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The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in General Convention

posted on: Jul 18, 2018

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention
Members of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship-Palestine Israel Network, the Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights–Austin, FOSNA, American Friends Service Committee, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and American Muslims for Palestine at the 79th Episcopal General Convention.

By: Cait O’Connor/ Arab America Contributing Writer

The Episcopal Church has officially terminated its economic involvement with Israel in protest of the government’s illegal and inhumane occupation of the Palestinian territories. The 3-million strong Episcopal church is the 10th American religious group to publicly declare support for the Palestinian people.

The General Convention, held from August 9-13 in Austin, Texas, passed a total of 5 resolutions explicitly outlining the Church’s support of the Palestinian cause. Among the motions passed are those to: end support of Israel, protect the human and land rights of Palestinians, and work toward peace in the region.

Perhaps the most notable of these was resolution B016, announcing the Church’s divestment from Israeli-funded companies. The church was previously invested in companies operating in Israel, including Caterpillar and Motorola. This motion will likely help create a “No Buy List” of Israeli-backed coporations. Many hope that the divestment will motivate these companies to pursue more socially conscious practices and to relinquish Church support of Israel in the name of human rights.

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention
The House of Bishops votes on one of the Israel-Palestine resolutions

The divestment movement was proposed by Reverend Brian Grieves of the Diocese of Hawaii. In speaking about his advocacy, he stated that “occupation is bad both for the oppressed and the oppressor.” He went on to voice his support explicitly for the Palestinian cause, firmly announcing, “let this be finally the convention where we say we will no longer allow our financial resources to enable this brutal occupation…Palestinian lives matter.”

The ruling faced some opposition from members who felt that the agreement might be politically polarizing or anti-Semitic, but these were overwhelmed by those in support of the human rights measures, and by the amendments made to the agreements in court.

Aside from divestment, the convention agreed on other human rights measures in Palestine, as described by Dr. Harry Gunkel in the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine-Israel Network, including:

  • Calling upon the church’s Office of Government Relations to request assurance from Israeli and Palestinian governmental authorities that international agreements are followed in treatment of children; and to prohibit use of coercive measures and methods of military justice with children;
  • Affirming Jerusalem as an international city that must be kept available to all worshippers and that moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem is an obstacle to peace;
  • Urging the US government to restore full funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the benefit of Palestinian refugees, and lift the freeze on projects of USAID to benefit Palestinians;
  • Urging the President and Congress to cooperate with calls to investigate incidences of use of lethal force against unarmed civilians by Israeli and Palestinian forces and stressing the obligation of the US to enforce the Leahy Amendment if instances of human rights violations are confirmed; 
  • Recognizing the rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples living as sovereign peoples in their homeland, with full human and civil rights and with democratic rule of one person, one vote; and affirming that no political solution must abrogate those rights. 

For a complete record of the five Palestine resolutions that passed, as well as the ten that did not, click here.

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention

Although the Episcopal Church has historically supported peaceful coexistence in Israel, legislation to this effect has been slow to pass. In 2015, the measure failed even to be considered for a floor debate in the House of Deputies. Now, with 74% of deputies on board and a majority favorable vote of 619-214, the movement soared through the House of Bishops.

Members of the Convention focused this time around on the timeliness of the ruling, questioning why it failed in the past. In response to the inefficiency they perceived during the 2015 trial, several leaders implemented a task-force plan to expedite the passing of the ruling.

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention

The Israel and Palestine Working Group was formed last year by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Rev. Gay Clark Jennings. The ten-member group, comprised of five bishops and five House of Deputies members, represented a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. To ensure a fair and just decision, the group put forth a list of requirements for its members to inform their decision:

  1. Members had to review resources and documents regarding the history and the Church’s past involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  2. Issues that come up during the proceedings would be taken as “special orders of business,” meaning they would be open to discussion without procedural limitations
  3. The House of Deputies would be the “house of initial action” for each resolution

Leaders anticipated that these efforts would “make it possible for the convention to have a thoughtful, prayerful discussion and consideration of the humanitarian concerns in Israel-Palestine.” Their initiatives were successful.

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention

Those who voted in favor of the reforms did so with a sense of urgency, expressing concern for the increasing severity of the human rights crisis. Church leaders referred to the situation in Gaza as “the world’s largest open-air prison,” citing Israel’s deadly aerial attacks, live-fire violence, and detainment of children as evidence of the situation’s urgency and injustice.

As evidence of the humanitarian crisis, testimony referenced the bulldozing of homes and the destruction and separation of families. These actions, the court suggested, amounted to a kind of “‘racist extremism’ that had turned Palestinians into second-class citizens in their own homeland.”

Over 50 people, including Palestinians, church members, and Black Lives Matter leaders, gave testimonies in support of the Palestinian cause at the July 6 hearing before the proceedings. Click here to watch the powerful testimonial of Tarek Abuata, a Palestinian Christian.

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention
Tarek Abuata and other members of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights

While some members at the hearing suggested that the move to divest might “close the channels of communication” and “destroy any chance of reconciliation” with Israel, Rev. Candice Frazier questioned, “how can we play a role in peacemaking when we are already invested in the oppression of a people?”

The Episcopal Church Rules on Palestine in Grand Convention

The majority favorable vote suggests not only broad American support for the Palestinian cause, but an active refusal to accept the further “whitewashing” and erasure of the conflict’s severity.

The July ruling is predated by the efforts of the Presbyterian Assembly. The Presbyterian Church, comprising 1.5 million Americans, recently voted in favor of 10 pro-Palestinian measures. The June 22 ruling covered many pro-justice initiatives proposed by the Israel Palestinian Mission Network. Among these were movements to counter legislation preventing the boycott, divestment, and BDS sanctions of Israel.

The resolutions, from the USCPR’s website, are as follows:

  1. Condemning Israel’s attacks on protesters participating in the Great March for Return and calling for an end to Israel’s illegal siege of the Gaza Strip
  2. Opposing Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem, and its discriminatory practices targeting Palestinians in access to employment, representation, infrastructure, services, and education
  3. Voting down legislation that scapegoated Palestinians for the deaths of Palestinian children killed by Israel, and presented false symmetry between the violence inflicted on Palestinian and Israeli children
  4. Affirming our right to boycott by condemning anti-BDS legislation being pushed at the state and federal level, including opposing the Israel Anti-Boycott Act
  5. Standing firmly in solidarity with Palestinian churches and receiving their call to recognize Israel as an apartheid state and intensify BDS campaigns
  6. Challenging the US president and State Department regarding Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians and other citizens of Israel, and calling for US diplomatic action toward equality
  7. Challenging boycott target RE/MAX’s profiting from sales in Israeli settlements
  8. Ensuring that interfaith relationships in the US are oriented toward justice rather than used as a fig leaf for Israel’s violence against Palestinians
  9. Rejecting normalization efforts that ignore the power imbalance between Palestinians and Israelis
  10. Voting down a resolution seeking to end the classification of Israel as a “colonial project.”

Although these resolutions certainly represent a huge leap forward in the American public’s understanding of and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the effort cannot stop here. As Anna Baltzer of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights reminds us, we must not become complacent, and instead must “recommit ourselves to the fight ahead for full freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people.”