[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the focus of three legislative hearings June 25 as the Social Justice and International Policy Committee opened the floor for public testimony at the Episcopal Church’s 78th General Convention.
Some 50 people rose to testify on the seven resolutions related to Israel and Palestine that range from calling for deeper investment in Middle East partnerships to calling the church to boycott against and divest from companies and corporations engaged in certain business related to the State of Israel.
Several speakers addressed the need to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land through economic pressure, saying that the church’s current policy of positive investment has proved inadequate. Others underscored the Christian imperative for engagement and dialogue, citing concerns for any action that might cause further widespread hardship for the Palestinian people and the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.
During an evening hearing, Bishop Nick Knisely of the Diocese of Rhode Island presented his two resolutions (B012 and B013), backed by 10 other bishops, urging The Episcopal Church to endorse a model of restorative justice in seeking “new, creative and effective ways forward in its work toward peace and justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and to call political leaders to a conclusive negotiation of a two-state peace agreement.
Knisely said his resolutions are about reconciliation, trying to find a process within The Episcopal Church where conversations are had and “where we can see one another not as the person who has caused the pain, but as the person who is also in pain … . I am not naïve about how long it will take, but I do not know of a more effective way.
“I realize there is a disparity of views,” he said, “but we need to find ways to invest in Palestinian businesses so that they can build their economy and hopefully become an equal partner.”
Paul Schumacher from Hawaii said the two resolutions complement and extend existing policies and offer some suggestions on how to move forward from the 2012 General Convention Resolution B019, which affirms positive investment “as a necessary means to create a sound economy and a sustainable infrastructure” in the Palestinian Territories.
Lynn Gottlieb, an American rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement, is not so convinced. “As Palestinians are pushed into an apartheid-like situation … it is almost impossible for them to export anything,” she said. “I encourage you to invest, but know that until the occupation ends, Palestinians will always be vulnerable to having their exports destroyed. Palestinian business people will always say to me, ‘yes invest and divest.’ They are not in conflict. This is restorative justice.”
Earlier in the day, testimony was heard on five other resolutions, three of which call for divestment.
The Rev. Vicki Gray, a deputy from the Diocese of California who spoke in support of Resolution C012, said that “divestment is not about anti-Semitism; it’s about justice … The people of Palestine want action, not more talk … It should be clear that after 20 years of talk in the never-ending peace process, our policy of positive investment has not worked … To do nothing would also have an impact: It would put us on the side of oppression.”
Clark Downs of the Diocese of Washington, speaking in favor of Resolution C018, said that for several decades The Episcopal Church “has been aware of the strife in the Holy Land and vainly hoped that the people there would do something about it. Israeli leadership has turned a blind eye to injustice and kept up the illegal occupation. The Episcopal Church should respond more boldly to this tragedy than it has in recent years.”
T. Dennis Sullivan, chair of the Executive Council Investment Committee, said the committee has discussed these issues and unanimously requests that any resolutions calling for divestment should be rejected “until the economic and social consequences of such divestment are thoroughly evaluated.”
A liaison to the Committee from the Presiding Bishop’s staff confirmed that the investment portfolio of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society contains no holdings in any of the corporations some of the resolutions flag as problematic, such as Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, G4S, and Motorola Solutions.
The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, however, did invest $500,000 in the Bank of Palestine in 2013 for the purpose of economic development in the Palestinian Territories.
The Church Pension Fund, whose investment policies are not required to mirror those of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, currently owns holdings in Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard, according to Church Pension Group chief investment officer Roger Sayler.
CPF “is committed to its fiduciary responsibility to protect the pensions and related benefits” of some 15,000 clergy and lay employees of The Episcopal Church, Sayler said during the hearing. “We must be positively involved in the situation rather than using divestment as a tool.”
The Church Pension Fund and its affiliated companies collectively form the Church Pension Group.
The Rev. Jose Luis Mendoza-Barahona, a committee member from the Diocese of Honduras, challenged Church Pension Group to revise its practices.
“Approximately 15,000 people are being protected by this pension plan. But I do believe that a life is more important and has more value than anything we can do,” he said through an interpreter. “I would like to invite you to re-engineer the investment process so that it would allow those 15,000 people to maintain their stability but also to allow us to assist those people in Israel and Palestine whose rights are being taken away from them. I hope that you find a way to place the money where it can do some good and take it away from companies that are hurting poor people in Palestine.”
