the 221st General Assembly

Not the Post I Planned

This is not the post I planned to write.

That post was called “From Fictions to Lies:  Institutional Support for the MESC”.  It was a scandalized reaction to recent official and semi-official Presbyterian strategic moves to push forward the anti-Israel agenda at the General Assembly.  I found myself thinking about how best to persuade, how best to counter, how to even get a hearing from commissioners.

Then I remembered a line from the 1968 movie, Lion in Winter:

I’m vilifying you.  For God’s sake, pay attention.

(I admit it; I’m a sucker for quotes.)  When I thought of this, I laughed out loud.  It struck me as eminently appropriate; it described both what I was doing in my intended post (and what I have done in one or two others), and what the MESC, the ACSWP, the MRTI, the IPMN, and some presbyteries are doing to Israel and to the Jewish people.

I’m no good at strategy; I detest marketing; I don’t even particularly like politics – except as a study in human behavior.  I’m just a guy with a blog, spending way too much time (I don’t really have), hoping to dissuade people I actually care about from embracing something ugly, harmful, and untrue.  At that point, I realized there was nothing I could do to improve the situation – the 219th General Assembly was going to do what it was going to do, and my best response was to wait it out.

So here we are, several days later.  The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has adjourned.  For good or ill it has completed its work.  And for the next few weeks a variety of interested parties will attempt to interpret their actions – both to Presbyterians and to people outside the denomination.

How did they do?

My first reaction is to say, “The lamps are going out in Presbyterian churches all over America; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

But that is unjust.  It is not an accurate reaction.  It is no more true than the statements that celebrate the miracle at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

More accurately, the 219th General Assembly attempted to split the difference.

They seem to be seeking the illusion of safety by carefully steering a course between the virulently anti-Israel, the occasionally anti-Judaic, the sometimes openly antisemitic on one side and the less virulently anti-Israel and moderately prejudiced on the other.  At this point commissioners do not seem to have realized that the coveted middle ground is only middle ground within the context of business items overwhelmingly skewed in one direction.

What they did that was good:

1.  They rejected divestment.

2.  They rejected the use of the word “apartheid”.

3.  They elected to only receive the first section of the Middle East Study Committee Report. As such, it has no real status in the PC(USA) – so its statements criticizing American Jewish groups, its quirky theology, its patronizing letters, and the peculiar vignettes (whose status was never clear – as these were randomly interspersed in this section) aren’t PC(USA) policy.  Nonetheless, receiving this section and using it as rationale for the large number of approved recommendations gives it some authority.

4.  They altered the language on the Gaza blockade from blanket opposition to this:

Calls on the Israeli and Egyptian governments to limit their blockade of Gaza solely to military equipment/devices and to guarantee adequate levels of food, medicine, building supplies, and other humanitarian items, and to allow free commercial exchange in and out of Gaza, and calls on the U.S. government to end any support for the blockade that interferes with the adequacy of such items or such exchange.

5.  They explicitly re-affirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”

6.  They rejected the call for the MESC to become a permanent monitoring group. Instead, they call for the creation of a seven member group selected by the current and immediate past moderators (Elder Cynthia Bolbach and Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow).  This group must include at least one but no more than two MESC members; the total membership must “together comprise an authentic balance representing the fullness of the spectrum of commitments within the PC(USA) toward the people and issues in the region”.

7. They rejected part 3 of the report with its extremely one-sided history. Instead they solicited eight narratives of comparable length, four “from the range of authentically Palestinian perspectives” and four “from the range of authentically Israeli perspectives” to take its place.  These narratives and an additional bibliography are to be approved by the monitoring group.

Clearly, the GA made some improvements to the MESC Report, and clearly the GA chose to avoid extremity in a couple of business items.  Nonetheless, a great deal now hinges on the good faith of the current and immediately past moderators to select an authentic balance of participants in the new monitoring group.  It should be pointed out that a similar requirement for balance was in place when the original, highly unbalanced MESC was selected.

