Episcopalians, Anti-Israel Divestment and a Battle of Perceptions

Jeff Walton looks at the attempt to spin a loss into victory by BDS activists

Did the Episcopal Church implement a policy of anti-Israel divestment at its recent General Convention? No, but Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocates would like you to think that they did – and despite the defeat of one divestment resolution, there is reason for concern among church members who support Israel.

Episcopalians considered 15 separate resolutions on Israel-Palestine matters during General Convention July 5-13 in Austin, Texas. Six of those resolutions were adopted by both houses of the church’s bicameral governing body. Each of these six resolutions is advisory, stating the church’s “recognition” of a problem or resolving that dioceses be “encouraged to engage earnestly” in education, advocacy, and prayer on matters such as the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem. In short, these resolutions reveal a General Convention critical of Israel – as Diocese of Dallas Lay Deputy William Murchison warned in an article for The American Spectator – but not at this time willing to implement a direct divestment policy as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ have done in recent years.

Two similar resolutions – one rejected and one adopted – do potentially have a financial consequence.

Retired Bishop Ed Little from the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana has been a strong voice against implementing divestment. Little argued in the House of Bishops that resolution D019 “Ending Church Complicity in the Occupation,” introduced by The Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, clergy deputy from the Diocese of Hawaii, would urge divestment.

“All it does is making us advocates for one side in the conflict and remove us from our role as peacemakers,” Little told his fellow bishops during consideration of the resolution on July 11. “It is the most complex conflict on the planet.”

Little warned that divestment would do “irreparable damage” to the church’s relations with Israel. Diocese of Nebraska Bishop Scott Barker warned of persistent – if not widespread – claims in the occupied territories that Israel has no right to exist.

The resolution had been earlier adopted by the House of Deputies but was rejected on a vote of 48-78 by the House of Bishops. Action to concur by both houses is necessary for a resolution to take effect.

Jump ahead to July 13, the final day of General Convention, and bishops on a narrow vote passed Resolution B016, which like D019 entails a “human rights investment screen.” David Paulsen of Episcopal News Service reported that unlike D019, B016 doesn’t have a timeline for action by Executive Council or any reference to church complicity in the occupation, “though it ultimately could result in the church pulling money out of companies that do business there.”

So was B016 divestment? Paulsen notes the nuance in the language in B016 “left its passage open to starkly different interpretations from groups on both sides of the issue.” The American Jewish Committee released a statement July 13applauding church “rejection of Israel divestment,” while Sabeel, a Palestinian liberation theology group, tweeted, “The Episcopal Church voted today to divest.”

Divestment resolutions introduced in old-line Protestant denominations have historically targeted three U.S. companies that provide nonlethal products or services to Israel: Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Caterpillar. The rejected resolution D019 and adopted resolution B016 did not specifically name any companies, but BDS advocates like Sabeel argue that implementation of an “investment screen” would ultimately lead to divestment from such businesses.

Episcopalians also rejected an anti-BDS resolution, D028, “Freedom of Speech and the Right to Boycott.” The draft resolution urged elected officials to reject legislation that would penalize companies and organizations “for their participation in nonviolent boycotts on behalf of Palestinian human rights”.

If any of this sounds familiar, it is remarkably consistent with what occurred at the church’s 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis: lay and clergy deputies voting in favor of a divestment resolution, only to have it shot down by bishops in a subsequent vote. At the church’s 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City, a divestment resolution didn’t even make it that far: bishops defeated it before deputies had opportunity to take it up.

But anti-Israel groups like Sabeel are persistent: they understand that public perception is sometimes more important than what a governing church body actually enacts. Following the 2016 United Methodist General Conference (which rejected four separate divestment resolutions and called for the church’s General Board on Global Ministries to disaffiliate from the U.S. Campaign to end the Israeli Occupation) anti-Israel groups simply declared victory, highlighting a series of resolutions adopted by regional UMC bodies as a sign of momentum in their direction.

This year, despite the defeat of D019 at General Convention, Sabeel quickly dispatched a press release declaring “The Episcopal Church Votes to Divest!” The release referred to B016, the more nuanced resolution which does not solely target Israel.

The resolution, proposed by Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith, joins with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s action, CA 16.06.31, “Justice for the Holy Land Through Responsible Investment”.

The Sabeel release has errors. It excitedly claims the Episcopal Church represents 3 million members – a number it hasn’t held since the mid-1960s (the church reports 1.7 million U.S. members) – and it inserts words like “condemn” when describing a resolution about the U.S. Embassy move that doesn’t use such language. I reached out to Sabeel last week to clarify their view of what transpired at General Convention, but have not received a response.

Still, Episcopal Church deputies opposed to divestment are concerned.

“What is that we have against the right of the state of Israel to deal with their own security issues?” Murchison asked on the floor of the House of Deputies. “The Israelis are under threat. Do we hear anything from The Episcopal Church speaking against the threats to Israel? No. Never.”

First published in Juicy Ecumenism

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