ELCA Rejects Extremism, Expresses Concern for Both Palestinians and Israelis

The Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved, by a vote of 690-125, a balanced and fair-minded resolution about the Arab-Israeli conflict at its recent meeting in Minneapolis, Minn.


The resolution, which was approved on Aug. 22, calls on the denomination to learn about the perspectives of both Israelis and Palestinians and to express “balanced … care” for “all parties” affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The full text of the resolution approved by ELCA’s 2005 Churchwide Assembly can be found here under the heading “Category B4: Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine.”


The Churchwide Assembly, which met on Aug. 17-23, 2009, passed this resolution after receiving a total of seven memorials (or resolutions) approved by local ELCA synods during the spring and early summer of 2009.


Five of the seven resolutions submitted by the local synods to the Churchwide Assembly expressed a desire for a fair-minded approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that took into account the concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians. Two others offered one-sided condemnations of Israeli policy and said nothing about the failings of Palestinian leaders. The resolution approved by the Churchwide Assembly was clearly based on the language offered in the five memorials calling for a balanced approach to the conflict.


Tellingly, four of the five resolutions that called for a balanced approached to peacemaking in the Middle East also re-affirmed a previously expressed expectation that the denomination would provide “clear and reliable information” to its members about the Arab-Israeli conflict. These reaffirmations highlight ongoing concerns about the distorted and inaccurate information about the conflict put forth by prominent clergy within the denomination and in books published by Augsburg Fortress Press, the denomination’s publishing house.


A Setback for anti-Israel Activists


The resolution passed by the Churchwide Assembly represented a loss for activists who had hoped to invoke the church’s peacemaking strategy into an official justification for the harsh anti-Israel message already offered by some leaders, staffers and activists within the denomination.


Hopes that an anti-Israel narrative would receive official sanction from ELCA’s legislative body were evident in memorials approved by two local synods in the months prior to the denomination’s Churchwide Assembly.


In particular, the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod condemned Israel for an “apartheid-like occupation” of the West Bank and described the Gaza Strip as “one large ghetto, an open air prison,” and falsely asserted that Israel controlled all exits and entrances into this territory. (In fact, Egypt also controls an entrance into the Gaza Strip, but the resolution made no mention of this fact.)


Similar language was present in a memorial submitted by the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod which described the Gaza Strip as being under “a nearly total blockade of all good and commodities for almost two years.” Predictably, neither of the two anti-Israel resolutions provided any explanation or context as to why Israel restricted the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip. They made no mention of Hamas violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the thousands of rocket attacks into Israel from this territory or Hamas’ use of human shields during the recent fighting.


A Win for a Comprehensive Understanding


Instead of adopting the one-sided narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict embodied in these memorials, ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly embraced the approach put forth in five memorials calling on the denomination to express solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis.


For example, the Southwestern Texas Synod issued a memorial urging that the denomination’s peacemaking approach “be balanced in terms of its care for all parties of the conflict” and embody a “multilateral solidarity with the state of Israel and the Palestinian people.” It also called on the denomination to “resist preferential identification with any party in the conflict that may inhibit [ELCA’s role] as a witnesses for peace and facilitators of reconciliation.”


The Indiana-Kentucky Synod passed a similar resolution, but instead of calling for a multilateral solidarity with Israel as a state, it called for a solidarity with “the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.” It also acknowledged “the State of Israel as a legitimate political self-expression of the Jewish people” and “the urgency of national sovereignty as a political self-expression of the Palestinian people.”


The New England Synod passed a memorial that called o n the church to embody its “multilateral solidarity with our partners without sacrifice to the duties of witness against injustice and violence.”


Two other local synods – both in Pennsylvania – passed memorials calling for ELCA to be “balanced in terms of its care for all parties in the conflict.”


Opposition from Middle East Ready Bench


Apparently, calls for a balanced approach to peacemaking represented a threat to people within the denomination who insting on casting Israeli policies as the primary cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict and who were intent on using ELCA’s credibility as a religious organization to broadcast this narrative.


On April 28, the bishops who serve on the denomination’s “Middle East Ready Bench” – a group of supposed experts on the Arab-Israeli conflict – issued a letter condemning the resolution approved by the Southwestern Texas Synod (described above).


In particular, the bishops took issue with the Synod’s expression of solidarity for the nation state of Israel. This concern is legitimate from the perspective of Christian theology that regards Christ as standing in opposition to, aloof from, or in judgement over, the “powers and principalities of the world.” (Ephesians 6:12)


It should be noted, however, that through the irresponsible application of this rubric, many Christian peace activists have been able to justify directing the vast majority (if not all) of their criticism at Israel while remaining silent about the violent mass movements (with significant political and military power) such as Hamas and Hezbollah that seek Israel’s destruction. They have also been relatively silent over the sins of the Palestinian Authority. For many Christian peacemakers, Arab movements, institutions and states do not fall into the category of powers and principalities, while the State of Israel does.