There is one other positive outcome I must mention – in order to be fully honest and accurate.  A large number of clearly moderate and even very pro-institutional Presbyterians (with regular critics of Israeli actions among them) recognized that the Middle East Study Committee Report went too far – was too unfair – and needed a greater degree of balance.  Even two members of the committee supported some change in this regard.  Some people place great hope in this change of heart; I am not among them.  But it is a development worth watching.

What the 219th GA did that was neutral:

1.  They switched the order of words in their partial endorsement of the Kairos document. Perhaps this helps to clarify the intent of the MESC recommendation.  Yet it still leaves an open question:  what exact elements of the Kairos document are indicated by, “emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation”?  [For those unfamiliar with the document, it should be mentioned that (among other things) it supports boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, and it rejects the concept of a Jewish state.  The bottom line:  the moral character of this endorsement depends entirely what exactly it is interpreted to entail.]

2.  They passed resolutions criticizing the U.S. for its military aid to Israel, and calling on the U.S. to make all aid to Israel “contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” [I have listed this as neutral because it is not a new action for the PC(USA); prior General Assemblies have made comparable demands.  Yet the modified MESC report replaced the original report’s “military aid” with the broader phrase “U.S. aid to Israel”.]

What the 219th GA did that was bad:

1.  They referred the paper, “Christians and Jews:  People of God”, for a re-write. [Rejecting the paper was not necessarily bad in itself – one could have had legitimate reasons to do so.  Nonetheless, the instructions the GA gave for the re-write, the overture to which it responded, and the fact that it passed the paper, “Toward an Understanding of Christian Muslim Relations” add up to an extraordinarily negative decision.  Among other things, this rejected paper included a Presbyterian rejection of Christian antisemitism.]

2.  They approved the inexcusably unbalanced ACSWP Human Rights Update 2010. [This committee was tasked with

Identify[ing] Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly.

The only nation the ACSWP saw fit to mention by name as a violator of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim civil rights and a violator of religious freedoms was Israel.]

3.  They denounced Caterpillar. [Although stopping short of divestment, as symbolic gestures go, I’m not sure Israel-based denunciation is any better.]

4.  They approved the rest of the recommendations of the MESC report. [See here for a more detailed listing of problematic items contained in the modified report.]

5.  They approved the Belhar Confession [which is being used by anti-Israel activists as a (false) justification for church condemnations of Israel.]

6.  They rejected the proposal to amend the process for forming PC(USA) social witness policy [which would at least have broadened Presbyterian participation in decision making.]

A great many people will try to put the best face on this set of outcomes.  Yet I cannot call the 219th General Assembly’s actions good.  The PC(USA) is in a worse position than it was two weeks ago.  It is more anti-Israel; it has taken steps to affirm biased, anti-Israel, and even anti-Jewish statements on the part of its staff, its networks, and partners; it has once again taken the lead position among anti-Israel U.S. denominations.  Yes, there are glimmers of hope:  it was not as bad as it threatened to be; the moderators may do a fairer job at selecting Middle East monitoring group members; influential Presbyterians may have started to see that there are limits to how far the PC(USA) should actually go.

Is the glass nine-tenths empty or ten percent full? I guess it depends on your perspective.

What I do know is this:

The situation of Israelis and Palestinians is very complicated.  It is not, as it is often cast, solely a justice issue with Israeli perpetrators and Palestinian victims.  There are injustices certainly – and these need to be corrected.  But this cannot be done by unjustly hearing only the concerns of one side.

It is possible to be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel.  It is difficult, but it is a worthwhile effort – especially for church organizations.  This requires a greater degree of creativity and work than that exhibited thus far within the PC(USA).  Yet it is a failing shared among the pro-Palestinian advocacy community and those Presbyterians committed to fairness and accuracy.

Antisemitic and anti-Judaic themes are NEVER OK.  They are ugly, dangerous, and unworthy of followers of Jesus Christ.  [Given the history of Christian antisemitism, this is an area about which Christians should be vigilant.]

Holding Israel to a standard different than that to which you hold all other nations is bias, it is prejudiced, it is unjustifiable – and it is being done here.

