Officials with two church councils are raising concerns about Israel’s interactions with human rights and humanitarian aid groups following the arrest of a Palestinian World Vision official accused by Israeli authorities of funneling funds intended for relief and development to Hamas.
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) General Secretary Jim Winkler and World Council of Churches (WCC) General Secretary Olav Fykse-Tveit charged that the Israeli government is actively working to suppress Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists.
“We are deeply concerned by Israeli legislative and other measures to curtail the work of Palestinian and Israeli development and human rights organizations, as well as the lack of transparency concerning investigations into international humanitarian (including faith-based) organizations in the Gaza Strip,” the two officials read at a September 14 press conference.
The group released a statement from a consultation on Israel and Palestine issues held near Washington, D.C. that included officials from 60 different churches, humanitarian organizations, and human rights advocacy groups. The goal of the consultation was “to assess the role that churches have played in the struggle for peace and justice in the Holy Land in order to be more effective.”
The statement bemoaned the approaching 50-year anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli control, a situation which was characterized as leaving the residents of East Jerusalem “suffering under this reality.”
“Too often the structural and permanent violence against a whole people is ignored,” Winkler read from the consultation statement. “We are also well aware that Israel is the occupying force and has commanding power over the people of Palestine and, thus, bears special responsibility for taking the initiative.”
The statement called for an end to the occupation and to settlements, and for “full respect and protection of human rights defenders”. In an apparent reference to push-back against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the officials spoke about churches’ ability “to take democratic, non-violent actions for justice and peace.” Human rights concerns with Hamas or the Palestinian Authority were unmentioned, and the focus was exclusively on Israel.
Taking questions following the release of the statement, Winkler added that he was “deeply concerned” about measures to restrict economic means of influencing Israel/Palestine.
The officials urged in the statement that the U.S. reconsider military aid to Israel and to “end the current wave of legislative efforts to penalize the use of non-violent economic measures to influence policy in Israel.” The latter is a reference to policies enacted by some states, including New York, to restrict BDS policies. The boycott of apartheid-era South Africa was named by the council officials as one example of similar advocacy.
Asked about the view of the consultation on BDS, Fykse-Tveit acknowledged that some churches had responded to a 2005 Palestinian call for BDS, but stated that the purpose of the consultation was not to be a decision making body, but rather to understand how different church bodies were responding to Israel and Palestine issues.
“Some churches have taken up BDS measures, and some are not there and may not be there,” Winkler said. “When there is injustice, there is debate about how best to respond.”
Reporting that they had participated earlier in the week in an off-the-record meeting with State Department officials where “specific issues of concern” were raised, Winkler and Fykse-Tveit stated that the U.S. “holds enormous power to support the status quo or to take bold steps to peace.”
“Similarly, the churches in the United States have tremendous potential, which must be mobilized, to call on the American government to do much more to secure a just and lasting peace for Israel and Palestine,” the officials read. “The current situation in Israel and Palestine demands urgent action. One cannot keep an entire people subject to pressure and violence for many years and not expect a violent reaction. We do not endorse violence, but we know people are losing hope and faith in the efficacy of nonviolent means.”
The NCC has had friction in its interfaith relationships with Jewish groups in the past around Israeli issues. A 2012 letter to members of the U.S. Congress signed by NCC Transitional General Secretary Peg Birk and 15 church officials – including from several NCC member communions – called for an end to aid to Israel because of accusations of human rights violations. As the New York Times reported, the letter outraged Jewish leaders from the Reform and Conservative movements, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, and threatened to derail longstanding efforts to build interfaith relations.
The Jewish leaders announced their withdrawal from a regularly scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting, and in a statement the Jewish leaders called the letter “a step too far” and an indication of “the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations.”
Policies promoting BDS have had a mixed reception in Mainline Protestant churches, with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ enacting anti-Israel divestment policies, while the United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church have rejected divestment proposals by wide margins.