Fasting for Justice in Palestine/Israel

Isaiah calls us to repentance and action.

Fasting for Justice in Palestine/Israel
Women in a computer and secretarial skills class in the Vocational Training Center in Gaza City, Gaza.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. ... Is not this the fasting that I choose to loose the binds of injustice, to undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

—Isaiah 58:4b, 6

As we approach the season of Lent—a time of fasting, prayer and reflection—one of the lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday comes from Isaiah 58:1-12. The prophet challenged the faithful of his day to wake up and take action: personal piety is not enough. Moreover, in the face of widespread injustice, any attempt to spiritualize our fasting will fall on deaf ears. John Wesley, like Isaiah, insisted that we embody both personal holiness and social holiness in our daily lives. How might we take up fasting for justice that Isaiah calls for today?

Each year thousands of Christians visit the Holy Land on pilgrimage. It is a deeply spiritual experience for each pilgrim. Yet when we embark on such personal pilgrimage, how do we respond to the context of prolonged injustice and violence that crushes the people of the holy land today? How does our fasting heed Isaiah’s cry now heard in the voices of Palestinians and Israeli human rights advocates?

Undoing the yoke of injustice

Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
—Isaiah 1:16b-17a

United Methodists, along with most churches and the international community, have long advocated a two-state solution as the way to just and lasting peace for all. But churches have failed to examine critically the unjust power relations between Israel and Palestine. One state, Israel, has existed for 70 years, while the Palestinian people have been systematically oppressed and denied justice largely by the actions of Israel.

The Israeli military occupation of Palestine has entered its 51st year with no end in sight. May 2018 marks 70 years of ongoing nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) for millions of Palestinian refugees who are still waiting for the world to uphold their right of return. For more than 10 years, Israel’s military blockade has enchained 2 million people of Gaza in an open-air prison. Residents receive barely 4-6 hours of electricity per day, making refrigeration, water treatment and sewage treatment all but impossible. Unemployment runs around 45 percent with little power to operate any factories. Nearly 25 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land has been designated a closed military zone by Israel, making it impossible for Palestinian farmers to use much of their own land.

The United Nations and humanitarian organizations estimate that years of blockade, power outages and three recent military escalations have created a humanitarian disaster. Hospitals must rely on generators to perform basic surgeries and operate their equipment, and they struggle to get fuel to keep open. Political actions have rendered the aquifer unusable, and it is estimated life in Gaza will become unlivable by 2020. Children make up 60 percent of Gaza’s population, most never having known anything other than blockade and bombardment.

Last June, the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine (NCCOP), composed of more than 30 Palestinian Christian organizations in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, issued an urgent open letter to the global ecumenical movement (see

nccop-open-letter-wcc) to act for justice. In it they declare: “We are also concerned by Israel’s systemic assault on Palestinian creative resistance, and on our partners worldwide who use this [nonviolent] method to pressure Israel to end the occupation. … Not only is this an attack on the freedom of conscience and speech but it is also an assault on our right and duty to resist evil with good.”

The NCCOP letter urges the global ecumenical movement to take up nine different nonviolent actions, including economic measures, pilgrimages to visit with Palestinian communities, defense of nonviolent actions and to “stand against religious extremism and against any attempt to create a religious state in our land or region.” Take time to read the NCCOP open letter along with Isaiah 58. What kind of fast will you choose to take up in the work for justice and peace?

Fasting to end illegal settlements and occupation

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field til no space is left and you live alone in the land.
—Isaiah 5:8

In the face of mounting nonviolent actions opposing illegal settlements and military occupation, the government of Israel in 2017 approved thousands more settlements to be built illegally on Palestinian lands. There are now some 600,000 Israeli settlers living illegally on Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the same time, Israel has recently demolished more than 5,200 Palestinian homes and buildings. Last fall, as Palestinian children prepared to start a new school year, four schools were demolished by the Israeli military. What lessons do Palestinian children and young Israeli soldiers learn from such deepening violence and discrimination?

Year after year the United States government votes to send more than $3.5 billion annually in taxpayer-funded arms shipments to the very military that blockades civilians in Gaza, demolishes homes, uproots trees and protects the expansion of illegal settlements. Many pension and investment funds, including our United Methodist pension funds, invest in Israel bonds. These government bonds provide funds that in part pay for Israeli government services that subsidize and support expanding illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

A growing number of churches, universities, unions and city councils around the world have started undoing the yoke of occupation by boycotting settlement products and divesting from companies profiting from illegal settlements and military occupation. These nonviolent economic measures are not anti-Israel but a way to stop doing wrong and to urge companies to learn to do right. An increasing number of companies are taking human rights seriously and ending their business in Israeli settlements.

