The PFMEP Blog

The PFMEP Blog focuses on advancing Middle East Peace.

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George Douglas

A Wilberforce Model for Middle East Peace

In the 18th and early 19th century, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce led the movement to abolish the slave trade in England. Wilberforce’s story encourages all who want peace between Palestinians and Israelis by showing the power of perseverance and importance of grassroots work. His motivation came from a deep Christian commitment. His close friend John Newton, the ex-slave trader, Anglican clergyman, and author of the song “Amazing Grace,” convinced him to practice his faith as a Christian in politics and not enter the ministry as he initially intended.

When he was elected to the British parliament (in 1780 at the age of 22) he set upon abolishing the slave trade. Almost every member of Parliament was getting money from the slave trade companies, as was the King, and the English public had little interest in the issue. Many thought the cause hopeless, just as many today see the cause of Middle East peace as hopeless.

Wilberforce persevered nonetheless, and the campaign was a model of Christian activism. His movement built public awareness of the evils of the slave trade. They led tours of slave ships to demonstrate the inhuman conditions the slaves faced. They produced posters and books and held rallies. They created a national abolition organization and a powerful grassroots movement.

In 1789 Wilberforce put forth the first legislation for the abolition of the slave trade, but it was 18 years (in 1807) before the legislation passed and the slave trade was abolished. It took another 26 years of campaigning to have the existing slaves released. In 1834, one year after his death, 800,000 slaves were freed and the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the British territories. Wilberforce dedicated his entire life to this important cause and his story is a source of inspiration to this day.

This story offers some important lessons for Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. First is that change requires commitment and perseverance. Second is that both grassroots and political efforts are essential. At the grassroots level over 100 peacemaking organizations bring Israelis and Palestinians together for person-to-person contact. Over 100,000 Palestinians peacefully enter Israel each day for work and 30,000 work in West Bank Industrial parks. Palestinian-Israeli contact and economic cooperation must be encouraged, not discouraged by boycotts and other hostile actions.

There must also be a strong political will for peace on both sides of the conflict, and they feed off of each other. Here we face two very different situations. Israel is a liberal democracy. Israeli citizens freely elect their leaders with a free press and freedom of political expression.

For Palestinians the political situation is much more challenging. At present there are no freely elected leaders at the national level and no immediate prospects for change. Palestinian President Abbas’ term of office ended 8 years ago. The Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank but Hamas, which remains committed to the violent destruction of Israel, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2006. There is little freedom of political expression. Palestinians criticizing the Palestinian Authority risk arrest, and Palestinians opposing Hamas in the Gaza Strip risk death.

The situation puts Palestinians in a position of weakness. Nothing would strengthen their position more, and advance the cause of peace, than a freely elected Palestinian government committed to the rule of law and peaceful coexistence with Israel, yet too many in the West see the Palestinian political situation as immutable and hopeless.

Such a sentiment reveals a deep condescension and bias toward Arabs and Palestinians. Are they simply incapable of building a multi-ethnic state as other nations have done? Are they incapable of building a liberal democracy based on rule of law? The answer is a resounding “no”, and such aspirations should not be given up on.

Much has been said of the Israeli “right” and the West Bank settler movement gaining strength in Israel. Palestinian political instability feeds this, and even incrementally positive Palestinian political progress would give Israel’s peace movement and political moderates a strong argument for peacemaking with the Palestinians. There is no quick solution but there is a path forward, starting with Palestinians having genuine freedom of expression, followed by broadened participation in the Palestinian political process, and ultimately genuinely free elections.

Some will read this and think we are wasting our time on a hopeless cause, as many thought William Wilberforce was. They may be right. Wilberforce, however, benefitted from a unique form of ignorance: he didn’t understand what he couldn’t do. Such ignorance is often the essential element for meaningful change.

George Douglas

A Troubling Resolution

This summer the Israel-targeted Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement aggressively promoted their agenda at several church assemblies, but progress for BDS was limited. At the United Methodist Church General Conference divestment was rejected and delegates urged Methodist groups to sever involvement with the BDS umbrella group End the Occupation. BDS made limited progress elsewhere and several divestment and boycott proposals were rejected. At the Presbyterian GA a proposal to boycott Hewlett Packard was overwhelmingly defeated and the PC(USA)’s longstanding commitment to two states for two peoples was reaffirmed.

At the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), divestment failed to gain widespread support. However, a resolution (full text on page 23 of this document) was approved which included the following statement:

To urge this church’s members, congregations, synods, agencies and presiding bishop to call on their U.S. Representatives, Senators and the Administration to take action requiring that, to continue receiving U.S. financial and military aid, Israel must comply with internationally recognized human rights standards as specified in existing U.S. law, stop settlement building and the expansion of existing settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, end its occupation of Palestinian territory, and enable an independent Palestinian state; and

To encourage this church’s members, congregations, synods, and agencies to call on the U.S. President to recognize the State of Palestine and not prevent the application of the State of Palestine for full membership in the United Nations.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly. At first glance the statement may seem like a reasonable stance supporting Palestinian rights: why shouldn’t Christians urge the U.S. government to officially recognize the State of Palestine and pressure Israel to “enable” an independent Palestinian state? What harm could possibly come from such a clear and simple statement advocating for Palestinian human rights?

Mike Gizzi

Co-existence efforts and grassroots interaction as a foundation for peace

I believe strongly that a two state solution is the only real path to peace. But such a solution can only come about when there is real grassroots, person-to-person interaction. It is an essential precursor to building the trust necessary for peace. For me, the importance of co-existence and interaction cannot be understated. When I think about co-existence, I always return to the wise words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his book The Dignity of Difference, and then again in his more recent and compelling book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Sacks provides the theological foundation for co-existence.

Mike Gizzi

What BDS won’t tell you

One of the next battles over BDS will be fought in a little more than two weeks, when the 222nd General Assembly begins in Portland, Oregon. Portland was site of the recent United Methodist Church’s General Conference, which rejected BDS efforts at divestment, and even saw the Methodists end ties with the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation”, an umbrella organization of BDS groups in North America. The UMC is a much larger Church than PCUSA, and I am hopeful that we Presbyterians can learn from the wisdom of our Methodist brothers and sisters. The BDS Movement has targeted the PCUSA for more than a decade. It includes a relatively small, but extremely vocal and effective group of activists who have worked very hard to get the Church to adopt social witness policies promoting the goals of the BDS movement, while often masking them in claims that the policies being sought are not about BDS, but about justice for Palestinians. Two years ago, they succeeded in getting the Church to selectively divest from three companies doing business in Israel – Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola Solutions, while claiming that divestment was in no way an embrace of BDS.  Boycott. Divest. Sanction. How could anyone ever think that divesting from these companies was related to BDS?

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Mike Gizzi

Freedom for two peoples

Freedom is a precious thing. Freedom for Israelis is freedom from terror. Freedom for Palestinians is self-determination. The two state solution is the path to freedom. And freedom is the path to peace. Read more from in my op-ed blog in The Times of Israel