The Rev. Canon John E. Kitagawa, a deputy from the Diocese of Arizona, has served on the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace With Justice Concerns, one of the church’s interim bodies that are proposing Resolution A052 for consideration at General Convention.
A052 calls for an “intentional process of Ubuntu,” and “peaceful, mutual discernment” regarding Episcopal Church policies “toward advocacy, economic investment or divestment, humanitarian mission, and peacemaking in Palestine and Israel.”
Ubuntu is a Zulu/Xhosa word that describes human identity as being formed through community and encompassing a sense of caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation.
The resolution suggests that a collaborative group should facilitate the process, collect and disseminate educational resources, and consult with a wide range of policy experts, humanitarian aid organizations, and ecumenical and interfaith groups “to inform and enliven a process of listening and conversation among those of differing convictions … so that The Episcopal Church in its deliberations and advocacy efforts might model the love of God and the possibility of civil dialog over controversial and confounding issues of global conflict.”
Kitagawa, vice chair of General Convention’s international policy legislative committee, believes that Resolution A052 is the best approach at this time for The Episcopal Church on peacemaking in Israel and Palestine.
The Rev. Susan Snook, a deputy from the Diocese of Arizona and a member of Executive Council, also supports Resolution A052. She said that following a visit to the Holy Land last year and talking to people on all sides, “I’ve learned that there are no simple solutions [that] will solve all the problems” and that the best way forward as Christians “is to remain engaged in relationships. … We need to use those relationships to help change minds and hearts.
Snook said that she spoke with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and others who traveled to the Holy Land in January as part of an interfaith pilgrimage recommended by Resolution B019 from the 2012 General Convention. “They heard from people on all sides that Christians … can show people how to disagree respectfully and remain in relationship. I support the Ubuntu resolution. It’s what people in the Holy Land have asked of us. Diocesan institutions and ministries are possible because we have been remained engaged even though we deplore the violence. Divestment hurts the economy and hurts Palestinians.”
Newland Smith, a deputy from the Diocese of Chicago spoke in favor of Resolution D016, which was drafted by the recently formed Episcopal Committee for Justice in Israel and Palestine, calling on The Episcopal Church to begin a process of divesting from companies that continue to profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
“U.S. companies that are contributing to the infrastructure that supports occupation must be held accountable,” said Smith, a member of the international policy committee. “This resolution provides a reasoned and prudent pathway for the church to be faithful for the cause of justice in this long and painful conflict.”
Walid Issa, 26, a Palestinian from Bethlehem said he was “sad … that the people who matter the most in these discussions are not represented here. The importance of helping and investing in the Palestinians is more urgent than punishing the Israeli government. The problem is where to invest. We need to shift and find new, innovative and creative ways for the young Palestinian voices to be represented … Change is possible and fear can be defeated.”
Issa, along with Israeli Lior Frankiensztajn, run the Shades Negotiation Program, which creates opportunities for Palestinian and Israeli decision-makers, politicians, educators and other leaders to meet and engage with their counterparts. The program is sponsored by Harvard University and partly funded by the U.S. Department of State.
During the committee hearing, Frankiensztajn, 29, said that after serving in the Israeli army for five years, he “realized there is no military solution to this problem – it has to be a social solution.”
Frankiensztajn’s world changed a few years ago after he lived with a Palestinian man for two months. He got to learn many things about himself and his roots, but most importantly, he saw “how reality looks from a different perspective,” he told the interfaith pilgrims following lunch in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Unfortunately, “politicians manage the relationships, which limits the opportunity for progress. … There has to be a different approach to policymaking, to education.”
Acknowledging that it is easy to engage the converted, Frankiensztajn said that Shades is trying to identify the obstacles, areas that need more attention in helping people “to become better negotiators, better communicators through this experience [and] really getting to understand the nuances and the culture of the other side.” Creating trust, he added, is a critical part of the peace process.
Kim Byham, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of New Jersey, spoke in support of Resolution C018, submitted by the Diocese of Washington, with the exception of the fifth paragraph, which calls for a full and public report “documenting all actions, including corporate dialogues and shareholder resolutions … regarding companies that contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and companies that have connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel.”
