Is Israel’s brutal counterinsurgency in Gaza an act of genocide? Is Israel an apartheid state? It depends on whom you ask and where they stand. This week in Louisville, at the 81st General Convention of The Episcopal Church, we debated these two words all week, in hallways and over meals.

I have my views, and you do, too. Maybe we agree, maybe we don’t. That’s not the main point of this post. Our work this week was to find words about Israel and Palestine that two parties could agree on: The House of Deputies, convention’s upper house, comprising deacons, lay leaders, and priests, and the House of Bishops. As in the U.S. Congress, both houses have to agree for a resolution or other legislation to take effect. If we were going to speak with one voice, we had to find our ways around two words.

One resolution, B056, drafted by deputy the Rev. Canon Megan Castellan, canon to the ordinary in The Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, called Netanyahu’s war an act of genocide. Based on the bishops’ votes on Israel-Palestine resolutions the first day of convention, I didn’t think it would pass. Folks from Pathways for Peace, a middle of the road nonprofit, had introduced themselves to me between legislative sessions. They suggested alternate language, which I offered to the house in the form of an amendment. I also met with Megan, who suggested having the resolution invite prayers that the conflict not become a genocide. She believed the word applied already but understood most bishops didn’t want to use it. Her gracious compromise enabled us to get the resolution through both houses.

When it came to apartheid, I came to Louisville as the name caller, but not for the usual reasons. I don’t believe Israel is an apartheid state by nature, on par with the old racist South Africa. It’s not a colonist power, since the Roman Empire, a white European power, drove Jews out of Palestine in the first century after Christ. Even so, only a third of Israeli Jews are descended from those who came back from Europe. A majority are people of color. Jews are indigenous to Israel, along with their Muslim and Christian Palestinian neighbors. No one in the conflict can claim first dibs. In Israel proper, Jews and Arabs have equal rights. A principally symbolic 2018 law declaring Israel a Jewish state worries some people more than others.

The apartheid policy is what is happening now. Israel has occupied the West Bank for 77 years. After the 1967 war, few in the first generation of Israel’s leadership wanted to keep the occupied territories. But this generation of top leaders by and large represents a view once taken by a minority of Zionists — that Israel comprises all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The peace process has now been broken down for over a quarter-century. Palestinians deserve their fair share of the blame. But Netanyahu has exploited the schism between the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, while building more settlements and eating away bit by bit at the West Bank’s autonomy.

He and his right-wing coalition show every sign of wanting to use their brutal war in Gaza to kill any chance of a Palestinian state. So I wrote a resolution recommitting the church and our policy experts in Washington to the two-state solution and saying that by effectively blocking a Palestinian state, Israel’s government was pursuing an apartheid policy, which is to say depriving an ethnic minority of self-determination and the franchise. It also called on the church to lobby for sanctions against countries that help Hamas and Hezbollah.

The convention committee on which I sat sent the resolution, D013, to the House of Bishops, which removed the reference to apartheid. When the House of Deputies restored it, a U.S. Congress-like conference committee was put to work — the first time, Presiding Bishop-elect Sean Rowe told us, since 2015. The deputies’ members were Canon Castellan, the Rev. Linda Spiers, Janet Day-Strehlow, Dianne Smith, and Tom Little. The bishops were Peter Eaton, Sally French, Dan Guitierrez, and I.

The photo shows the committee minus Bishop French. On Thursday evening, we turned a quiet room in the convention center into a sausage factory. The deputies knew a majority wanted to say apartheid. We bishops knew a majority would not. And yet we wanted our unified church to speak a comforting word to Jerusalem and especially Archbishop Hosam Naoum رئيس الأساقفة حسام نعوم and all our sisters, brothers, and siblings in The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.
That afternoon, bishops had spent nearly an hour talking about the conflict. Those reporting back from their tables suggesting lowering our voices, owning the United States’ role in crimes against indigenous peoples, and finding words that described rather than just accused. Above all, we wanted to remain in constructive and loving relationship with all our neighbors — local and international, Israelis and Palestinians, progressives, conservatives, and even, like me, mushy moderates, as my old boss Mr. Nixon liked to say.

In that spirit, Pathways for Peace had suggested we say that Israel engages in acts of fragmentation, segregation, and dispossession against Palestinians. And that is what apartheid is. The deputies on the committee agreed to take the language back to their house — along with one more vital passage. Although the deputies could not have heard the afternoon conversation in the House of Bishops, the Holy Spirit nevertheless did her amazing work. Deputy Little, a former state legislator who helped bring about marriage equity in Vermont, had written an apt passage in which convention would repent of using divisive language and resolve to find language that united us.

D013 passed both houses on Friday, You can read it here. It says that Episcopalians are all in for a Palestinian State and Jewish State, which everyone at the moment says is impossible — like the end of the Soviet Union was impossible, or peace in Northern Ireland. As Bishop Eaton is fond of saying, and he knows Israel and Palestine better than most, we are not experts in such things. But we are experts at praying, making friends, and, at our best, modeling healing community across difference. And remember: In Christ, all things are possible — even peace in Bethlehem.