A large North American Christian mission has accused Israel of being an apartheid state, while speaking out against antisemitism.
“Israeli policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinians—Christians and Muslims alike—are consistent with the international definition of the crime of apartheid,” a letter published Wednesday by Global Ministries, a common missional witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
At the same time, it stated that, “we differentiate between antisemitic discourse and action, which is on the rise in our countries and beyond, on the one hand, and legitimate criticism of the State of Israel’s laws, policies and actions on the other.”
Global Ministries works with approximately 290 faith-based international partners in close to 90 countries, according to its website. It sent its first missionaries to Palestine in 1849. It has been commenting on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1973.
The letter was titled “Compelled to Witness” and was signed by the denomination’s General Minister and President the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens; President of the Division of Overseas Ministries, Rev. LaMarco Cable; and Interim President of the Disciples Home Missions, Rev. Sheila Spencer.
“The continuing occupation, denial of rights and injustice that Palestinians endure is not consistent with our understanding of God’s vision for justice for all people, and therefore is sin,” the letter read. “As leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we must not be silent in the face of changes on the ground and further entrenched systemic factors… We are compelled to acknowledge and amplify the voices of our partners—in Israel/Palestine and around the world—and to witness to what we know and see.”
In a supplemental FAQ document, which was published online on the same day as the letter, the mission clarifies why it used the word apartheid.
“Apartheid isn’t just a painful history in South Africa it is also a specific crime according to international law,” the document explained. “It refers to of a system of legalized racial segregation in which one racial group is deprived of political and civil rights.
“What we see happening in Israel/Palestine clearly seems to fit the legal definition of apartheid as Palestinians do not have equal access to water, vaccines, jobs, the ability to travel, etc.,” according to the document.
It cited several key policy shifts in recent years as the reason for its decision to speak out, including official US recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights; the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and the passage of the Nation State Law (2018) that codified discriminatory policies and practices; among others.
“No tangible positive changes in policy have materialized since the 2021 Israeli elections, with Israel signaling no intention to negotiate toward the realization of a Palestinian state, or to abide by international law, conventions, or UN resolutions and the US remaining inactive in addressing the deteriorating conditions,” the letter continued, adding that Israel failed to vaccinate the Palestinian population against COVID-19 while ensuring access to vaccines to its own citizens.
Israel provided two shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to around 120,000 Palestinians who work inside Israel about a year ago. Since then, enough vaccines to vaccinate the Palestinian population have been donated and Israel has encouraged Palestinians—including those who work inside Israel—to get the shots on their own.
Apartheid? 'Absurd," according to US official
The letter comes just one month after a controversial report was published by Amnesty International, likewise alleging that Israel is an apartheid state.
Amnesty’s document was met with worldwide condemnation, including by US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, who called the accusation “absurd.”
In a tweet he said, “That is not language that we have used and will not use.”
Come on, this is absurd. That is not language that we have used and will not use. https://t.co/DUnplInqCH— Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael) February 1, 2022
The Anti-Defamation League has said that using the term apartheid to describe Israel is “inaccurate” and “offensive” and “often used to delegitimize and denigrate Israel as a whole. Moreover, the use of this inaccurate and highly charged label is also counterproductive to resolving issues related to injustices within Israeli society or the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The Disciples of Christ said that it issued the letter due to its long-standing commitment to racial, economic and social justice issues, and because of its deep religious ties to the land of Israel.
“The places of Israel and Palestine are dear to us as Christians—because of the Biblical history centered there, because of the people (siblings in Christ, as well as Jews and Muslims) who are suffering there, and because of the call we accept to seek justice and pursue peace,” the letter reads.
At the same time, the authors stressed that “we reject any theology or use of [Christian] scripture to justify any system of discrimination, oppression, violation of any person’s dignity or exclusivist claim on land, including Christian Zionism.”
In its FAQ document, the church went on to say that “there are many ways to read our sacred texts but using the Bible to justify modern claims about land is problematic.”
It also said that it does not believe religion is the root cause of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, but sometimes serves to “inflame tensions that already exist.”
Church leaders 'abhor' and 'condemn' antisemitism
The mission did draw a distinction between being against Israeli policies and being antisemitic, which it condemned in its letter.
“We abhor and condemn words and actions that insult or injure any person based on any aspect of their identity, including religious identity, and will continue to work against antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry,” the reverends wrote.
“We pray for the day when pain and sorrow are relieved, when peace and justice prevail, for Palestinians and for Israelis,” the letter concluded.