Episcopalians in the Diocese of Washington voted big against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on 29 January, adopting resolutions to “oppose Israel’s apartheid” (by 73%), to “confront Christian Zionism” (by 76%), and to “defend the right to boycott” (by 80%), which is under assault from anti-BDS laws enacted in dozens of states and championed in Congress. The latest church action followed the passing of similar resolutions by Episcopalians in the Dioceses of Chicago and Vermont. Resolutions supporting the right to boycott and condemning the ongoing Israeli occupation, segregation, and oppression of the Palestinian people have been passed by the Episcopal Dioceses of Rochester and of Olympia, respectively. All of this is aimed at the denomination’s General Convention in Baltimore in July.
Tom Getman and Sari Ateek are persons who have labored long and hard in their own ways in Palestine advocacy over the years. They stepped forward at the Diocese of Washington’s annual convention to shepherd two resolutions through to passage.
The legacy and spirit of one of South Africa’s greatest prophets of liberation, Desmond Tutu, inspired the annual convention of women and men who belong to the same Anglican communion of which he was an archbishop. When Tom Getman of St. Mark’s Capitol Hill introduced the anti-apartheid resolution — in effect inviting the convention to cross the Rubicon into fundamental opposition to Israel’s apartheid system — he flashed back to the day in 1980 when the then “little-known African leader” showed up unannounced at Getman’s desk in the office of then-Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR). The young aide was instantly entranced by Tutu’s soon-to-be-famous joyful if burning rhetoric of holy liberation.
A decade of South African liberation struggle later, Getman recounted, during which he had helped his senator fight against apartheid, “the Arch,” as he was known, suddenly turned the young man in a new direction, telling him, “If you really want to prove your human rights bona fides, you must turn your eyes to the Palestinians.” After three decades of solidarity work, including humanitarian and human rights work in Israel-Palestine and constant efforts to awaken his fellow Christians, the moment had finally come, Getman said, when Tutu’s Church also had to turn its eyes to Palestine and, in Tutu’s words, “liberate the Israelis themselves, as well as the Palestinians, from the traumatic burden of apartheid.”
Moments later, the convention adopted the resolution Getman presented, which “condemns Israel’s apartheid system as antithetical to the Gospel message and to our Baptismal Covenant to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” and goes on to recognize “the complicity of the U.S. government in supporting and protecting Israel in its apartheid practices against the Palestinians, deems that support antithetical to America’s fundamental values, and calls on the President and Congress to condemn and oppose Israel’s apartheid [including by halting military aid to Israel.]”
Further evidence that a tipping point has been reached in Palestinians’ long struggle to become politically visible to Americans and have their rights taken seriously came when Rev. Sari Ateek, rector of St. John’s Church Norwood, introduced a resolution “Confronting Christian Zionism.” Ateek, a Palestinian-American, has quietly educated parishioners about his homeland and led several pilgrimages to the Holy Land but had always kept activists at a friendly arm’s length. Thus, his appearance before the convention as the lead sponsor of one of the resolutions, told the delegates that things are changing. The resolution he presented “rejects the theology of Christian Zionism … [and] condemns the political policy positions promoted by such a theology.”
When Rev. David Wacaster, rector of Good Shepherd Silver Spring presented the third resolution — which condemns dozens of laws and executive orders around the country that unconstitutionally seek to punish Americans for supporting BDS — the convention waived it through with an 80 percent majority after almost no debate.
What happened at the convention confirms an awakening to Israel’s long-festering human rights problem within the liberal U.S. “elite,” to which the clergy and lay leaders of mainline denominations largely belong. Nonetheless, the solidarity movement still has challenges to overcome before the Churches can rightly be seen as opposing Israel’s apartheid as strongly as they did the apartheid in South Africa.
The breakthrough in DC was of a pattern with similar votes in 2021 in other mainline denominations — such as the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ — which are moving in the same direction. So, in DC, as elsewhere, debate on the Palestinian solidarity resolutions included the following features:
- No one mounted a defense of Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians as justifiable or unavoidable.
- No one suggested that the resolutions or their proponents are antisemitic.
- No visible interfaith pushback surfaced from Jewish leaders.
- No visible opposition surfaced from the pro-Israel Lobby.
- Proponents strongly asserted that the dismantling of Israel’s apartheid was in fact in the long-term best interest of Israeli Jews, and they avoided expressing stinging, visceral criticism of Israel and its supporters.
- An evidently greater realism about Israel’s injustice toward Palestinians could not have come mainly from grassroots work by activists to educate their fellow churchgoers, since the activists lacked the personnel or resources to do such work. Thus, the awakening showed how information is getting to the public from other sources, — mainstream, as well as social media – and a growing immunity to disinformation and smears aimed at maintaining the myth of Israel’s innocence.
All these elements are evidence that, at least among a somewhat elite population, the Israel-Palestine conflict has moved from being seen as a national or diplomatic problem of political conflict to being seen as a critical human rights problem. Big gains for Palestinians are further evident in activists’ perfect won-lost record on church resolutions — five wins in five tries in the Episcopal Church, for example.
Texts of the resolutions can be found at these links:
Thanks to EPF PIN member Steve France for his reporting.