Mondoweiss / February 2, 2022
Washington DC Episcopalians’ condemnation of Israeli “apartheid” confirms an awakening to Israel’s long-festering human rights problem within the liberal U.S. “elite,” and growing immunity to smears leveled by Israel’s advocates.
Episcopalians of the nation’s Capital voted big against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on January 29, adopting resolutions to “oppose Israel’s apartheid” (by 73%), to “confront Christian Zionism” (by 76%), and to “defend the right to boycott” (by 80%). The right to boycott is under assault from anti-BDS laws enacted in dozens of states and championed in Congress.
The latest church action followed similar emphatic statements by Episcopalians in Chicago, Rochester, Vermont, and Olympia, all aimed at the Christian denomination’s General Convention in Baltimore in June-July, which will be asked to back Palestinian rights with the same force as it did the cause of Black South Africans in the 1970s and 80s. (Full disclosure: I helped urge the Washington diocese to act.)
The legacy and spirit of one of South Africa’s prophets of liberation, Desmond Tutu, inspired the annual convention of women and men in Washington, DC, who belong to the same Anglican/Episcopalian communion of which he was an archbishop. When Tom Getman of St. Mark’s Church 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-Oregon). The young aide was instantly entranced by Tutu’s joyful if burning rhetoric of holy liberation.
A decade of South African liberation struggle later, during which Getman had helped his senator fight against apartheid, “the Arch,” as Tutu was known, 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 told his fellow Episcopalians in Washington, when their Church 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,” as many Jews would agree.
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.’ ” The resolution 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, in Bethesda, Md., introduced a resolution “Confronting Christian Zionism.” Ateek is a Palestinian-American –the son of Rev. Naim Ateek, the much-revered father of Palestinian Liberation Theology – but in his many years as the pastor of a vibrant, largely White congregation, he has concentrated on his role as a priest and pastor to his flock. While he has quietly educated parishioners about his homeland and led several pilgrimages to the Holy Land that include exposure to Israel’s oppression of his people, Ateek has 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 Church in Silver Spring, Md., 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 passed it with an 80 percent majority after almost no debate.
In sum, what the convention in DC confirmed was 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 awakening must spread up to the top leadership of the denominations (in the case of Episcopalians that means the bishops of the Church), and reach down to the millions of regular members. The top church leaders, whose daily concern is the dwindling number of churchgoers, are wary of controversy that could bring the wrath of the Israel lobby down upon them and alienate church members, most of whom are not well-informed about Israel-Palestine. Nor are they accustomed to think of their churches as on the barricades of anti-Zionism.
The breakthrough in DC was of a pattern with similar votes in 2021 in the other mainline, liberal denominations — such as the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ — which are moving in the same direction (see Mondoweiss, November 30, 2021). 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.
– The awakening shows that information is getting to the public, including Episcopalian congregations, from non-activist sources — mainstream media, and social media too – and suggests the growing immunity of Americans to disinformation and smears aimed at maintaining the myth of Israel’s innocence.
All of 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 — including five wins in five tries in the Episcopal Church.
Church activists in the Episcopal Church will need to quickly channel the justice energy to win over the “House of Bishops,” which is set to assemble in Baltimore in late June in the first General Convention held since 2018. In Baltimore, the bishops will make Church policy with the concurrence of the more numerous House of Deputies, who are elected from the ranks of lower clergy and lay folk. Not surprisingly, the bishops in the past have been the least eager to tackle the fraught issue of Palestinian rights and risk backlash from the mighty Israel lobby.
An exchange at the end of the Washington convention involving the Bishop, Mariann Budde, gave a glimpse of the possible dynamic going forward.
It began with comments made in the pre-vote debate by Rev. Michelle Morgan, rector of St. Mark’s Church, Capitol Hill. She had warned that the resolution against Israel’s apartheid was a “big, big resolution” about which the delegates seemed to be skirting controversy. “I think there is something very large [here] about wanting to push this conversation deeper into our Church and into the public dialogue,” Morgan had said. “Yes, apartheid is a scary word but what’s happening to our Palestinian siblings is unjust.” While she suggested that it would be “a loving act to pass this resolution,” she reiterated it was “scary.” Recalling the early days of challenging South African apartheid, she said, “This is the start of a conversation; this is not the end…. Let’s pick up the big, main question and know that we will not make people happy with this resolution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”
After the apartheid resolution passed with a 73% majority, Bishop Budde, who in the past has sidelined issues relating to Israel-Palestine, said she had been “particularly struck” by Morgan’s comments. Following up, the bishop said she felt that many people had not been heard from in the discussion. While she acknowledged that the vote had “expressed the will of the convention,” she said she wanted to “point out that we still have a lively debate here in our diocese and I want to encourage all of you, as was suggested, to keep the conversation going.” Some sensed in her statement that the bishop was not pleased that the resolution passed and was worried about trouble it could stir up.
To really bring such church leaders around it will probably be necessary to demonstrate to them that the Israel lobby is not the force it used to be. But first it will be necessary to engage the leaders. Ironically, that may initially depend on them being forced to publicly respond to negative fallout from votes such as the one in Washington.
The negative fallout that would start a serious discussion could come in the form of consternation and complaints by churchgoers shocked to discover that their nice church has suddenly branded Israel an apartheid state and aligned itself firmly against the fundamental policies of the Jewish state, as well as the perennial U.S. policy of total support for Israel. Presumably, such complaints would be aroused by the cries of outrage emitted by the lobby and all the politicians who toe the pro-Israel line.
But such controversies would be what the late John Lewis called “good trouble” in that they would set the stage for sustained debate before a large swath of the faithful as to why the leaders of their Church felt they must recognize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as apartheid, pure and simple. The churchgoers would hear voices sympathetic to Zionism, but they would also hear what exactly makes Israel an apartheid state.
The preference of some leaders to avoid calling Israel an apartheid state and to assuage the concerns of Israel’s supporters (which may not in fact be Bishop Budde’s actual preference) necessarily worries solidarity advocates. Still, a bishop’s disagreement with an apartheid resolution – or the defenses of pro-Israel speakers brought into the conversation – if clearly stated and squarely refuted, would surely reveal to many the bankruptcy of Israel’s Zionism. Sometimes it is less the raw suffering of the Palestinians that shocks people into recognizing apartheid than it is hearing the bogus excuses and fabrications advanced in defense of that evil.
The scarcity of activists in the churches seems set to diminish at least a bit in the wake of these wins. The arid wilderness of hostile, indifferent or demoralized Americans that has been the habitat of Palestine solidarity activists for generations is seeing green shoots appear in places where if justice has not “rolled down like mighty waters” it has burbled refreshingly, to paraphrase the ancient prophet Amos.
Steve France is a retired journalist and lawyer in the Washington DC area