GA 2010: Controversial Middle East policy paper gets amended, endorsed, adopted by GA

MINNEAPOLIS – The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly overwhelmingly approved an amended report on conflict in the Middle East that aims at a careful balance between Palestinian and Israeli narratives of injustice and the path to peace.[caption id="attachment_22002" align="alignright" width="360"]MRTI’s Brian Ellison addresses the General Assembly. Photo by Erin Dunigan.[/caption]

Church commissioners voted 558-119 today (July 9), for a committee’s rewrite of a report that in its original form was widely perceived by some church members as pro-Palestinian and factually suspect.

          The General Assembly also endorsed, by a 418-210 vote, the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee’s recommendation that it denounce Caterpillar’s profit-making from sales of heavy equipment that Israel uses for non-peaceful purposes, including the destruction of Palestinian homes. Church committees considered divestment but advised against it — meaning that the church’s Board of Pensions and Foundation will continue to hold Caterpillar stock worth nearly $11 million, plus $685,000 in the company’s bonds.

          After revising the report on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 53-member Peacemaking Issues committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend it to the General Assembly.

A spokesman for an array of mainstream American Jewish organizations said Friday that in adopting the revised report, the General Assembly may have preserved the church’s place at the table with both American Jews and Israelis in further peacemaking efforts.

“The tremendous unity of so many diverse elements of the church in favor of a resolution that calls for authentic narratives and balance is a very important signal to the American Jewish community,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Felson said that in considering the original version of the report “Breaking Down the Walls,” which was drawn up by a nine-member Middle East Study Committee, “the church had certainly been on a path that would have rendered its advocacy as not taken seriously” by Israelis, even those who strongly favor peace with the Palestinians.

The General Assembly has set the church on a more promising path that “will undoubtedly determine whether the church’s witness resonates positively with Israelis as well as Palestinians,” Felson said.

The original version of the report contained a 78-page analysis of the history of conflict in Israel and Palestine that became a bone of contention. The analysis, written in a scholarly format with extensive statistical tables and maps, contained a strongly Palestinian perspective, and it overshadowed an eight-page set of “notes” written by an Israeli rabbi.

The version of the document approved by the Peacemaking Issues committee and the General Assembly omits both the analysis and the set of notes. It calls instead for the inclusion of eight narratives of comparable length, four from Israeli perspectives and four from the perspectives of Muslim and Christian Palestinians.

These narratives will be commissioned by a seven-member monitoring group, which will be appointed by the current and immediate past church moderators.

In another change reflecting the Peacemaking Issues committee’s efforts to defuse potentially explosive parts of the report, the revision no longer endorses in its entirety “Kairos Palestine,” a document issued by Palestinian church leaders that places principal blame for obstacles to peace on the Israelis.

The revision also restates a longstanding PC(USA) position by affirming “Israel’s right to existence as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”

Ron Shive, chair of the committee that wrote the report’s original version and traveled to the Middle East as part of its work, said from the podium Friday that it had seemed “there was really no way to speak across the wall” that separated those who took opposing positions on what the report should contain.

“In this past week, we finally have spoken across the wall,” he said. “ … And I think what we have come out with is a strengthened report.”

Before the General Assembly took up the revised report, eight former church moderators endorsed it. They included two who had opposed the original version.

A pro-Israeli media-monitoring group issued a qualified endorsement of the report in its final form. The statement by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America said problems remain in the revised report, but if church leaders follow the process spelled out in the report “the church will embark on a process by which it can arrive at a comprehensive — and factual — understanding of all the factors contributing to the continued existence of this tragic conflict.”

The General Assembly staved off a last-ditch effort by some commissioners to require divestment of Caterpillar holdings.

Before settling on denunciation as its preferred strategy at this point, the General Assembly, like the Peacemaking Issues committee before it, grappled with the question of whether the company had been given enough time to stop supplying equipment for hostile uses that target Palestinians. There were two overtures calling for divestment, and church commissioners voted 545-114 to set them both aside and stick with denunciation.

Brian Ellison, chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, said from the podium that conversations with the company “have not borne much fruit,” but he sees reasons, including the recent appointment of a new Caterpillar chief executive officer, to keep trying.

Russ Greenleaf of Louisville, Ky., who said he represents Jewish Voice for Peace, said in an interview that his group favors divestment from Caterpillar. He called Israeli violence against Palestinians “an offense to everyone with a conscience,” he said.

But Susan Andrews, a former church moderator and a member of the Middle East Study Committee, said that while the church is called to “speak with a prophetic voice about the injustice and human rights tragedies in the Middle East,” it should seek to do that in love rather than hostility and divestment in Caterpillar “would build a higher wall of hostility.”