Repeatedly during the Church of Scotland's General Assembly, reference was made to South Africa – to the significant role churches and Christians played in supporting the apartheid regime there and the equally significant role churches and Christians played in finally ending it.
On Wednesday 25 May, the Assembly discussed today’s apartheid regime – a regime that privileges Jewish ethnicity as the Afrikaners privileged whiteness, a regime that treats the native Arabs of Palestine as second-class citizens if they live in Israel proper, as third-class non-citizens if they live in the territories illegally occupied by Israel for over 40 years, and as fourth-class non-persons if they are the millions of Palestinians, or the children or grandchildren of Palestinians, who have been exiled from their land, while Israel steadfastly refuses their right, enshrined in international law and recognised in UN resolutions, to return home.
We European Christians are doubly complicit in what Israel is and does. First, in that centuries of utterly deplorable Christian anti-Judaism prepared a seedbed for modern European anti-Semitism and ultimately for the Holocaust. Second, in that Holocaust guilt and belated repentance of anti-Judaism prompt too many of us to keep silent while Israel persists in a strategy of dispossessing the indigenous population of Palestine that began in 1948 and continues to this day – grabbing their land, demolishing their houses, stealing their water, uprooting their olives trees, and killing them.
Having built an effective apartheid state, Israel is now constructing an Atlantic wall of draconian laws to defend it, aiming to silence those, in Israel and beyond, who wish to call a spade a spade and to frustrate them in pursuing a strategy of non-violent action that will finally lead Palestine to peace with justice – the only peace that will last.
With the law now before the Knesset, Israel is holding our work in Jerusalem and Jaffa and Tiberias hostage, to prevent us as a church doing what we should do if we are to be faithful to the vision of justice and peace, repentance and reconciliation, that is the legacy not just of Jesus of Nazareth but also and earlier of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The ban for which the Assembly will now not call, as well as the clear labelling of goods from Israeli settlements for which we continue to lobby, are part of a growing international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) that aims – as with sanctions against apartheid South Africa – to do two things.
To awaken the consciousness and prick the conscience of a world that for too long has given Israel a free pass. And to hold Israel accountable, to call it to repent. Perhaps our greatest need is to challenge ordinary, decent Jews in Israel who, like ordinary, decent Afrikaners in South Africa of old, are blind – utterly blind – to the reality of what is done in their name and its human consequences.
What it would be unwise and imprudent for the assembly to do, we as individuals certainly can and should do. When we return to our homes – homes to which we happily are free to return – we should urge our communities and congregations to join the BDS campaign. And we should do this for the sake of the Palestinian Arabs, who are the chief victims of this long sorry history, but also for the sake of the Jews of Israel, who in destroying the lives of their Palestinian neighbours are destroying their own souls.
This article is based on the author's speech at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh on Wednesday, when the assembly agreed to withdraw a resolution calling for a UK ban on goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Ian Galloway, Convener of the Kirk's Church and Society council, told the Assembly that were it to approve the resolution the council had proposed, legislation before the Knesset, if passed, would threaten the Church of Scotland's staff and buildings in Israel.
© Paraic Reamonn is a Church of Scotland minister. He served the World Alliance of Reformed Churches as Communications Secretary from September 1993 to October 2004.