There has been a widespread welcome for a vote in the Church of England General Synod supporting a nonviolent human rights programme in Palestine and Israel. Critics of the programme accused it of anti-Israeli prejudice, but their case was undermined when several of their claims were found to be factually inaccurate.
By a margin of almost four to one, the Synod passed the motion praising the “vital work” of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
All three houses of Synod – laity, clergy and bishops – approved the motion. In total, 201 members of Synod voted in favour, with 54 against and 93 abstentions.
The vote has been welcomed by Christian Aid, the BibleLands charity, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Quaker Peace & Social Witness.
EAPPI is run by the World Council of Churches. The UK and Ireland wing is administered by British Quakers. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs), who come from many faiths and none, spend three months on the West Bank monitoring conditions and human rights abuses. Their work includes observing checkpoints and accompanying Palestinian children and farmers to protect them from violence by extremist settlers.
EAs observe demonstrations to monitor abuse, but make a point of not joining them. On returning home, they undertake speaking engagements about their experiences, often in churches and Quaker Meetings.
EAPPI say they adopt a position of “principled impartiality” in conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. They add that they are “on the side of human rights”.
The debate on Monday (9 July) followed weeks of heated controversy. Anglican Friends of Israel and the Board of Deputies of British Jews had encouraged Synod to reject the motion. They accused EAPPI of helping to “generate a climate of hostility to Israel in the churches”. They said that after returning from Palestine, EAs form “a cohort” of “anti-Israel advocates who have almost no grasp of the suffering of normal Israelis”.
In contrast, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) gave their backing to the motion and insisted that the Board of Deputies do not speak for all British Jews. They said, “JfJfP applauds the monitoring and protective activities of EAPPI”.
There was embarrassment for EAPPI's opponents when one of their key claims was found to be untrue. The Board of Deputies alleged on their website that of their three months in the region, EAs spend only one day inside Israel. It soon became apparent that every former EA, as well as many others associated with the programme, could testify to the inaccuracy of this claim.
Sharen Green, a former Ecumenical Accompanier, explained in a letter to the Church Times, “I have served twice as an EA, for whom a week hearing a variety of Israeli perspectives was programmed. We spent a day at an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank. We also visited a kibbutz and many of us travelled down to Sderot, a town where the Qassam rockets rain down from Gaza.”
The Board of Deputies said that British and Irish EAs spend only two hours of their training hearing the Israeli perspective. Sharen Green said, “Again this is not the case – we have to read an enormous amount of historical material before we even begin training and the whole of the first week is devoted to the conflict, listening to speakers with a variety of perspectives.”
The Church of England is not the only group to find itself divided on the issue. Despite overwhelming support for EAPPI from Quakers, a small number of Quakers with a different view have recently formed Quaker Friends of Israel. They are opposed both to EAPPI and to the decision by British Quakers to boycott goods from illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
But Helen Drewery, general secretary of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, was keen to welcome the Synod's decision. She told The Friend, an independent weekly Quaker magazine, “We see this as further affirmation of EAPPI as strengthening its nonviolent efforts to bring peace to the region.”
She added, “Within hours of hearing the General Synod vote, we also heard of further attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians living in the village of Yanoun, while tending their crops and flocks.”
Clarification: In an early version of this article, the comments of Sharen Green were mistakenly attributed to Stephen Sizer. The confusion arose from Stephen Sizer hosting them on his website. We apologise to them both and are sorry for any confusion.