MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we think we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with them. This week's words - or letters - are BDS. That stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. That's shorthand for the movement to exert economic pressure on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank. We chose these words because members of the United Methodist Church are meeting in Portland, Ore., this week at their general conference, which is held every four years to set policy for the church. Delegates have been asked to consider resolutions, calling for divestment from companies that pro-Palestinian activists say are working with Israeli security forces to sustain West Bank settlements. Adding to the focus on the issue, the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, an active member of the church, published a letter last week opposing the strategy. We wanted to know more about this, so we've called Laurie Goodstein. She's national religion correspondent for The New York Times. Thanks so much for joining us.
LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: How long has this BDS movement been in play?
GOODSTEIN: Well, it started 11 years ago by Palestinian leaders as a strategy to put economic pressure on Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied in 1967. They're also asking for dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank and allowing Palestinians in exile to return.
MARTIN: What is the significance of the United Methodist Church taking this up this week? This isn't the first mainline Protestant denomination to consider this.
GOODSTEIN: No. And in fact, it's not the first time that the United Methodist Church itself has considered divesting. But there is some momentum in American Protestant churches to divest from Israel in part because these churches all have contacts with Palestinian Christians. The Presbyterian Church in 2013 in their convention, they voted to divest from three companies that supply Israel with military and communications equipment.
MARTIN: Are the proposals that are in front of the United Methodist conference the same or are they different to these others that have been considered before?
GOODSTEIN: Well, the main ones were focused on three companies - Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard - that the divestment supporters say all supply equipment that enables Israel to enforce the occupation of the territories. Now, on Saturday, those proposals did not advance out of the subcommittees and committees that were considering them. I doubt that the issue is dead, but it won't have the backing of any of the influential committees.
MARTIN: What are the forces in play here that seem to be shaping the way this issue is discussed within this conference?
GOODSTEIN: In each of these churches, you have church members themselves fighting with one another over this issue. Now, the BDS movement says that it wants to imitate what the anti-apartheid movement did in the '80s, which was using boycotts and divestment on South Africa to help bring down the white minority racist government. So there's a big debate about whether it's at all fair to liken the Israeli situation to what went on in South Africa. The Israelis say that portrayal is absolutely a false comparison, and it's part of a grand strategy to delegitimize Israel and ultimately to destroy the Jewish state. Those who are in favor of divestment see it as a nonviolent tactic to help bring about peace. Some of the Palestinians who are involved in the movement have made it clear that they do not believe in the existence of the state of Israel. And so the anti- divestment forces has said look, you know, you are associating with some people who are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. In the United States, the pro-divestment people say well, that's not us. We don't believe that.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, so can you talk a little bit about the progress that the BDS movement has made outside of religious organizations?
GOODSTEIN: I think that's the reason to pay attention to the BDS movement is that the Palestinians have - they've enlisted politicians, trade unions, universities to boycott businesses that do business in Israel. And they have gotten some traction. So even if it doesn't advance in the United Methodist Church, it's still something to keep an eye on.
MARTIN: That's Laurie Goodstein. She's national religion correspondent for The New York Times, and she was kind enough to join us from New York. Laurie, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GOODSTEIN: Thank you. It was good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.