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Episcopal Bishops Did Not Reject Divestment from Israel

In the last three years our bishops, as well as lay and clergy leaders, have been targeted (or wooed) by advocacy groups that have offered Episcopalians trips to Israel to show us that we should not comment on the political or economic situation in the Occupied Territories.
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I like a good headline as much as anyone. Last week The Episcopal News Service ran this headline: "Bishops Overwhelmingly Oppose Divestment in Israel, Palestine".

Except, they didn't.

The Episcopal Church met in its triennial General Convention in Salt Lake City, June 24-July 3. I sat for days in what was reported to me later as the slowest functioning committee of the General Convention, Social Justice and International Policy. It functioned so slowly an intervention was considered.

We functioned slowly because of the fear of talking about the four Israel, Palestine resolutions that we were to consider on behalf of the General Convention and then move to the House of Bishops for initial consideration, and then if passed to the House of Deputies, as had been agreed by the presiding officers of this General Convention.

In the last three years our bishops, as well as lay and clergy leaders, have been targeted (or wooed) by advocacy groups that have offered Episcopalians trips to Israel to show us that we should not comment on the political or economic situation in the Occupied Territories. As we all know, we can set up a trip to convince you of anything at all, but it's kind of gross. Can you imagine the impact of a junket sponsored by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to tour Baltimore or Ferguson or Birmingham in 1963? We don't have to, we can read King's letter from Birmingham Jail and see ourselves implicated clearly.

Our process as a committee of convention is that we receive resolutions and memorials from groups of individuals and conventions of dioceses, our regional structures, which present the mind and concerns of those areas to the General Convention, the church-wide body that meets every three years.

This year we had over 300 resolutions in the end. Most resolutions are very inward looking. They have to do with the structure and working of the church, which makes sense. Some resolutions comment on public policy positions, which acknowledge our moral influence in local jurisdictions, Washington, D.C., and in other nations that are a part of the Episcopal Church. We are more a Niebuhr church than a Hauerwas church. As much as we hope for true justice and peace, we are fairly and maybe overly practical in doing what we think it takes to make things as good as possible in the real world. Many Episcopalians serve in local government, some in national government. We are not a tradition that is too pure or set apart to get involved in hammering out compromise.

Back to the committee, Jewish Voices for Peace sent a lot of Jews to speak in support of a secure Israel and justice for Palestine; a Palestinian Episcopal priest pleaded that we consider and respect the KAIROS document generated by Christian Palestinians which calls for action to support Palestine; we heard testimony that demonized Palestinians as a permanent threat to Israel's security; the Dean of St. George's Cathedral said we should not comment on the situation; and an AIPAC rabbi invited the chairs out to dinner. It was pretty clear that most of the bishops opposed any language of looking at our investments. I can't say I know anyone who thought we could pass even the mildest language of looking at our investments, even though our existing policies would require that we do. We were hoping for a conversation on the floor of the House of Deputies. The bishops had prevented that in 2012. The fear from the bishops was that if we had an honest conversation amongst ourselves about the use of our own money, that might contain a criticism of Israel, and that was not to be allowed.

I was on the sub committee of the committee that considered all of the resolutions that related to any kind of shareholder action in relationship to the occupation of Palestine. We moved a very mild resolution that asked that the church investigate its investments that support the occupation and generate a list of products produced in the illegal settlements. We were told by very excited staff that we do not hold any such investments, until we were told by less excited staff that we do hold problematic investments. We have nothing in place to prevent future investments. That was just the beginning of the fun. The illegality of both the occupation and the settlements was not debated. In our church they are non negotiable. The Church of England, the mother ship, has modeled for us a way forward to consider our significant holdings with integrity. We included their good work in our resolution.

It was this resolution that the bishops rejected.

We didn't mention Boycott, Divestment, or Sanctions because we don't believe that is where we are as a church. However, those who oppose any criticism of Israel, ever, made sure to claim that it was Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions that was being considered every time they spoke of our resolution. It was dishonest, but they were successful. They even got a headline that The New York Times picked up. Maybe a grateful lobbyist will get them another first class airfare to Israel and those awesome international frequent flyers miles.

We have been targeted as a church before because of the perceived impact of mainline Protestants on public morality. The Institute for Religion and Democracy targeted us for a decade to try to force a split on sexuality. They are currently targeting other mainline traditions. The tactic is to keep us from hearing our own members and acting on our own beliefs, and it tends to be successful.

We are currently being targeted by advocacy groups whose agenda is to insure no public criticism of Israel, none, not of occupation; illegal settlement; or illegal attack. It is perverse that we as Christians will undermine the voices of Palestinian Christians who have worked for decades on non-violent resistance in the Occupied Territories. Palestinian Christians are overwhelmingly Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican. We are on the record as abandoning them and the oldest sites of Christian worship that are currently under attack by extremist Israelis. Why? Maybe because Palestinians are Arabs, and Arabs are what terrorists look like to us? If we continue to fall for this, the physical reality of early Christianity in Bethlehem, Nazareth. Jerusalem and Jericho will be wiped out in our lifetime not by Muslims, but by extremists in lsrael.

On the final day of the committee's deliberations, in a very dramatic (and out of order) turn, a bishop asked a staff member of the Episcopal Church who looked like a cast member from Mad Men to stand up and provide us with even more expert information. Apparently things weren't going the way this bishop had intended. The staff member seemed to be crying behind his thick plastic frames and told us that the Bishop of Jerusalem had informed him that the government of Israel had made it clear to him that any action like the one we were considering would mean that his freedom of movement and his capacity to support his thirty institutions in Israel and the Occupied Territories would be threatened. Blackmail. If we do the work that is right for us as a church, a bishop in Asia will be targeted. This is exactly how the sexuality debate went in our church, except it was African bishops whose lives would be made intolerable, never mind LGBT people in those same places. I'm sure mad man believes what he is saying is the most important factor in a sensible consideration of the Episcopal Church's investment policies as they pertain to internationally recognized illegal activity, but it sounded like manipulation and blackmail to me.

Jesus has some things to say about exposing things to the light. Jesus even has something to say about those who collude in the oppression of their own people. Jesus lived in a similar kind of occupation.

These can be confusing and scary issues when we are told we have less and then more power than we actually do.

I do not live under the delusion that the government of Israel cares what the Episcopal Church does. I know that there are plenty of well paid people whose work it is to insure that Israel is never criticized. I know the bishop of Jerusalem will have trouble with the government of Israel no matter what we do; he is a resident of the West Bank and vulnerable. I know plenty of Israelis and American Jews who are appalled by the state of the Occupation and have dedicated their lives to justice for Palestinians and security for Israel. I do not understand how intelligent people can believe that interfaith conversation and more site seeing trips with no risk-taking on our part and no use of power: financial, political, or moral is anything but an adventure in vanity.

The Episcopal Church has a troubled history of reconciliation. We are a church that never split on slavery. We welcomed back unrepentant, former-slave holding bishops after the Civil War. We chose a side. We reconciled with injustice, and we live with the consequences today.

We are using the language of reconciliation again, on race and Israel, Palestine. If we do not talk about power and money, we are asking for reconciliation with injustice. We're pretty good at that, but it is wrong. Most of us live in enough comfort that these are intellectual exercises over martinis, like in Mad Men. I will never understand why we would not listen first to our brothers and sisters truly on the ground, the lay and ordained Palestinian Christians who have been displaced; who work for justice; and who ask for our help.

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