Israel-Palestine issues discussed at U.S. convention

Published July 9, 2012

U.S. Episcopalians are considering a number of resolutions for a policy toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic

Indianapolis -The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the focus of two hours of passionate testimony July 6 at a public hearing in the National and International Concerns Committee at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. About 40 people testified on the 14 resolutions that are currently being considered.

The resolutions range from calling the church to support more intentional economic investment in the Palestinian Territories that would support the creation of a future state to asking the church to divest from Israeli companies that profit from the occupation of Palestinian land.

All of the resolutions acknowledge the need for the church to engage in education and advocacy concerning the conflict, but many of the speakers held divergent views on how such an effort should be accomplished, including which resources would be helpful for study.

[An earlier ENS story that outlines the content of the resolutions and additional context is available here.]

The hearing comes one day after the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), following two hours of speeches at its General Assembly in Pittsburgh, rejected divestment in favor of positive investment as part of its position on peace in the Middle East.

At the Episcopal Church hearing, Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe, vice president of the House of Bishops, read a statement on behalf of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who upheld resolutions B010 and B019 as “faithful responses” to the witness of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and Bishop Suheil Dawani. Those resolutions both urge peacemaking through positive investment in Palestine, but B010 specifically calls the church to reject boycotts, divestment or economic sanctions “and other divisive and punitive measures which seek to tear down, not to build up.”

Dawani, according to Jefferts Schori’s statement, says it is the role of religious leaders to “work together with people of other faiths to encourage the politicians to put politics aside and meet midway, where all people are equal: the marginalized and the powerful, the poor and the wealthy, men and women, children and the elderly, regardless of faith or social status.”

Jefferts Schori’s statement also reminded the committee of the 30 years of resolutions from General Convention “that consistently convey an understanding that peace can only be achieved by the parties to this conflict themselves negotiating two states for two peoples.”

The Episcopal Church also has official church policy dating to 2005, when Executive Council, as recommended by its Social Responsibility in Investments Committee, commended a report calling for “corporate engagement” and “positive investment” when dealing with companies in which the Episcopal Church owns assets and shares.

The only resolution (D039) that specifically calls for the church to divest from American companies that enable the occupation is being proposed by the Rev. David Ota, a deputy from the Diocese of California. Ota told the committee he is “flabbergasted at how much misinformation” there is in the media. “What is happening to the Palestinian people is colonization. If we were alive at a time of colonization of the Americas we would have taken action.” While he said that a policy of “constructive engagement is wonderful” he insisted that most people don’t understand it or see it happening.

The Rev. Vicki Gray of the Diocese of California, who helped to draft D039, said that the resolution applies pressure against the unjust policies of the Israeli government, and denies anti-Semitism. “It is not anti-Semitic to criticize the illegal and immoral policies of the Israeli government,” she said. “One side does not hold all the blame but one side holds all the power.”

But Jefferts Schori said in her statement that the Episcopal Church’s ability to be an effective advocate “depends upon us listening to their voices and standing in the place in which the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem has chosen to stand.”

Wolfe noted that the presiding bishop has been clear “that this is why we do not support boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against Israel, but rather positive investment in the economic future of people living in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem addressed the House of Bishops earlier on July 6, thanking them for their “concern and love” for the diocese.

Dawani said that the diocese has a duty “to promote mutual respect and acceptance among God’s people [and] to encourage an atmosphere of tolerance.”

The diocese operates more than 30 social service institutions throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Dawani said that as a diocese that is present in five countries of the Middle East “we have to keep a presence and balance among all the faith communities and governments of that region that will help us to play an important role to continue to be a bridge for peace and reconciliation.”

“As Christians we are called to be peacemakers, to be a voice of the voiceless and to be an advocate for a just peace,” he added. “We work closely with Christians, Muslims and Jews. The three faiths depend on one another to provide a unified voice for peace. We all agree that our love to God is expressed in how we love our neighbor. We must support religious leaders to stand for justice and peace for their people lf the Holy Land.”

Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, also spoke in favor of B010 and B019, calling them “faithful, thoughtful, and creative responses to an enormously complex political reality and an enormously complex set of challenges faced by our church in Jerusalem. They are resolutions that make clear that we are listening to their voices and standing where they’ve asked us to stand.”

He noted that the authors of these resolutions “chose to omit references to study documents that are divisive, theologically problematic in places, and not part of the approach that our church in Jerusalem has asked us to follow.”

Those documents are Kairos Palestine’s “A Moment of Truth” and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s “Steadfast Hope” that include information about using boycotts, sanctions and divestment to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

Ten of the proposed resolutions, all submitted by dioceses, urge the Episcopal Church to study those two documents.

