The Episcopal Church of America deviated from their prophetic mission for peace and justice this week by refusing to stand with the oppressed Palestinian people. In their efforts to justify why they wouldn’t begin discussing the potential for future divestment from Israel, they badly hurt the reputation and image of the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and essentially turned down a chance to stand up for peace in the Middle East.
At the church’s general assembly in Salt Lake City, the church’s committee on corporate social responsibility (CSR) was asked to develop a list of U.S. and foreign corporations that provide goods and services that support the Israeli occupation’s infrastructure. According to a report in the Episcopal News Service the goal of Resolution D016 was to “to monitor its investments and apply its CSR policy to any possible future investments” in such companies.
The resolution didn’t even use the word “divestment,” let alone “boycott” or “sanctions,” the other two elements of BDS — the popular movement to apply those tactics against Israeli economic interests until Israel changes its conduct toward Palestinians in the occupied territories — which are are anathema in pro-Israel circles.
Instead of discussing the merits of the resolution or listening to what their parishes said, the Episcopalian bishops looked for a weak link. Citing conversations with the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Rev. Suheil Dawani, the American bishops justified rejecting the resolution in order to protect their leader from political backlash.
Dawani, who was born in Nablus in the occupied West Bank, was elected in 2007 as the 14th bishop of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. His diocese covers the Palestinian territories, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Christian Arabs numbered 7.5 million in 2010 — a mere 5 percent of Arabs in the Middle East. Although Anglicans are the third-largest group of Christian Arabs, after Orthodox Christians and Catholics, they exert significant influence in their institutions and in key positions. Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi is an Anglican.
As the Jerusalem bishop working with 30 some social, educational and health organizations in the Middle East, Dawani needs to travel frequently in and out of city. Ordinarily, Israel grants legal residency to heads of Jerusalem-based recognized churches as a matter of course, but the BDS question seems to have raised fears with the bishop of Jerusalem and his colleagues that Israel could punish Dawani and cripple the church’s social work if his American counterparts support the boycott.
Perhaps that’s why the bishop of Jerusalem — whose constituency consists entirely of pro-Palestinian Arabs who overwhelmingly support BDS — has never publicly stated his position on the movement. But in their effort to get out of a dicey problem with powerful Zionists, the Americans landed the bishop in hot water. After the report in the official Episcopal News Service site went online, a surge of public calls were made to Dawani to come clean and explain where he stands.
The pressure on Dawani appears to have brought a change in the original July 2 news report of the conference deliberations. The original report (quoted in the liberal pro-Israeli-Palestinian peace website Mondoweiss) cited Bishop Jay Magness, who served on the legislative committee on social justice and international policy, which considered the resolutions, as saying, “Any hint of divestment will hamper the ministry of Archbishop Suheil Dawani and his priests and congregations in the Middle East.”
A few days later, the original online story was altered with an editor’s note and a new quote from Magness. “We have to engage in socially responsible divestment,” he told the bishops. “We were assured by the treasurer that we don’t have any direct investments in the usually named companies” — referring to Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, G4S and Motorola Solutions.
Still, a resolution by the California diocese to divest from those companies was voted down by the U.S. bishops.
Perhaps the most glaring problem in the process was the disregard the Episcopalian bishops showed to the very bishop that they claim to be trying to help. The fact that Dawani is vulnerable and under constant threats from the Israelis should not be an excuse for a peace- and justice-loving church to avoid political controversy or opposition from Israel’s supporters.
Commenting on the story on the Episcopalian website, a person identifying herself as the Rev. Kathleen Kircher best summarized the problem, writing, “What a shock to read that our leaders value self-interest more than social justice. I have been to Israel four times beginning in 1979. I have seen injustices and violence toward Palestinians escalate.”
Another of the 37 mostly opposing comments is one from a user calling himself Father Ken Campbell. He made an analogy to South Africa, writing, “Forty years ago, the large majority of South Africans encouraged us to use BDS as a tool to change the oppressive South African government even though it would temporarily increase hardship for ordinary people. It worked! The same is true of the Palestinian people today, as anyone who has spent any time there knows. They need our help to end the oppression.”
It is clear that the U.S. bishops meeting in Salt Lake City for the annual convention were more interested in their own well-being than their fellow Palestinian Christians’ and the goal of peace and justice in the occupied territories. While the decisions of the General Assembly have been a disappointment to many peace activists, many were pleased with the opening up of the debate and the church’s changes in personnel. They hope that the election of Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina as the church’s first African-American presiding bishop will make a difference in years to come.
Curry will be installed in Washington’s National Cathedral in November. The one area that he and others will not be able to ignore or to punt will be the need for peace and justice in the Holy Land.
The church counts among its former and current constituents Founding Fathers and other famous revolutionaries — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These men had the courage to make the tough decisions; they did not skirt defending the rights of the oppressed. Today their church shouldn’t do so either.