U.S. Churches Are Taking Action for Palestine

(This article is published in Muftah.)

Christians in the United States are taking action for justice in Palestine.

In the span of just one week in late June and early July, three major U.S. churches voted on groundbreaking Israel-Palestine measures at their annual conventions. One called for divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, while another described Israel’s military occupation of Palestine as “sinful … based on injustice and must come to an end.”

Muftah spoke with members of the Israel-Palestine committees of the Episcopalian Church USA, the Mennonite Church USA, and the United Church of Christ, who proposed the resolutions.

Advocates at all three churches emphasized that they stood in solidarity not just with Palestinians, but with their “Jewish brothers and sisters” as well. They also indicated that their opposition to Israel’s policies was the product of a deep desire for justice and equality, one that is rooted in what they feel to be core Christian values.

Although only one of the three churches (the United Church of Christ) passed a resolution to divest from the Israeli occupation, all advocates remain motivated to continue pushing for justice and equality in Israel-Palestine within their congregations. Allies from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) who joined the Christian advocates at their various conventions also expressed great enthusiasm about the experience and felt optimistic about the future.

Episcopal Church USA

The Episcopal Church USA, the largest of the three denominations, with over two million baptized members, considered several Israel-Palestine resolutions at its 2015 convention, in Salt Lake City, Utah from June 25 to July 3. Five resolutions were submitted in total, from a variety of dioceses; of these, three were sent to the House of Bishops for deliberation.

Of the three resolutions, one expressed solidarity with Palestinian Christians and other oppressed peoples, another called on the church to make positive investments in Palestinian institutions, and the last called for monitoring church investments to ensure that it does not profit from Israel’s illegal occupation.

The original text of resolution D016 called for divestment, but was edited to merely request that the church “work earnestly and with haste to avoid profiting from the illegal occupation” and “develop a list of U.S. and foreign corporations that provide goods and services that support the infrastructure of Israel’s Occupation.” In spite of these edits, and even though the words “divestment” or “boycott” were not mentioned in any of the measures that made it before the bishops, the religious authorities worried that they could potentially lead to divestment, and consequently voted them down.

Newland Smith, Senior Deputy to the General Convention, from the Chicago diocese, spoke with Muftah about the vote. Smith has visited both Gaza and the West Bank and has been involved in Israel-Palestine advocacy work for years. He recalled first drafting Israel-Palestine proposals for the church back in 1991.

Smith said the House of Bishops was “finding it very difficult to get beyond Christian-Jewish dialogue” and mistakenly viewed the resolutions as motivated by religion, rather than a desire for political justice.

“We are disappointed even though this is not unexpected,” Smith said. He explained that the views of the Episcopal Archbishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, who is opposed to any form of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, hold particular sway. This has created significant institutional barriers for advocacy efforts pursued by the Episcopal Committee for Justice in Israel and Palestine.

“We moved an inch, but we have a long way to go,” Smith said. He recalled having refreshing discussions about Israel-Palestine in the meeting of the church’s Committee on Social Justice and International Affairs. However, he said, realistically speaking, a lot of work still needs to be done.

“We’re already organizing for the next convention,” Smith maintained.

JVP members at the 2015 Episcopalian Convention

JVP members at the 2015 Episcopalian Convention

The Episcopalian Palestine-Israel Network (PIN), which educates fellow Episcopalians about Israel-Palestine and works toward what it calls “a just peace” in the region, invited JVP to attend the convention. A delegation of five individuals from the progressive Jewish group, including a young activist named Jade Brooks, participated in the event.

“We were there to accompany and provide support for their important work,” Brooks told Muftah. PIN has been “working for years and years,” she explained. “I feel so in awe of the incredible people we met who are in part of the Palestine-Israel Network. The depth of commitment and love in service of this work is so clear.”

A JVP member at the 2015 Episcopalian Convention

A JVP member at the 2015 Episcopalian Convention

Brooks said she is optimistic that support for Palestinian human rights will grow among church members. She also spoke fondly of the “warm welcome” JVP members received at the convention, joking about how every few minutes another person would come up and ask to take a picture with them sporting their “Another Jew supporting divestment” t-shirts.

“We were welcomed with such open arms,” Brooks recalled. “It was wonderful to see a church really grappling with these issues.”

Mennonite Church USA

At its 2015 convention, in Kansas City, Missouri from June 30 to July 5, the Mennonite Church USA, also considered a resolution calling for divestment from the Israeli occupation, which was sponsored by over 15 parishes. This year was the first time that a resolution on justice in Palestine made it to a vote at the annual convention. Though the Mennonite Church is a relatively small denomination with roughly 100,000 members and about 800 congregations, this was a significant step for the group. Congregants ultimately voted to table the measure until 2017, with 418 in favor and 336 against.

The resolution described Israel’s military occupation of Palestine as “sinful,” and “based on injustice and must come to an end.” It also affirmed that, “as U.S. citizens we are complicit in this sin due to our government’s significant and longstanding military support for Israel.”

The resolution itself was the latest development in a multi-year relationship between the Mennonite Church and Kairos Palestine, a group of Palestinian Christians that made an appeal in 2009 to Christians around the world, requesting their assistance in opposing Israel’s illegal occupation and ending ethnic and religious oppression in Israel-Palestine. In 2011, the Mennonite Church’s executive director issued the following response to the plea from Kairos Palestine:

For more than 65 years, Mennonites have lived, studied and ministered in Palestine and Israel. … We open our hearts when we again hear of the suffering you experience in an occupied land as homes are taken from you, families and communities are separated by walls and checkpoints, and countless large and small indignities and humiliations are visited upon you each day.

