Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates General Convention International Policy committees’ hearings

By David Paulsen
Posted May 2, 2024
Gaza gate

Israeli soldiers on May 1 stand by a gate in the fence of Erez Crossing, amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Dozens of Episcopalians and representatives from The Episcopal Church’s ecumenical and interfaith partners testified at three separate online hearings about the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict and 10 related resolutions that will be considered by the 81st General Convention.

That conflict and the church’s policies toward it often generate some of the most pointed debates when bishops and deputies gather for the church’s triennial General Convention, which this year is scheduled for June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky. The volume of Middle East resolutions and the length of testimony indicated that interest in such issues remains strong and may be intensifying as the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas nears seven months.

“U.S. aid to Israel is in conflict with Episcopal policy, U.S. law, international law and the Gospel message, ‘in as much as you have done to the least of  these, you have done to me,'” Pricilla Read of the Diocese of Chicago said in her testimony May 2 on Resolution D012, entitled “Conditioning U.S. Military Assistance to Israel on Human Rights and a Negotiated Peace.”

Read was one of 11 people who testified in favor of Resolution D012, one of four resolutions discussed at that day’s hearing, held by General Convention’s Social Justice & International Policy committees. Other resolutions had generated even more feedback at previous hearings. Fifteen people testified April 29 about Resolution D006, most of them in favor of the measure, which would reject the theology of Christian Zionism that sees a Jewish-led nation of Israel as a prerequisite for Jesus’ second coming.

Another resolution, D007, drew testimony from 14 people at the April 29 hearing. Labeled “Peace Through Equal Rights,” it would condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed an estimated 1,200 people, as well as “the ensuing military aggression by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza.”

“Peace after a ceasefire will only be achieved when both Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights, freedoms and self-determination,” Stacy Anderson of the Diocese of Olympia, Washington, said in her testimony supporting D007. “We need to not only stop the killing but build a lasting peace, which will require the dismantling of Israel’s military occupation, the blockade of Gaza, its settlements and its systemic discriminatory laws favoring Israelis over Palestinians at every turn.”

So many people had signed up to talk at the April 29 hearing that the committees were unable to accommodate them all within the scheduled two-hour session. The remaining testimony, on Resolution D005, was continued May 2. That resolution would put The Episcopal Church on record as supporting the pro-Palestinian movement known as “boycott, divest and sanctions,” which aims to apply economic pressure on Israel.

“Over 34,000 Palestinian lives have been killed in Gaza and the surrounding regions,” said the Rev. Ranjit Mathews, who serves the Episcopal Church in Connecticut as canon for mission advocacy, racial justice and reconciliation. “We need to give our leaders the necessary tools to stop this potential genocide. The most effective tool time and time again … is boycotts, divestment and sanctions.”

General Convention, the church’s bicameral governing body, divides its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. To review, revise and recommend proposed resolutions, each house assigns members to parallel committees focused on about two dozen legislative topics. Though distinct, the bishop’ and deputies’ committees typical meet jointly for hearings and deliberations.

The Social Justice & International Policy committees held their first hearing on April 18 to take testimony on four related resolutions – A010, A011, A012 and D003 – that would equate Israel’s differing treatment of Jewish and Arab citizens as “apartheid.”

The term is typically associated with the 1948-1994 all-white South African government’s policy of racial separation. Use of the word has been divisive in the church’s perennial debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2018, General Convention rejected a resolution that sought to label Israel’s unequal policies toward Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis as evidence of an “apartheid” state.

Speaking April 18 in favor of D003, Kathleen Christison, of the Diocese of Rio Grande and a long-time member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network, pointed out this year marks the third attempt to pass legislation labeling Israel an apartheid state. She urged the church to join international human rights organizations and other Christian denominations in calling out Israel’s system of oppression as “apartheid.”

“I believe the church has a profound moral obligation to condemn Israel for imposing the illegal, morally reprehensible system of apartheid on the entire land under Israeli control, not only in the occupied Palestinian territories, but inside Israel’s own borders. Equal numbers of Jews and Palestinian Arabs live under Israeli control … but only Jews have full political and human rights.”

Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor, vice chair of the House of Bishop’s committee, noted that he has been reluctant to use the word “apartheid” in the past, partly because it is not a label endorsed publicly by Anglican leaders in the Diocese of Jerusalem. Taylor added, however, that his views have shifted because of the severe security restrictions growing out of military occupation placed on Palestinians living in the West Bank.

“Apartheid-like language is now far more associated with core Israeli government policy than it’s ever been before. I know we all pray for a successor to the [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government, but this is the government we have now. And its behavior is making it harder and harder for those who want to try to hold the line on the ‘a word’ to be able to do so given their sanction of the behavior of these extremist settlers.”

Adam L. Gregerman, a professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and associate director of the Jesuit university’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, testified against all the “apartheid” resolutions, calling them “anti-Israel,” and he lamented the absence of language acknowledging the resurgence of anti-Semitism.

“Why is it that there’s so many resolutions explicitly hostile to Israel, the one Jewish state, and not a word about other countries whose evil acts are far more worthy of attention and critique?” Gregerman asked, referencing Syria, Myanmar and Iran. “Were there to be some genuine concern here for the powerless and vulnerable one would expect to find serious attention to these terrible, certainly far worse, situations. Notably, the language here instead is hyperbolic inaccurate and does nothing to encourage dialogue.”

Such pro-Israel viewpoints, though rare, were shared in testimony at the other two hearings as well. Rabbi Yehiel Poupko of the Jewish United Fund in Chicago, Illinois, testified May 2 about Resolution D013. That measure would call on Hamas and Israel “to abandon violence, initiate and honor a permanent ceasefire and release all Israeli hostages and Palestinian political prisoners as a means to resolving this 76-year-old conflict.”

Poupko singled out Hamas as an Iranian-backed militant group with “a desire to erase the Jewish people,” as was made clear on Oct. 7 when Hamas “inflicted the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

“Any resolution that doesn’t recognize this inherent evil inflicted upon Israel and the Jewish people’s obligation to defend itself from such evil happening again is an afront to the fact that all humans are created in God’s image,” he said.

Others who testified included some Palestinian Christians. Rosana Thompson, a Chicago-based Palestinian activist, spoke of her relatives’ experience under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s declaration of war, her cousin’s 11-year-old son was confused why he was unable to safely attend his school in Jerusalem for a month. “Why can’t we love each other like brothers?” the boy asked her.

Thompson testified in favor of Resolution D012 and its support for peace negotiations.

“This is not a fight between Jews and Muslims or even Israelis and Palestinians,” Thompson said. “The real enemy is extremism, and this resolution reaffirms the church’s commitment to support human rights by addressing the problem at its roots.”

The committees’ next hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Eastern May 7 and will include testimony on Resolution C002, which is concerned with “responsible travel to the Holy Land.” Three other resolutions at the hearing are focused on treating “migration with dignity.” Two more resolutions related to the Holy Land are scheduled for a hearing at 11 a.m. Eastern May 18.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at Lynette Wilson, ENS managing editor based in New York, contributed to this report.