A Report from EPF/PIN activist John Heermans in the Diocese of Vermont: our process regarding Resolutions passed at Episcopal Diocesan Convention in Vermont, 2018, regarding Israel/Palestine
The following write-up of the process by which three resolutions on the conflict in Israel and Palestine were passed at the 2018 Diocesan Convention in Vermont is in response to a request from EPF/PIN to report on the process that led to the passage of the resolutions. It is my hope that this detailed report will assist other Episcopal dioceses in the US to pass other resolutions and work with the dedicated team at EPF/PIN to educate and challenge Episcopalians throughout the country. It is past time to understand the history of the conflict and the ongoing brutality of the Israel government against Palestinians in the Holy Land.
The process was carried out in phases beginning with a letter to all the clergy in the Vermont diocese in April, 2018. I sent it along with some educational materials on the history of Zionism and the illegal occupation. The letters and materials were sent by snail mail with an invitation to each church to engage in an educational series using the DVD from Steadfast Hope. The educational materials included maps and pamphlets, are available at IFAMERICANSKNEW.ORG (202 631 4060) for a very reasonable cost. (Note that I sent more than forty packets that included the letter, educational material and invitations to host an educational series on the crisis. I did not receive a single reply from any of the churches, not even an acknowledgment that the materials were received. My expectations were not high, so I was not surprised by the lack of enthusiasm to engage.)
Following the mailing of the letter, I met regularly with Reverend Craig Smith who was experienced in the convention process (I had never attended an entire convention before 2018). Reverend Smith was also a co-sponsor of the resolutions and we met several times with Neil Richardson, a fellow Episcopalian, who had unsuccessfully attempted to pass a resolution on the same issue during a previous convention. I was also advised and supported by the dedicated people at Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (VTJP), a Vermont-based group of people who have been working for justice in Palestine for many years. With one of the Palestinian members of VTJP, I met with Bishop Tom Ely who is very familiar with the conflict but also realistic in terms of how far he could go without attracting a negative reaction from synagogues and other Jewish Zionist individuals and groups
Process for passing resolutions in Vermont.
Following the General Convention in Austin, Texas in July, where much progress was made on passing resolutions on this contentious issue, we began building on the success in Texas to complete and complement resolutions that were passed and those that were not passed. We were lucky to have Anne Brown involved in the final drafting and submission of the resolutions. Anne attended the General Convention and is very familiar with convention process regarding resolutions.
The Convention was held late October 2018 at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington. Before the Convention, we asked the bishop if some of the experienced people from VTJP could attend during discussion of the resolutions. The request was later raised on the floor of the convention by the bishop and approved. Three people from VTJP attended (two Jews and one Palestinian). During the convention, Reverend Smith and I manned a table with books, DVDs, and a host of information and educational materials on the history of the conflict. The resolutions on Palestine and Israel were the last to be discussed and (no surprise) the most contentious. I was given five minutes to introduce all three resolutions.
Note that on the Saturday of the Convention the bishop interrupted the program to announce the news of the horrific shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I used the event to make a point in my talk. And please let us not equate real anti-Semitism or continuing hatred of Jews such as the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh today with legitimate criticism of Israel. I refer you to Resolution 1991D122 of the Episcopal Church that states: “Legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies and actions are not anti-Semitic.”
I made it through 90% of the complete talk before I “got the hook” from the bishop, who was pressed for time. Each of the resolutions was discussed and debated at separate tables where we strategically placed our guests from VTJP and others sympathetic to this issue. At the table where I sat, I was asked by several people to please explain what happened in 1948. (There is a lot of work in front of us to educate and inform people.) In response to one of the questions, our Palestinian colleague Wafic was allowed to respond. In my opinion, his five minute passionate first-hand account of what is happening in Gaza and the occupied territories was a turning point for many of the participants in the convention. Each of three resolutions was debated separately using Robert’s Rules of order. Amendments were proposed and accepted, and then all three resolutions were passed. The final versions can be accessed on the Diocese Convention website.
As some background, I’d like to state that the Vermont episcopal response to the conflict in Palestine has been, and continues to be, lackluster. During my meeting with the bishop, I told him that in 2013 I was asked by VTJP to facilitate and host the arrival of “Five (Episcopal) women witnesses” from the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a group of courageous Episcopalians from Maine and Massachusetts who periodically visit Israel to witness first hand the atrocities committed by Israel and report on them in the US. When I approached the Episcopal Cathedral in Burlington too ask if they would host an event, I was rejected, as they said, “We have it all covered with Kids 4 Peace”. It seemed to me that the Cathedral was using Kids 4 Peace as a safe space and refused to get involved in the nitty gritty contentious work of peace-keeping that involved any kind of confrontation.
The last resolution regarding the contentious subject of apartheid generated the most discussion and was significantly changed. (I have not included the wording of the Resolutions in this report on process but PIN will send them to anyone who is interested.) At the end of the convention, the bishop thanked the people from VTJP and they were heartily applauded by the convention. Progress!
- The process by which resolutions are passed through education, dialogue and debate is just as important as the content and the application of the resolutions. Start early. The letter went out to clergy six months before the convention.
- Education, information, and dialogue is the entry point that leads to the passage of resolutions.
- The work of the EPF/PIN needs to be supported and disseminated to all Episcopal churches as well as interfaith communities and secular organizations like VTJP.
- History has shown through the spirits of Gandhi, Martin Luther Kind, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, etc. that the most effective and durable result of activism is that which is guided by a higher calling.
- It helps to have an informed and sympathetic bishop on your side.
- Keep expectations low but keep plugging along.
- Have as many “sympathetic” delegates as possible attending the convention. (I was not a delegate, which was a major mistake, as I could not speak directly to the comments and questions on the floor without permission from the bishop.)
- We need to recognize the importance of the passage of resolutions at the General Convention a few months prior to the convention in Vermont and the role of EPF/PIN in that process