from Dexter Van Zile at CAMERA: ELCA Rejects Extremism, Expresses Concern for Both Palestinians and Israelis
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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.
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).
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.
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