Middle East committee endorses measure that would increase pressure for Palestinian rights


PORTLAND, Ore. – A panel has sent forward a measure that could strengthen the pressure the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is placing on Israel to honor Palestinians’ human rights.

The Middle East Issues committee voted 58-18 on June 20 to approve, with added comments, recommendations (08-06) by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). If approved by the General Assembly, they would require church action directed at both the Israeli and U.S. governments.

The church would pressure Israel to stop collective punishment of broad sectors of the Palestinian populace, to end alleged human rights abuses of children and to give Muslim and Christian sites in Israel the same status as Jewish sites.

The church would also ask Congress to hold hearings on Israeli use of U.S.-made military and police equipment in the West Bank; seek the possible revocation of tax advantages for individuals and organizations that support Israeli settlements on Palestinian land; lower trade barriers for Palestinian goods made in the West Bank; and require labeling of goods made in Israeli settlements. The church would also ask the U.S. government to avoid using its veto to prevent full membership for Palestine in the United Nations.

Controversially, the ACSWP document, called “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” also says the PC(USA) should reevaluate its longstanding commitment to separate states for Palestinians and Israelis, since facts on the ground may make it impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.

Some Presbyterians view that advice as verging on abandonment of the church’s longstanding insistence that the path to lasting peace is the creation of separate states for Israelis and Palestinians. Aware of that concern, the Middle East Committee added a comment that underscores the message the ACSWP relegated to a footnote. That note says the ACSWP study team recognized “a generic preference for a two-state solution,” but questioned whether such a solution remained politically possible.

The Middle East panel added a second comment that affirms the church’s desire to stay in conversation with partners in Israel in the search for peace.

Some committee members felt those tweaks didn’t go far enough, and some of them tried to refer the whole ACSWP document to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, with instructions to improve it and bring a new version to the General Assembly in 2018. Brian Paulson of the Chicago Presbytery lamented the document’s “dismissive language regarding a two-state solution,” and Robert Kelley of Nevada Presbytery called it “very one-sided.”

Despite those concerns, however, the committee voted 68-5 against a substitute measure calling for further review and editing. Several commissioners and a member of the ACSWP study team, Sam Jones, said Palestinian rights were under such concerted assault that a two-year delay would be unconscionable.

Before the committee adjourned June 20, commissioners briefly discussed the possibility of bringing a minority report before the full General Assembly, but no action was taken.

Beverly Brewster, a member of the ACSWP team, said its work has been misunderstood.
Beverly Brewster, a member of the ACSWP team, said its work has been misunderstood.

Beverly Brewster, a member of the ACSWP task force that drew up the recommendations, said in an interview that claims the report abandoned hope for a two-state solution or that it made common cause with the so-called BDS movement amounted to a misunderstanding of the team’s intent. In the past, commissioners and other Presbyterians have taken pains to distance the church from efforts to weaken Israel through a concerted strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

“The report really speaks for itself,” said Brewster, of San Anselmo, California. “Somehow they are misunderstanding the report, because the report is not recommending an end to the two-state solution or advocating for one-state solution. The report is suggesting that our focus as a denomination needs to be on humans rights and Christian values.”

On June 20 the Middle East panel also sent forward to the General Assembly a measure (08-02) calling for the church to advocate for the human rights of children in Israel and Palestine. By a vote of 63-14, the panel added language calling on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as well as Israel to denounce and cease incitement of violence against children or at the hands of children.

Without debate and by a 75-0 vote, the committee approved a measure (08-03) calling for the church to strengthen its ties with Christians and churches in the Middle East. Both those measures have advisory committee support.

On June 19, the assembly’s bills and overtures committee referred a commissioner’s resolution to the Middle East Committee. Commissioners’ resolutions must be proposed by two commissioners from different presbyteries.

That resolution (08-08) would require the church to distance itself from the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which it calls an umbrella organization of the BDS movement and an opponent of tactics that could bring lasting peace for all people in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was submitted by Michael Gizzi of the Presbytery of Great Rivers and Bryan Franzen of the Presbytery of San Jose.

A commissioners’ resolution to approve the use of a report issued by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, “Two States for Two Peoples,” as an informational resource was not referred to a committee because it deals with matters already before the assembly