‘Israeli’ ‘apartheid’ is antithetical to our values, Chicago Episcopalians say, by nearly 3 to 1

Israeli ‘apartheid’ is antithetical to our values, Chicago Episcopalians say, by nearly 3 to 1

One year after Chicago Episcopalians knocked down a resolution condemning Israeli apartheid by a sizeable margin, its convention approved a similar resolution by 72 to 28 percent.



If you are looking to measure the past year’s dramatic rise in Americans’ awareness and rejection of the Israeli system that oppresses Palestinians, the November 20 vote by the Episcopalians of Chicago offers a metric. The annual convention of their diocese resolved, 72 percent to 28 percent, to call out Israel as meeting the legal definition of apartheid and to condemn that as “antithetical” to their values [text of the resolution below]. Just last year, in contrast, they had declined to pass virtually the same resolution, voting 58-42 against.

The Chicagoans’ big shift is part of a gathering wave of similar statements by so-called mainline, largely liberal, Christian denominations. Thus, only days earlier, Atlanta’s Presbyterians also declared — by a whopping 95 percent — that Israel meets the legal definition of apartheid.

But while the Chicago metric and Atlanta’s breakthrough may show that these denominations — which represent millions of churchgoers — are fed up with waiting for Israel to act like the democracy it claims to be, it’s still unclear whether this means the churches will become a stronger force for change. The question remains open whether their members will so take to heart the Palestinians’ cause that they will push church leaders to overcome their natural reluctance to wade into an acrimonious controversy in a dedicated way against longtime pro-Israel allies in the Jewish mainstream and in the Democratic Party establishment.Advertisement

Nonetheless, the days of these institutions stubbornly looking away from Israel’s deep structures of apartheid appear to be dwindling. The Chicago Episcopalians’ action followed the path their brethren in Vermont blazed earlier in November in becoming the first diocese to pass a resolution against Israel’s apartheid and send it to the denomination’s General Convention next July in Baltimore.

At least one more Episcopal diocese, that of Washington (DC), which meets in January, may well add to the calls for the national Church to speak against Israel’s apartheid. (Full disclosure, I am actively involved in pressing for the Washington diocese to pass an apartheid resolution.) Likewise, the Atlanta Presbytery’s “overture”— its “Recognition that Israel’s Laws, Policies, and Practices Constitute Apartheid Against the Palestinian People” — joined the identical statement of several other presbyteries, thus putting the issue prominently on the agenda of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA when it meets in June.

Sponsor Newland Smith introduced the resolution with subdued concision, simply listing four things that happened in 2021 that meant the convention should reverse its 2020 rejection of the same basic text:

1) the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem’s apartheid report in January;

2) the April report on Israel’s apartheid by Human Rights Watch;

3) the apartheid – and more – resolution of the United Church of Christ in July; and

4) the Vermont Episcopalians’ apartheid resolution of early November.

To that Smith added a plea by the Kairos coalition of Palestinian Christians, “Cry for Hope: a call for decisive action,” issued in July 2020.

The one person who spoke against the resolution, Dean Dominic Barrington of the Cathedral of St. James, took no notice of the recent developments, essentially repeating his arguments of 2020. Even he, moreover, presented himself not so much as a defender of Israel, but as a friend of the Palestinians who worries that the resolution will expose them to Israeli retaliation.

In trying to gauge the depth of the shift in mainline Christians’ support for fundamental change in Israel-Palestine, it’s worth noting that Palestinian solidarity activists in Chicago were stunned by their win.

“My first reaction when I saw the vote tallies on the screen was to think that I had reversed them – that it was 72% against, 28% in favor,” Priscilla Read, a lead organizer of the effort, told me. “When I looked again and my husband confirmed the numbers, I was torn between stunned disbelief and euphoria. Honestly, in my wildest dreams, I had not imagined such a result possible.”

Read didn’t base her pessimism merely on the many decades that the Episcopal Church, like other liberal Americans, has wrung its hands over Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians but pulled its punches in hopes the Jewish state would begin to improve on its own. Read had been discouraged by the apparent lack of response elicited by the organizers’ extensive efforts to promote their resolution, including a series of interactive webinars, “Seeking Truth and Justice in Palestine/Israel,” that drew acclaim by participants across the country but was viewed by few Chicago Episcopalians.

