One of America's most liberal churches, the United Church of Christ, is taking a step toward even-handedness when it comes to the Middle East.
At this past weekend's UCC synod in Hartford, the church moved forward a resolution calling for "balanced study" on the Middle East conflict. In 2005, the UCC — which is the successor organization to several different churches, including the Congregational Church to which the descendants of the Puritans belong — passed two resolutions that many perceived as a pervasive anti-Israel bias.
One of them — the "Tear Down the Wall" resolution — called for the dismantling of the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank. The other — the divestment, or "Economic Leverage," resolution — urged church members to divest from companies that do business in Israel.
"Because the ‘Tear Down the Wall' resolution focused solely on the actions of Israel, we also have a responsibility to more fully understand and name the ways other nations and forces have contributed to the situation," the resolution reads.
It also mentions Palestinian Arab children "being exposed to hatred and intolerance in textbooks and the media" and violence between "Fatah and Hamas, especially in the Gaza strip, in spite of the fact that Israel disengaged from Gaza in September 2005."
The UCC's Committee on Reference referred the measure to the executive council for implementation. It would establish a task force to study the "causes, history, and the context of the conflict," which will report to the next gathering of the synod in 2009.
The liberal Protestant churches, unlike their conservative counterparts, have become anti-Israel bastions in recent years. The UCC resolution — influenced in part by the Hamas takeover of Gaza in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal — could mark a more balanced approach. At a time when presidential candidates — such as Senator Obama, who addressed the group's convention in Hartford on Saturday — are wooing church members, even that shift is significant.
"Most mainline churches have been very effective in witnessing to the suffering of the Palestinians. Most mainline churches have been really slow to witness to the ways that the Arab nations have contributed to Palestinian suffering," said the Reverend Carol Meredith of the Deerfield Community Church, UCC, in Deerfield, N.H., who drafted the resolution.
Rev. Meredith has spent two stints in the Middle East in recent years, visiting St. George's College in Jerusalem and participating in a trip to Israel and the West Bank with a group of other UCC religious leaders under the auspices of a group called Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East. During the latter visit, Rev. Meredith met with a number of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis who left her with a much more complex sense of the conflict than she held previously. While she said she disagreed with some of Israel's policies and actions, she said, "It is a wonderful thing that Israel is a democracy, it is capable of self-criticism, it is capable of self-correction" — a fact often lost on some of her fellow UCC members.
She used the "Tear Down the Wall" resolution as an example of the church's one-sidedness. "It goes on to say what's wrong about the wall, but it doesn't say anything about why Israel had to build the wall. And it doesn't say the Palestinian extremists should stop suicide bombing. Or in one month alone there were 47 suicide bombings," she said.
For Sister Ruth Lautt, the national director of Christians for Fair Witness, the group that brought Rev. Meredith and others to Israel, the UCC move marked considerable progress.
"We were very troubled by what has been a series of very unbalanced statements that have come out of the denomination," said Sister Lautt, whose group seeks to advocate a balanced approach to Middle East issues among the "mainline" Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. "This one-sided, unbalanced approach is not the result of a mean spirit or an anti-Semitic bias of this church, but rather a pretty shallow understanding of what is a pretty complex history. The key here is getting the members of this church to see the broader picture. I applaud them for taking this stand and taking responsibility upon themselves to invite their church into an authentic and balanced study of this conflict."
Asked about the resolution on Friday, prior to the passage of the measure, Mr. Obama's campaign provided a statement. "Senator Obama has been a consistent and stalwart supporter of Israel, our strongest ally and only democracy in the Middle East, throughout his career in public service and his entire life," a spokeswoman for the campaign, Jennifer Psaki, said. "While he is a proud member of the UCC church and values its tradition of openness and diversity, he strongly disagrees with the portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presented by individual members of the church."