In Sea Change, US Presbyterian Committee stigmatizes Israeli apartheid occupation of Palestinians and calls for end to collective punishment in Gaza
Ann Arbor (enlightened commentary) – Last week, the International Commitment Committee of the 1.2 million strong Presbyterian Church adopted a resolution entitled “On the recognition that the laws, policies and practices of Israel constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people”. There are approximately 75 million Presbyterians worldwide and it has a strong presence in Africa, with 3.4 million members there.
The development came the same month that America’s seven million Lutherans came to a similar conclusion.
Eric Ledermann and Greg Brekke writing in the Presbyterian Perspectives quotes Commissioner Leslie Latham as saying that she was initially reluctant to use the word apartheid, but eventually came to believe it: “I have changed my mind. … I realized we had to use that word. But, we must realize that Jesus, when he spoke to his enemies, still loved them. I liked them. I liked them. I liked them. So we tell the truth about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. We tell the truth about what is happening in our own country, in our own backyard. But we always do it out of love, not as a weapon.
The Outlook goes on to point out,
- “In other actions, the committee recommended approval by a vote of 31 to 0 of INT-13, designating May 15 as Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Day, and of INT-04 by a vote of 30 to 0, which, among other things, called on the General Assembly to approve a statement on humanitarian concerns regarding Israel and Palestine, to reject the doctrines of Christian Zionism, to repudiate all forms of anti-Semitism and to Islamophobia and to repudiate the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018. The committee also recommended 31-0 approval of the INT-10, calling for an end to the Israeli government siege of Gaza Strip » [on the grounds that it is a form of collective punishment, which is not allowed in international law].
The committee’s actions do not pass without controversy in the wider Presbyterian Church, many of whose pastors are pro-Israel, while other Presbyterians are engaged in interfaith dialogue with Jews and fear the effect on that dialogue of such a position. Ms Latham initially appears to have shared this fear.
On the other hand, the vigorous missionary work of the Presbyterian Church has made it global, and its members in the Global South tend to see the situation in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank as very close to the mold of South Africa. apartheid. Indeed, the new leader of the World Council of Churches, which brings together the main liberal denominations, is a Presbyterian minister from South Africa, the Rev. Jerry Pilay. He has been outspoken about his view of the occupation of Palestinians as a form of apartheid, and I guess he should know that. In the Religion News article I just linked to, his Jewish critics go from complaining about his criticism of occupation policies to calling themselves “anti-Zionist.” But Zionism had existed for almost a century before the Israeli army took over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, so the occupation cannot be so central to Zionism. Then they equate anti-Zionism (which they simply put on him) with anti-Semitism, and voila, his position for Palestinian human rights is by a sleight of hand turned into bigotry against the Jews. It’s sad that Religious News is no more attentive to these rhetorical magic tricks of the Zionist far right.
Regardless, many high-ranking Presbyterians are acutely aware of the systemic discrimination under Israeli military rule against Palestinians on the basis of their race. The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, declared Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), caused a storm of controversy in his Martin Luther King Day 2016 address, in which he not only characterized the system in which Palestinians live as apartheid, but then equated it with a modern form of “slavery”.
Reverend Nelson is right. I myself have written that “just as slaves do not securely own any property, Palestinians under Israeli occupation can never be sure that they actually own their own homes, or farms, or crops, or orchards of olive trees, which can be sabotaged or taken away by the armed Israeli squatters or by the government supporting them, at any time”.
Outlook editor Teri McDowell recently interviewed Reverend Nelson, an African American who grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He explained the roots of his position:
- “The first time I went to Israel/Palestine was with World Mission, and it was fascinating – not in a good way. I’m looking at Orangeburg, South Carolina in the 1960s. I’m looking at something even worse than that, to be honest with you. And we bring food and supplies and have conversations with both sides. We go around to see good sites and we talk about it and we debrief then we come back, and we start again. So my question becomes: when people are suffering like this, why do we keep coming back to see the same thing? And between that, there doesn’t seem to be an organized way to talk to him.
One of the pieces that triggered me [was when] a gentleman… came in and we were “listening to both sides”. OK. I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. There are no “two sides”. It’s wrong. But I had to listen to him speak in a way that completely disregarded the Palestinian people. And I was supposed to lead this session. Yeah. I got up and left. I could not any more. That’s when I realized I didn’t need to come back here. I have to do something about this. And that’s what I was doing when I made the statement.
He explained his reference to the treatment of Palestinians as a form of slavery: “I think the second thing that people struggled with was the issue of my assimilation into slavery. This is the nomenclature we know in the United States of America. I don’t talk to people in Israel/Palestine. I write this statement for the people here in the United States of America.