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One of the largest mainline protestant denominations in the U.S. has voted to declare Israel an apartheid state, becoming the first major American Christian denomination to do so.
The governing body of the Presbyterian Church USA on Friday passed a resolution that said the laws, policies, and practices of the Israeli government toward Arabs living in the region known as Palestine "fulfill the international legal definition of apartheid."
Delegates to the church's biannual General Assembly, which took place in Louisville, Kentucky, and online, voted 266-116 to adopt the resolution. The church government — which oversees 1.19 million members — also voted to designate a Nakba Remembrance Day on its calendar — the Palestinian commemoration of Israeli independence in 1948, which Palestinians regard as the destruction of Palestinian society.
The resolution accuses Israel of "establishing two sets of laws, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, which give preferential treatment to Israeli Jews and oppressive treatment to Palestinians." It also repeats accusations that Israel expropriated Palestinian land for Jewish-only settlements and that the country has forced Palestinians into "separate reserves and ghettos."
Palestinian activists celebrated the vote. "This is an excellent stand by the US Presbyterian Church declaring Israel Apartheid State," said Atef Dalgamouni, one of the "founding fathers" of the Al Jazeera news network.
\u201cThis is an excellent stand by the US Presbyterian Church declaring Israel Apartheid state. \nIt should be called \u201cThe apartheid state of Israel\u201d\n\nUS Presbyterian Church declares Israel 'apartheid state' https://t.co/kFzViDcIXJ\u201d— Atef Dalgamouni (@Atef Dalgamouni) 1657071205
But some Christian and Jewish leaders condemned the General Assembly's declaration. Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of United Nations Relations and Strategic Partnerships for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the resolution was "an insult to Jews and Christians alike which damages interfaith relations."
"PCUSA leadership has violated G-d's commandment not to bear false witness, rendered itself irrelevant in the world of peacemaking, and made a mockery of honest dialogue and interfaith relations," Greenberg said after the vote, according to CBN News.
Jonathan Greenblatt, president of the Anti-Defamation League, also criticized the resolution.
"This resolution does not seek to heal or resolve, but rather deepens divides between people of different faiths and hinders the peace process," Greenblatt said. "We encourage the #PCUSA to use its influence in a way that constructively contributes towards a peaceful future for all."
\u201cThis resolution does not seek to heal or resolve, but rather deepens divides between people of different faiths and hinders the peace process. We encourage the #PCUSA to use its influence in a way that constructively contributes towards a peaceful future for all.\u201d— Jonathan Greenblatt (@Jonathan Greenblatt) 1657206600
The American Jewish Congress before the vote had urged the PCUSA's General Assembly to reject the resolution.
\u201cThe proposed #PCUSA resolution that labels Israel, the only true democracy in the #MidEast, an apartheid state - is unjust & plain wrong. We urge the PCUSA assembly at large to swiftly vote down this clear example of antisemitic, anti-Israel disparagement.\nhttps://t.co/axx1BgBWkh\u201d— American Jewish Congress (@American Jewish Congress) 1657213582
Church leaders defended the resolution on Monday, remarking that the denomination strongly supports the right of Israel to exist while also supporting "the right of Palestine to be an independent and sovereign state within the pre-1967 borders, the right of return to refugees or a negotiated compensation, the removal of all illegal Israel settlements in occupied Palestinian territories or a 1:1 swap of land, a shared Jerusalem, an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories, either the total removal of the Separation Wall or the removal of those portions of the wall that are on Palestinian land, and equal rights for Palestinians who are citizens of Israel."
"We are aware that this decision will affect some of our interfaith relations, especially with a portion of the American Jewish community. We want to say this loud and clear: We are committed to continuing dialogue with our interfaith partners and to combating antisemitism and all forms of violence, discrimination and human rights violations," Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II said in a letter explaining the church's position.
"To increase awareness of violence against people of other faiths in the United States, the 225th General Assembly has approved a Study Document Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia. At the same time, we are convinced that there is a fundamental difference between antisemitism and the right to critique the policies of Israel deemed illegal under international law," Nelson wrote.
The Presbyterian Church of the United States in America is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. It holds a liberal position on church doctrine, supports gay marriage, and ordains women and practicing homosexual and transgender ministers. At its founding in 1983, the denomination boasted 3.1 million members, but it has since fallen to 1.2 million, a 62 percent loss.
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