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?

John Wimberly

A Moment to Give Thanks

The debates around Israel-Palestine at the 2016 General Assembly in Portland were among the most civil and productive that we have seen in many years.  As a result, they produced results that caused both sides to feel as though they had accomplished some of their goals.  If such an outcome reduces stress within the PCUSA around Israel-Palestine issues, it can only make us more effective peacemakers.  

From the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace perspective, we accomplished significant progress in a number of areas.  They include:

The stated goal of many BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) activists is to work toward the creation of one, Palestinian state.  The study paper from the Advisory Committee of Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) would have pushed the PCUSA in that direction had it gone un-amended.  But two amendments were offered to the report and approved by the General Assembly that are clear, unequivocal restatements of the PCUSA’s historic commitment to two states for two peoples.  The paper itself contains many flaws---partisan rhetoric, factual errors, misrepresentations of major figures such as Thomas Friedman, and a lack of theological and biblical grounding.  They were not corrected.  But the biggest flaw---the movement toward one state was rejected by a near consensus vote.

The attempt to initiate a boycott against HP because of the way its products are used in Israel was rejected in a landslide vote.

A paper which made outlandish charges against Israel regarding its treatment of children was approved.  However, for the first time, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were called to task for the way they have incited youth to attack Israelis and, in the process, lose their own youthful lives. 

An effort to have a denomination-wide study of the Palestinian BDS movement was altered to include anti-BDS materials and have congregations engage in study in partnership with their Jewish and Muslim community neighbors.  This will result in a true educational project rather than one which, in essence, would explain only the pro-BDS position.

The committee heard a presentation by a commissioner on the problems of the BDS movement in a way never before seen at a General Assembly.  While the committee ultimately rejected the commissioner’s resolution, it was an eye-opener for many to see the agenda of the BDS movement and the violent consequences of some of its adherents. 

This is a time to give thanks to God and the GA commissioners for the balanced way they approached the issues before them.  In God’s mysterious ways, perhaps it can be a time when long-time opponents on this issue can find common ground upon which we can build a truly effective peacemaking strategy in the years ahead.  To God goes the glory!

John Wimberly

The Importance of Good Governance

John Calvin believed that government has not “come about by human perversity…but by divine providence.”  This led Calvin to what, for some today, would be a shocking conclusion: civil magistrates are the most important people in God’s plan for the world.  To quote Calvin again, “…civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal (humans).” 

When traveling in Israel and Palestine, a common complaint heard from Israelis and Palestinians is that their governments are not serving them well.  Many believe that rather than working toward peace, too often, their governments fuel the very divisive issues that keep the two peoples from making peace with one another.  As Calvinists, We Presbyterians believe that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to choose and empower leaders who will pursue peace and justice.