The Palestine Israel Network (PIN) of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship drafted a sample resolution used by the 10 dioceses and adapted the Steadfast Hope document for an Episcopal audience. The network says that the legislation calls not for boycotts, sanctions and divestment but for the church to implement existing policy. It’s main objective is for the church to develop and implement a strategy of advocacy and education on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the 2013-2015 triennium.

Sauls said that the two documents are not helpful and “walk dangerously close to several lines that we, as Christians, should be eager to avoid.”

Rather, he said that he sees resolutions B010, submitted by Bishop John Tarrant of South Dakota, and B019, submitted by Bishop Barry Beisner of Northern California, as approaches that are pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, and pro-peace.

Several speakers testified in favor of the PIN resolution, many saying they had traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and had been asked by many Palestinians to tell their story. Many of those speakers raised concerns that the Palestinian perspective is rarely heard in the United States and that the Kairos and Steadfast Hope documents help to present that narrative.

The Rev. Canon Brian Grieves of the Diocese of Hawaii, who helped to draft the PIN resolution, said that he knows the church is divided over divestment and that that is why the resolution does not explicitly mention it. He noted that divestment only forms one paragraph of the 16-page Kairos document that is endorsed by almost 3,000 Palestinian Christians. “We show enormous disrespect if we do not consider this,” he said.

“All 10 dioceses that considered this resolution adopted it,” he said. “This grassroots support results because it is thoughtful and we thought it was a modest resolution. We deliberately wanted a resolution that would unify the convention while also recognize that the church has engaged in the pursuit for peace in the holy land for 33 years.”

Assisting Bishop Christopher Epting of the Diocese of Chicago said he supports the PIN resolution and everything that Grieves has said. “It seems there is a balance ? advocacy, education and utilizing our existing policies and resources. We are not asking for divestment.”

Some Jewish voices supported the PIN resolution. Rabbi Michael Davis, a member of the council of Jewish Voices for Peace, called the Israeli occupation “evil [and] racist. It is not Jewish and it is not Christian.” He upheld the Kairos document, saying that he’d had it translated into Hebrew. I urge you to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Mark Braverman, an American Jew, said he “prays that my people will some day understand and repent for what we have done to the people of Palestine. The church is called to take a bold prophetic stance in what is going on in Palestine today as it did against apartheid. To reject the study of these documents amounts to a silencing of voices. This is about putting your own house in order. Love us the way you loved the people of South Africa.”

Paul Schumacher, from the Diocese of Hawaii, said he is disturbed by PIN resolution. “We must offer our church a better alternative. I am not proud that my diocese passed this resolution. I believe that most of the people who voted for it did not know what they are voting for. I have read both documents. What I found there horrified me moved me to come here to say so.”

Schumacher said that the Kairos document “does not tell the truth about this conflict. It says the Israelis are the only guilty party in the conflict. Steadfast Hope is shocking. It accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. At best they are propaganda, at worst hatemongering.”

Allison Duvall, a national and International Concerns committee member and deputy from the Diocese of Lexington, said it is “our Christian duty” to hear the multitude of religious narratives. “The church must study this conflict but must do so in a way that does not demonize or ostracize an entire people.”

The Very Rev. Walter Brownridge from the Diocese of Hawaii read out a statement from Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. “Had the world not imposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa we might still be languishing under its oppression,” Tutu’s statement said in part.

Other speakers also drew parallels between apartheid South Africa and the Israeli occupation.

The SRI committee report from 2005 acknowledged that the situation in Israel and Palestine is not the same as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

“In the case of South Africa, the entire system of apartheid was illegitimate, and no actions short of dismantling it could be countenanced by the world community. The goal was the end of that South African regime,” that report said. “The case of Israel is different. Church policies clearly support Israel’s right to exist, and no companies should be involved, however inadvertently, in any way with organizations engaged in violence against Israelis. Companies can and should operate in Israel proper.”

Many of the speakers upheld the role of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization established in 1985 that supports the diocese’s more than 30 social service institutions throughout Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories.

“We can affect lives on the ground,” said Phoebe Griswold, an AFEDJ board member and its outgoing president, urging the committee to include humanitarian assistance in the lead of any resolution they present.

She noted that more than a third of Palestinians are children. “They will shape the future of the Holy Land,” she said. “As Bishop Dawani says, peace begins on a child’s school desk. I ask myself, when the wall comes down, what will we find on the other side. Because of the work of the American Friends, we will find trained people to build a new state. We will find Christians eager to live in peace and be led by God.”

Anne Lynn, executive director of the American Friends, agreed that peace only can be built on education.

The National and International Concerns Committee will discuss the testimony from the hearings and consider all the resolutions that have been proposed before recommending legislation to the houses of General Convention.

? Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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