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Response Mixed to PC(USA) Labeling Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Lands as Apartheid

While the Jewish community in the U.S. is largely disappointed or outraged by the use of the word apartheid, responses within the denomination are generally positive.

An Israeli settlement on a hill overlooking Ramallah in the West Bank of Palestine near Jerusalem. © Rex Wholster / Adobe Stock

In June 2022, the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), following decades of debates, voted overwhelmingly in support of Overture INT-02, declaring the Israeli government’s occupation and treatment of the Palestinian people and lands to be named as “apartheid.” Though INT-02 passed the committee with a vote of 90% and by the whole assembly with 70% of the vote, the response both inside and outside the denomination has been mixed.

In a show of solidarity, ten former moderators of the General Assembly from 1992 to 2020, published a letter leading up to the assembly urging passage of INT-02, reiterating the PC(USA)’s commitment to peace in the Middle East dating back to 1823 when missionaries began work in Lebanon. As a result of that mission work, the Presbyterian Church is the largest protestant denomination in the region today, with one million Presbyterians in Egypt alone.

Despite efforts within the rationale of the overture and in the letter from the ten former moderators to clarify the overture is about the laws, policies and behaviors of the government of Israel, and not the people of Israel or Jewish people in general, the responses from many corners of the Jewish community in the U.S. and abroad have been highly critical.

The voices of opposition were strongest among the American Jewish community. The day after INT-02 was approved by the assembly, the Reformed Jewish Movement condemned the resolution, calling it a “libelous mischaracterization of the Jewish State, which carr[ies] with [it] a significant risk of increased antisemitism in the United States and worldwide.”

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) responded, saying, “The Presbyterian Church has been hijacked by anti-Israel activists,” claiming that over the years the PC(USA) has “flirted with or crossed over to antisemitism.”

According to a survey conducted in 2021 by the Jewish Electorate Institute, only 25% of U.S. Jewish voters agree that Israel is an apartheid state, with 22% agreeing that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people.

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.

Within the PC(USA), groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PfMEP) voiced strong opposition to INT-02. Todd Stavrakos, a PC(USA) pastor serving in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and a member of the steering committee for PfMEP, participated in a demonstration outside the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky, in July as General Assembly commissioners deliberated inside. The demonstration included a large hot air balloon nearly as tall as the Center itself, emblazoned with the words: “PCUSA: Fight Racism. Not Jews.”

Stavrakos recently said of INT-02, “It’s certainly not going to bring about peace. … It’s clearly been received by the Jewish Community as continued antisemitic attacks on the American Jewish Community.” He told the Outlook he is not supportive of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but he does not believe the government’s actions fall within the legal definition of apartheid.

According to the rationale for the overture, apartheid is defined by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity in which one racial group establishes and maintains dominance over another racial group and “systematically oppresses them.”

In 2018, the Knesset (the legislature of the State of Israel) passed a law commonly known as the “Nation-State Law.” It established, among other provisions, that the land contained in the State of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. The law declared the development of Jewish settlements is of “national value.” Some view this law as instituting two different levels of citizenship: Jews, endowed with privileged status, and all other Israeli citizens with fewer privileges and less status.

The Israel Democracy Forum, who some say is often critical of the State of Israel, reported the Nation-State Law has had no significant impact on the real life of Jews and Arabs living in Israel.

However, Nahida Halaby Gordon, a Palestinian and life-long Presbyterian baptized into the Church of Scotland in Jerusalem when she was a child living in Palestine, commented, “If you’re at the bottom … you can’t sink any lower.” The law, Halaby Gordon said, merely codified what was already happening on the ground.

In 1948, Halaby Gordon and her family were among the 750,000 non-Jewish residents displaced from their homes to make room for the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Her family fled to Lebanon with the hope of one day returning, only to be blocked from doing so by the Israeli government. Eventually, she and her family made it to the United States. Her family’s home, her father’s car import business and much of their belongings left behind in the town of Jaffa were gone forever. “The house is still standing,” she said. “I go visit it every now and then. Of course, I can’t enter it. It’s been sold and sold over and over again to different Israelis. We were never compensated for it.”

While many international groups like the Red Cross have not used the word apartheid to describe the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians and other Arabs, a growing chorus of human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem have explicitly used that label.

B’Tselem (Hebrew for “in the image of”) is a human rights group in Israel which, according to their website, “strives for a future in which human rights, liberty and equality are guaranteed to all people, Palestinian and Jewish alike living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.” On the front page of their website, in bold letters, the organization states: “Israel’s regime of apartheid and occupation is inextricably bound up in human rights violations. B’Tselem strives to end this regime, as that is the only way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, both Palestinian and Israeli…”

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the General Assembly, said in a letter following the passage of INT-02, that the resolution “follows a series of policies enacted by previous General Assemblies since 1948” strongly supporting the right of the State of Israel to exist, but within the border established in 1948, often referred to as “The Green Line.” Beyond the Green Line to the east was the territory of Palestine. In 1967, Israel seized Palestinian land beyond the Green Line and has since established settlements further into the Palestinian territory, displacing even more non-Jewish residents.

In 2010, Halaby Gordon helped craft an overture to the 219th General Assembly from the Presbytery of San Francisco with similar language to this year’s INT-02. The 2010 overture included a lengthy rationale outlining both the history of Presbyterian statements regarding Israel and Palestine, the history of the situation on the ground during and since 1948, and specific allegations of abuse by the Israeli government restricting the movement and lives of Palestinian people both in Israel and in the now Israeli occupied West Bank region. The overture was recommended to the assembly for approval by a committee vote of 50-2, with one abstention. However, during the plenary, the overture was answered with the approval of another overture reaffirming the universality of human rights and calling for an end to the violence in Israel-Palestine, but without the word “apartheid.”