The rest of Resolution C018 calls for continued support of the Diocese of Jerusalem and its institutions and calls on “individual parishes to take immediate steps to increase their understanding of the issues so they can engage actively to this end, especially with respect to considering non-violent approaches and actions to ending the occupation in light of the failure of peace talks and continued expansion of settlements.”
Byham has served as chair of the Episcopal Church’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility for last six years. He previously served as chair of the church’s Social Responsibility in Investments committee, which in 2005 affirmed “positive investment” and “corporate engagement” to encourage positive change in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Divestment is something our committee has been skeptical about, said Byham, although he said that despite corporate dialogue with Caterpillar for the past 15 years, “they continue to take the same position that they don’t sell directly to the Israeli army, and that’s true, they sell to the U.S. army and the U.S. gives it to Israel.”
However, he said, “divestment is a really limited tool [and] it has relatively few positives.”
The Rev. Gary Commins, deputy from the Diocese of Los Angeles, disagrees.
“We have an opportunity to move on divestment, to do something honorable and memorable,” said Commins, a member of the international policy committee. “To continue on our current policy is to do something forgettable and regrettable.”
Many Episcopal Church dioceses and individuals have long-standing partnerships with the Jerusalem diocese and support the ministry of its more than 30 social service institutions throughout Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. The institutions include schools, hospitals, clinics and centers for people with disabilities.
The diocese and the institutions also are supported by the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, a nonpolitical, nonprofit organization established in 1985.
Anne Lynn, director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, spoke in support of mission in the Holy Land and of Resolution C018. “Many view the place where Jesus walked and talked only through the political lens,” she said. “Families need to put food on the table tonight and children need to go to school tomorrow. We should be very proud of the work that is being done by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Their schools are educating 7,000 children of all faiths. The diocesan hospitals serve the poor and saved hundreds of lives in Gaza. We can change the future of our Holy Land by building peace from the ground up.”
Archbishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem has previously told Episcopal News Service that he prefers to hear about investment rather than divestment.
Graham Smith, dean of St. George’s College, Jerusalem, spoke during the hearing and confirmed that Dawani has not changed his mind on the issue. “I hope this convention does not adopt any resolution about the conflict without checking with the archbishop,” he said. Such action “costs deputies nothing while making it more difficult for the archbishop to manage his institutions. We need to support the institutions as much as possible.”
Dawani was not himself present, nor was he officially represented by anybody from the Diocese of Jerusalem, at the General Convention. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori invited Dawani to be a guest of hers at the convention, but he was unable to attend due to other commitments in his diocese.
Cynthia Schumacher, a visitor from the Diocese of Hawaii, also spoke against C012. “Israel is the only free nation in the Middle East, but its institutions are constantly under ideological assault. This resolution forgets that many Palestinians support terrorist activities against Jews in Israel and the rest of the world. Israel is an open, multiethnic, multiracial democracy. It is not without fault, but it still offers Christians and Muslims protection from totalitarian states in the region. This is the reality that BDS [boycotts, divestment and sanctions] glosses over and chooses to ignore.”
Several supporters and members of the U.S. organization Jewish Voice for Peace spoke out in favor of divestment.
Jade Brooks said that Palestinians have been suffering far too long under the occupation. “You have the opportunity to be leaders in the movement for justice,” she told committee members.
Other speakers said that the church needs to be doing more in engaging dioceses and congregations, and in educating people around the issues.
Retired Bishop of Washington John Chane said that he’d fought against divestment for many years “but times have changed. … This is a matter of human rights. At the same time divestment is an issue that has lots of nuances.” However, he said that he hopes General Convention could pass a resolution that would allow Executive Council “to really make a clear statement on divestment.”
The Rev. Scott Gunn, a deputy from the Diocese of Southern Ohio, said that from his two trips to the Holy Land he has realized that “relationships and positive encounter are the way forward … Why don’t we take a positive action of re-investment? It may be that a change in divestment policy would be good at some point, but we mustn’t do it irrationally. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem is what we need to be doing.”
The international policy committee will discuss the resolutions and make its recommendations to the initial house of action, which will be the House of Bishops.
If the bishops approve a resolution, it would require the House of Deputies to concur with the legislation before it could become an act of General Convention
— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.