That there were no questions or comments when the resolution was presented at a pre-convention hearing also worried her. “I tended to see this as a lack of interest and sympathy, when really it was lack of opposition,” Read said. A third possibility, however, is that the Chicago churchgoers and their brethren in other mainline denominations still have a certain ambivalence, that their hearts remain more attached to the official Jewish side of the conflict, i.e., support for Zionism, even as their heads admit that the Palestinians’ complaints are valid.

The muted quality of the turnaround in churchgoers’ voting stance also showed in the placidity of the 30-minute debate on the Episcopal resolution.

An equally stark duality was evident in the Presbyterians’ Atlanta meeting between the vigor of the action taken (a 95-percent vote) and the lack of excitement that accompanied it. Thus, a Palestinian American “commissioner” (delegate), Fahed Abu Akel, introduced the overture, with a personal litany of a few of the heavy legal disabilities he and his relatives inside Israel have suffered since 1948 and West Bank Palestinians have stomached since 1967. After no one spoke in opposition, the convention immediately voted to pin the apartheid label on Israel.

“We were all set to meet resistance, but there was none,” activist Sarah Humphrey of Decatur, Ga., told me.

One shouldn’t make too much of the taciturn way in which such a major step forward occurred. It’s true that Palestinian solidarity forces inside the Presbyterian Church had been stymied since 2010 in their quest for recognition of Israel’s apartheid system, according to Dave Jones, whose Northern California presbytery entertained an apartheid overture in that year. But there doubtless was little place for anyone to let loose a big cheer in the midst of the sober proceedings of the annual meeting of the Atlanta Presbyterians.

Still, while very pleased to see his denomination moving toward a national denunciation of Israel’s apartheid, Jones indicated the subtlety of the shift in thinking among some, perhaps many, of the commissioners. “What changed,” he said, “is that people who used to say, ‘Yes, of course what’s going on is basically apartheid, but the word is too harsh, too offensive,’ and so on, gave up on that argument.” That sounds well short of an epiphany as to the daily horrors that Palestinian families face under apartheid rule.

As harsh as the “A word” may sound to some, the manner in which the churches have approached the apartheid question gives no support to Zionists who claim that liberal critics of Israel are part of a “new antisemitism.” Mentioning such charges, Rev. Stacy Walker in the Chicago debate, for example, dwelled on how the apartheid system harms Jewish Israelis too. “Apartheid dehumanizes all involved, including the oppressors,” she told the convention.

Perhaps what should really frighten Zionists is that the growing opposition to their policies isn’t coming from hostile antisemites but from patient, Christian friends of the Jewish people, and the Jewish religion. Palestinians and their supporters, conversely, should of course celebrate this important shift. Yet they should not fail to note how much the Jewish narrative still tends to crowd out the Palestinians’ narrative — and dampen the outrage that their plight normally would be expected to kindle in the hearts of caring people.

Text of the resolution approved by the Chicago diocese of the Episcopal Church:

The 184th Annual Convention, Diocese of Chicago
November 20, 2021

Subject: Confronting Apartheid

Sponsors: Newland Smith, Ellen Lindeen, Peace & Justice Committee


Resolved, that in light of the passage in 2018 of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which grants self-determination exclusively to the Jewish people, and Israel’s on-going, accelerating dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians, the 184th  Convention of the Diocese of Chicago submit the following resolution to the 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church:

Resolved, that the House of __________ concurring, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, acknowledging our continuing struggle with systemic racism in the United States, recognize that the State of Israel has passed laws that discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens, particularly Palestinians, and that its military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and blockade of Gaza impose prejudicial treatment of Palestinians and privilege Israeli settlers, contravening international law and human rights; and be it further

Resolved, that the General Convention recognize that these discriminatory laws and treatment correspond to the definitions of apartheid elaborated in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and set
out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; and be it further

Resolved, that the General Convention affirm that apartheid is 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 be it further

Resolved, that the General Convention, recognizing the Western roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in 20th century colonialist exploits, as well as in the historical evils of anti-Semitism, commits itself to a practice and promotion of healing and reconciliation for the benefit of and between all God’s people, especially those most affected by the actions of the West.

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