Last Friday, the Legislative Committee on Social Justice and International Policy met via Zoom to receive testimony for a second time. Six resolutions concerning Palestine/Israel were on the agenda. Two diocesan resolutions ask General Convention members to reject Christian Zionism, while three others ask the Church to name Israel’s rule over Palestinians as a form of apartheid.
The remaining resolution, C001, Regarding Anti-Semitism and Palestinian Christians, submitted by three priests from the Diocese of Maryland, asks the Church to acknowledge our 2018 General Convention actions about Israel are perceived as antisemitic in the Jewish community. The resolution further asks the American Church to defer to the judgment of the Episcopal Archbishop in Jerusalem before addressing matters regarding Israel and Palestine.
With more than 50 persons registered to testify to the six resolutions, the Committee limited testimony to two minutes in length. The Committee had allowed three minutes during the previous round of testimonies.
One author of C001 registered to testify in favor of the resolution. His testimony was followed by nine opposition speakers from the dioceses of California, Chicago, East Tennessee, Los Angeles, Olympia, Vermont, and West Texas. Jewish allies, including two rabbis, a university professor and a JVP activist offered additional testimony opposing the resolution. The Reverend Leyla King and Dr. Jonathan Kuttab of FOSNA shared their concerns as Palestinian Americans that this resolution would reinforce the ongoing suppression of Palestinian concerns in our Church.
Several EPF-PIN friends complained of the vague antisemitism accusations and the absence of evidence that the archbishop or any interfaith relationships had been harmed by our Convention deliberations. Our Jewish friends argued that criticism of unjust Israeli laws or actions should not be considered antisemitic and pointed out that not all Jews share the opinions expressed in the resolution. Episcopalians bristled at the irresponsibility of surrendering our right to speak to matters where our government, tax dollars and investments are involved. Some questioned whether the archbishop would prefer or need to limit his public statements, while others doubted he would want responsibility for decisions by the U.S. Church. A few questioned the assumption that the archbishop was unaware of our resolutions.
With no questions or comments coming from Committee 07 members, the hearing continued with testimony about C012, Confronting Christian Zionism submitted by the Chicago Diocese. Testimony on C040, On Confronting Christian Zionism from the Diocese of Washington (DC) came later. Both resolutions reject Christian Zionism as a nationalistic theology which influences U.S. policy on Palestine/Israel in ways which support Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the consequent displacement of Palestinians.
Chicago’s Resolution C012 also included a section which noted the ways in which the liturgy, including the lectionary, prayers and hymns may add to parishioners’ confusion between Biblical Israel and the Israelites with present-day Israel and Israelis, and unintentionally reinforces the deceptive theology of Christian Zionism. In response, the authors asked that “the Episcopal Church commit to making clear in liturgy and in teaching the clear distinction between the current political situation and the Biblical past.”
A similar number of opponents to these resolutions registered to testify, including several who identified themselves as educators and the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Their opposition centered more on the impact of the resolutions on interfaith relationships than supporting Christian Zionist theology. Several lay Episcopal opponents argued that because they were Christians and supported Jews returning to Israel, they must be Christian Zionists. It seems clear that additional education is needed. Here is a brief overview of our opposition to Christian Zionism:
Christian Zionism grew out of 19th Century dispensational theology1 and is popular today among many evangelical churches. Applying a literal Biblical interpretation, events such as Israel’s capture of Jerusalem in 1967 is seen as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and a herald of Jesus’ imminent return. Taken to its logical conclusion, such a theology ignores, or even calls for, the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population. Conflating Biblical Israel with the modern state, Christian Zionists give direct financial aid to fund Israeli settlement construction, support U.S. military aid, and defend Israel against all criticism. Evangelical Zionists have had easy access to the White House over multiple U.S. administrations. This reached a peak during the Trump years with both VP Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming alignment with Christian Zionist views on Israel. In contrast, we would argue that the land was never a divinely given commodity, but remained God’s, whose dwellers were merely “tenants” (Leviticus 25: 23). We would also note that as a matter of history the land always contained non-Jews.
Christian Zionists also ground their position on a particular interpretation of God’s covenant with Abraham. The words of God reported in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you” are taken to mean that unequivocal support for the modern State of Israel is required by God. This is a theology of privilege that “curses” any who might call it to account. Deviation from this understanding of the Abrahamic covenant is labelled as replacement theology (Jewish claims of being chosen replaced by Christian ones) and labeled antisemitic. Again, this view ignores that Abraham was also the father to Ishmael, and the verse continues, “…all people on earth will be blessed by you”.
