the 221st General Assembly

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Palestine News Network lists PC(USA) divestment among bds achievements in 2014


In its roundup of BDS achievements for 2014, the Palestine News Network lists the Presbyterian divestment decision:

Years of grassroots organising pays off as the Presbyterian Church (USA) general assembly in Detroit votes to divest its holdings from three US corporations – Hewlett Packard (HP), Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar – on the basis of their well-documented record of complicity in the oppression and denial of human rights of Palestinians.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions National Committee “warmly thanks each and every person who supported and contributed to the BDS movement this year.

Contrast this with the language inserted into the PC(USA)’s divestment decision:

“This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented … as … an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

And with Moderator Heath Rada’s comforting assurance:

“In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Your fig leaf is slipping.  The world outside the peculiar atmosphere of the 221st General Assembly Meeting last June had absolutely no illusions about the action.  Most of the assembled commissioners had no illusions about the action.  Some lied about it; others lied to themselves about it.  But most understood the reality.

You cannot be a little BDS.  As an entity, the PC(USA) has endorsed (selective) boycotts, (selective) divestment, and (selective) sanctions.  Oddly enough, that sounds eerily reminiscent of some global movement of some sort.  As an entity, the PC(USA) has used resources at its deliberative assembly that are affiliated with just such a global movement.  As an entity, the PC(USA) has promoted resources for congregations, for Presbyterians, and others that have at times employed overtly antisemitic language.

Sure, there have always been reasons given why it wasn’t to be construed that way.  Sure, there have always been denials of responsibility for the more inflammatory materials.  But these also seem to ring hollow.

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Presbyterian BDS: What you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand


When the gavel fell, the 221st General Assembly officially concluded, the commissioners began to make their ways home, and the Committee On Local Arrangements was left to clean up the details, the official PC(USA) was firmly aligned with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This is not really arguable in any credible way.

Now I realize this assessment will be met with protests of commissioners, of many institutional Presbyterians, and quite a few local Presbyterians. I also realize many of those protests will be offered with sincerity, honesty, and confidence. But they will be mistaken.

The language of Item 04-04 – the divestment measure, reflects the desire of commissioners to avoid association with the global BDS movement.

For example, it begins with this:

“The PC(USA) has a long standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation…” [sic]

For some inscrutable reason, the text falls off into tortured grammar here. And while it might be possible to discern commissioner intent, it is really rather nonsensical. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the ‘prologue’ is designed to indicate that Presbyterians are really swell people who really get the complexity of the issue and mean nothing but good for everybody concerned.

Next, commissioners generously reaffirm Israel’s right to exist … not so much as a Jewish state, but something.

Then they declare their commitment to a two-state solution.

But the real clincher … the proof that their BDS is nothing at all like global BDS lies in the same paragraph as their divestment instruction:

“This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

So there you have it … Nothing to see here, folks … This is not BDS … We’re doing this out of love ….

Some of their words might sound good. Some of them might sound kind. Some of them might sound vaguely Christian – and I have no doubt they want their “stand” to be genuinely good.

There’s only one tiny, little problem: their actions.

What General Assembly Commissioners, what Presbyterian officials, what naïve supporters want is irrelevant. What they have chosen is at hand.

Let’s look at that.

1. First there is divestment itself. Contrary to popular myth, the companies selected for this special treatment (Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett Packard) were not chosen at random. They were already targets of a then embryonic BDS movement. Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the BDS movement knows their campaigns specifically targeting these companies. If there was some other method, some other rubric the MRTI applied to evaluate the then current and potential holdings of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, it has not been revealed. How then did they zero in on these particular companies? Ecumenical partners? Well some of these are the very BDS activists who issued the Amman Call [The PC(USA) commended this call for BDS in 2008.] and the Kairos Palestine document [the PC(USA) endorsed elements of this in 2010].

Committee 4 (essentially a sub-committee of the GA) that evaluated the proposed divestment recommendation and endorsed it, was staffed with resource people who offered one perspective only. I mean here, specifically, an anti-Israel perspective. Interestingly Rifat Kassis spoke to both this committee and the General Assembly as a whole. Mr. Kassis is coordinator of Kairos Palestine; he has publicly endorsed a total boycott of Israel.

Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the BDS US Campaign to End the Occupation said this prior to the General Assembly:

…Inspired by our Presbyterian friends an [sic] allies, the US Campaign is mobilizing around the clock before and at the votes — everying [sic] from organizing outreach to decision makers to testifying in committee as an official resource expert.”

Pro-BDS former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase spoke to the committee for half an hour. He was the moderator of GA 216 that first approved divestment in 2004.

More than one commissioners from Committee 4 expressed concern on the floor of the General Assembly plenary about the lack of balance in information available to the committee. From beginning to end, the divestment action has the fingerprints of the global BDS movement all over it.

