APN Rejects Rev. Nelson's Equating the Occupation and Slavery

On January 17th, Martin Luther King Day, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), issued a statement saying that “the continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery.” In his statement, he expressed “hope that the Jewish community in the United States would influence the call to join the U.S. government in ending the immoral enslavement.”

We at APN are disappointed and concerned by this framing.

We are disappointed at the gross mischaracterization of the occupation, and concerned about the potential repercussions of Rev. Nelson’s hyperbolic speech.

First, though, we think it’s important to state that we share the Reverend’s goal of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and we appreciate the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to pursuing this objective. Indeed, as Rev. Nelson noted in his statement, the occupation is unjust, immoral and intolerable.

But the occupation is not slavery and is not analogous or equivalent to slavery. The occupation perpetuates a political conflict between two national movements that claim the same land. Instead of seeking in earnest a political solution that would bring the occupation to an end, subsequent Israeli governments chose to entrench it through building settlements in the West Bank and through fueling a process of de-facto annexation there. Perpetuating the occupation in that manner has created an endemic situation in the West Bank in which Palestinians are grossly discriminated against and oppressed, a situation in which both human rights and collective national rights of Palestinians are violated. As long as the occupation continues, both Palestinians and Israelis are denied the peace, security and dignity that they wish and deserve.

Having opposed it for more than four decades, we at APN would be the first to acknowledge that the occupation is wrong, unjust and corrupt.

But it is not slavery. It’s occupation, and this occupation is not taking place “in Palestine/Israel” but rather in territories that are not sovereign Israel, territories that the US government and the international community believe should become the future state of Palestine. 

We live in an environment of linguistic inflation, which entices hyperbole. But words matter.

With forty years of experience advocating and acting to end the occupation, we know the importance of plainly and boldly depicting the occupation as the travesty that it is. But we also know how damaging inaccurate language can be. Particularly language that associates slavery with Jews.

Such language evokes antisemitic tropes and risks further stoking hatred. It also harms efforts to pursue an effective peaceful solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To solve a problem, you must first accurately diagnose it. Rev. Nelson failed to do so.

Did Rev. Nelson really mean to state that the occupation equals slavery? We don’t know, but we trust that he knows the facts better than to make such a simplistic brazen statement. If he was speaking figuratively, we urge him to better pick his words. We also urge him to be extra careful not to evoke – even if unintentionally – antisemitic sentiments. And we are happy to work with him and his church to discuss the conflict and the occupation and ways to bring them to an end.