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Episcopal View on Mideast Conflict an Improvement, Jewish Groups Say

November 10, 2004
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Months after the U.S. Presbyterian Church voted to drop its holdings in Israel, another Protestant church has decided on a different response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jewish officials hail as more balanced. Meeting earlier this month in Boise, Idaho, the Episcopal Church’s governing board voted to look into the church’s corporate investments and take appropriate action with “companies that contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” — as well as “companies that have connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel.”

Jewish groups still take issue with the fact that the Episcopal Church singled out one particular conflict among many in the world, but say the move signals progress toward a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the actions of the Presbyterian Church USA.

The Rev. Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church’s peace and justice ministries, did not say exactly what action the national church would take with companies that breach these standards.

But, he said, “We would not want our companies to be supporting the occupation or violence against Israeli civilians.”

There are some 300 companies in the church’s investment portfolio, Grieves said.

The Episcopal Church took into account the Presbyterian move, but was motivated to act by the “deterioration of the situation” and increased violence after the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Grieves told JTA.

Jewish groups said the move represents a step forward.

“This is a process that makes demands not just on Israel, but on the Palestinians,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“It speaks not just about occupation but about terror and it promises on its face to be open and consultative as they go,” he said. “This process reflects a real understanding of our concerns.”

The move comes as the Presbyterian Church USA issued guidelines Tuesday for divestment that cite the “the continued occupation of Palestinian land by Israel as the major impediment to the creation of a just peace.”

The Presbyterian Church plans a “phased selective divestment” with companies that it says help support the occupation, settlements, the West Bank security fence or the harming of civilians.

The Presbyterians did not engage in dialogue with Jewish groups before passing the anti-Israeli resolution at the church’s General Assembly in July. There has been subsequent dialogue with Jewish groups, but it appears to have had little effect on church policy.

Yet Jewish groups say interfaith dialogue helped lead the Episcopal Church to a more balanced policy.

The “Presbyterian blindside woke us up” to the fact that mainstream Protestants have a different narrative of the conflict than Jews — and Jews need to understand that in making Israel’s case, said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“With the Presbyterians, we have the problem of walking the cat back into the bag,” he said. “They’re bound by a resolution that they already passed and that they’ve rejected rescinding.”

After that experience, the JCPA, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and Union for Reform Judaism approached the Episcopal church as a coalition of partners.

“What it means is, a dialogue pays off,” said Rabbi Gary

Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the ADL.

Episcopal Church officials didn’t seem to agree, however.

“The community was glad to hear from a variety of voices on this, including the American Jewish community of course,” and its own members and churches in the Middle East, Grieves told JTA.

“But in the end, the community felt that its obligation was to implement church policy, and that’s where they came out and made their decision,” he said.

Bretton-Granatoor said the Episcopal Church had been headed in the same direction as the Presbyterians. He pointed to a Sept. 22 statement by the International Anglican Peace and Justice Network after a mission to Israel.

“We conclude from our experience that there is little will on behalf of the Israeli government to recognize the rights of the Palestinians to a sovereign state to be created in the West Bank — which includes East Jerusalem — and Gaza,” the network stated, while making no mention of Palestinian terrorism.

“Israel, with the complicity of the United States, seems determined to flaunt international laws, whether they are the Geneva Conventions, United Nations resolutions or the most recent decision of the International Court of Justice in declaring the separation wall illegal.”

In response, the ADL wrote Grieves a letter expressing “great shock and sadness” at the network’s report.

“We are concerned about the utter lack of balance in this report. There is no evidence of any understanding on the part of the writers of the role the Palestinians have played in their own sad situation.”

In a letter sent Tuesday to Grieves, the coalition of Jewish groups took a more conciliatory tone.

“We appreciate the openness to dialogue that is expressed in this process and welcome the opportunity to continue the important conversations we are having about the situation in the Middle East,” the Jewish groups wrote. “We all agree that our common goal is a two state solution: Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

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