A Palestinian-Jewish women’s research group, Who Profits, documents which companies are involved in the settlements and the occupation (see, and the American Friends Service Committee has a tool for analyzing investment portfolios to see what companies may be involved in the occupation (see Take time to study these sites. How might they help us, in our investments, to “untie the cords of the yoke” of occupation?

Standing up for boycotts as free speech

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right.
—Isaiah 10:1-2a

In the past 10 years, nonviolent boycott and divestment movements seeking to end Israel’s systemic and prolonged discrimination against Palestinians have grown on campuses and in churches. Rather than welcome such nonviolent efforts, the Israeli government and the Israel lobby have pumped millions of dollars into state legislative campaigns to pass laws to punish nonviolent proponents of free speech. In the past three years, 21 states across the United States have adopted some form of anti-boycott legislation in an attempt to penalize anyone who would boycott Israel.

Churches have a long history of joining boycott and divestment movements as forms of nonviolent, moral action addressing human rights violations. United Methodists have participated in boycott and divestment actions for decades—against Nestle’s marketing of infant formula in impoverished communities; against companies exploiting farmworkers and companies using slave labor; against Shell oil for its violations in Nigeria; against companies profiting from apartheid in South Africa; against government repression in Sudan and Myanmar; and now against companies operating in Israeli settlements.

Boycotts, by definition, comprise public campaigns to urge others to join together to change behavior of companies and governments. U.S. courts have long recognized the right to boycott as a protected form of free speech. Any given boycott is only as strong as the number of people that act to support it, the number that leaflet and picket and convince neighbors to join them in a cause. Even if one does not support a boycott, one can stand strongly in defense of the right of others to boycott. Boycotts embody the heart of democratic debate grounded in First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly.

It is disturbing, then, that so many elected legislators are eager to adopt such repressive-style blacklists with little public debate. Where legislatures take time to listen to their constituents and consider the U.S. Constitution, these so-called anti-boycott bills die in committee or are voted down. In New York and Maryland, where the legislature refused to adopt such chilling legislation, the governor issued an executive order to please high-paying donors in the Israel lobby.

Besides being a profound threat to free speech, these laws also attempt to erase the distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The language of these laws is not only anti-free speech but also aligns itself with pro-settlement policies; in these bills a boycott of settlements is considered a boycott of Israel. In the U.S. Congress, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act includes an additional dangerous effort to distance the United States from “any international organizations” such as the United Nations and the European Union—both of which insist on ending Israel’s illegal settlements.

While legal challenges are still unfolding and costly, resistance to these repressive measures is growing. Texas adopted an anti-boycott law, and after Hurricane Harvey, the city of Dickinson required that applicants for government relief funds for rebuilding homes and businesses did not boycott Israel. Such a political requirement to receive disaster assistance violates all norms of humanitarian assistance to provide relief on the basis of need, not political creed. The city claimed it was enforcing Texas’ anti-boycott law, but after major protests, it voted to drop the political clause.

Acting prophetically builds beloved community

“Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.”
—Acts 18:9b-10

Last fall a math teacher in Kansas, Esther Koontz, was hired to train other math teachers across the state. But when she refused, as a matter of conscience, to sign the clause in her state contract that she did not boycott Israel, the offer was rescinded. Koontz is a Mennonite and her church—like United Methodists, Presbyterians and other denominations—has called for a boycott of settlement products. The American Civil Liberties Union has helped her file a lawsuit challenging the Kansas anti-boycott law.

Her lone act of conscience has mobilized communities nationwide who are also challenging these unjust anti-boycott laws. Similarly, Israeli soldiers when they began speaking out about what they had witnessed and done in the occupation formed a group, called “Breaking the Silence.” They found community through their nonviolent resistance.

It is a truly Kairos moment that Ash Wednesday in 2018 is also Valentine’s Day. It serves to remind us that the fasting Isaiah calls for and the boycotting and divesting of today are all acts, not of vengeance or punishment but of love! Isaiah envisions a day when just relations are restored: “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” (65:22). May our fasting for justice this Lent hasten the day when wolf and lamb, lion and oxen dwell together in just and lasting peace.

David Wildman is executive secretary for the Middle East, human rights and racial justice at the UN Liaison Office of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.

Posted or updated: 2/9/2018 12:00:00 AM