Convention's bold – and unifying – call to Israeli-Palestinian peace

By Alexander D. Baumgarten
Posted Jul 27, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] As the director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C., there is never a day in which I do not think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meetings with policymakers, consultations with other advocates for peace with justice (religious and secular), communication with our church in Jerusalem, and conversations with other Episcopalians committed to advocacy all might be part of a typical day.

One of the sentiments I hear most frequently from colleagues and friends is frustration with the fact that the peace process is undeniably stalled and that conditions for those living with the conflict are worsening. That’s a frustration I share. What is the game changer, we all ask, that will get this process unstuck? What can we do that we aren’t already doing?

The recently completed General Convention provided some exciting and hopeful answers to those questions. In looking at what the deputies and bishops did (and elected not to do), I see a promising pathway for the Episcopal Church to magnify the strength of its voice in the new triennium.

First, let’s look at what the convention did. By a nearly unanimous margin, bishops and deputies passed Resolution B019, which calls for a triennium of intense teaching, learning, and advocacy around the conflict. The Episcopal Church has been at this work for 30 years, and our resolutions have been clear in what we support: a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people, lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people, with a shared Jerusalem as the capital of both states. Our task now is to enlarge the number of Episcopalians committed to working, through advocacy, toward that vision becoming a reality. Resolution B019 gives us a plan for how to do that, and my office is already working to live into that plan.

As one bishop pointed out to me after final passage of the resolution, we just witnessed something nearly unprecedented in the past three decades since the General Convention began addressing this subject: bishops and deputies from a variety of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict coming together enthusiastically and vocally in favor of a single resolution that calls for all Episcopalians to join the conversation. Equally importantly, the resolution calls for us to invite others into the conversation: Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Muslims, and other Christians. There are to be no outcasts in the conversation, and all voices are welcome on equal terms. I can attest firsthand how rare this kind of genuine dialogue and listening is in practice, and also how fruitful it is when it does take place.

One other very important theme comes out of this very important resolution: investment of our own treasure in the Palestinian economy, and commitment to visiting, and being in partnership with, the Anglican Church in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, a Palestinian from the West Bank, along with the Palestinian government, have repeatedly stressed the need for outside investment and the creation of economic infrastructure in the occupied territories in order to allow Palestinians to prepare for the creation of a future state. The Episcopal Church has recognized this before, but Resolution B019 gives new and important flesh to the concept.

Finally, it’s important to note what the General Convention declined to do. The House of Deputies overwhelming rejected a move to endorse boycott and divestment of Israel and the study of two documents that have been criticized by some – including the Episcopal Church’s chief operating officer, Bishop Stacy Sauls – as theologically problematic in their portrayal of Judaism. One deputy noted that these steps would have been “conversation stoppers” and that we can’t create a broader base of understanding and support for a just peace if we can’t successfully bring people to the table. Another deputy noted that economic punishment of Israel, which Bishop Dawani and the Palestinian government both have criticized, could end up hurting the Palestinian economy, as it is fundamentally intertwined with Israel’s.

(One other short resolution, C061, calling for recommitment to our church’s existing support of shareholder dialogue on issues related to the conflict was passed by deputies but tabled in the House of Bishops after multiple bishops expressed a fear that some of its language could create a future pathway to boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.)

Taken together, the actions of the General Convention send a clear message that the Episcopal Church is serious about its support for a just and peaceful two-state solution, and serious about bringing new people to the table. For 30 years, we have been unambiguous about what we believe a just peace will look like. Now we are unambiguous about how to build broad-based support for that vision throughout our own communities.

As Bishop Dawani has reminded us, it is the obligation of Christians who care about Israeli-Palestinian peace 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.”

I’m proud that the General Convention chose to live into that obligation.

— Alexander D. Baumgarten is director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.


Comments (8)

  1. John McCann says:

    I am an American Friend of the Diocese of Jerusalem. I am also about to be received as a friend of he Fellowship of Society of St. John the Evangelist, which I know has a role in running St. George’s College and Guesthouse. My discerned ministry, as a layman is for Interfaith Dialogues, and I am hoping to do some sort of volunteer service in Jerusalem in te coming few years. As a member of the Trinity and St. Paul’s parish in New York, a touchstone and site of pilgrimage to those who lost loved ones on 9/11/01, I applaud this work. It is REAL, tangible, evidence that the Anglican Communion is committed to peace in Jerusalem, and hope for better lives of the Palestinian refugees. it is a step forward, and you are to be commended!

