Click here for General Assembly coverage

GA 2010: Committee changes “Breaking Down the Walls,” approves revision unanimously

MINNEAPOLIS – Some after-hours brainstorming yielded key changes in a document that may drastically affect the church’s clout and credibility with Israelis, Palestinians and American Jews.

         Some people who are closely tracking the report, titled “Breaking Down the Walls,” say the new language put forward by members of the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee might have salvaged the report’s chance of adoption by the General Assembly later this week.

         “I applaud the committee for the changes that it has made,” said Byron Shafer of the New York City Presbytery after the 53-member committee unanimously approved the amended report today (July 6). Shafer was one of nine members of the panel that adopted the report after months of research – and he was the lone member to vote against it.

         He said the amended version approved Tuesday fixed the problems that he had found with it earlier.

         “I would be happy to vote for this,” he said.”

         In its original version, the report has caught flak from inside and outside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for what has been called a blatant pro-Palestinian bias. Charles Hardwick of Great Rivers Presbytery said he and several other members of the Peacemaking Issues committee huddled Monday after their committee adjourned for the day to try to build greater balance into the document.

         The suggested language they unveiled Tuesday morning reaffirms Israel’s right to exist within internationally recognized borders. It also places greater distance between the church and some of the most controversial elements of “Breaking Down the Walls,” including personal testimonials and parts of the “Kairos Palestine” document.

Issued by a group of Palestinian Christians last December, “Kairos Palestine” contains pointed criticism of Israeli policies. For example, it labels the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory “a sin that must be resisted and removed.”

The amended report endorses parts of the Kairos document but not others, such as calls for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions targeting Israel. It also calls for replacing two “study materials” in the report – an eight-page narrative by a rabbi and a 78-page historical overview from a Palestinian perspective – with eight narratives of comparable length, giving a range of Israeli and Palestinian perspectives.

The committee made further changes but hewed to the outlines recommended by Hardwick’s group.

Susan Andrews, a former church moderator and a member of the committee that drafted “Breaking Down the Walls,” described the work done by the Peacemaking Issues panel Tuesday as a miracle.

 “I believe there was hard work, there was prayer and there was negotiation among key players across the church in order to get to a place where we could make a prophetic statement and still stay together as a Presbyterian family on this issue,” she said.

 “So I’m proud to be a Presbyterian today.”

Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, gave a more guarded endorsement.

He said he felt reluctant to speak until the General Assembly takes final action on the report later this week. There have been “significant revisions to the document that address a range of concerns,” but some concerns remain, he said

“And I have every reason to believe in good faith that those with a different perspective from mine feel the exact same way,” Felson said.

Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, who had joined Shafer in criticizing the original report, said the Peacekeeping Issues committee members “did a great job in getting up to speed really fast” and reached “a really happy outcome.” Most observers may feel some disappointment with the result, but “that may be the best way,” she said.

The Peacemaking Issues committee dealt with a related issue that carries a high emotional charge Tuesday by voting 50-2 to let its action on “Breaking Down the Walls” stand as its answer to an overture urging the church to brand Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid.

         Philip Keevil of the Lehigh Presbytery and Bill Harter of Chambersburg, Md., spoke out forcefully against the apartheid overture, offered by the San Francisco Presbytery .

Keevil said Israelis would correctly interpret as a “profound insult” having a label that denotes a racist theory attached to a set of security measures targeting Palestinians. Harter called the term “a toxic phrase that would create a firestorm if this committee were to put it through.”

The committee also voted to let its revised version of “Breaking Down the Walls” stand as its answer to overtures calling for study of the Kairos document and one that calls for the church to avoid taking policy positions favoring either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Henderson and Andrews said the unanimous committee vote for the revised report might help its chances of passage when it reaches the General Assembly floor, but Andrews wouldn’t predict smooth sailing.

“I think a unanimous vote says a tremendous amount” for the revised report, and Peacekeeping Issues committee members will speak up strongly for it, she said.

Still, Andrews said, she expects amendments from the GA floor, especially regarding the Kairos document, “the most contentious issue for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”