Debating Israel and Palestine: How Should the Episcopal Church Invest its Money?

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The question of how the Episcopal Church should respond to issues of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, particularly when it comes to financial investments, has proven so fraught that a working group was created just to figure out how best to talk about it.

Following the 2015 General Convention, during which debate became particularly contentious, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings appointed five bishops and five deputies to the Israel and Palestine Working Group, whose charge was to consider new approaches to exploring and debating legislation related to the ongoing conflict in the region.

The working group has recommended naming the House of Deputies as the house of initial action on resolutions regarding the Middle East and proposed that each house hold a special order of business to provide time for debate and discussion (the House of Deputies will hold this special order of business on July 8 at 4:15 p.m.). The working group also provided a resource list to help bishops and deputies prepare for General Convention.

“Our inability to talk about things, to have those conversations – that has been our biggest problem,” says Sarah Lawton, who chairs Legislative Committee 7, the Committee on Social Justice and International Policy, which has received most of the resolutions related to the region. “I want us to be able to have those conversations. I see my role at this General Convention less as one of advocacy and more to make sure conversation happens in a fair way and in an open and transparent way.”

Resolutions concerning Israel and Palestine will be heard by either Committee 7, or by Legislative Committee 18, the Committee on Stewardship & Socially Responsible Investing.  Three of those resolutions are related to investment: D019 – Ending Church Complicity in Occupation, B016 – adopt ELCA Action on Israel/Palestine, and CO17 – A Just Peace in the Holy Land.

On Tuesday, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, former President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson, and Patti Browning, Palestinian human rights activist and widow of former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, issued a letter to General Convention supporting resolutions that call for applying economic pressure on Israel.

“Adopting human rights-based investment decisions will ensure that the Church does not profit from the suffering of others” the letter reads. “Such action will put us alongside our fellow denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Methodists, who have taken actions such as applying investment screens or other economic measures to ensure they, too, don’t profit from the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

Other proponents of divestment point to its value as an effective, non-violent form of protest. “I feel strongly that we cannot allow ourselves to set aside economic pressure as a valid way to act,” Lawton says. “I just think it’s often the only thing we have. It’s a way of acting that is not without consequences and sacrifices, but we can’t repudiate it as a valid measure that’s open to us as Christians who do repudiate other forms of protest—violence, for example. It’s not the only avenue we should look at – we should look at policy avenues as well. We have to look at all the avenues we have in response to the cry for relief.”

But some wonder if the church is spending too much time talking about and debating investment in Israel and Palestine. “One of my concerns is if we spend all this time on this question—if we divest or if we don’t divest—what real effect is it going to have?” Deputy Matthew Cowden of Northern Indiana says. “I think there are things about both the Israelis and Palestinians that we Americans don’t have a clue about, realities on the ground and long-term history. We’re spending so much time talking about an issue that we really will not be able to resolve through legislation about our investments. …. I think it’s very healthy for us to be able to connect with the Holy Land, but there are actually relationships that we have where we can make a difference on the ground, and that’s where I’d like to see us put our time and energy as a church.”

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, Cowden suggests the church spend more time “in deeper dialogue” with those on the ground in the region. “There might be a better way to focus than this divestment strategy,” Cowden says. “I know that we have a history of resolutions that have addressed Israel that have not done much, but there might be some better resolutions that will help us to focus on how to improve life for Palestinians if we want to create beloved community in places like Jerusalem.

“I could see us spending time saying, ‘how do we want to galvanize our resources and our time to have more positive engagement that brings to light what’s going on in the Gaza Strip?’ We as Episcopalians are probably one of the best-equipped branches of Christianity to do that in a constructive way. I’m concerned that our need for social justice is probably driving the conversation more than saying ‘What do Anglicans on the ground there think about this issue there?’ It would be good to hear what Bishop Suheil Dawani has to say.’”

Indeed, Archibishop Suheil Dawani, bishop of Jerusalem and primate of the Episocpal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, holds significant sway on legislative action around Israel and Palestine. And though he is attending the convention, Dawani, has chosen not to testify in committees at this General Convention, so it remains unclear what his position may be. “There’s been a fear that if we’re too outspoken we might draw attacks on the bishop and the diocese [Jerusalem], and there’s disagreement there,” Lawton says.

“Some of us would say those attacks are going to be there anyway, and we can’t act out of fear. It’s a fault line, I guess. We’re an Episcopal Church, so of course we value our relationships with the bishops in these places, and our bishops probably especially value those relationships with their fellow bishops. So deciding how to act can be hard, but we are called to it, we are called to make decisions about ourselves.”

The question of whether this convention will be more effective in openly discussing policy concerning Israel and Palestine remains to be seen. “As a board member of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, I hope we can find a way to make a strong and effective statement,” Deputy Christopher Hayes of California says. “The political process is failing. A just peace will not come from political leaders—it will come only when people on the ground demand it. Our job is to help our fellow Christians in the Holy Land to endure, because they have a crucial role to play in creating the conditions for peace among people of all faiths.”

“The question is, ‘how do we have this conversation and with what integrity, what values?’ It’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not expected to actually do it,” Lawton says. “That’s why we’re elected as deputies is to take on these hard issues.”