2. Second, the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) took conflicting, inconsistent, and self-contradictory actions. And their actions were more telling than their words.

While voting to assure the world of their commitment to a two-state solution, this same General Assembly also voted to initiate a study on whether the PC(USA) should continue to support a two-state solution. It put this study in the hands of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy – a permanent committee of the General Assembly whose record of anti-Israel animus is well-documented. This GA also insisted that the ACSWP use horribly flawed and inaccurate materials and consult with the IPMN (an unspecified, but the only relevant mission network) and the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus. After Zionism Unsettled, the involvement of the IPMN in ANY study that concerns Israel should set off alarm bells even for the harshest Presbyterian critics of Israel.

This GA voted to assert that Zionism Unsettled – a resource endorsed by, among others, David Duke – did not reflect the views of the PC(USA), but it also voted to have the PC(USA) continue to distribute it.

This GA also voted to affirm “Occupation Free Investment in Palestine”. It commended the efforts of the pro-BDS Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s efforts to “excludes any investment in enterprises that benefit financially from the operations of the occupation, including the expansion of settlements.”

Yes, this GA rejected the proposal “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy”; but it insisted on adding a cryptic comment:

[W]e take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term “Israel,” very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.

Though it may be self-evident to commissioners, it causes others to wonder exactly what they are saying here. What is the nature of the distinction they wish to make, and what exactly are they trying to educate people about? One likely interpretation of this is that it is an attempt to cut the Jewish people off from their biblical heritage. Given the comments of some Presbyterian activists on the subject, it would not be unreasonable to assume that hateful meaning.

3. Third, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not just divesting. It is already on the record as boycotting “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories, including AHAVA Dead Sea Laboratories Beauty Products and all date products of Hadiklaim, The Israel Date Growers Co-Operative Ltd, often marked by the brand names: King Solomon Dates and Jordan River (not Israeli products from Israel.)” It has already “called on [its ecumenical partners] to join in the boycott.”

When the PC(USA) has called “upon all nations to prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”, or when it has called upon conditioning US funding of Israel to various behaviors of Israel, it has been calling for sanctions.

The bottom line here is that any claim that divesting from companies chosen by BDS activists, boycotting products chosen by BDS activists, using BDS activists as resource persons in the committee which considered the divestment proposition – as if they were unbiased and credible sources of information, commending the Occupation Free Fund and other more stringent divestment vehicles, calling for sanctions … has every bit as much credibility as sentences that begin, “I’m not a racist, but ….”

Yes, I know this is not what the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) wants, but it is what it has chosen.

 

Reflections on the PCUSA GA221


 Over the next couple of days I’m going to address what just happened at the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly in Detroit.

I’m a sucker for quotes – a personality quirk.

As I was considering the events of the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly while the smoke clears, several quotes leapt to my mind:

“All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

“Only ignorance! only ignorance! how can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? — and which does the most mischief heaven only knows.” – from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty

“I don’t hold jail against a man, but I hate a liar.” – Will Anderson (John Wayne) in the Cowboys

There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of men for this treachery.” – from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers

But two quotations stood out as apt reflections of my thoughts on the assembly: “What you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand.” – Spock to Valeris in Star Trek VI; and, “The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” – from 2 Peter 2:22.

My next two posts will address each of these quotes.

 

Aside

A Modest Proposal


Now the PC(USA) 221st GA committee considering “Middle East Issues” is debating a boycott of HP products.

Here’s a thought – why not designate all the companies you wish to blacklist with a yellow, six-pointed star?  Think of how much time that would save the faithful …

 

UPDATE 1:  They did not recommend the boycott.

UPDATE 2:  Now they’re reconsidering Presbyterian support for a two-state solution.  This has always been tepid at best ….

Consolation Prizes


The overture to boycott all products produced by Jews in the West Bank passed.

Of course, the effects of this will be minimal – relatively few Presbyterians are aware of or participate in denominational boycotts.

 

July 3 Updates


I caution readers against acting on misinformation – as this committee is not the General Assembly. It will only make recommendations which must then be approved by the plenary. So … none of this is final. But people should be made aware of Committee 15’s current “progress”. Yep … that’s what they call it.

First, Committee 15 has voted to recommend divestment (36 in favor, 8 opposed, 1 abstained).

Second, the committee has endorsed a boycott of all products made by Jews in the West Bank (37 in favor, 8 opposed).

At the moment Committee 15 is discussing whether or not to disavow the apartheid proposal.  Currently talk seems to lean toward the opinion that apartheid is too mild a term.

One sided hate speech abounds at this meeting.

UPDATE 2:  One has to wonder about any committee that calls Anna Baltzer as an expert witness.  Apparently Baltzer, the national organizer for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, is representing the PC(USA)’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC).

UPDATE 3:  Committee 15 had voted to disapprove the Israel = Apartheid overture.

