Two leading bishops in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts formally apologized Friday for their role in spreading a false account of grave crimes allegedly committed by Israeli security forces.
A recap of what led to this: Bishop Suffragan Gayle Harris originally claimed at the church’s general convention last month to have witnessed Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian child and murder, without provocation, a Palestinian teenager. Her account was picked apart by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Dexter Van Zile at the watchdog group CAMERA who pointed to its factual inaccuracies. Under pressure, Harris admitted she hadn’t actually witnessed the events but was relaying unconfirmed stories she’d heard from third parties on visits to Israel. Following that admission I wrote an article at The Scroll last week, Lullabies and Blood Libels, questioning the motivations and historical lineage behind the bishop’s claims.
Then, on Friday, the Massachusetts Diocese apologized. “I was speaking from my passion for justice for all people, but I was repeating what I received secondhand. I was ill-advised to repeat the stories without verification, and I apologize for doing so,” Harris said. Her statement was followed by an even more strongly worded apology from the Diocesan Bishop of Massachusetts, Alan M. Gates. “We grieve damage done to our relationships with Jewish friends and colleagues in Massachusetts,” he wrote, in part.
I’m a writer; I don’t have any special power or authority to forgive anything not done to me personally, but I can and do commend the Massachusetts Diocese for publicly taking this step. And finally, while I wouldn’t presume to advise bishops on the moral aspects of contrition, I do know something about how narrative biases can lead good people to embrace false claims; it’s very rarely due to a personal moral failing and far more often a problem with the narrative.
Read the full statements from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts here:
Statement from Bishop Gayle E. Harris
I am very aware of the dismay resulting from my statements on the floor of the House of Bishops at the General Convention in July relating to Israel and Palestine.
For my entire adult life I have maintained that the State of Israel must exist, with safe borders and the establishment of respectful relationships by and with neighboring countries. I have strongly condemned the actions of extremists and bigots against Jewish people in the United States. I also hold that within any country’s borders justice and the respect for the dignity of every human being is paramount. I have not, nor would I ever, condemn the whole of any people or ethnic group by criticizing the actions of a few, whether as individuals or as agents of any government.
After reviewing my words in the House of Bishops from a transcription, I now acknowledge that I reported stories which I had heard and unintentionally framed them as though I had personally witnessed the alleged events. I sincerely apologize. I now understand how the framing of my words could and did give the wrong impression. The fault is solely mine. I acknowledge also that I did not take the opportunity to verify these stories. I was speaking from my passion for justice for all people, but I was repeating what I received secondhand. I was ill-advised to repeat the stories without verification, and I apologize for doing so.
Our society is experiencing a rise in public slander, anger and bigotry, where civility and respectful dialogue on different perspectives has been sidelined for invective and condemnation. In this context, I am now painfully aware that my words in the House of Bishops caused pain for many. I am committed to share my concerns in ways that do not simplistically demonize others and cut off discussion, and I hope for the same in return.
Again, for the hurt I have caused, I do apologize. It is my hope, and my commitment centered on our baptismal vows to continue to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (from The Baptismal Covenant, The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer). May there be such equality and respect between Israelis and Palestinians, and may there be among us all justice, in order to bring God’s peace.
Shalom and Salaam,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
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Statement from Bishop Alan M. Gates
I affirm Bishop Harris’s apology.
We recognize that for Christian leaders to relate unsubstantiated accounts of Israeli violence awakens traumatic memory of a deep history of inciting hostility and violence against Jews—a history the echoes of which are heard alarmingly in our own day.
We grieve damage done to our relationships with Jewish friends and colleagues in Massachusetts, and rededicate ourselves to those partnerships, in which we are grateful to face complexities together.
We reaffirm our condemnation of violence on all sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We uphold the Episcopal Church’s longstanding position of support for those who strive towards the goal of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.