World Council of Churches deeply troubled at Israel's travel ban on boycott supporters

(Photo: © Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)Israeli settlements expand in sight of Bethlehem on the West Bank photographed in February 2016.

The World Council of Churches is gravely concerned about a new law which reportedly forbids granting entry visas to foreigner who call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of either Israel or the "Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories."

The "Entry to Israel Act (Denial of Visa to Non-Residents Who Knowingly Call for a Boycott on Israel)" apparently makes no distinction between boycotting Israel proper and boycotting products of the settlements, which are widely considered illegal under international law, said the WCC in a statement on March 9.

"If reports of its content and intent are correct, this law is a shockingly regressive law," said WCC general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit.

The American Jewish Committee said it was "troubled" by the new Israeli law banning entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements.

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"Every nation, of course, is entitled to regulate who can enter," AJC CEO David Harris, said March 7 quoted in The Forward.

"But barring entry to otherwise qualified visitors on the basis of their political views will not by itself defeat BDS, nor will it help Israel's image as the beacon of democracy in the Middle East it is, or offer opportunities to expose them to the exciting and pulsating reality of Israel," Harris said.

The AJC's statement, released a day after the law's passage, was the first signal from the American Jewish establishment that it was unhappy with the law.

The Forward noted that nn array of American groups on the left - including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, the New Israel Fund and T'ruah, a rabbinical human rights group denounced the law as soon as it passed.

The law passed March 6 will apply to those who suppport the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or BDS as it is often referred to.

"It would be a clear violation of freedom of expression that is critical for those who want to visit Israel, for those who have to live under the occupation, and for those who want access to the Palestinian territories. It is also a significant violation of freedom of religion," said the WCC's Tveit.

"It is precisely because of our Christian principles and teachings that we in the World Council of Churches find the purchase and consumption of goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories immoral," said Tveit.

He noted, "It is for the same reason many churches and Christians around the world choose to divest from companies that profit from the illegal occupation."

Tveit observed that, if strictly applied according to its reported terms, "this new legislation would have the effect of barring representatives of many churches around the world from entering Israel."

The churches would be prevented from "accompanying sister churches and fellow Christians in the region, and from visiting the holy places for Christians."

This could impact the religious freedom of many Christians around the world, and it harms Christians in Israel and Palestine.

"It could mean that I cannot, as general secretary of the WCC, visit our member churches in Israel and Palestine any more, nor go to the holy sites."

WCC REPRESENTS 560 MILLION CHRISTIANS

The WCC, a grouping of churches representing more than 560 million Christians globally says it has encouraged its member churches to consider in their own contexts appropriate non-violent means of opposing the occupation and of working for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

It says they should do this according to their own moral principles and teachings.

The WCC said it has a specific and longstanding policy inviting member churches to boycott Israeli settlement products and to re-consider their investments from the same perspective, and many of them have made statements and taken actions accordingly.

"The WCC affirms and supports Israel's right to exist, categorically rejects violence as a means of resolving the conflict, and has described anti-Semitism as a sin against God," stressed Tveit.

"But we, together with the United Nations and the vast majority of the international community, consider Israel's 50 year-long occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal.

"And on this basis the WCC has encouraged boycotting goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, divestment from companies that benefit from the occupation, investment in Palestinian enterprises that can stimulate the local economy, but not a general boycott of or sanctions against Israel."

Tveit said the WCC seeks an equal measure of justice and dignity for all people and wants a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Tveit said, however, "this legislation represents a form of isolationism that cannot be in Israel's best interests as a member of the international community, let alone of the people of the region.

"It is a critical shift in the way Israel relates to the rest of the world, and also in their role as guardians of holy places for three religions. I hope and pray it will not prove to be the government's actual policy and practice."

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