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism.  Antisemitism is antisemitism.  Criticism of Israel can be biased – in which case the critic is guilty of anti-Israel bias.  Some critics of Israel also happen to dabble in antisemitic themes.  Bias is a problem, but it is the antisemitism that is THE problem – not the criticism of Israel.

The PC(USA) (like many groups involved in Middle East advocacy) has a systemic problem of anti-Israel bias, the employment of anti-Judaic themes, and the occasional use of classical antisemitic arguments.  This problem remains unaddressed by the 219th General Assembly – not so much by silence but by actual choice on the part of commissioners to reject anything that might limit it.

The penultimate Presbyterian fiction is this:  that Presbyterians in the pews are not accountable for the actions of the national organization.  It is easy to regard this as the product of eight days in Minneapolis, an event of which many Presbyterians took little notice and which has little effect on them.  But six years have passed since the PC(USA) emerged into the public consciousness with its divestment initiative.  Three General Assemblies have come and gone.  Much press coverage has been lavished on the PC(USA).  By this point, the policies of the national organization on Israel and Palestine are the property of ordinary Presbyterians – whether they agree with them or not.

Will Spotts

Comments on: "Not the Post I Planned" (6)

  1. As a Canadian Christian following this with interest, I’m really puzzled as to why you would view denouncing of Caterpillar as negative. What was being specifically criticised, as far as I understand, was Caterpillar’s sale of armoured bulldozers and other equipment that is being used to tear down Palestinian houses and other civilian infrastructure. Can you say more? Thanks.


  2. Unfortunately, my answer to your question is far too long for a comment. I’ll touch only a few of the variety of reasons I rate it that way. Several of them do pertain to a church rather than individual stance; others are very specific to the PC(USA) process involved. If a person individually decides to denounce, dislike, divest from, or boycott Caterpillar, that is a somewhat different matter.

    1. The PC(USA) has never done the work to actually qualify for an ethical investment stand in this case. Its committee responsible for that work has never provided concrete information about the investments and potential investments of the PC(USA). Instead, it picked CAT as one of a few companies, but it has not provided commissioners with this information: what characteristics did the many hundreds of PC(USA) investments not chosen have that eliminated them? What specifically alerted the MRTI to CAT, MOT, etc.? What was their research process? Without this information, commissioners voting for this are not making a moral choice – they are jumping on a bandwagon.

    2. In this, the PC(USA) is treating Israel in a manner distinct from the way it has treated all other nations. You’ll notice that this item was not considered in the context of PC(USA) investments, but by its Middle East Peacemaking committee at the GA. The issue here is Israel rather than objectionable policies of CAT. The (now former – this was 2006) highest elected official in the PC(USA) justified this by saying that Israel committed the same types of human rights abuses as S. Africa and Sudan. You may or may not argue about the 1st assertion. The second is absurd, bigoted, and profoundly offensive.

    3. This is inescapably related to a larger BDS movement. CAT is a target of that movement. The logic of BDS is destruction of the *current* state of Israel. It is not functioning by actually materially affecting Israel or, for that matter, CAT – but as theater, making Israel a uniquely evil state (which is utterly unjustified by the facts) and isolating it in order to force concessions. Yet the concessions demanded by most participants in the BDS campaign is the destruction of the current state of Israel. Denunciation in this climate serves the same purpose as divestment.

    If the PC(USA) chose to denounce CAT because its potential military uses – in the same manner that the PC(USA) does not invest in armaments companies or tobacco companies, that would be a very different matter.


  3. Thanks for responding; it’s helpful info.I wouldn’t agree that BDS is about “destroying” the current state of Israel, any more than BDS against South Africa was about “destroying” South Africa (as many White supporters claimed at the time). It was about changing a state’s actions and policies, and examples of the strategy are frequent enough that I don’t think one can say BDS is about Israel being “uniquely evil” in either intent or impact. Sudan, Burma, West Papua/ Indonesia, Colombia– all have divestment campaigns of one sort another underway against them. A Canadian example re Sudan would be churches’ efforts here to get Talisman oil to pull out (which they eventually did). Now we’re shifting focus to DR Congo, where many of our mining companies are active in the conflict minerals trade.

