Convention to consider resolutions on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

July 5, 2012

[Episcopal News Service — Indianapolis] Several resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be considered by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, meeting here July 5-12.

Among them is Resolution B019, which calls on the church to engage actively in the discipline of advocacy, study, and prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; encourages all Episcopalians to travel to the Holy Land as pilgrims and witnesses; affirms the importance of economic measures designed to support a negotiated two-state solution; and calls for positive investment in the Palestine Territories and in the social service institutions of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

The resolution, proposed by Diocese of Northern California Bishop Barry Beisner and endorsed by Olympia Bishop Gregory Rickel and Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Services & Federal Ministries Jay Magness, also commends the leadership of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in calling all Episcopalians to advocate for an end to the conflict and increase support for the Jerusalem diocese and the other Christian communities of the Holy Land.

In other proposed legislation, 10 dioceses (Chicago, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rochester, Washington, and Western North Carolina) have submitted resolutions that call on the church to develop and implement a strategy of advocacy and education on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the 2013-2015 triennium.

Those resolutions (C060-C065, C067, C082, C092 and C104) urge the Episcopal Church to study two documents – Kairos Palestine’s “A Moment of Truth” and the Presbyterian Church USA’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.

The Palestine Israel Network of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship drafted the 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.

That policy dates 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.

Jefferts Schori visited Israel and the West Bank in 2008. Asked about divestment, she told ENS in a recent interview that the Christian tradition “generally has not been to shun people. It has been to call people to greater engagement … and relationship, and I think that is especially needed in the land of the Holy One right now.”

During an Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles gathering in March, Jefferts Schori urged Episcopalians to “invest in legitimate development in Palestine’s West Bank and in Gaza” rather than focus on divestment or boycotts of Israel.

If people have particular concerns about corporations’ policies, she told ENS, “then positive engagement would mean to become a shareholder and go to a shareholders meeting and challenge the administration of the corporation. It’s a positive response rather than a negative one.”

The Rev. Cotton Fite, an Episcopal priest from Evanston, Illinois, and a Palestine Israel Network member, said the core of the PIN resolution, which he helped to draft, is about education.

“My experience is that few Episcopalians have really heard the whole story. We’re very acquainted with the Israeli narrative but not the Palestinian narrative,” he told ENS. “The more people who are educated the stronger, more robust the advocacy will become, but they will choose what form of advocacy is the best approach for them.”

Fite added that the resolution “is not about divestment, although it is being perceived in that way. We think it would be a mistake to reject or adopt divestment as a policy of the church at this time. We are saying that we think people should learn about it and make up their minds about it, but it is not in this resolution.”

Another resolution (B010), submitted by Bishop John Tarrant of South Dakota and endorsed by Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe and New York Bishop Mark Sisk, urges peacemaking through positive investment in Palestine. The resolution calls on the church to reject boycott, divestment or economic sanctions “and other divisive and punitive measures which seek to tear down, not to build up” while urging an immediate freeze to Israeli settlement construction and for peace talks to resume.

Tarrant visited Israel and the West Bank in early May to speak with Israelis and Palestinians about the conflict and the stalled peace process. He told ENS that “the notion that boycott and divestment will somehow lead to an end to the occupation is based on two misconceptions: that one side holds all the blame and that unilateral concessions on the part of Israel are all that is needed; and that economic and political pressure will force Israel into those concessions. Neither of these is true.”

Tarrant said that positive investment in Palestine “is not meant as a panacea or an alternative to a political solution. There must be a negotiated two-state solution.” Investment, he added, “will help build a state that will be viable when a political solution is found and it will also empower Palestinians at the negotiating table – the only place where a final status agreement ending the occupation can be reached.”

Several church leaders in the Jerusalem diocese and the U.S.-based Episcopal Church have raised concerns that any action supporting divestment could negatively impact the ministry of the diocese and its institutions.

Bishop Suheil Dawani, who oversees the ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem & the Middle East and its more than 30 social service institutions, told ENS that he always prefers to hear people talk about investment.

“Investment is something we all need here in the hardships and difficult economic situation,” said Dawani, who is one of the international guests attending General Convention.

Asked about his viewpoint on divestment, Dawani said: “In my opinion this is very political and in practice it doesn’t help anybody because we [need to be] working together.”

At a General Convention reception honoring Dawani on July 5, Jefferts Schori said: “Our interference is not helpful. Our job is to be supportive of people on the ground there.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani at a July 5 reception honoring his ministry. ENS photo/Matthew Davies

The Very Rev. Hosam Naoum, dean of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, recently told ENS that “the church in the Holy Land depends so much on Israeli permits, depends so much on Israeli influence,” noting the ramifications that divestment could have on the diocese. “It is important that if and when we take such a step, we have exhausted all that we can so that it is really justified.”