Stavrakos believes the PC(USA) needs to pay attention to the messaging INT-02 sends to Jewish neighbors and partners. While reiterating he does not support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and acknowledging there may be good intentions behind INT-02, the PC(USA) should have considered how the message was going to be received. He said naming the actions of the State of Israel as apartheid “inflames passions on the right in Israel, who now say, ‘See it doesn’t matter what we do, they [the PC(USA)] are going to be against us. So we should just do what we want to do…. And at the same time, there are extremists on the Palestinian side who say, ‘See, if we keep pushing, if we keep doing these things like encouraging unrest from Gaza, if we fire off more rockets, we get more publicity and we get more sympathy. This helps because then we can show how there’s this asymmetric warfare going on and how us poor little Davids are fighting off the Goliaths.’ … My fear, and the fear of PfMEP, is that when we make these statements, often we tend to only serve the extremists’ agenda, both on the right in Israel and on the militant side with the Palestinians. And it does nothing to help build up the middle.”

Fahed Abu-Akel, former moderator of the 214th General Assembly (2002) and a Palestinian-born PC(USA) minister, said he disagrees with Stavrokos’ assessment, paraphrasing Gideon Levy, an Israeli critic of his own government’s actions, saying, “If we love Israel, we need to say to Israel, ‘What you are doing to the Palestinians is wrong and it’s going to destroy you in the end.” Borrowing an illustration from Levy, Abu-Akel said, “Suppose you have a brother or an uncle who’s a drunk. If you continue to give him money, he loves you. But if you say, ‘I want to send you to a rehabilitation facility,’ he’s going to hate your guts. So, a good friend will tell you the truth, that what you are doing is wrong.”

He shared about growing up in Nazareth as a Palestinian. After the establishment of the Green Line, some 155,000 Arabic people stayed in the region and automatically became Israeli citizens. “But,” he said, “in the eyes of the Israelis, I was not a citizen. I was considered an occupied person.” He told of having to get a permit from the local government office any time he wanted to travel, even within Galilee. If he was caught anywhere besides his hometown without a permit, he would be taken to court and then jail.

Abu-Akel came to the U.S. in 1966 to attend college in Florida. “My roommate around Thanksgiving wanted to take me to Detroit. … I had my passport, my visa, all the papers. Before we left, I said to my roommate, ‘Where do I get the permit?’ I was still living in Galilee in my head. He said, ‘What permit?’ I said, ‘I cannot go to any place in Galilee without a permit.’ He said, ‘Forget about it. You’re in America. We can go any place.’ I’ll never forget when we left Florida and he said, ‘This is Georgia.’ Then we left Georgia and he said, ‘This is Tennessee.’ My first Thanksgiving experience was the most liberating experience of my life.”

John Anderson of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (established by the 216th GA in 2004) said in response to the accusations that INT-02 is antisemitic, including those leveled by Stavrokos, “It’s not antisemitic. Israel is spoken of by [the U.S.] government as our best friend, a bond that is irrevocable, unbreakable. And who better to call out a friend than a friend. We’re saying what we see on the ground is…apartheid.”

Anderson served St. Johns Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA, from 1991 until his retirement in 2019. He said he worked with a number of rabbis around the city, including at the biggest synagogue west of the Mississippi that stands across the street from St. John’s. He said, “In our dialogue with them … I was afraid. I really lacked courage to call-out and use the ‘a’ word [apartheid], until [one of the rabbis] named it apartheid.” The rabbis told Anderson not to quote them, but that what is happening in Israel and Palestine is apartheid and amounts to ethnic cleansing. Sadly, the rabbis also said they could not be quoted and could not write that down because it was an unpopular opinion. “I realized,” Anderson said, “that my lack of courage was unfounded, and that I needed to go forward. I can say it because I have safety within our denomination to say this. … There are some 60 or more laws passed by the Israeli government that oppresses and discriminates against the Palestinians within Israel.” He said it’s even worse in the West Bank occupied territories.

Many solutions to the violence have been proffered by U.S. presidents and other world leaders. When asked what peace looks like in her mind, Halaby Gordon said, “What I’d like to see is each person has one vote. Everyone has citizenship in the state. No nationality business between Jews or Muslims or Christians, sort of the like the United States. They say they’re a democracy. Let’s have it be a democracy where there are equal rights.”

When asked about a two-state solution, one for Israel and one for Palestinians, Halaby Gordon and Abu-Akel both said the idea is dead. Israel doesn’t want it, and it will always mean the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Halaby Gordon said, “It’s not easy, but there has to be reconciliation. … I remember back in the late eighties and early 90s, when I would see things about South Africa. The first 25 vetoes [by the U.S.] in the U.N. Security Council were in defense of South African apartheid system. And it wasn’t until the church declared that this is apartheid and … what was going on was shameful. And then when entertainers and sports people started to want to boycott things dealing with South Africa, at one point the United States government finally decided to stop supporting apartheid. And I think that was very helpful in making the change in South Africa. I’m hoping the same thing will happen here, the grassroots recognition helping the U.S. government see that what’s going on in Palestine is wrong.”

Editors’ note: In the print version of this article, we incorrectly cited Pew Research as the source of the statistic “25% of U.S. Jewish voters agree that Israel is an apartheid state, with 22% agreeing that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people.” As is shown above, these numbers come from the Jewish Electorate Institute.