more about them below).
In his 2011 book about the document, Kassis declares that the BDS language in the text is intended to obstruct normalization between Israel and the Palestinians.
Of the WCC support for the Kairos Palestine document, Kassis writes, “The range and scope of institutional support for the Kairos Document — including by international ecumenical bodies like the WCC — was likewise unprecedented, further increasing its impact and universality.” The PIEF worked hand-in-glove with Palestinians who wrote the text, and promoted it once it was finished.
The EAPPI, meanwhile, sends privileged Westerners into the West Bank to document Israeli (but not Palestinian) misdeeds — and upon returning home, to promote BDS in their churches. In 2012, EAPPI issued a document titled “Faith Under Occupation,” which included multiple calls for boycotts against Israel.
Why is the WCC now trying to deny its support for BDS? One likely explanation is that it needs to maintain access to Jerusalem. In 2016, the Israeli government prohibited a WCC official from entering the country, in part because of the WCC’s support for BDS. Instead of saying, “We’re done with BDS,” the WCC is trying to gaslight everyone by telling us it never supported the movement.
But that’s not going to work.
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).