“I am with a call for being more on the side with investing in people,” he added, “investing in human beings, investing in what we have today in the Holy Land.”

Divestment challenges the Israeli government “most fundamentally,” said Jefferts Schori, and “makes them exceedingly fearful. The reality of the difficulties the Diocese of Jerusalem lives with means that would only make its life much harder.”

She identified as one example the recent challenges Dawani experienced as a Palestinian living in Jerusalem in regaining and keeping his residency permit. With divestment, she said, “that kind of difficulty would only get far worse.”

But the Rev. Vicki Gray, a deacon and alternate on the Diocese of California deputation to General Convention, criticized the Palestine Israel Network resolution for not going far enough.

“I would ask our deputies and bishops to stand up and vote “no” on the unworthy resolution,” said Gray, who has visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories three times. “I would ask them, instead, to consider a resolution that forthrightly … calls for concrete action, including a boycott of products from the settlements and divestment from companies that enable the occupation.”

Such a resolution (D039) has been proposed by the Rev. David Ota, and endorsed by the Rev. Stacey Grossman and the Rev. Sarah Lawton, all from the Diocese of California. It urges Episcopalians to divest from American companies that enable the occupation and to boycott products manufactured on Jewish settlements. It also calls on the U.S. Government to “bring stronger and more resolute American diplomatic leadership to the cause of peace with justice between Israel and Palestine”; calls for the cessation of violence by all Palestinians and Israelis; and “rejects any and all attempts to equate honest and legitimate criticism of unwise policies by the Government of Israel with the sin of anti-Semitism.”

Gray said that the church needs to “reject, once and for all, the libel of anti-Semitism so regularly hurled against those who criticize Israeli policies that are illegal and immoral. What is immoral is not to criticize. For there is nothing so sad as silence, especially from a church confronted by injustice.”

The Rev. Naim Ateek, director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, is a Palestinian Christian who supports divestment. In a recent interview with ENS, Ateek said that the church should be prepared to suffer to achieve greater justice and peace for everyone.

“We must be willing to suffer the consequences of our decisions,” he said. “Ultimately, I think [divestment] will raise the issue to a level that the whole world will support it … Unfortunately, because of fear, the church is not willing to take that stand … If we can just take the lead, many people will follow.”

Many of the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical partners have in their own synods and conventions rejected a policy of boycotts, sanctions and divestment against Israel.

In May, the United Methodist Church voted against two proposals to divest from companies that provide equipment used by Israel to enforce its control in the occupied territories.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at its 2011 Churchwide Assembly, rejected divestment from Israel and encouraged the church to make positive economic investments in Palestine.

The Presbyterian Church USA, currently meeting for its General Assembly in Pittsburgh, considered a resolution urging “divestment and/or proscription of some corporations due to their involvement in military-related production, tobacco or human rights violations.” Following a three-hour debate July 5, they rejected the call for divestment and instead supported positive investment.

The Presbyterians voted in 2004 “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” After much criticism, two years later they toned done the resolution’s language and said it had caused “hurt and misunderstanding.” (The Presbyterian Church USA does not have a counterpart church in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.)

Long-term conflict

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has lasted more than 60 years. Today, the peace process has stalled, with Israeli and Palestinian leaders each blaming the others’ actions as the cause. Palestinians say the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermines the viability of a future Palestinian state, while Israeli leaders have questioned the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to negotiations in the wake of President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to seek statehood status at the United Nations in September 2011.

At the time of Abbas’ statehood bid, world and church leaders, including Jefferts Schori, warned that lasting peace in the region only could be realized through negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and not via shortcuts.

The Palestine Israel Network resolution that General Convention will consider acknowledges the current impasse and calls on the church to participate in “more vigorous and public corporate engagement with companies in the church’s investment portfolio that do business in illegal Israeli settlements or contribute to the infrastructure of the occupation.”

The network is part of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, an independent association of Episcopalians committed to nonviolence.

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship in 2010 issued a statement in support of economic sanctions and divestment strategies that it believes “can inspire a more useful dialog and negotiation towards a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Former Bishop of Washington John Bryson Chane, a member of EPF since 1969, told ENS at the time that such a strategy is “flawed and dangerously unhelpful at this particular time in history” and would “further hurt the critical development of the economy of Palestine and increase the marginalization of the Palestinian people.”

Although the network’s resolution does not call specifically for boycotts, sanctions and divestment, it urges the Episcopal Church to study documents that support such a strategy.

The Kairos Palestine document, released in December 2009 and signed by several Palestinian Christian leaders, accuses Israel of “disregard of international law and international resolutions” and calls for an end to occupation of Palestinian territory.