Unfortunately, another form of Christian Zionism can be found in many mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Professor Marc Ellis described this phenomenon over 30 years ago as “what one might call the ecumenical deal: eternal repentance for Christian anti-Jewishness [by refusing to make] any substantive criticism of Israel.” Some of the resolutions’ critics seemed to identify with this, preferring that we not criticize Israel’s actions to avoid accusations of antisemitism. They seem to ignore our critique of a biblical interpretation which supports Israel’s expansion into the whole of historic Palestine, with the consequent erasure of Palestinian Muslims and Christians as a divine mandate necessary to the second coming of Christ. This nationalistic (and some would argue antisemitic2) theology also influences U.S. policy toward Israel. President Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic but proudly proclaims his support for Zionism.
Lastly, the April 8th hearing turned its attention to resolutions submitted by the Dioceses of Vermont (C025), Chicago (C031), and Washington (C042) which ask General Convention to recognize that Israeli treatment of Palestinians constitutes apartheid under international law3.
Again, EPF PIN assembled a diverse and intergenerational team of Episcopalians, denominational and interfaith community activists, including Palestinian Americans, African Americans, rabbis and members of Jewish Voice for Peace. Although resolution opponents tried to defend Israel’s record, our witnesses repeatedly pointed to reports by B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as evidence of an Israeli version of apartheid. Supporters also referenced recent comments by the UN Special Rapporteur and the joint report by Addameer/International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard Law School.
They drew special attention to Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law and more than fifty laws which discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. They described life in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli settlers live under Israeli civil law while indigenous Palestinians are subject to an oppressive military regime, and where Gaza is an open-air prison. They reminded Committee members that Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently called out Israeli apartheid and how Black Lives Matter activists have connected the struggle for racial equality in the U.S.to the struggle for Palestinian human rights.
The former director of an NGO in the Occupied Territories recounted arriving at the scene of the home demolition of a family of seven in Hebron: “The Caterpillar was smashing the last of four corners of the home. It collapsed to the screams of the mother…The younger children frantically scrambled to rescue what toys and schoolbooks they could from the rubble…Heavily armed soldiers were killing a sheep and throwing it into the ancient sweet-water well.”
Episcopal clergy spoke forcefully that “we are called to be truth-tellers,” to name evil, and to advocate for “the restoration of dignity for both the oppressed and oppressor.” One witness quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reproved church leaders “more devoted to order than to justice.” An EPF-PIN member testified, “As a nurse…, I can say that naming the illness is the first necessary step to curing the patient.”
Alternating between our supporting arguments, our opponents’ testimonies made predictable claims against the resolutions. Several speakers asserted that the resolutions “would hinder Christian efforts at peacemaking”, though they offered no examples. Some condemned using the word apartheid as inflammatory and alienating, damaging relationships with Jewish neighbors and fueling anti-Jewish prejudice, even comparing a resolution to a “lynch mob against Israel.” Unstated accusations of antisemitism hovered in assertions that the resolutions “de-legitimized” Jewish connections to the land and “demonized” Jews.
Some audaciously disputed the reality of apartheid, as if the presence of Palestinians in the Israeli government somehow negated the systemic discrimination, or that Palestinian “terrorism” justified Israeli denial of basic human rights. There was no acknowledgment of the institutionalized state violence of occupation, the legal discrimination, or that the vast majority of Palestinians lead lives of daily nonviolent resistance.
In response, three of our group used the hearing occurring just as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan converge to contrast the religious experiences of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Holy Land. One Palestinian explained that his god-sister in Bethlehem had little hope of getting a permit for Easter prayers at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, yet a Jew arriving from anywhere on the globe could immediately receive citizenship. “If this is not apartheid,” he asked, “what is?” Similarly, a young Palestinian-American high school student lamented that her cousins in the West Bank could not join the Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives scheduled two days later. The last speaker, a Chicago rabbi and Israeli Jew, described his memory of Yom Kippur in Israel saying, “a quiet reverence descends on the land. The Israeli army seals off the West Bank, blocking out the Palestinians: out of sight, out of mind.” Whereas, he ruefully continued, his Muslim friend in the West Bank, at first elated to get a permit to attend Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, found her joy utterly deflated by omnipresent Israeli soldiers. “This”, he concluded, “is Israel’s religious apartheid.”
This ended the Committee hearing. No further testimony sessions are planned until General Convention. Deliberations on the testimony already given will continue at 12 noon (EDT) on April 28th. If you wish to register as an Observer for that or subsequent Committee sessions, you can use this link.
1 Dispensational theology divides world history and the future into several dispensations, or periods of time when God supposedly relates to humans differently. The period from Adam to Noah, or Noah to Abraham are different dispensations. From Abraham to Moses is another, and from Moses to Christ. It should be noted that Dispensational theology also envisions an end-time for the current dispensation with a small percentage of Jews converting to Christianity and the remainder being annihilated.
2 The unholy marriage of Christian Zionism and antisemitism can be seen in proponents who, like Lord Balfour, supported the formation of a Jewish State but blocked Russian Jewish refugees from entering Britain. Similarly, some US Christian nationalist groups support the state of Israel as a place for Jews, with the supposed added benefit of hastening the end times.
3 Article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines it as: “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”