Presbyterian Church (USA) Members Want Israel Accused of Apartheid

There’s a controversial Presbyterian Church (USA) — referred to as the PC(USA) — document floating around that may cause unease among those individuals and institutions standing in support of Israel. It seems that some in the denomination, which is different from the Presbyterian Church in America (see editor’s note below this article) and claims to have 11,000 congregations and 2.3 million members nationwide, are taking a hard-line stance on what they’re calling Israel’s “apartheid” policies against the Palestinian people.

(Related: Jewish Groups Accuse Presbyterian Church of Facilitating Anti-Israeli & Anti-Semitic Sentiment)

A document, entitled “Recognition that Israel’s Laws, Policies, and Practices Constitute Apartheid Against the Palestinian People,” will be presented at the denomination’s General Assembly this summer. The proposal, which uses the controversial word “apartheid” 91 times, says that “Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people” and it urges the church body to intervene to “seek appropriate ways to bring an end to Israeli apartheid.”

Just to clarify for understanding’s sake, apartheid means, very literally, “any system or practice that separates people according to race, caste, etc.,” thus the document is calling for the entire denomination to label Israel as a discriminatory culprit in the ongoing Middle Eastern political drama.

“This rationale will demonstrate how Israel’s practices and actions in the occupied Palestinian territories combined with Israel’s physical changes to the land and infrastructure of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, fit the United Nations and World Court definitions of apartheid,” the document proclaims. Here are some select portions that showcase the overall sentiment presented within it (you can read the entire proposal here):

…Palestinian land and businesses have been expropriated, homes demolished, and property and farmland destroyed as a half-a-million Israeli settlers have moved into the West bank, including East Jerusalem.   The illegal settlement colonies, the bypass roads that connect them, and the Separation Wall imprison Palestinians in isolated enclaves, eviscerate the Palestinian economy, and prevent the creation of a viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent Palestinian state.  And the pace of Israeli human rights abuses and violation of international law appears to increase every year.

We support the state of Israel and want it to live up to its potential to be a democracy with equal rights for all people living in security and prosperity.   It is therefore with pain and sorrow that friends of Israel witness Israel’s oppressive policies and actions in the West Bank. [...]

…as Presbyterians we believe the prophetic mission of the church is to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily life; following the example of Jesus, the church is called to stand alongside the oppressed to help bring about justice, peace and reconciliation.  It is because of this call that we must sometimes get out of our comfort zone and risk controversy and criticism from people or organizations with which we are in relationship.  It is because of this call that we must recognize what we witness in occupied Palestine, which is that Israel’s laws, practices, and polices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Members Want Israel Accused of Apartheid

One of the maps used to prove the apartheid rationale in the PC (USA) document

The document goes on to provide a rationale as to why Israel’s actions should constitute “apartheid,” while also taking time to defend PC(USA) and the proposal itself against critique. The overture claims that it is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic, but that it is taking into consideration the discriminatory — and illegal — policies it believes the Israeli state is waging against the Palestinian people (read more about Israel’s side of the geographic story).

“Silence in the face of evil was wrong then, and it is wrong now,” the document reads, referring to the deafening silence many Christians maintained during the Holocaust.

In what looks to be a January 2012 church bulletin posted on the Westminster Presbyterian Church (Wooster, Ohio) web site (the church where the document appears to have been crafted), Pastor Andries “Dries” Coetzee shared his deep support for the document and the opinions held within it. While Coetzee, who was born in South Africa, admits that he was told in seminary that it is best to remain neutral when it comes to addressing controversial issues, he says he disagrees on this particular overture.

“It is with sadness that I traveled to Israel and Palestine last year only to observe very much the same world of my country of origin, South Africa,” he wrote, reiterating his support for the document. “In fact, many South African anti-apartheid activists like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu will tell you that the conditions in Israel/Palestine are even worse than that of apartheid South Africa.”

“God is using Westminster and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in a very special way,” Coetzee contends.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Members Want Israel Accused of Apartheid

A historical map on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site that attempts to set the record straight on the nation's historical geography

But not everyone in the PC(USA) denomination agrees. In fact, one woman — Myra Warne, an ordained Elder who currently serves as the Clerk of Session for Brighton Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio — was so disturbed by the document that she reached out to The Blaze. Warne, who oversees her church’s records on official business (baptisms, ordinations and other related items), keeps the minutes at official meetings and has heard, first hand, about this overture.

On January 18, she says she first came across the controversial apartheid document. It was previously presented at a “special called meeting” of the Muskingum Valley Presbytery (a presbytery is a governing body within the PC(USA) church; Coetzee’s church is a member of this same presbytery) on January 10.

“[Our] Presbytery typically has four-six scheduled meetings per year,” Warne said in an e-mail interview with The Blaze. “‘Special’ meetings are called when [there is] urgent business that cannot wait.”

Warne went on to say that another meeting had been held in December and that it seemed as though this particular gathering was called primarily to address the Israeli proposal as well as some budgetary items. Thus, it appears that the Israeli business, in the eyes of church leaders, was too pressing to wait on.

“My reaction to the document was visceral,” she explains. “I indicated that I would not remain a member of the Presbyterian church if this document were to be approved at the PC(USA) Conference.”

Warne went on to explain that she’s not sure if the other individuals in the meeting had a firm understanding of the document’s implications. Many of those serving on the Presbytery, she explained, may not be “politically astute,” thus their knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian relations may not be up to par. Interestingly, at the meeting she was told by her church pastor that the document originated at Westminster Presbyterian Church (as stated, this is Coetzee’s congregation).

At the meeting, a woman named Nahida Gordon, from Westminster Presbyterian, spoke out in favor of the document, telling attendees:

“It is sad to see the daily reality of the occupation in the Palestinian territories. Life contains uncertainties and fear: the fear of having one’s house demolished, fear of deportation, fear of the inability to have sufficient food to feed one’s family, fear of not being able to reach a hospital in case of an emergency, fear of arrest and fear of sudden death due to violence. These are among the daily fears experienced by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians and are the bitter fruits of apartheid.”

As stated, this document is currently floating around at the local level, but the plan is to bring it up for review at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination’s biennial meeting that is slated to take place from June 30 until July 7, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Westminster Presbyterian Church’s goal is to see the apartheid label and proposal be officially adopted by the PC(USA).

While the aforementioned words may be stunning to Israel’s supporters, this isn’t the first time that the Assembly has been pushed to accuse the nation of apartheid. At the 2010 meeting, this same call was rejected, with the committee saying, “While we are deeply concerned with the policies implemented by Israel in relation to the Palestinian territories and Palestinians under its jurisdiction, we believe that dialogue is hampered by words like ‘apartheid.’”

But the Christian community will need to wait until July to see whether the denomination has had a change of heart on the issue. Based on the speech and documentation coming from a subset of the PC(USA) community, there’s no shortage of effort to amend the denomination’s official stance on the matter.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Members Want Israel Accused of Apartheid

A screen shot from the Israel-Palestine Mission Network web site

This document is emerging at the same time the PC(USA) is fielding questions about its Israel-Palestine Mission Network. As The Blaze reported on Friday, the group and denomination have been accused by Jewish organizations of facilitating anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric.

Editor’s Note: It is important to note the difference between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America. The former is the larger, more liberal of the two, with 2.3 million members and 11,000 congregations. PC(USA) has taken other leftist positions on issues such as gay marriage) The latter is much smaller, but is regarded as the more conservative denomination. As of 2000, it had 1,450 congregations and more than 306,000 members. There are also other denominations within the larger Presbyterian Church.

This article has been updated.