  2. Edward L. Lee, Jr. says:

    With all due respect to this report and the good work consistently done by our Church’s office in Washington I would submit the observation that there was nothing bold nor particularly unifying about General Convention’s action regarding the matter of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It’s hardly a “game changer.” It was only the latest manifestation of 30 years of resolutions that have carefully supported Israel’s narrative/justification for possessing the Holy Land as its rightful territory at the expense of the former territory of Palestine and today’s Palestinian citizens/residents. Mr. Baumgarten admits his “frustration with the fact that the peace process is undeniably stalled and that conditions for those living with the conflict are worsening.” The current record would show that the “those” are primarily Palestinians. In fact, there is significant diplomatic opinion that would indicate a two-nation solution is no longer possible and is not Israel’s ultimate intent, public declarations notwithstanding. Witness the settlements it authorizes or refuses to curtail in what are known to be official Palestinian lands.

    I was greatly disappointed that the House of Bishops, of which I am a retired member, rejected the study of two documents that provide a counter Palestinian narrative because they are “theologically problematic in their portrayal of Judaism.” Really? I’ve read both of them (“Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace” and the 2009 “Kairos Palestine” document authored by Christian Palestinians) and fail to discern such a portrayal. To relegate them to footnote or bibliographic status is to skew the very conversation that Convention’s resolution endorses and promotes. And why? Because “some of the language could create a future pathway to boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.” There’s the rub. Let’s not upset Israel with overt concern for Palestinians. Invest in the Anglican Church in Israel: fine and right so to do. But divestment is not a negative or counter-productive action. It falls well within the Anglican moral tradition of valid, non-violent practice and witness. Investment vs divestment is a false moral distinction. It can well be both/and and had General Convention, and the bishops in particular, had the courage and vision to say so, then indeed something bold might have happened. But it didn’t.

  3. Vicki Gray says:

    He doth, I think, protest too much. “Bold and unifying?” “Exciting and hopeful answers?” “A promising pathway…to magnify the strength of [our] voice.” Really? A strong voice?

    To the contrary, what was produced in B109 was an equivocal whimper. In the face of the manifest and monumental injustices of an increasingly harsh 45-year occupation, we birthed a mouse – two pages of hand-wringing over the lack of progress toward peace – without assessing the reasons for the lack of progress or acknowledging the pain of the Palestinians; a vague, reaffirmation of our past position advocating a two-state solution; calls for interfaith dialogue, study, and consideration of a $200,000 economic infrastructure loan…and precious little action to break the political deadlock…not even a nod to “corporate engagement.”

    “Corporate engagement” with companies that “contribute to the infrastructure of the occupation” and providing Episcopalians with “information on products made and distributed from illegal Israeli settlements so that they can make informed consumer choices” were relegated to a gutted version of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s template resolution – C060 – that had been stripped of even mention of the “Kairos Palestine 2009” document and the “Steadfast Hope” study guide. It was designed to fail and it did when, as Mr. Baumgarten noted, several in the House of Bishops objected that “some of its language could create a future pathway to boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.” Better, in their minds, to close that door now.

    Despite the overwhelming testimony in legislative committee calling for stronger words and action, the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Sauls, who made their views known in no uncertain terms, got their way, thanks to the persistent efforts of Mr. Baumgarten and two bishops on the committee. While the co-chair praised the committee for its “holy work,” another bishop called it “gutless.” Evidently that was a view shared by others, with five members of the committee submitting an unusual minority report to the effect that C060 was not strong enough to generate movement toward a just peace.

    That minority report – and the Presiding Bishop’s call in her Sunday sermon to “Tell it like it really is!” – gave me the opportunity and courage to address the elephant in the room on the floor of the House of Bishops. Offering an amendment to C060 urging Episcopalians to study the Kairos document and “Steadfast Hope,” urging a boycott of products made on settlements, and directing the Church to divest from companies that enable the occupation, I said that, in doing so, we would be called names – among them, “anti-Semite.” But, I added, it is high time we reject that oft-repeated calumny, recalling and taking courage from Jesus’ words on a Palestinian hillside – “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” No one else spoke in support of the amendment. End of debate.

    So what now?

    Yes, study the situation – every book and DVD you can get your hands on, including the Kairos document and “Steadfast Hope.” Perhaps Bishop Sauls could facilitate a discussion of the perceived theological shortcomings of the Kairos document. Ensure that reading lists are generated transparently.

