It’s time for U.S. church leaders to challenge Israeli apartheid – Mondoweiss

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Forty-seven years ago, leaders of the nation’s major churches organized a campaign to help end South African apartheid. They formed the Churches’ Emergency Committee on South Africa to press for comprehensive government economic sanctions and the boycott and divestiture of U.S. companies that refused to end their work in South Africa.

The committee, representing 24 major denominations and 12 interchurch agencies, adopted a resolution that pulled no punches. “Apartheid is an unmitigated evil,” the resolution charged, “the product of sin and the work of the devil… We have heard the cries of anguish from our brothers and sisters in South Africa, and they have asked us to take this action.”

The work was supported by an extraordinary diversity of churches representing a broad range of theologies, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, several Lutheran denominations, the Southern Baptists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. These church leaders may have been playing catch-up; in the U.S., there had been a years-long grassroots campaign opposing South African apartheid. But according to one participant, a student at Union Theological Seminary at the time, the efforts of these church leaders contributed to a major push to override President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in September 1986. 

“This is a historic gathering… an emergency gathering,” said the Rev. M. Lorenze Shephard, president of the Progressive National Baptist Church. “We can no longer stand idly by and allow our government to casually throw away a moral prerogative that it can exercise.” 

Now is the time for leaders of U.S. denominations to join together—as they did during the movement for civil rights in the 1960s, the Vietnam War in the early 1970s and then again in the 1980s—to raise their collective moral voice and chart a campaign to oppose Israel’s settler colonial apartheid. 

Israel’s laws, policies and procedures meet the three criteria that define an apartheid regime in international law: 1) the implementation of a system of separation or segregation based on race, creed, or ethnicity designed with the intent to maintain domination by one racial group over another; 2) the use of legislative measures to enforce separation and segregation, essentially legalizing separation from within its own legal system; 3) the commission of inhuman acts, human rights violations, denial of freedom, and forced ghettoization. 

It’s incumbent upon leaders of U.S. denominations to amplify the voices of Palestinians suffering under a brutal system of apartheid, to protect the Christian heritage in the Holy Land, and to work for the freedom and human rights of the Palestinian people.

Just last month, eighteen well-known and -respected Palestinian Christian organizations issued a statement, “Standing Unwavering and Resolute: Together for the Protection of our Presence.” The statement addresses many things, including a description of Israel’s policy “to assert control over Jerusalem, to Judaize sacred lands, and to intimidate and displace Christians.” Most importantly, perhaps, the statement expresses grassroots Palestinian Christians’ impatience with their church’s leaders. The statement reads, “We call upon all Patriarchs and Church leaders, urging them to cooperate with us. It is imperative that we work hand in hand to protect our sacred sites… and our legitimate human right to exist.”

Following their lead, it’s incumbent upon leaders of U.S. denominations to also “work hand in hand” to amplify the voices of Palestinians suffering under a brutal system of apartheid, to protect the Christian heritage in the Holy Land, and to work for the freedom and human rights of the Palestinian people. Those who know, know that U.S. support for Israel enables it to ignore international law and act with impunity.

If U.S. heads of churches and their leading staff need further encouragement to gather, as did previous leaders in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, they may consider the following.

  • For some time now, there has been an almost total consensus on the part of human rights organizations that Israel is committing apartheid from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea (see reports from Israel’s B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). Both the former and the current United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Palestine have also described in detail the realities of Israel’s apartheid system. 
  • Since Israel’s judicial system has come under attack and tens of thousands of Israeli Jews have turned out every weekend to protest the far right’s attack on democracy, there’s been an amazing turn in the conversation on the part of many of Israel’s leaders. Last month, Israel’s retired General Amiram Levin (who was also deputy chief of the Mossad) said in an interview that after “56 years there is no democracy [in the West Bank]… There is total apartheid there.” Just last week, former head of Israel’s Mossad Tamir Pardo echoed the reality, saying, “There is an apartheid state here. In a territory where two people are judged under two legal systems, that is an apartheid state.” 
  • As reported in Mondoweiss, last month a group of primarily Israeli Jewish scholars posted a letter titled, “Elephant in the Room.” It accuses American Jewish leaders of making an exception to the “Jewish fight for justice” by supporting apartheid in Israel. To date, the letter has been signed by over 2000 persons, including mainstream Zionist figures. 
  • Last month, a committee of the United Nations released a comprehensive study that will contribute to a hearing in The Hague by the International Court of Justice next spring in response to the UN General Assembly’s request for an expert opinion on the legality of the Israel occupation and the legal consequences incumbent on the international community. 

But there is an even more significant imperative for our church leaders to rise up and act: the Gospel. While it’s essential to acknowledge that Israel’s laws, policies and practices satisfy the three criteria that define apartheid according to international law, the church’s prophetic voice is rooted in our faith in a just God. 

When leaders gather, they must be grounded in confession, prayer and a sound exegesis of our Scriptures, clearly rejecting theologies that favor one people over another. Leaders must listen to the voice of our Palestinian partners—expressed especially in their profoundly theological document, A Moment of Truth. As Palestinian Christians have insisted in that document and through many other cries for support that have followed, the church’s resistance to the evil of apartheid must be shaped with “love as its logic.”

What might our leaders propose?

  • Vigorous support for nonviolent resistance. Of the three options available to Palestinians as they struggle to gain their freedom and human rights—violence, nonviolence, and submission—the church must rush to support nonviolent resistance, especially the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. To anticipate and counter criticisms, church leaders can learn from South Africans who responded to the same narratives when they called for BDS. 
  • Opportunities for leaders across denominational divides to travel to Palestine/Israel, where they can see the realities of apartheid on the ground and meet with Jews, Muslims and Christians working for a just and lasting peace.
  • Opportunities for Palestinian Christians to tour U.S. churches, Christian universities, colleges and seminaries, where their voices can be heard.
  • United and active support for House Resolution 3103, “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act”, and House Resolution 9291, the “Justice for Shireen Act.”  Many members of Congress, under the influence of the Israel lobby and Christian Zionists, are waiting for the church to rise up and insist that they address Israel’s illegal actions. 
  • An honest and thorough response to the resolution affirmed by the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches at its 2022 meeting in Germany, committing their communions to study and respond to the human rights reports naming and describing Israel’s apartheid.
  • A program to see that existing church statements, resolutions and the campaign to be designed reach those in the pews and the classrooms of our denominational colleges, universities and seminaries.

If not now, when?

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