Like the drive to convey the church’s blessing upon same-sex marriage, the campaign to bring the church’s condemnation upon Israel will be back at this year’s Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. Both causes suffered narrow defeats at the 2012 assembly, but their proponents are returning with fresh determination.
Since 2004 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been second only to sexuality issues in generating controversy at PCUSA assemblies. And judging by the volume and ferocity of the overtures advanced this year, the intensity of the anti-Israel activists will again almost match that of the same-sex marriage champions.
The objective of those activists has been to enlist the PCUSA in the international movement to target Israel for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS). The 2012 General Assembly urged Presbyterians to boycott products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank; however, it turned down a proposal to divest PCUSA holdings in three companies that sell non-lethal equipment to the Israeli military. By a 333-331 vote, the assembly commissioners preferred a resolution that emphasized “active investment” in Palestinian development projects.
A groundswell against Israel?
Nevertheless, the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) is coming forward again this year with another proposal to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. This MRTI proposal will likely be the focus of debate at the Detroit assembly. But there will also be at least eight other resolutions and overtures aimed against Israel.
These measures will create the impression of a popular groundswell of Presbyterians demanding that their denomination rebuke the Jewish state. In fact, however, the overtures come from a handful of presbyteries that have a record of pro-Palestinian advocacy. PCUSA members in general are more moderate, and more divided, on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
In a 2009 Presbyterian Panel survey, PCUSA members chose “addressing extremism and the threat of violence” and “freedom of worship” as their highest priorities in the Middle East. “Limiting the influence and military capacity of the Iranian government” was endorsed by 64 percent. Some 40 percent said it was “very important” to “maintain the close diplomatic and military relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments” and “maintain positive relationships between Presbyterians and members of the U.S. Jewish community.” Only 36 percent favored “permanent Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
But the bulk of this year’s Middle East initiatives aim to impel such a withdrawal through economic and other pressures. Several overtures lend direct support to MRTI’s divestment drive. Frequently, they speak in sharper tones than the denominational committee.
Backing the divestment drive
Item 04-02, from San Francisco Presbytery, denounces the three companies for “contributing to and profiting from the relentless, five-decade-long, military occupation of the Palestinian territories.” It alleges that “the occupation of Palestine … destroys lives and cultures.” The overture would address this problem by mandating PCUSA divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Item 04-06, from Mackinac Presbytery in Michigan, seeks “occupation-free investment in Palestine.” Like the item from San Francisco, the Mackinac overture does not define the “Palestine” whose occupation must end – whether it is limited to the West Bank and Gaza, or whether it includes the territory that is now Israel. The overture affirms both “active investment” and “long-standing denominational procedures of corporate engagement with companies that contribute to or benefit financially from the work of occupation.”
Mackinac maintains, “To the extent that such procedures of corporate engagement do not produce satisfactory results, we affirm the denomination’s commitment to pursue prudent steps to withdraw any funding currently invested in such companies.” Unlike Item 04-02, the overture does not name companies targeted for divestment.
Item 04-07, from the Synod of the Covenant, takes the simplest approach. It asks the Detroit assembly to approve the MRTI recommendation. Divesting from the three companies would “preserve the integrity of the church’s witness for a just peace,” according to the synod.
Item 04-05, from New Brunswick Presbytery in New Jersey, singles out one of the MRTI-targeted corporations. It also turns to a different means of economic pressure. The overture “call[s] for the boycott of all products manufactured and sold by Hewlett-Packard until the company ceases to profit from all non-peaceful pursuits in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Escalating the rhetoric against Israeli ‘apartheid’
Item 04-03, from Grace Presbytery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, would escalate PCUSA rhetoric against Israel. The overture asks the General Assembly to “[r]espect the human rights of the Israeli people and oppose all forms of anti-Semitism, and deplore the violation of the human rights of the Palestinians by the government of Israel.” It then lists seven types of Israeli abuses against Palestinians, and also condemns “Israeli violence against its neighboring countries.” There is no concern expressed about violence against Israel by Palestinian and other Arab governments and movements.