    Yes, visit the Holy Land, being sure to meet Palestinians and Israelis who are actually working for peace and not just engaged in feel-good “dialogue.” Walk not just the Via Dolorosa, but also Shuhada Street…and beware the Potemkin-village potential of “model pilgrimages.” It’s called the hermeneutics of suspicion.

    Yes, engage in interfaith dialogue – honestly – as I have with friends in the Jewish American community and, indeed, in the Israeli government. You may be surprised by how well honesty is reciprocated.

    Above all, recognize – as we did not in Indianapolis – that the two-state solution is rapidly passing us by. More than half a million Israeli Jews now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and, as Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria warned last week in the New York Times, “Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile.”

    Recognize also that, while neither side has a monopoly on rights and wrongs, one side does have a monopoly of power and control of the narrative. It is hard to negotiate a just peace when one negotiating partner is on his knees and the other has a gun at his head. It is harder still to recognize even the contours of a just peace, when one side’s voice is silenced by threats of “cutting off interfaith dialogue” or “incriminating” our bishop in Jerusalem. There will be no progress until these imbalances are redressed. What we did – or, more properly, failed to do – in Indianapolis, however, only compounded the imbalance.

    By our “even-handed” silence, we took the side of the powerful and decreased the prospects for peace. As Christians, if not as Episcopalians, we must do better.

  4. Ed McCarthy says:

    On Israel/Palestine, I am usually on the same page as Alex Baumgarten and the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN). I wish, then, that I could wholly agree that the General Convention provided the game-changing “bold—and unifying—call to Israeli-Palestinian peace” that Alex perceived in his recent ENS Commentary piece. Unfortunately, I do not. The critiques by Bishop Lee and Rev. Vicki Gray that followed his essay, as well as what I am hearing from the very dedicated and activist pro-Palestinian members of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) here in Maine—to which I belong somewhat uncomfortably–suggest that the meeting of minds is far from complete. That is one, perhaps expectable, dissonant note. There are others, both disappointing and to an extent simply puzzling.

    My perception is that the resolutions adopted at the General Convention reflect an understandable attempt to incorporate proposals from a variety of sources with divergent ideas as to a way forward. Perhaps this can be characterized as “unifying” in the sense that it is meant to offer all sides a degree of satisfaction. If however such an exercise is undertaken without much critical analysis of what is being proposed, it is not surprising that you get the mixed bag included in the Convention’s several resolutions.

    Some Convention provisions are clearly useful. All are likely to agree that positive investment in the Palestinian economy and society is a good thing, though some would argue that it should be supplemented by divestment from firms doing business which supports Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. No one will deny that support for the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, the diocese itself, and Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital is very much warranted. It is when we get beyond these uncontroversial ameliorative measures that problems arise, including the difficulty that amelioration has limitations: Generosity by the Church or other outside parties cannot overcome the fact that Israeli occupation—and not shortcomings of Palestinian culture as some would have it–will blight Palestinian prospects so long as the occupation endures. The need for that occupation to end is great—and urgent. In great measure, my misgivings concerning the General Convention’s actions are like those I have regarding pro-Palestinian activism centered on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: Both are “playing a long game” when short term resolution is badly needed.

    General Convention Resolution B019 emphasizes study over the next triennium, focused on “narratives and theologies”and to be undertaken in terms of “Muslim, Jewish and Christian study…” i.e., primarily in religious terms. Granted that it is natural for the Church and its members to bring a religious perspective to this as to other issues, and granted further that there are significant moral, ethical and religious dimensions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving the situation a primary religious emphasis presents myriad, and unnecessary, obstacles to reaching a satisfactory peace. At bottom, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political one, best understood in those terms, and requiring resolution by political leaders with the will, and requisite public support, to do the job. Its roots lie in the history of the late 19th and the 20th centuries; it is thus essentially modern, and secular in character. Conceiving of the conflict principally in religious terms obscures its basic nature, and intensifies an emotional element which is not helpful. Descending into the weeds of “narratives and theologies” compounds the problems further. There are multiples of both, more often than not mutually exclusive, and not easily reconciled. As to “narratives” in particular, an abiding myth on the pro-Palestinian side, one underpinning ardent enthusiasm for the Kairos Document and STEADFAST HOPE, is that if only a Palestinian narrative is put forth to compete with a dominant Israeli narrative, truth and justice will be achieved. This is not the likely outcome. Competing narratives, inevitably encumbered with distortions, oversimplifications and indeed outright falsehoods, at least from the other side’s point of view, generate heat rather than light, and endless debate. This is not the way to the compromise settlement needed. What B019 calls for will take too long, has a questionable focus, and would consume time and energy which could be better directed.

