Middle East Committee narrowly refuses to label Israeli policies as ‘apartheid’ (Updated)

DETROIT — An effort to brand Israel’s policies toward Palestinians as a form of apartheid fell short by a single vote Monday in the Middle East Issues Committee of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The “apartheid” label was contained in an overture proposed by the Presbytery of Grace. The committee cast 33 votes against and 32 in favor, with one abstention.

The measure, like other overtures to the General Assembly, will still go before all commissioners in plenary session. But it will go there with the committee’s recommendation against approval.

The overture listed a series of alleged Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights and claimed they “meet and surpass the United Nations definition of apartheid” as defined in international law.

Originally, “apartheid” referred to the policies of race-based segregation and denial of legal rights practiced by the former white-dominated government of South Africa. In a June 10 letter, Desmond Tutu, a renowned human rights advocate and former Anglican bishop, released a letter urging the PC(USA) to label Israel an apartheid state and divest itself of holdings in companies that contribute to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

On Monday, Craig Hunter, a teaching elder in Grace Presbytery, told the committee that Israel employs “a system of injustice that benefits one people at the expense of another.” He said the term apartheid fits when people “have two systems of law, and Jews have rights that Palestinians don’t.”

Another advocate of the measure, Nahida Gordon of the Synod of the Covenant — a Palestinian born in what is now Israel — said that Israel’s “draconian measures are designed to make the life of Palestinian residents so intolerable” that they will leave the country.

She said adopting language that includes “apartheid” would “encourage Israel to change its practices.” She added that she also knows from experience that Jews and Palestinians “can get along” with each other.

The committee dealt with the proposal (04-03 on the list of overtures before the General Assembly) in two steps. First it voted 34 to 30 against a motion by Bryan Franzen, a teaching elder from San Jose Presbytery, to replace that overture with one affirming support for “equal rights and unblocked economic development for all inhabitants of Israel and the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The overture Franzen favored (04-09) steers clear of the word “apartheid” and other inflammatory labels.

William Ward of the Inland Northwest Presbytery then made the motion to reject the overture containing the “apartheid” label. Frank Allen of Central Florida Presbytery said use of such a loaded term would “really damage our relationships with our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Harriet Hughes of Los Ranchos Presbytery questioned whether some of the abusive practices listed in the overture — which include torture of Palestinians, construction of Israeli-only bypass roads and humiliation of Palestinian civilians at checkpoints within Palestinian territory — were based on current facts. “I think that we should look at the improvement that Israel has made on some of these issues,” she said.

Late Monday, the committee took up consideration of multiple overtures that call for divestment from three companies accused of furnishing equipment and services that Israel puts to non-peaceful uses. After breaking into small groups to weigh its options and hearing from two spokesmen for opposing sides on the divestment question, the committee postponed further action on divestment until Tuesday.

Jerry Pillay, a South African clergyman who is president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, told the committee that divestment — including action taken by Presbyterians in the United States — played a vital role in putting pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Without those divestment actions, “we would probably have taken another forty years to reach where we are now,” he said. “… Disinvestment is one of the most powerful tools that we have to bring about change.”

John Wimberly, a retired pastor and co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, told the committee there was “some big disconnect” between what the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee was saying about three companies targeted for divestment and what other Protestant denominations are saying about those same companies.

In 2012 and again this year, MRTI has recommended that the PC(USA) divest itself of holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, claiming that all three companies have failed to respond to Presbyterian concerns and show no sign of altering their business practices in Israel-Palestine. But Wimberly said the United Methodist Church has said those companies have been responsive to their concerns.

He also warned that MRTI’s claim that the divestment action it is recommending is aimed only at three U.S.-based companies, not at Israel, would not alter public perception.

Mike Jennings

Mike Jennings is a special correspondent to the Presbyterian Outlook.