On its final full day, amidst an overloaded docket of business, the 2016 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly spent more than 2-1/2 hours wrestling with its response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The June 24 report of the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee was consumed in debate over a series of measures proposing verbal and symbolic protests against Israel’s presence in the majority-Palestinian West Bank. A determined minority of commissioners put forward amendments and substitute motions trying to soften and balance the assembly’s criticisms of Israel. The dissidents won some concessions; however, they failed to parry the overall anti-Israel thrust of original proposals. The Portland assembly’s condemnations of the Jewish state are still stinging.
The most hotly debated measure, a 36-page report entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” passed the assembly [link to other article when available] essentially unaltered. The report (Item 08-06) from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) blames “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” for the stalemate in peace talks with the Palestinians. By contrast, it finds little fault with the Palestinian leadership.
The ACSWP report passed the assembly by a wide 429-129 vote. The dissidents lost this and other 2016 votes by far larger majorities than the razor-thin margins by which earlier assemblies had decided divestment and other Middle East-related issues. This shift in vote patterns may reflect the altered dynamics of a denomination whose more conservative elements are diminished and discouraged.
‘A Pugnaciously Flawed Document’ Survives
A minority report had challenged the ACSWP proposal as “a pugnaciously flawed document.” The committee minority asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency to revise ACSWP’s document to “remove rhetorical structure” that may “harm interreligious dialogue” with the Jewish community. The minority also wanted the mission agency to “add content that acknowledges and offers a corrective to the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism complicate global discourse about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”
But Sam Jones of the ACSWP writing team defended the one-sided criticism of Israel. “The balance in suffering and power of Palestinians and Israelis … simply does not exist,” Jones told the commissioners. “The number of deaths, acres of land taken, demolitions of houses and infrastructure, children arrested, and other human rights violations are disproportionately Palestinian…. And there is no balance of power between an occupying power with one of the world’s strongest militaries and the occupied population.” The minority report failed on a 140-405 vote. The only notable change made to the ACSWP report was the addition of a prefatory comment stressing the assembly’s “preference for a two-state solution” with Israel existing alongside a sovereign Palestinian state.
‘Not Much to Commend’ in Israel
The vote was similarly overwhelming, 464-95, in favor of an overture (Item 08-02) denouncing Israel for “widespread and systematic patterns of ill treatment and torture” of Palestinian children. The overture bases this accusation, in part, on a 2013 United Nations report enumerating such abuses. It fails to note that Israel changed some practices in response to the UN report—a change acknowledged by the UN. In view of this information, Teaching Elder Commissioner Mark Boyd from Beaver-Butler Presbytery in Pennsylvania proposed an amendment to “commend the State of Israel for its response to concerns and criticisms raised in the UN report of 2013” and urge the Israeli government to “continue in this work of reform.”
Teaching Elder Derek Forbes from Utah Presbytery replied, “Currently, there is not much to commend for how the Israeli Defense Forces are treating children. We heard people speak from the area who told us offenses against children are as severe as ever.” Boyd’s amendment was defeated on a voice vote.
Ruling Elder Karen Beshears from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois remarked that many of the Palestinian minors detained by Israeli forces are “teenagers who are taught to do things that are dangerous to themselves and others.” The only change made to Item 08-02 was the insertion in committee of a clause calling on “the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the government of Israel to denounce and cease the incitement of violence against children or at the hands of children.” The overture does not specifically accuse Palestinian leaders of inciting children to violence, while it goes into detail about alleged Israeli violence against children.
Trying to Listen to Both Sides
More significant changes were made to Item 08-07, an overture that encourages Presbyterians to “prayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel.” Teaching Elder Christopher Carlson from Peace River Presbytery in Florida objected: ““For the last 68 years Israel has been surrounded by countries and organizations that have sought to destroy Israel. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions is the same song, 25th verse.” Carlson described the international BDS movement as “an attempt to destroy Israel” by economic means. He declared, “We [the PCUSA] have no business studying how to support such an action and being enablers to those who wish to do such economic violence.”
Objections like Carlson’s were answered in committee by amendments advising church members also to consult “resources that oppose this BDS movement.” With those amendments, the overture was approved by the assembly on a 407-146 vote.
The only item of assembly business that went against the anti-Israel grain was a commissioners’ resolution (Item 08-08) requesting all PCUSA entities “to refrain from financial support and affiliation with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, an umbrella organization of BDS advocate groups.” The assembly turned this resolution aside by saying it had answered the concern with its call (in 08-07) for dialogue with BDS proponents and opponents.
The only anti-Israel proposal that the assembly rejected was Item 08-01, an overture that summoned Presbyterians to “boycott all products manufactured and sold” by Hewlett Packard (HP). The reason cited was HP’s sales of information technology to the Israeli military. Teaching Elder Bob Kelley from Nevada shared his misgivings about the suggested boycott: Even if successful, it would simply allow another corporation to take HP’s share of the Israeli market. “The answer,” Kelley said, “is not a boycott but actually being able to put pressure on the United States government to prevent the exportation of this kind of technology to Israel.” The boycott overture was disapproved on a 483-72 vote.
A Glaring Disproportion
Item 08-04 was substantially softened in the Middle East Issues Committee. The original overture sought to press the real estate firm RE/MAX to “cut its ties with [Israeli] franchises involved in the sale or rental of [Jewish] settlement properties in the occupied West Bank.” The overture was amended to commend RE/MAX “for responding favorably to discussions of this matter with representatives of the PC(USA) and committing to take action to ensure that RE/MAX, LLC, will no longer receive any income from the sale of Jewish settlement properties in the West Bank.” The amended overture was approved without debate in a consent agenda.
Likewise on the consent agenda was Item 08-03, an overture expressing concern about unidentified “religiously based radical thought and action” causing Middle Eastern Christians to flee. Since that overture was the only Middle East Issues Committee item of business dealing with anything besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the result was that the committee’s plenary report was all Israel/Palestine, all the time. The entire 2-1/2 hours was taken up in discussing disputes among 12 million Israelis and Palestinians. The other 400 million-plus people in the Middle East went virtually unmentioned. Scarcely a word was said about catastrophic civil wars in larger countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.