    A number of proposals are genuinely attractive, but may not be able to fulfill expectations. Interfaith dialogue has value in and of itself. Those more concerned with achieving justice in Israel/Palestine than with working in common with Jewish communities in the US on other projects of mutual interest may too easily devalue such dialogue, thus alienating not just Jews but many of their own co-religionists. At the same time, as an instrument for progress on the Middle East conflict, interfaith discussions can have substantial limitations. Many in the Jewish community operate on a principle of keeping discussion of Israel within that community, and not a few hold to a line of not differing in public with Israeli Government policy. The idea of the Presiding Bishop organizing a multi-faith “model pilgrimage” to the Holy Land has its attractions. It is however in the nature of a gesture, and may be hard to get together or replicate in a meaningful way. To the extent that such a “model” trip sends the message of a need for balance in organizing pilgrimages, “witness trips,” or the like, it may have value. The fact is however that such trips generally are confined to a limited number who have the time, money and interest to undertake them, and provide only anecdotal and often one-sided evidence for the most part.

    Fresh assessments of the “facts on the ground” are needed less than the organization and presentation of plans for action based on forthright Church positions. Resolution C060 calls for “robust use” of EPPN’s Washington office in the pursuit of peace. This is well and good. However, for reasons well enough known, those who would disturb the pro-Israeli status quo in our Nation’s Capital face an uphill battle. The politicians’ constituents will have to become more concerned, and insistent on US action to bring about a fair settlement, before there can be hope for much. That however does not require 3 years of study, or yet more concentration on the very controverted “facts on the ground.”

    The Church has addressed Israel-Palestine repeatedly for the past 30 years. Perhaps it has not done so completely adequately—Who has?—but it has gotten some basic things right, most notably the need for a 2-State solution, and a settlement as fair as possible to both peoples. Both the Church and other sources have provided more than enough information to reach conclusions and recommendations sufficient to generate support for a reasonable outcome. It is hard to see what an “annotated bibliography” will add, just as it is hard to imagine that “triennial study groups” will provide much new concerning “a constructive path to peace.” There is no dearth of such “paths”: The Geneva Accords and a detailed 2011 plan set forth by 9/11 Commission Chairman Lee Hamilton and other former US Government officials are just two of many. The problem is not lack of plans, but rather of political will, both here and in the Holy Land. The task is to create conditions in which the politicians feel able, indeed compelled, to act decisively for peace.

    The Church can help by reaffirming and expanding upon its “balanced witness in favor of peace for two peoples.” At the core is commitment to a just 2-State solution, happily reiterated in Resolution B019. Its corollaries must be at least three: One is a sense of urgency; the possibility that a 2-State solution can no longer be achieved is real, if not as inevitable as some in the pro-Palestinian camp would say. A second corollary is stated readiness to cooperate with like-minded organizations like J Street and Americans for Peace Now in the Jewish community, the American Task Force on Palestine on the Palestinian side, and my own parent organization, Churches for Middle East Peace, among fellow Christians. Rejection of tactics like BDS, which exacerbate the polarization central to sustaining the status quo, is required as well. The Convention rightly turned away the Kairos Document and STEADFAST HOPE, both of which have a pro-BDS bias and emphasis on Israel’s offenses. Not a few of the charges made against the Israelis are valid, but putting that country in the dock does not move matters toward negotiations and peace. Israel/Palestine is not apartheid South Africa; the Israelis cannot be bludgeoned into submission.

    The Church would also do well to include what is in the 2012 Maine Democratic Party Platform: An assertion that both Israelis and Palestinians have rights and legitimate claims to a presence and self-determination within the Land we call Holy. Delegitimization of one side by the other needs to be clearly repudiated, and the need for full equality of rights for the citizens of whatever States emerge from final negotiations should be championed (See the op-ed by Avraham Burg, one of Israel’s finest elder statesmen, in the Sunday, August 4 New York Times). Palestinian citizens of Israel do not enjoy that fullness of rights now.

