General Convention Weighs Israel-Palestine Crisis

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By Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

Resolutions concerning the conflict between Israel and Palestine have been a regular feature of modern General Conventions. The run-up to the 80th General Convention this year has been no different. Aside from being its own moral and political crisis, the situation in Israel and Palestine has been a proxy in the United States between progressive and conservative factions. Like so many other elements of our common life, this conflict has been subsumed into our domestic culture war.

As in past years, the majority of resolutions are the result of efforts by the Palestine Israel Network of Episcopal Peace Fellowship. This group is connected to the Friends of Sabeel North America, part of a global network that supports the work of Sabeel Jerusalem, an ecumenical Palestinian liberation theology movement. Sabeel was founded by the Rev. Naim Ateek, who now lives in the United States.

All of these interlocking entities and figures are supporters of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. This movement seeks to apply moral, political, and economic pressure on the policies of the State of Israel as they relate to occupation of the West Bank and restrictions on Gaza. A key tactic of the BDS movement is to equate Israeli policy on Palestinians with the apartheid-era policies of the South African government. Significant debate exists over whether this is an appropriate analogy.

The first set of resolutions advanced through diocesan conventions in the dioceses of Chicago, Olympia, and Vermont concerns apartheid. Of these, Resolution C025 has advanced through the Social Justice and International Policy Committee and were discussed further at its last meeting on June 20.

This resolution calls on General Convention to judge that the State of Israel has established discriminatory laws against Palestinians in Israel and exercises policies in the West Bank and Gaza that meet the definition of apartheid as determined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Neither the United States nor Israel has signed this document. Further, the resolution directs Congress to withhold military funding from the State of Israel until it changes policies regarding Palestine. These resolutions were the object of debate over several online sessions, with significant numbers of people speaking for and against it.

A resolution from the Diocese of Olympia, C039, also spoke against Israeli treatment of Palestinian people. While asking President Biden and Congress to act against these policies, it made no specific recommendations on what they would be. Resolution C039 did not use the word apartheid, thus offering a critique while avoiding a disputed framing. C039 also was deliberated on further on June 20 and, based on committee deliberations, seems more likely to advance to a vote at General Convention.

The second set of resolutions concerns the right to boycott and freedom of speech. One effect of the BDS movement’s growth in the United States is pressure for various state pension and investment funds to divest from companies that are thought to benefit materially from Israeli policies on Palestine. Likewise, growing campus BDS movements critique college and university engagement with the State of Israel, seeing any affiliation with Israel, such as travel or visits to conferences, as morally unacceptable.

This has led 30 states to enact laws that prohibit BDS-related boycotts. In 2019, the Trump administration issued an executive order that seeks to limit some BDS-related campus activism as potentially antisemitic under provisions of the Civil Rights Act. Resolution C013 from the Diocese of Chicago asks General Convention to oppose such legislative and executive actions. In a meeting on June 2 of the Social Justice and International Policy Committee, this resolution moved to the consent calendar and likely will be passed by General Convention.

The final set of resolutions supported by the Palestine Israel Network concerns Christian Zionism. This refers to dispensationalism, a brand of evangelical Protestant theology that developed in the 19th century and emphasized the importance of Jews returning to Israel in order for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to occur. A mission to convert Jews has often accompanied this theology. Christian Zionism is a potent element of contemporary U.S. evangelical Protestant support for the State of Israel and the activity of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories.

Christians affiliated with the BDS movement see it as vital to condemn this theology, which is what this resolution asks General Convention to do. Several versions of this resolution were debated, with C012 from Chicago advancing to the consent calendar. However, a section asking the Episcopal Church to offer teaching that distinguishes between the Israel of Scriptures encountered in the liturgy and the contemporary State of Israel was struck. The rationale of the committee was that matters of liturgy did not fall within its purview.

At the 79th General Convention in 2018, the Israel-Palestine conflict was also a topic of debate. Some Episcopal and Jewish observers of those debates perceived antisemitic undertones in some testimony. As a result, the Diocese of Maryland approved Resolution C001 for consideration. This resolution asked General Convention to denounce antisemitism and to acknowledge that in the past antisemitic rhetoric has been found in debates concerning Israel-Palestine. It also asked General Convention to defer to the Bishop of Jerusalem when it considers policies and resolutions that might have unforeseen harmful effects on Palestinian Christians. The Palestine Israel Network opposed this resolution and offered about a dozen witnesses to testify against it on April 8.

The legislative committee chose to take no further action on this resolution for two reasons. First, General Convention has already denounced antisemitism, and this resolution was considered redundant. Second, although the resolution referenced consultation with the Bishop of Jerusalem in the context of the church’s Constitution and Canons, this recommendation was seen as not in keeping with the polity of the church.

The fate of Resolution C001 reveals the debate about when legitimate critique of policies of the State of Israel veers into the realm of antisemitism. Certainly, any nation-state can be the object of criticism, and General Convention has passed resolutions condemning the policies of other nations before. Indeed, on June 2 the Social Justice and International Policy legislative committee voted to move Resolution D022, concerning the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in China, to the consent calendar.

Some markers concerning whether critique of Israeli policies has moved toward antisemitism would be rhetoric that equates Zionism with all Jews or Israelis; rhetoric that portrays a global conspiracy to stifle criticism or execute a sinister agenda; equating the Holocaust with the occupation of Palestinian territories; and a refusal to consider any entity but the State of Israel as complicit in the problems of the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the same time, these broad parameters are not agreed on by all people, and within Jewish communities there is strong debate about when anti-Zionist criticism of the State of Israel moves to antisemitism.

Anglicans have been on many sides of the debate over how to resolve the rightful claims regarding the land that encompasses the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Some have aligned strongly with a Zionist position, others with a firm pro-Palestinian position. The challenge of the Episcopal Church is to work with all entities on the ground to support solutions that forge a just peace that affirms the indigeneity of both Jews and Palestinians in the land, and creates policies that lead to the flourishing of the many people who call that land home.


The Rev. Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is Kraft Family Professor and director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.


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