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Bishops Reject ‘Apartheid’ Label for Israeli Government

Amid the Israeli-Hamas war, the House of Bishops defeated resolutions June 23 that would have classified Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid” and Palestinians as an “indigenous people” of the land.

They were among seven resolutions related to Israel-Palestine relations that were recommended by the Social Justice and International Policy Committee and discussed in the afternoon by the bishops.

Four rejected resolutions — A010, D004, D005, and D006 — called for classifying the State of Israel’s legal system as apartheid, designated Palestinians as an “indigenous people” of the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, expressed solidarity with a Palestinian movement promoting boycotts and economic sanctions against Israel, and rejected Christian Zionism.

Meanwhile, the house passed three other resolutions: D007, which calls for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza; D009, which calls on the U.S. government to provide aid for the long-term rebuilding of Gaza; and D013, which calls the October 7, 2023, attack on Israel by Hamas an “indefensible act of terrorism” and advocates a two-state solution. Those resolutions will move to the House of Deputies.

The resolutions generated significant discussion among the bishops.

“It has long been discredited in most academic circles to use the word apartheid with respect to the government and people of Israel,” said Bishop Peter Eaton of Southeast Florida in opposition to A010. “There is a distinction that needs to be made. It is perfectly reasonable to criticize the actions of any particular government; it is not reasonable to characterize a government by a word like apartheid.”

“I do not think that this house or this convention wants to pass any resolutions, particularly in this very difficult time, that could be reasonably interpreted as anti-Israel resolutions,” he added. “And I believe that this is one of those.”

The Rt. Rev. Ed Little, former Bishop of Northern Indiana and now an assisting bishop in Los Angeles, raised concerns about how such language would affect attempts at mediation.

“It would be a grave error to apply the word apartheid to the State of Israel for several reasons,” Little said. “It would make us advocates of one side of the conflict over the other. And our Israeli and Jewish friends would see us as relentlessly hostile to them.”

Eaton was the most vocal opponent of the resolutions. After Eaton’s repeated turns at the mic to voice his concerns, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joked: “You don’t even need to say who you are,” he said. “We already know.”

Responding to D004, Eaton said he couldn’t support the resolution’s language that appears to “give advice” to the government of Israel.

“We’re not equipped or qualified as a body to enter into this kind of discussion in this kind of way,” he said.

Bishop Robert Wright of Atlanta asked whether the committee had sought guidance from the Most Rev. Hosam Naoum, Archbishop in Jerusalem, on the resolution. Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez of Pennsylvania, committee chair, said the committee had not sought that guidance from Naoum.

“This is not Archbishop Naoum’s business,” Eaton said. “This is our business, for which we have to take responsibility. He is not going to tell us how to vote on these resolutions. He resolutely refuses to do that. So, I think we have to come to terms that we may, in fact, be passing resolutions that may actually not be helpful for our brother, who has to exercise his episcopal ministry in Jerusalem. But he’s not going to tell us what to do.”

Responding to D005, in support of the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, Eaton characterized it as “another agenda-driven attitude towards the conflict in the Middle East, which again is not regarded as helpful or as part of the emerging paradigms within the Middle East itself.”

D006, which called for the rejection of Christian Zionism, was defeated by a narrower margin than the other three, with 53 voting in support and 74 against it.

No one spoke in support of the four defeated resolutions.

Eaton raised concerned with D007’s characterization of Israel’s military action in Gaza as “retaliation.”

“When you talk about retaliation in war, you are making a particular judgment,” he said, “and I don’t believe we have the capacity to make that judgment.”

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington, urged support of D007.

“If we can’t say this, what could we possibly say?” Budde said, which prompted applause in the chamber.

The Rt. Rev. Thomas Brown, Bishop of Maine, also spoke in favor.

“The substance of this is completely right. Everything that most of us have been saying and the people in our churches have been saying for a very long time, including and especially since October 7, is in this. Bishop Eaton is right — some of the things that have been in front of us today have not been consistent and have veered outside our lane. This resolution does not. I urge your support.”

An amendment proposed by Bishop Sam Rodman of North Carolina to replace the word retaliation with response was narrowly defeated. A proposal to postpone the discussion was also struck down, and the resolution was ultimately approved.

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