US Presbyterians call for end to Israeli apartheid

A man holding a sign is pushed by an Israeli soldier

Presbyterian Church USA encourages its congregants to seek “appropriate ways to bring an end” to Israel’s system of apartheid.

Mamoun Wazwaz APA images

The Presbyterian Church USA has formally recognized that Israel practices the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.

As part of its general assembly meeting earlier this month, the church – which has more than a million members around the country – affirmed via a resolution that “the government of Israel’s laws, policies and practices regarding the Palestinian people fulfill the international legal definition of apartheid.”

The church recommended that its members and staff “seek appropriate ways to bring an end” to the racist policies of apartheid, containment and colonial violence.

Noting Israel’s sprawling matrix of settlement colonies, bypass roads, checkpoints and the wall in the occupied West Bank, “​​the net result is that the state of Israel systematically and continually denies the freedom of movement to Palestinians in violation of the international conventions on apartheid,” the church declared.

These policies and the infrastructure supporting Israel’s settler-colonialism, it added, “constitute an apartheid regime [and] are in plain view for all to see and have been denounced by PC(USA) at the last two general assemblies.”

The passage of this overture would “mark a change in the current policy of the Presbyterian Church (USA),” the church stated.

Until this moment, while the denomination has acknowledged the “connections between apartheid as practiced historically in South Africa and the situation currently in Israel/Palestine,” it had not stated that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians “were precisely the same.”

“The oppression of the Palestinian population of Israel/Palestine has significantly worsened,” the church remarked.

“And there seems to be little hope of improvement. With the recent political consolidation of the Israeli government with regards to the annexation of the West Bank, and with the tacit support of the current administration of the United States for such an endeavor, there seems little reason at this moment to avoid naming the de jure and de facto realities for what they are.”

Growing church support for Palestinian rights

The PCUSA decision follows the release of papers by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem, detailing how Israel practices apartheid.

This is not the first time that the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has taken a stand against Israeli settler-colonialism.

In 2014, the church issued a booklet that examines the role Israel’s state ideology, Zionism, and Christian Zionism have played in shaping attitudes and events in Palestine and the surrounding region.

PCUSA published its third study guide on Palestine in 2018, distributed by its Israel/Palestine Mission Network. The booklet pinpoints settler colonialism as the underlying basis for Israeli apartheid while also advocating vigorously for an intersectional approach to unify struggles for human rights.

The church has worked since 2014 to divest from major US corporations that are complicit in the Israeli occupation.

Other Christian denominations across the US have taken similar steps to oppose Israel’s policies in Palestine.

Notably, Palestinian churches have played a key role in boosting support for divestment among North American congregations. In 2009, Palestinian Christians issued the Kairos Palestine document, calling on churches around the world to take action for justice, including specifically support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Israel lobby’s false claims

As expected, major Israel lobby organizations in the US excoriated the church’s resolution.

The Anti-Defamation League, a leading anti-Palestinian group masquerading as a civil rights organization, claimed that the resolution “falsely labels Israel as an apartheid state” while threatening that its passage will “harm” the church’s relations with “the Jewish community.”
The ADL also claimed that the PCUSA had compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazi Holocaust.

But this claim is false.

In the text of the resolution, the Nazi Holocaust is indeed mentioned – twice – but in the context of a historical failure of “many Christians to speak out at the time.”

The PCUSA acknowledges that “some Christians believe they must silence their criticism of Israel’s polices because of the history of the Nazi Holocaust” and that it is “difficult for many Christians to publicly criticize the policies of Israel’s government for fear that even legitimate criticism may be seen as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic or characterized as ‘picking on Israel’ among many countries in the Middle East with human rights violations.”

Leading up to the church decision, former PCUSA general assembly moderators released a statement urging congregants to adopt the resolution.

They anticipated the kinds of threats from groups such as the ADL, and urged PCUSA members not to take these threats seriously.

“Labeling legitimate criticism of Israeli government polices that oppress Palestinians as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is a thinly veiled attempt to silence any criticism of Israeli government actions,” the group said.

“​​This is an anti-racism issue.”

The late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in 2014 urged the PCUSA’s general assembly to pass a similar resolution, the group says, together with “the Movement for Black Lives, and numerous other groups of people of color have recognized that this is apartheid.”

Furthermore, the statement reads, “acknowledging that Israeli government actions meet the definition of apartheid is done with the hope that it will lead to a process of reconciliation, similar to what happened in South Africa after apartheid was acknowledged.”



Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Sorry about that, we have corrected the link. Thank you!

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).