But while the bishops on the ready bench are on solid footing in their objection to expressing solidarity with a nation state, they do engage in hyperbole when they assert that the Southwestern Texas Synod resolution “would silence our voice for justice whenever it is in conflict with the actions of the government of Israel.” More hyperbole is evident when they state that the Synod’s call for advocacy “on behalf of all parties” and its call to “resist preferential identification with any party” would “silence the ELCA’s voice in speaking with our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who advocate for justice.”


There is nothing in the Southwestern Texas Synod’s resolution that prohibits criticism of the state of Israel, nor was their any implication that would have to abandon its relationship with Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At most the denomination would have to subject the narrative offered by Palestinian Christian leaders to closer scrutiny than it has in the past and acknowledge that Israel has legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. It does not mean abandoning Palestinian Christians or ignoring their concerns.


“Clear and Reliable Information”


The Ready Bench’s hyperbole demonstrates just how sensitive its members were to seeing the narrative offered by their denomination about the Arab-Israeli conflict subject to scrutiny.


This sensitivity was evident a few months later when New England Bishop Margaret Payne, a member of the Ready Bench, leveled (and refused to retract) false accusations at Israel during a radio interview in May 2009. In her response to a CAMERA letter about her errors, Bishop Payne stated that she would not offer a retraction but instead would look for every opportunity she could find “to advocate for the end of Israeli occupation.” Apparently for Bishop Payne, factual errors and omissions that serve to portray Israel in an unfair light are tolerable because they were offered in the pursuit of a cause she supports.


A similar indifference to the facts has been evident in the material related to the Arab-Israeli conflict produced by ELCA, which may explain why four local synods found it necessary to restate an obvious expectation that the denomination would provide “clear and reliable information” about the Arab-Israeli conflict to its members.

In 2004, for example, ELCA’s publishing house, Augsburg Fortress Press, published Bethlehem Beseiged by Mitri Raheb, a pastor of a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, which provides the following context for Operation Defensive Shield which began on April 2, 2002:

There was no reason to invade “our little town” with hundreds of military tanks and armored vehicles, accompanied by Apache helicopters. The excuse Israel used for invading Bethlehem was a suicide bombing that took place on March 29 in Jerusalem by a young Palestinian from Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem. The blast killed Ayat al-Akhras and two Israeli people and injured two dozen more. The decision to invade, however, was made weeks before. Before the suicide bombing had taken place, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon had already launched his military offensive, called “Operation Defensive Shield,” and Israeli forces were already rolling into Ramallah and had besieged Palestinian President Yasir Arafat in his headquarters. Three days later, they were in Bethlehem and in front of our house. (Pages 3-4)

Raheb’s chronology leaves out some important events, most notably the suicide bombing that killed 30 Israelis and injured 140 more during a Passover Celebration at the Park Hotel in Netanya just five days before Israel sent its troops into Bethlehem.


Raheb also fails to report that during March and the first two days of April 2002, more than 80 Israelis (most of them civilians) were killed by Palestinian suicide attacks and that more than 35 civilians were killed by gunfire.


Any honest description of Operation Defensive Shield would include these deaths, and yet Raheb ignores it, acknowledging only one suicide attack and portraying it as an “excuse” for the invasion.


Raheb’s kerygma, or message, is not one of peace, but of demonization.


Another example of Augsburg Fortress’s propensity to provide imbalanced and unreliable information about the Arab-Israeli conflict is Water from the Rock: Lutheran Voices from Palestine, edited by Ann E. Hafften and published in 2003. This text includes a piece written by Palestinian Nuha Khoury, who invokes the image of Mohammed Al-Dura’s death to portray the Israelis as cold-blooded killers. She writes:

The image of Muhammed, the 12-year-old boy who was killed execution style by the Israeli soldiers, is haunting both Palestinian children and parents, who watched the helplessness of Muhammed’s faither and his inability to protect his son from the Israeli bullets that killed the son and left the father permanently paralyzed. (Page 58) (Emphasis added.)

Even by 2003, there were serious questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of Mohammed Al-Dura. First off, Khoury’s assertion that Al-Dura’s father was “permanently paralyzed” is quite simply false. As this youtube video indicates, Al-Dura’s father was not paralyzed and moreover, the injuries he claimed were caused by the IDF were in fact treated by an Israeli doctor several years before the Second Intifada. On this score, Hafften and Augsburg Fortress Press allowed Khoury to broadcast – wittingly or unwittingly – a blatant falsehood to ELCA members in North America.

There are even questions over whether or not Al-Dura was killed, or if he was killed, who was actually responsible for this death. The year before the Water from the Rock was published a German television station broadcast a documentary indicating that Al-Dura was not killed by Israeli soldiers but by Palestinian gunmen. Nevertheless, Hafften, the book’s editor, failed to provide any information about this uncertainty.

It is episodes like this that demonstrate exactly why four synods felt it necessary to remind the denomination’s leaders, staffers  and peace activists of their obligation to provide “clear and reliable information” about the Arab-Israeli conflict to ELCA members.


One can only hope that this admonition is taken to heart by ELCA in the months and years ahead.

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