BIRMINGHAM, AL-On June 21, the 217th General Assembly (2006) emphatically put to rest an embarrassing controversy that had raged for two years, since the 216th General Assembly (2004) voted to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." By an overwhelming vote of 483-28, this General Assembly returned Presbyterian advocacy to a position of evenhanded justice and good sense.
Earlier, the General Assembly Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues had forged a strong consensus for a delicately balanced statement
that allowed all sides to feel a degree of satisfaction in the results. The question going into plenary session was if the balance in the consensus statement would be allowed to stand.
In presenting the committee recommendation, committee moderator Gretchen Graf (from Northern Plains Presbytery) stressed the long process of discernment followed by the committee. She described the committee recommendation as the product of a writing team of committee members, representing differing points of view on the Middle East. Graf affirmed the "careful process" of "corporate engagement" pursued by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee, which would now have discretion regarding Middle East investment policy.
Minister Commissioner Oscar McCloud from New York City quickly moved an amendment intended to change the section of the resolution that "accept[ed] responsibility" for the "hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion" caused by the 2004 divestment resolution. McCloud said that he found this passage "troublesome." He suggested that the committee recommendation somehow ran contrary to the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967. "I don't believe we have a tradition of apologizing when an action pains Presbyterians," McCloud asserted.
McCloud's amendment read, "We regret any reportage that has caused misunderstanding of the PCUSA's commitment to peace and justice in Palestine and Israel." This was no real apology for actions of the General Assembly in 2004, as was the committee wording that the amendment intended to replace. Rather, the amendment constituted an awkward accusation of the press in the rhetorical guise of Presbyterian regret.
A commissioner supporting McCloud's amendment stressed the pain experienced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. "The oppression of the Palestinian is unimaginable," she declared. She told of pregnant women unable to get through Israeli checkpoints to give birth. "Babies and mothers are dying!" the commissioner exclaimed. "The act of the 216th General Assembly was prophetic," she said. "We cannot lose our prophetic voice to make everyone happy."
But Theological Student Advisory Delegate Adam Fisher reminded the house that "reconciliation begins with the work of saying 'I'm sorry,' and that's what the committee recommendation does." Commissioners must have agreed, because McCloud's amendment received only about 25 percent of the vote.
A second amendment came from Peacemaking Committee member Mark Davidson of New Hope Presbytery (North Carolina). Davidson had helped write the draft that his committee was now placing before the Assembly. Not satisfied with his previous hand in the matter, he sought to tip the resolution a little further toward the Palestinian cause.
Saying that it is "very important that we don't abandon [the Palestinians] as we rush to shore up our relations with the Jewish community," Davidson proposed this amendment: "We communicate to our Palestinian Christian partners that we remain keenly aware of the deep and chronic pain of the Palestinian people, and promise to stay in solidarity with you as we work together for a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine." By contrast, the committee proposal had not spoken of a one-sided "solidarity" with either Palestinians or Israelis.
Elder Commissioner Bruce Ogden from Sacramento responded by noting that the committee "drafted a fragile document." Ogden warned: "To begin to dismantle this document by amendment is a very dangerous thing. We'll be here a long, long time."
Former General Assembly moderator Fahed Abu-Akel intervened in the debate to remark: "I am grateful to the commissioner [Davidson] for this [amendment]. This is the least we can do…. The least we can do is to stand with the Palestinian Arab Christians."
But another commissioner objected: "This motion seems to say that we're only concerned with the Palestinian Christians. Once again, we're discriminating." The amendment failed by a 237-273 vote.
Since the previous question had been called not only for the second amendment but also for all pending motions, the assembly immediately moved to a vote on the committee's resolution. A gasp emerged from the packed Assembly hall when the electronic tally showed a 94 percent vote in favor of the committee's resolution.
Presbyterians, choosing collaboration over conflict, found a way to beat swords into plowshares on this contentious issue. Commissioners did it on their own, jettisoning any "solutions" offered by the General Assembly Council, former moderators, or even a billboard on the route downtown from the airport. Instead, they worked patiently and prayerfully, wisely and fairly.
This is an instance when Presbyterians chose what is just and good. Presbyterian Action commends the General Assembly for its work on the Israel divestment issue and looks to those responsible for the resolution's implementation to fulfill the unbiased intent of the Assembly.