    Also central to a sound Church position is a forthright call for a US role. Reading the letter to President Obama which the Presiding Bishop signed with other religious leaders in October 2009, as well as her September 2011 Pastoral reassures me that she understands that a vigorous US role in crucial. This stands in contrast with the writers of STEADFAST HOPE, which mentions the US, as well as the Palestinian Authority, only to condemn past inadequacies. It would have been well for the Convention to address this disparity. Yet none of the Convention’s Resolutions mention American participation, let alone its centrality. In an August 1 New York Times column excoriating pandering by American politicians to pro-Israeli groups, Tom Friedman articulates one of several reasons why the US is needed. So “knotted” are the politics of both Israelis and Palestinians that “both need the excuse at times that ‘the Americans made me do it’” if progress is to be made. Official US Government policy is like that of the Church: A 2-State solution. The default policy to which our Government, like others, in always tempted, is to allow the Israelis to “manage the conflict,” i.e., perpetuate their occupation. The Church in conjunction with others must concentrate on moving the US toward determined pursuit of the official, 2-State, policy and away from the default alternative.

    The Church should also call for an equitable sharing of resources, most critically water, as well for a shared Jerusalem. Resolution B019 having urged the latter, which the Israelis will not easily agree to, there should be little inclination to worry overmuch about what they will think of the former, or other justified proposals they do not like. Those who would deal with the Israelis and Palestinians should not shrink from plain speaking, and resort to “tough love” when that seems needed.

    There are other useful positions the Church can take. It was fine that in B019 the Convention decried “extremism and fundamentalism in all their forms” in the abstract. It would be better if the Church explicitly repudiated the use of sacred texts to justify violence or the illegitimate taking of others’ property by force, State prerogative, or legal chicanery, in violation of human rights and international law. Alex Baumgarten would invite all to the table for discussion. When it comes to the Christian Zionists, I am not sure that there is more to say than “No” to their agenda—and to say it publicly and loudly.

    Someone also needs to say—and why not the Church?—that promotion rather than obstruction of unity between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions should be pursued as key to a lasting peace. To say that present conditions lain down for Hamas participation in negotiations or governance are unrealistic and hence unreasonable may invite accusations of sympathy with terrorists. Nonetheless, this badly needs to be said. Our Government, and the Church, could usefully consult how differently matters were handled in order to bring peace to another area of seemingly irreconcilable communal conflict, Northern Ireland.

    It is perhaps beyond the brief of this paper or of the Church to come out against the current march toward a preemptive strike against Iran, and to champion what the UN has long called for: a nuclear-free Middle East. That idea is one the Israelis do not like, since it would weaken their decided military superiority in the region. Their objections however do not make a nuclear-free zone a bad idea.

    The Church, along with others of like mind, can do much that is constructive, principally along lines such as those immediately above. The General Convention did not get it as right as matters with regard to Israel/Palestine have to be. Perhaps the Executive Council can move constructively away from the false choice of pro-Palestinian advocacy versus immersion in back-to-basics study unlikely to lead to decisive action. Given that the Church, via the Executive Council, were able to arrive at a sound position such as outlined above, the question of implementation arises. That is a whole separate subject, but one or two ideas may be useful: Petitions from congregations or dioceses not just to Members of Congress but to State and local bodies, and political parties, could have an impact. Public referenda could be an avenue as well. Such tactics have been used successfully in Maine and Massachusetts, and could be elsewhere. The Church can lead, and should do so.

  5. Marin Schneer says:

    It would be refreshing for the Church that is truly committed to peace to encourage the parties to negotiate without preconditions. After all Israel has put on the table 3 documented offers, including one crafted by President Clinton in his last days in office that were rejected without a counter offer by the Palestinians. It is hard to imagine that a Palestinian State wouldn’t exist today if the Palestinians and Arabs simply accepted the reality of Israel’s existence.
    Hamas whose charter and stated goal calls for the murder of all Israelis, and Jews for that matter, is the most powerful force among the Palestinians today, not withstanding their double inhumane crime of targeting civilians and using their own people as human shields.
    Perhaps the Church could assert itself as moral force by putting a spotlight on Hamas, and even more importantly Iran a country that openly calls for genocide, and help provide the kind of confidence Israel needs to make more risky concessions (eg. Sinai, South Lebanon, Gaza) knowing the world will no longer aid and abet (boycott and divestment) those calling for their total destruction.

    1. Marin Schneer says:

      What does that mean

    2. Marin Schneer says:

      What do you mean moderation, it appears to be censorship

  6. Marin Schneer says:

    Am I saying anything that is not factual

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