The Grace overture would deliver a General Assembly verdict “that the actions of the Israeli government listed above meet and surpass the United Nations definition of apartheid.” The implications of this analogy to white-ruled South Africa are clear: The Jewish state is fundamentally illegitimate, and it needs to disappear as did the white minority government in Pretoria.
The overture has an extraordinarily long rationale – 10 pages – that presents accusations against Israel in great detail. It boasts, “This rationale will demonstrate that in addition to apartheid, Israel’s policies and practices include additional elements of crimes against humanity.”
Charging a government with “crimes against humanity” usually suggests that top officials, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should face criminal prosecution in the International Court of Justice. The overture brings no such charge of “crimes against humanity” against any other Middle Eastern government – not even Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that drops indiscriminate “barrel bombs” and starves rebel-held areas in the civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives.
Grace Presbytery takes pains to insist that “[t]his overture is not anti-Israel” and “[t]his overture is not anti-Semitic.” On the contrary, it contends, “This overture is part of an honest interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians.” Some Jews (and some Presbyterians) might disagree about the honesty of an endeavor that finds fault only with Israel.
Hearing some ‘prophetic voices’
The denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) decided that it too needed to take a swipe at Israel. ACSWP’s “Resolution on Equal Rights for All Inhabitants of Israel and Palestine and on Conversations with Prophetic Voices” makes a dozen demands on behalf of Arab citizens of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Almost all the demands – for example, “freedom of travel and worship [for Israeli Arabs], including legal protections for non-Jewish sites” – are addressed to Israel. Only one – “fair due process for Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories who are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned either by the Israeli Defense Force or the Palestinian Authority” – hints (gently) that Palestinians may suffer sometimes at the hands of their own leaders. No demands are addressed to other Arab governments that sometimes mistreat Palestinian refugees.
The ACSWP resolution makes it appear that Israeli Arabs experience severe deprivation of human rights. But independent human rights reports show that Israel offers the region’s broadest range of civil and political and religious rights, including for its non-Jewish citizens. Israeli Arabs are far freer and more prosperous than their kin in neighboring countries. (Compare Freedom House ratings for Israel, Egypt, and Syria.)
ACSWP encourages Presbyterians to engage Middle East discussions with “a full range of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian viewpoints …, including the increasing number of prophetic voices committed to nonviolence and equal rights such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, Kairos Palestine U.S., Friends of Sabeel North America, Muslims for Progressive Values, and coalitions like the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.”
The groups named, however, hardly represent “a full range of viewpoints.” They are all harshly critical of Israel, while generally refraining from public criticism of Palestinian or other Arab leaders. The Jewish groups named all come from the leftmost, anti-Zionist fringe of the Jewish community. Apparently, only these are “prophetic voices” recognized by ACSWP. Mainstream Jews who support Israel cannot be “prophetic voices,” in ACSWP’s reckoning.
Two states or one state?
Two other anti-Israel overtures raise larger questions—beyond the immediate debates about BDS tactics. Item 04-01, from San Francisco, requests an ACSWP report to the 2016 assembly on “whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, or take a neutral stance that seeks not to determine for Israelis and Palestinians what the right ‘solution’ should be.”
But the overture is not “neutral” on the question. It cites several “true facts on the ground”—all reflecting negatively on Israel, all suggesting that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would not be viable. “In light of these facts on the ground,” the overture says, “it seems unrealistic, and perhaps even naïve, for the PC(USA) to maintain a policy of calling for a two-state solution when no real possibility of that seems to exist.”
San Francisco dismisses the current approach of “active investment” in the Palestinian economy. It complains:
Simple, financial investment in a completely occupied land where the occupiers are relentless and unwavering regarding their occupation is not enough to dismantle the matrix of that occupation or dramatically change the vast majority of communities or individual lives that are bowed and broken by systematic and intentional injustice.
The overture demands full liberation from Israeli rule.
If San Francisco rejects the idea of a state for Jews alongside a state for Palestinians, which other “solution” does it favor? The overture gives no direct answer. But the other option, long favored by many Palestinian advocates, is the “single state solution.” Israel as a Jewish homeland would vanish, and it would be swallowed up by a larger entity encompassing all the territory of the former British mandate of Palestine. Many Palestinians hope, and many Jews fear, that the single state would soon have an Arab majority that would submerge the Jews. This is the future toward which the PCUSA might be pointing if the intention of Item 04-01 were realized.
