The meeting, which is to be held on Friday in Fort Worth, Texas , will mark the highest level of consideration that the subject of economic divestment from the Jewish state has received within the Methodist denomination.
Key questions hanging over the event will be whether the church will decide to use its $16 billion pension fund as an economic tool against Israel, and whether divestment would shatter the church's traditional relationship with American Jews.
If the church moves ahead with a divestment resolution on the national level, the denomination would become the largest Protestant group to embrace such a measure. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which has 2.4 million members, voted in favor of such a measure in 2004. Another important liberal denomination, the United Church of Christ, went in the other direction last summer when it opted to engage in a "balanced study" of the Middle East conflict.
"I would counsel a bit of humility. I wonder how much the voice of the United Methodist Church even has in foreign policy or Middle East policy," an executive with the church's General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the Reverend W. Douglas Mills, told The New York Sun. "I'm concerned about protecting our relationships."
Rev. Mills will be one of four speakers from a variety of perspectives who will address a crowd of church delegates and others at the event later this week and will speak against divestment.
Another speaker will be a member of the New England Conference's Divestment Task Force, Susanne Hoder. She also headed an informational gathering on the Middle East in June, which gave attendees the opportunity to "learn how these companies profit from Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian lands," "examine the impact of the occupation on Israeli and Palestinian society," give an "update on Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Gaza," "discuss apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories, and learn how many organizations, including churches, municipalities, and Jewish groups, are using economic measures to end it."
The New England Conference came out in favor of divestment three years ago, and in June of last year, it released a report urging divestment from 20 specific companies with business interests in Israel, including Blockbuster, General Dynamics, and General Electric.
Rev. Mills said he supported the church keeping a "balanced perspective" on the Middle East. "I would prefer to have, for example, shareholder activism in companies, rather than have no voice at all, which is what you have when you're not a shareholder," he said. Titled "Divestment, the Middle East, and Sudan," the Friday meeting in Texas will be part of a larger assembly beginning today and ending on Saturday in anticipation of the church's general conference in April.
The general conference in April will be the first national legislative gathering of the church since two of its regional groupings the New England Conference and Virginia United Methodists passed pro-divestment resolutions in 2005.
While the church did not provide a copy of specific legislation likely to be brought up at the church's general conference in April, the Friday session is an indicator that divestment will be on the Methodist agenda.
"As far as legislation for the conference, I don't believe it's available yet," a spokeswoman for the United Methodist Church, Diane Denton, said. "The briefing [in Texas] is to provide delegates and others with information on issues expected to arise on general conference. It will be up to the conference to determine what if any action may be taken on this issue." Coming out in favor of divestment would likely damage the church's ability to work with American Jewish groups.
"For another church to start down this road is very dangerous and very harmful to the relationship between the Jewish community and the mainline Protestant churches," the American Jewish Committee's U.S. director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, said.
Rabbi Greenebaum plans to travel to Forth Worth for the meeting. "These are churches that traditionally the Jewish community has gotten along with very well."
It would also likely have consequences for members of the church who favor a different approach. "I love my denomination, and I think this is a stupid move," a senior minister at the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, the Reverend Archer Summers, said. Rev. Summers, who plans to attend the April conference, is an executive committee member of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, a group of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics who seek to inject fairness into the discussion of the issue.
A lifelong member of the Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass., John Regier, opposed the New England Conference's resolution, and will try to convince his pastor who will attend the conference to vote against divestment measures. "The resolution is premised on the idea that the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is all Israel's fault," Mr. Regier said. "I think the situation is far more complicated than that."