The July 2015 resolution opened with an excerpt from that 2011 letter. The resolution voiced support for Israel’s conscientious objectors, demanded “the guarantee of equal rights for all peoples,” and firmly condemned anti-Semitism:

All actions that stereotype or demonize people based on their religious beliefs or ethnicity are contrary to the teachings of Jesus; we must have no part in them. When addressing the injustice of the current Israeli occupation of Palestine, it is critical that we speak about the policies of the Israeli government and not identify or equate the Jewish people with that government.

In addition to condemning Israel’s military occupation, the resolution expressed “opposition to the militarized resolution of conflict” and called for “an end to U.S. military assistance to all countries, including Israel.”

A follow-up resolution was brought to the delegates later in the week, calling for education of the church’s members, in order to create a better understanding of the conflict. The resolution received almost unanimous support from convention delegates and passed.

Mennonite Church 2015 convention small

Congregants at the 2015 Mennonite convention voting on measures

Muftah spoke with Tom Harder, a pastor at the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kansas and member of the Mennonite Palestine Israel Network (MennoPIN), which educates the congregation about Israel-Palestine, encourages solidarity and grassroots activism, and advocates on behalf of BDS.

“Mennonites have been working for peace with justice in Israel-Palestine for 65 years,” Harder said. “However, the campaign to bring a resolution to the delegate body of the denomination calling for peace with justice in the Holy Land is relatively recent.”

“The comments from the floor regarding our resolution, and the tabling which followed, revealed that there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation among our constituency about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and a significant need for further education,” Harder explained.

He was optimistic about the future of potential divestment, and sees the next two years, during which the resolution will be tabled, as an opportunity to educate the congregation.

“While many were very disappointed at the outcome, we are encouraged by the degree of support for this issue amongst the leadership of the denomination and its various agencies.”

“There is considerable energy to keep moving forward, with greater clarity about what is needed,” Harder said.

United Church of Christ

The United Church of Christ (UCC), a mainline Protestant church with over 5,000 congregations and approximately one million members, became the second major U.S. church since June 2014 to vote to divest from and boycott companies that profit from the Israeli occupation.

At the church’s General Synod on June 30, congregants voted overwhelmingly to support a resolution calling for divestment from and boycotts of companies that operate in the occupied Palestinian territories. The measure received 508 votes in favor and 124 against, with thirty-eight abstentions.

ucc vote bds

The church voiced support for the BDS movement, describing it as a means by which “to achieve Palestinian freedom and rights using peaceful means, inspired by the US Civil Rights and South African anti-Apartheid movements.”

The victory is the culmination of a struggle that began a decade ago, in 2005. The UCC expressed gratitude to “many allies, including those in the Jewish and Palestinian communities, for their indispensable and cherished support.”

Muftah spoke with Carolyn Klaasen, an organizer with JVP who was involved in the campaign. She explained that the main force behind the vote were members of the UCC’s Palestine/Israel Network. The network invited JVP members to attend the meeting and speak with delegates.

“I think that it’s a strength of this movement that we’re coming together across religious traditions to act with moral clarity” Klaasen said.

“It was incredibly meaningful as a young Jew to be among members of the United Church of Christ this week and support them as they recognized their own complicity in the conflict and voted to remove their money from the business of occupation,” she added. “[It] strengthened my resolve to continue this work in my own community.”

The congregation also voted on recognizing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians as a form of apartheid. Although a majority of voters supported the measure, it did not pass with the required two-thirds majority.

ucc vote apartheid

During the deliberation, a woman speaking on behalf of the apartheid resolution recalled visiting the occupied Palestinian territories with a delegation of South Africans. Upon seeing the conditions the Palestinians endured, she said, they wept, and said “We recognize this.”

She concluded her testimony remarking “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, call it a duck. And it’s time for us to call this apartheid.”

A woman speaking on behalf of the apartheid measure at the UCC meeting

A woman speaking on behalf of the apartheid measure at the UCC meeting

Rev. John Deckenback, Conference Minister of the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference, which submitted the BDS resolution, explained that his Christian faith moved him to support the measure.  “As disciples of Jesus, we hear and seek to heed his call to be peacemakers, responding to violence with nonviolence and extending love to all,” he said.

“It is in that spirit of love for both Israelis and Palestinians, and a desire to support Palestinians in their nonviolent struggle for freedom, that the United Church of Christ has passed this resolution,” Deckenback added.

The UCC has described itself as “an extremely pluralistic and diverse denomination,” and is known for its progressive views on social issues, such as civil, LGBTQ, and women’s rights.

Other U.S. Churches

Several U.S. churches have considered supporting the BDS movement, seeing it as the most effective nonviolent means of pressuring the Israeli government to cease violating the human rights of the occupied Palestinian people and to respect international law.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), which has approximately three million members and almost 10,000 congregations, voted in 2014 to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In 2012, the United Methodist Church, which has almost eight million American members, expressed opposition to the “continued military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the confiscation of Palestinian land and water resources, the destruction of Palestinian homes, the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements, and any vision of a ‘Greater Israel’ that includes the occupied territories and the whole of Jerusalem and its surroundings.”

It also called on the U.S. government to end all military aid to the region.

“Public opinion is turning and people of conscience in churches, communities and on campuses on the country are coming together to dismantle the Israeli occupation,” JVP’s Carolyn Klaasen told Muftah. “My conversations this week have shown me that it’s only a matter of time until Israel is held accountable for its human rights abuses and violations of international law.”