Rejecting ‘God’s covenant with Israel’
Item 07-01, from Chicago Presbytery, points toward an equally profound theological shift. For much of its history, most of the Church believed that God had rejected the Jews, that He had no more purpose for them as a people, and that the Church had completely replaced Israel as the channel for God’s self-revelation to the world. After the Holocaust, and even before in some cases, many Christian theologians reread Romans 9-11 and concluded that this traditional “replacement theology” was wrong. For the past two generations, the mainstream in the PCUSA and most other western denominations has affirmed that God continues to be in relationship with the Jewish people.
But the Chicago overture challenges that teaching. It opposes the use of “God’s Covenant with Israel” as a section heading in the new PCUSA hymnal. Quoting a letter from a Palestinian American Presbyterian, the overture argues that “this language is inflammatory, misleading and hurtful.” Chicago particularly regrets the great Advent hymn that begins “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” The presbytery fears the hymn might lead some worshipers to infer that God had a hand in gathering persecuted Jews into the modern state of Israel.
The overture cites theology professor Joshua Ralston: “The best way for Christians to avoid this bind is to more clearly question the direct correlation between ancient Israel, Jews across space and time, and the modern political state of Israel.” Chicago requests that the PCUSA develop educational materials to draw a strict distinction between ancient Israel and modern Israel, lest anyone suppose there might be some connection or continuity between God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his dealings with modern Jews in Israel.
A lone contrary voice
Only one item of business coming to the assembly takes a different tack. Item 04-04, from New Covenant Presbytery in Houston, would “[r]eject any proposed divestment and economic sanctions against the state of Israel or any application of the PCUSA’s corporate engagement policy toward those ends.” The overture would also state that the assembly “does not endorse boycotts of Israeli or Palestinian products.”
“Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts that target Israel are fundamentally unjust, do not advance peace, and should not be supported,” New Covenant contends. It notes obstacles to peace on both sides of the conflict:
We hear endlessly within our church about the need to ‘end the occupation.’ However, if Israelis believe the West Bank could become another launching pad for rocket attacks in the manner Gaza has, they will, understandably, not end their military presence in the West Bank. Until the rocket attacks and other violence end permanently, and Palestinians as a people come together and abandon the idea of destroying Israel, there can be no free and independent Palestinian state.
The overture argues that the conflict will not be solved by short-term pressure on only one side, but by long-term reconciliation efforts addressed to both sides:
Negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders are ‘frozen’ because neither side yet has a powerful enough consensus from their people to negotiate a final and definitive peace agreement. Such a consensus is built one person at a time. Our role, as a church, should be to support grassroots dialogue and bridge-building toward that end, especially with young Palestinians and Israelis, and support positive economic cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli business enterprises. When such social and economic efforts are successful, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders are more empowered to take the risks necessary to achieve sustainable peace.
Why the disproportion?
So there are seven overtures and two agency recommendations coming to the Detroit assembly that all seek to convey criticism of Israel’s human rights record, by harsh words or by BDS economic pressure. On the other side, there is only one overture casting doubt upon this confrontational strategy. Regarding the rest of the world, there are so far only three items of business that raise concerns about human rights violations by actors other than Israel or the United States.
Item 11-02, from Pittsburgh Presbytery, calls “attention to the plight of the church of Jesus Christ that is suffering due to sectarian violence and persecution in Egypt and other parts of the world.” Item 11-07, from Los Ranchos Presbytery in California, encourages commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. A resolution from the Presbyterian Mission Agency advocates “self-determination for the people of the region known as Western Sahara.”
None of these three assesses blame for the abuses it addresses. None recommends verbal rebukes or BDS measures as the solution to the problem.
Why this disproportion – nine aggressive items of business targeting Israel, alongside three mild expressions of concern about the rest of the world? Is this disproportion justified from a Christian moral perspective? These will be questions for General Assembly commissioners to ask and seek to answer.