    Divestment strategies are always going to be unevenly applied, depending on the investors, the companies, and the home office/ majority shareholder nationality of each. Simply put, Israel is one more human rights violator among many. You will hear more about it in the US because your nation is far and away Israel’s biggest funder. So it’s right that the churches should focus on it, because it’s your tax money going into settlement building, house demolitions, and the use of massive military capacity against a largely unarmed and entirely civilian population. Here there is considerable proof that our federal government has shifted its policy away from a (viable) two state solution in favour of virtually anything Israel chooses to do, so the churches are increasing their focus on the issue. Here too, it’s one issue among many.

    I agree that the CAT focus needs to look at the military applications of its products, which would be easy to track. I am no expert on the PCUSA’s approach to the question, but criticism of military applications would seem to me to be inherent in any denouncing or other action, especially since in the Israel-Palestine context any military application involving construction equipment is obviously going to be aimed almost purely at civilians. On that basis alone, they should be engaged in conversation and considered a prime target not only for divestment but for boycott.


  4. I suppose it will come as no surprise to you that I completely disagree with your framing of the conflict.

    As for uniqueness – I am speaking of the PC(USA) – and yes – if you want to spit hairs, Israel becomes one of three – along with Sudan and South Africa – so “uni”que cannot quite apply. Yet it is elevated to a status of egregious evil not in any way justified by its actions in comparison to those of other nations. Naturally, one can’t grade on a curve when it comes to human rights issues. Yet a double standard is being applied against Israel.

    Yes, you are of course correct that Israel is more an issue in the US because of US support for Israel. Yet the BDS effort – which is basically what we’re talking about – is not a US issue. It is worldwide. How might one account for say the actions of the WCC, WARC or others that AREN’T in the US – and are still disproportionately focused on Israel? Equally disturbing, how many other recipients of US aid of various kinds are subjected to anywhere near similar scrutiny that the PC(USA) has lavished on Israel.

    I think Mark Braverman said something like 40% of the business before this GA concerned Israel. While I suspect that is an exaggeration (I haven’t counted), I think it does demonstrate the ubiquity of Presbyterian focus on Israel among all nations under heaven.


  5. W. Spotts, Perhaps to revisit the beginning, Herzl acted and created the Zionist concept under the inspiration by Ferenc Deak 1803-1876. Deak created one of the earliest non-violence movements in Europe with an exceptional success that still shapes history into the present times.

    Israelis in majority, can be called the followers of the Deakian non-violence, and are pained by the 100 year conflict.

    I am talking to my Palestinian friends to adopt the Deakian policies of non-violence, and the rest will be easy. Something like the 1867 Treaty between Austria and Hungary, can lead to the respectability of Palestine, and to violence free Mid-East. (This same advice can be heard from Gene Sharp,

    The overall nurturing of non-violence can be more important than the hair-splitting arguments noticed in American churches and circles.


  6. I’m coming late to your party. I’m a Presbyterian in Southern California.

    I’m sorely disappointed by what happened at the 219th GA. Their hostility towards Israel is merely an indication of the group (or groups) that are taking over – and have been taking over for years.

    You’d think that losing a few million members might get their attention, but that doesn’t seem important to them.

    There’s a simple statement of the Israeli-Arab conflict: If the Arabs had no guns (updated today to rockets), there would be no war. If the Israelis had no guns, there would be no Israel.

    Under “What they did that was good:”, you cite:
    “… hey call for the creation of a seven member group selected by the current and immediate past moderators (Elder Cynthia Bolbach and Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow). … the total membership must “together comprise an authentic balance representing the fullness of the spectrum of commitments within the PC(USA) toward the people and issues in the region”.

    Unfortunately, the “full spectrum within the PC(USA)” is one they see only with dark-colored glasses: Israel is bad, Palestinians are oppressed by the evil Zionist Empire, any support the US gives to Israel is wicked,…

    Speaking of Mr Reyes-Chow – recently, he spoke at a rally opposing Prop 8, and said
    “… We will no long stand and allow the message of hope, compassion, justice and love to be drowned out by the screams of hatred, oppression and injustice [applause].”

    That’s us: hateful, oppressive, unjust.


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