“Palestinian civil organizations, as well as international organizations, NGOs and certain religious institutions call on individuals, companies and states to engage in divestment and in an economic and commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation,” the document says. “We understand this to integrate the logic of peaceful resistance. These advocacy campaigns must be carried out with courage, openly sincerely proclaiming that their object is not revenge but rather to put an end to the existing evil, liberating both the perpetrators and the victims of injustice.”

The Episcopal Church, based on resolutions passed at its previous General Conventions, remains committed to a just peace that ends the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and guarantees Israel’s security and Palestinian aspirations for a viable sovereign state, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine.

The Diocese of Los Angeles is among those that filed the PIN resolution to General Convention. The diocese also has proposed Resolution C026, which reiterates support for a two-state solution, urges stronger U.S. diplomatic leadership to achieve peace and, recognizing the distress the conflict has caused to both sides, calls for the cessation of violence by all Palestinians and Israelis.

The resolution also calls on the U.S. government to practice financial transparency in all of its aid to the Palestinians and Israelis. And it calls for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip and for a halt to the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land, demolition of housing and displacement of people.

Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno also is proposing Resolution B017 urging the church to join in fundraising efforts to help meet the shortfall created by the reduction in funding to the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. The resolution also is supported by Bishops Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce and Mary D. Glasspool of Los Angeles, Rickel of Olympia and Bishop Mariann Budde of Washington, D.C.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) announced June 1 it was ending its financial support to the hospital, an institution run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. The decision cuts the hospital’s budget by approximately $1 million per year, or nearly half.

General Convention may decide whether to pass, amend and pass, or reject any resolutions it considers. Resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be considered by the National and International Concerns committee, which may decide to rework or consolidate them before any draft legislation is sent to whichever house (deputies or bishops) has been chosen as the house of initial action.

A public hearing on the resolutions is scheduled for the afternoon of July 6.

Lending support

Many Episcopal Church dioceses and individuals have long-standing partnerships with the Jerusalem diocese and support the ministry of its more than 30 social service institutions throughout Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. The institutions include schools, hospitals, clinics and centers for people with disabilities.

The diocese and the institutions also are supported by the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization established in 1985.

The Jerusalem diocese “is part of the global Anglican family, and in hard times families stand together,” Phoebe Griswold, AFEDJ advisory board member and outgoing president, told ENS. “It is our familial responsibility to reach out, visit and touch our Anglican dioceses as they carry out Christ’s mission in their own places.”

One of the best ways for people to support the diocese is to learn about its context and to visit, Griswold told ENS.

“To actually show our support by visiting and standing beside the beleaguered Palestinian peoples is a concrete way of bringing hope. A complete pilgrimage includes both elements of our faith heritage and opportunities to understand how today’s Christians actually live.”

She noted that AFEDJ’s website recently added a guide to creating a pilgrimage at the local level.

“Once someone understands the needs of the Diocese of Jerusalem through information from the AFEDJ website, then the best response is to aid financially the diocese’s ministry through AFEDJ,” she said. “The heath-care institutions, hospitals and schools are in desperate need as they serve many in the challenging reality of the Israeli occupation. “

On July 5, the American Friends sent $50,000 in support of the Gaza hospital.

Another source of major concern for the Jerusalem diocese is the many Palestinian and Israeli Christians who have left the Holy Land in search of better opportunities and a better life overseas.

“We as a church need to invest in the existing institutions, Naoum told ENS, “because those institutions are not only a means of surviving in this place. Actually, these are the means of the presence of Christians in the Holy Land.”

Said Dawani: “Investment really will encourage people not only to stay here, but to feel that they can take care of their families and the future of their children.”

Jefferts Schori noted that Christians were leaving “because life is too difficult to sustain in the land of the Holy One.”

Students in Gaza who get scholarships to study abroad, for example, are unlikely to return once they secure an exit permit, she said. “The Palestinian people need the gifts and resources of all of their members, but when they leave, those are lost. There’s certainly hope that the diaspora will be eventually returned to bless the nation with its gifts, but it’s not something that any of us expect within the next few weeks or months.”

Asked where she sees God in the Jerusalem diocese, Jefferts Schori said: “In the faces of all of the people in the land of the Holy One. The image of God is reflected on their faces. I see Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus looking for resurrection in that place. I see the dove and the olive branch as a sign of the work of the spirit in that place, deeply seeking reconciliation and new life for all of the people of the Holy Land.”

Griswold said she sees God in the people of the Diocese of Jerusalem “as they struggle for human dignity … Because of the strength of their faith in God’s love for all humanity supported by the church, they are able to reach out in hospitality and acceptance of others and be teachers, healers and reconcilers.”

At the July 5 reception, Dawani thanked the presiding bishop and the American Friends for their ongoing support for the ministry of his diocese. “We believe that our work is your work as well. Our institutions are your institutions because we are the body of Christ.”

— Matthew Davies is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.