Click here for General Assembly coverage

Committee recommends naming Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and lives as ‘apartheid’

Despite a protest at the Presbyterian Center, the International Engagement Committee approved the resolution "On Recognition That Israel’s Laws, Policies, and Practices Constitute Apartheid Against the Palestinian People."

David Thornton (TEC-Chicago) speaks to an amendment to an overture in the International Engagement Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky – As the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathers for a historic hybrid meeting at the Presbyterian Center, the International Engagement Committee spent over three hours debating INT-02: On Recognition That Israel’s Laws, Policies, and Practices Constitute Apartheid Against the Palestinian People, ultimately voting 28-3 to recommend to the assembly that the Israeli government’s occupation and treatment of the Palestinian lands and people be named as “apartheid” by the denomination.

The legal definition of apartheid was established by the United Nations General Assembly on November 30, 1973, as: “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Outside the Presbyterian Center where commissioners were meeting, pro-Israel groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace protested with a large hot-air balloon emblazoned with the words: “PCUSA: Fight Racism. Not Jews.”

Protest against actions on Israel / Palestine being considered by General Assembly 225 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Todd Stavrakos with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, one of the groups protesting, told the Outlook, “We’re here to raise our voices of concern about some of the overtures that are directed toward the State of Israel and the Jewish community. … We’re really concerned about the overture that would seek to call the State of Israel an apartheid state. One, we don’t think it’s true. And two, it’s part of a larger campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. We’ve seen many activists who support that cause harassing the Jewish community, and the Jewish community is feeling threatened from all sides in this day. Antisemitism is at its highest it’s been in recent history.”

Attempts at previous GAs have failed in getting the assembly to label the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian land and control of Palestinian people as apartheid. Members of the International Engagement Committee testified today that commissioners at previous assemblies said they believed the actions of the Israeli government constituted the legal definition of apartheid, but they were not willing to formally apply the term.

At the 220th GA (2012) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, among the 11 overtures concerning Israel, one asked the assembly to “recognize that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.” It was recommended in committee for disapproval 29-19. The disapproval was adopted by the assembly 463-175.

Today, David Thornton, teaching elder commissioner from the Presbytery of Chicago, spoke in favor of the overture as it was presented by Grace Presbytery, saying, “You speak truth to power. You call it like it is. Being a law student in the past, res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.”

Through passionate testimony, overture advocates shared stories of the brutality imposed upon Palestinian people by the Israeli government.

The Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” or “disaster,” refers to Israel’s 1948 occupation of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes. In 1949, a border was declared in an armistice agreement between Israel and its neighbors Egypt, Jordan and Syria. During the Six-Day War of June 1968, Israel crossed the 1948 border, known as the Green Line, and captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Since then, Israel has been accused of continuing to occupy more land and displacing more Palestinians.

Richard Gibson, an overture advocate from the Northwest Coast Presbytery, told commissioners that his presbytery voted 99-0 to concur on INT-02, saying, “Friends, words matter. And churches are being called to use the correct word, ‘apartheid,’ which points to a truth about the relation of the State of Israel to the Palestinian people. … Israel has become an apartheid state because it continues to restrict Palestinian rights, their travel, their worship, their housing, their media, their health care, their education. … With this overture we seek peace with justice for all the people living in this land of the Bible.”

As in previous years, some commissioners were hesitant to use the strong language apartheid, referencing the former apartheid regime of South Africa from where the term originated, and which ended in 1994 after decades of protests and riots against the white ruling class.

Leslie Latham, a teaching elder commissioner from Western New York Presbytery, was the last person to speak during the committee said, “I thought I was going to stand to speak against this [overture] because I do not think the word ‘apartheid’ is going to get us anywhere. But, I also stand convicted. … I changed my mind. … I realized we have to use this word. But, we must realize that Jesus, when he spoke to his enemies, always loved them. Loved them. Loved them. Loved them. So, we speak the truth about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. We speak the truth about what is happening in our own nation, in our own backyard. But we always do it in love, and not as a weapon.”

Discussion in the International Engagement Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

In other actions, the committee recommended approval with a 31-0 vote of INT-13, designating May 15th as Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Day, and INT-04 by a vote of 30-0, which, among other things, calls on the General Assembly to approve a statement about the humanitarian concerns regarding Israel and Palestine, reject the doctrines of Christian Zionism, repudiate all forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and repudiate the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018. The committee also recommended approval 31-0 of INT-10, calling for an end to the Israeli government’s siege of the Gaza Strip.

The committee will conclude its work tomorrow by considering INT-09: Regarding Depleted Uranium in Iraq and INT-17: Afghanistan: A Time to Mend—From the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy before adjouring.