[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] The House of Deputies on July 9 voted overwhelmingly in favor of pursuing what is known as a human rights investment screen to end the Episcopal Church’s complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, a move that critics call divestment and one they warn will diminish rather than amplify the church’s voice in the region.
Resolution D019 also raised concerns from critics that the church was taking sides in the decades-old Middle East conflict and possibly opening itself up to claims of anti-Semitism, though floor amendments to the resolution sought to minimize those concerns.
In the end, a measure that in 2015 failed even to get a floor debate in the House of Deputies, now sails to the House of Bishops backed by the deputies’ 619-214 vote, or 74 percent. Many voiced an increased sense of urgency in responding to the rapid deterioration of the Mideast peace process and the escalating humanitarian crisis affecting Palestinians.
“Occupation is bad both for the oppressed and the oppressor,” said the Rev. Brian Grieves, a deputy from the Diocese of Hawaii and a member of the Stewardship & Socially Responsible Investing Committee, during the house debate on the resolution he proposed. “We as a church are complicit in this occupation. We have money invested in it.
“Let this be finally the convention where we say we will no longer allow our financial resource to enable this brutal occupation. … Palestinian lives matter.”
The difference between 2015 and this year has been a common theme at the 79th General Convention when discussing resolutions related to Israel and Palestine. Before this convention Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president, accepted a task force’s recommendations intended to expedite the process and ensure a full, open and productive debate on the issues after complaints about the process three years ago.
By most accounts, the process this year succeeded. Nearly 50 people testified on 15 resolutions at a joint hearing July 6. The House of Deputies was chosen as the house of initial action for all Israel-Palestine resolutions, and Resolution D019, deemed the most controversial, was scheduled for a special order of business to ensure debate didn’t get sidetracked by procedural matters.
Sarah Lawton, deputy from California and chair of the Social Justice and International Policy Committee, alluded to these changes in her opening remarks on the resolution before debate began.
“Last time we didn’t really debate this issue because the resolution failed in the House of Bishops, which was the house of initial action [in 2015],” she said.
The Episcopal Church has long voiced support for Israel’s right to exist and live in peace, as well as opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Lawton listed some of the reasons why the past three years since the last General Convention have added a “sense of urgency” to the debate over treatment of Palestinians: Gaza, described as the world’s “largest open-air prison,” has faced deadly aerial attacks by Israel’s military, Lawton said, and Israeli forces have engaged in a disproportionate live-fire response to border unrest that violates international norms. Palestinian children have been taken from their parents and detained in deplorable conditions.
Many of those complaints were echoed in the impassioned testimony at the committee hearing, which drew people of a wide range of faith backgrounds, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“These concerns are addressed in our other resolutions, but they form some of the context for this one,” Lawton said.
And while most of the other Israel-Palestine resolutions were assigned to the consent calendar to be approved without further discussion, D019 produced robust debate in the House of Deputies during the 80 minutes or so between introduction and passage. A full half hour was set aside for debate on the resolution itself, with additional time allotted for debate on amendments, according to the rules of the special order of business.
The Rev. Winnie Varghese, deputy from New York, spoke about the Episcopal Church’s long history of socially responsible investing and its decision to withhold investments from certain industries, such as the tobacco and prison industries. Aligning investments with values is now a mainstream practice, she said.
“We are able to do this work,” she said in arguing for the resolution’s passage. “It is selective. It is supportive of our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine working for a just peace.”
The Rev. Susan Haynes, deputy with Northern Indiana, also applauded those who are working for peace, but she spoke against Resolution D019.
“I admire the work that people do when they advocate for Palestinians in the Holy Land when their rights are violated by the Israeli army, and I admire the work done by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem who serve people in the occupation under very difficult circumstances,” Haynes said. “But I cannot wholeheartedly support this [resolution] because it is one-sided. Human rights screening is divestment in Israel, and divestment destroys any chance of reconciliation.”
The Rev. Candice Frasier, deputy from Alabama, took exception to claims of one-sidedness.
“This resolution is not anti-Israel or even one-sided, though it might be one-sided if we consider, with our investments, our church has taken a side,” Frasier said. “How can we play a role in peacemaking when we are already invested in the oppression of a people?”
The Episcopal Church already pursues socially responsible investing in Israel through shareholder resolutions with companies that have contracts to support Israel’s infrastructure, such as construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and telecommunications company Motorola. The threat of divestment is seen by proponents as one way to apply greater pressure on those companies to take a stand against human rights violations, but not everyone agrees with that tactic.
“If the Episcopal church is going to play any role in this, we need to engage with both sides, not to divest, not to boycott,” said the Rev. Hillary Raining, deputy from Pennsylvania. “Boycotting and divesting from them will only close the channels of communication.”
Frasier countered that “it is through our pocketbooks” that the church can make a difference, and the Rev. David Ota of the Diocese of California said he saw the Palestinian cause through the lens of his Japanese heritage and Japanese-Americans’ suffering during the U.S. policy of internment during World War II.
“When I think about this issue, when I see Palestinians behind walls, I see Jesus and I see my family and I see our church,” he said, and he closed with a reference to the massive prayer vigil attended July 8 by the bishops and deputies outside an immigrant detention center not far from Austin. “The policy of a human right screen is trying to … free the people from destruction and to help us as a church stand with them, just as we stood at the detention center yesterday.”
Three amendments were approved before the final vote. One, proposed by the Rev. Gail Bennett of New Jersey, expedites a potential human rights screen by making those recommendations due by 2019 instead of 2020. A second amendment, proposed by the Rev. Wesley Sedlacek of Oregon, added a clause seeking to make clear the resolution is not critical of the Jewish faith tradition but rather advocates change in policies of a government, Israel.
And the House of Deputies, by a slim margin, approved an amendment from William Boyce of Massachusetts to “urge dioceses and worshipping communities to consider developing similar human rights social criteria investment screens in response to the Israel-Palestine crisis.”
With amendments done, Jennings called for the vote on the resolution, which passed without further comment.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the House of Bishops will take up the resolution. Another resolution, B003, relating to the status of Jerusalem is on the bishop’s consent calendar for July 10. At least six other Israel-Palestine resolutions are on the House of Deputies’ consent calendar for the same day.
If any or all of the resolutions clear both houses, the work of advocacy in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the church will fall to the Office of Government Relations.
“We look forward to implementing the guidance of General Convention, and we plan to continue our advocacy in pursuit of a just peace in the Holy Land,” Office of Government Relations Director Rebecca Linder Blachly said in an email to Episcopal News Service. “In the Office of Government Relations, we work closely with ecumenical and interfaith partners on advocacy, recognizing many of us have a diversity of views on particular issues.
“Whatever convention decides, we expect to remain a strong partner and advocate in Washington to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.