“ … to the extent that the security barrier violates Palestinian land that was not part of Israel prior to the 1967 war, the barrier should be dismantled and relocated.” Yet, was this not telling the sovereign nation of Israel what to do anyway? We would not tell Israel what to do with the wall on one side of the line but would insist that building it elsewhere was not appropriate, even if Israel believed this was also necessary for the protection of its borders.
If, by your own definition, you are the only sovereign nation that exists in a particular region, where can you legitimately build your wall? Apparently, anywhere you plan to build it. Under the leadership of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the building of illegal settlements began as an effort to create indisputable “facts on the ground.” With the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, Ariel Sharon was empowered to create a new set of “facts” that had actually been conceived eight years earlier in the administration of Yitzhak Rabin: namely, a wall to surround the settlers, with the natural resources they require, and dedicated Israeli highways to insure their convenient travel to Jerusalem and beyond.
In the wake of the 2006 decision Presbyterians with divergent views seized on different parts of the same action to claim victory. One side celebrated the statement that the PC(USA) should not tell sovereign nations how they can behave. The other side took comfort in the fact that the PC(USA) did affirm that it was appropriate to call for the dismantling of the wall where it stood on Palestinian territory. And so both sides limped along for the next couple of years believing they got what they needed to advocate according to the dictates of their consciences.
In June 2008 the General Assembly looked like it might take this one fractured step further when the Committee on Peacemaking and International Affairs sent conflicting overtures to the plenary floor. In Item 11-01 the committee recommended that: “The 218th General Assembly affirms the obligation of the church to speak to the governments of the United States and all other nations where it sees those governments violating the commandments of God.” Therefore, if a sovereign nation, in the course of what it believes is the legitimate protection of its borders or the carrying out of its national defense, violates the commandments of God, then what the church says to said nation is both relevant and necessary. Yet in Item 11-26, the committee recommended that the Presbyterian Church: “ … defer from positions or policy statements that appear to favor either side in the conflict (and) from taking actions or making statements that align the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with unilateral support for any of the specific parties involved in the struggle.”
One has to wonder: How is it possible to be non-partisan or bilateral if the church finds it necessary to speak to a government about actions that violate the commandments of God? It is reasonable to assume that a government that acts in this manner, at least in regard to such commandments, is not a party to God but rather of one unto the world. If the believing church stands up to that government, it cannot help but take a position and be accused of partisanship by those who are effectively pro-occupation. At the very least, it is actively taking sides against the ideological stance that led to the violation of God’s laws in the first place. The collective body of the General Assembly saw Committee 11’s inconsistency and expressed that by passing 11-01 and then adopting the minority report to 11-26, which stated that this measure would be “answered” by the former. In this case the answer was no. The 218th General Assembly would not permit itself to once again engage in doublespeak, but try to speak in one, prophetic voice.
What changed in two years? Presbyterians remembered The Theological Declaration of Barmen, “which speaks to the dependence of the Church on the Word of God and its independence from any state or ideology (in saying) ‘we reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords … (that) the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace … ’” (11-01).
Although this year’s General Assembly beat back the temptation to become hopelessly irrelevant in the substantive conversation about peace and justice in Palestine there is much that did not get accomplished. Overtures concerning divestment from Caterpillar and Motorola and the temporary withdrawal of military aid from Israel were defeated in committee. Even so, truths were heard: Any support that assists a nation in violating the human rights of people living within its borders defies both the U.S. Foreign Assistance, and the Arms Export Control Acts. Jeff Halper, executive director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), painted a very graphic picture of how a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer destroys the property and lives of those whose simple crime is being Palestinian. Palestinian Archbishop Elias Chacour clearly described the pain of his people and called on Presbyterians to “get your hands dirty” for the cause of human rights in Palestine.
Most perplexing was the defeat of an overture that appealed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), of which the United States and Israel are both signatories. Through the defeat of these measures, Presbyterians seem to be saying that they can wait at least two more years to substantively challenge the U.S. and Israeli governments to act in accordance with God’s commandments. Yet perhaps, because of truths heard in San Jose, Presbyterians have finally begun to lay the necessary groundwork towards building a culture of justice and peace for all Israelis and Palestinians.
Jeffrey DeYoe is an advocacy chairperson of the Israel Palestine Mission Network, PC(USA), and pastor of Worthington Church, Worthington, Ohio.