The British Jewish community’s efforts to stop the Church of England from officially bolstering its ties with a group accused of being anti-Israel may have backfired, says the Bishop of Manchester.
“A few people said that all the lobbying from the Jewish side led us to vote the other way,” said the Rt. Revd. Nigel McCulloch, who is chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the UK’s oldest Jewish-Christian interfaith group. “There was over-lobbying by some members of the Jewish community. The CCJ actually warned against this, as we know how the Synod works and it’s not a good way to get things done.”
The General Synod, which is the church’s highest legislative body, voted Monday night to support “the vital work” of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The scheme brings international church members to the West Bank to “experience life under occupation” for three to four months, and expects them to campaign on their return for “a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.”
The group members spend limited time — up to one week — inside the Green Line.
The British Board of Deputies, Anglo Jewry’s main representative organization, has accused the group of creating “a cohort of very partisan but very motivated anti-Israel advocates who have almost no grasp of the suffering of normal Israelis.” It encouraged members of the Jewish community to express their concern before the vote in a letter campaign to senior members of the Church and to the Church Times, the most influential Church of England newspaper, while other Jewish groups, as well as Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and the Anglican Friends of Israel, all called for the motion to be rejected.
The Bishop of Manchester was instrumental in trying to broker a compromise, proposing that the references to EAPPI be removed from the motion, which also expressed support for “Israelis and Palestinians in all organizations working for justice and peace in the area” and for “Palestinian Christians and organisations that work to ensure their continuing presence in the Holy Land.”
However, the amendment was rejected by the Synod members.
In the final vote, 201 bishops, clergy and laity voted in favor of the motion. Fifty-four voted against, and 93 abstained.
“Naturally, I am disappointed with the result,” said Bishop McCulloch. However, he added, the result was not unexpected – and it could have been worse.
“When you look at the voting figures, it would be normal for a debate on the Palestinian-Christian issue in Israel to be supported. The size of abstentions and those who voted against is really very significant. So although the motion carried, it had a majority that was much less than otherwise could have been expected. It was not an overwhelming endorsement by the Church of England.”
He emphasized that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is the leader of the Church of England, stated during the debate that he did not want the Church to be associated with delegitimization of Israel and supported the amendment removing the reference to EAPPI.
The debate also, however, included at least one reference to a “powerful lobby,” which some Jewish observers interpreted as having anti-Semitic overtones. Bishop McCulloch rejects the suggestion.
“I don’t think I interpreted anything said as anti-Semitic,” he said. “I am pretty certain people would not have intended that to be the case and it should not fairly be emphasized.”
Given that EAPPI, by Bishop McCulloch’s own admission, “also lobbied very strongly,” why then was there a backlash specifically against the Jewish lobbyists?
“Many people do not understand the situation fully and tend to vote with people who seem to be helping the Palestinian-Christian case. My point was that lots of organizations do that and we don’t usually name particular organizations. Why should we support this one by name when it is so controversial?”
The EAPPI motion, which was brought privately by Dr. John Dinnen of Hereford, cannot be reconsidered for five years, according to Synod rules.
The Church will now encourage parishioners to volunteer for the program and ask churches and synods to make use of the experience of returning participants.
But according to Bishop McCulloch, EAPPI’s link to the church may have a silver lining.
“The Church now has the responsibility of holding EAPPI to account, seeing what can be done to make sure that there is a fairer presentation of the Israeli side,” he said.
“The Council of Christians and Jews will now make sure we put pressure on. Because of the link through the Church of England, we will demand to see some of EAPPI’s representatives explain from the Church of England why we are unhappy that [delegates] spend so much time in Palestinian areas and so little time on the Israeli side, meeting mainstream Israeli citizens, and about what appears to be biased feedback people give when they return.”
In a difficult situation, he said, “this is the brighter side.”