UPDATE 4:  C 15 is now discussing the worst of all overtures.  In any sane discussion it would be laughed out of the room, met with the ridicule, scorn, and abhorrence it deserves.  Somehow I don’t think that will happen here

UPDATE 4.5:  It was disapproved by a vote of 26 to disapprove – 19 -3.

 


Rarely Asked Questions: the PCUSA responds (inadequately) to divestment concerns


Seriously?

Really?!

That’s your story?

The PC(USA) has responded to concerns about divestment by issuing a FAQ.

Unfortunately, many of the listed questions aren’t really being asked. Even less fortunately, the format provides PC(USA) officials with a platform to pose a series of straw men objections they should be able to easily topple. But this document doesn’t succeed at that modest goal – some of the straw men remain standing. (more…)

The Moral Low Ground


Whenever issues of national or global significance are deliberated at a General Assembly, commissioners are apt to encounter a peculiar temptation. They might imagine their feet planted firmly on the moral high ground as they work to discern God’s will. From this lofty, Himalayan perch they may issue criticisms and judgments as if they were removed from the situation – as if their hands were somehow clean and their vision somehow clear.

By no means a uniquely Presbyterian fallibility, this pleasant conceit encounters one major problem: it is untrue. Sometimes it even happens that people wandering around the moral equivalent of Death Valley make proclamations and take symbolic actions they falsely believe to be forceful stands for justice or peace. This is, in fact, rather likely to happen when considering Middle East issues.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s witness on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been hopelessly muddled. This is primarily a function of two factors – a crippling, systemic, institutional bias against Israel, and an excessive toleration for and occasional indulgence in antisemitic themes.

But for the sake of analysis, let us set those two factors aside for the moment. (It is likely that I harp on bias and antisemitism too much anyway. It does not persuade; those who do not perceive their presence already will be extremely slow to admit to them.) Let’s imagine that the portrait of Israel created by various officious Presbyterians is, in fact, accurate. Let’s imagine that Israel really is unique among current regimes as a violator of human rights. Let’s pretend Israel truly does provide the most egregious example of religious discrimination in the world. Let’s pretend that the Israeli-Zionist cabal really does exercise a stranglehold on the U.S. government and media. Let’s assume (for the sake of argument, of course) that Israel genuinely is the ultimate cause of all acts of violence in the region regardless of perpetrator or victim.

If we imagine this characterization to be accurate, then the actions contemplated by the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) would seem to amount to a powerful moral stand. But are they really?

First, it must be observed that Presbyterians who actually believe this slate of hypothetical propositions about Israel, have responded with an appalling lack of creativity. They put on their prophetic thinking caps, applied all of their talents and resources to the vexing problem of the pariah State of Israel … and came up with a subtle strategy that combined boycotts (such as those proposed to the 220th General Assembly), divestment (the corporate engagement process with its recommended divestment from holdings in CAT, MSI, and HPQ), and sanctions (such as the 2010 call on the U.S. to make all aid to Israel “contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts”). In other words, they are pushing a limited, anemic form of BDS.

Creativity is not necessarily a moral or ethical virtue. But it remains disappointing that when people believe they are combating a gross form of evil, the best they can come up with is a nuanced version of a tired, cliched strategy. One could be excused for expecting those who claim to speak prophetically – having discerned the message of the Holy Spirit – would birth a solution distinct from one proposed long ago from a purely secular political framework. Uncreative it may be, but at least it is a strategy … and as we all know, doing anything, no matter its potential harm, is better than doing nothing.

So what are the goals of such a strategy?There are only five possibilities. 1. It might be employed to apply a combination of economic pressure and embarrassment to the State of Israel and thus make it more amenable to the demands of Presbyterians and others. 2.It may be intended to cause such damage that it forces the current government of the State of Israel out of existence, assuming that whatever replaced it would be better. 3.It could be used to weaken the State of Israel, alienate it from its few allies, and make it more vulnerable to military and terrorist actions with the hopes of destroying it. 4.It could be intended to create financial hardship for corporations and prompt them to stop selling products to Israel. 5.Or it could be designed to preserve the tender consciences of participants who will then be able to believe that they have, at a minimum, not profited from the evil acts of Israel. Proponents of this global strategy have embraced all five of these goals.

In the case of the PC(USA), I would imagine the intent is limited to a combination of the first, fourth, and fifth goals only. Many activists within the PC(USA) are, after all, well meaning people who would not support violence to achieve their objectives and who are not looking for the overthrow of governments. The problem is, nuanced or not, one cannot be a little BDS. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is much larger than the Presbyterian Church. When a denomination opts to fully embrace that movement, it goes into the support column. It is a binary option. The PC(USA) will be symbolically supporting the entire program with all five of its major aims – not just the three it actually intends to support. One could call it collateral damage, I suppose, and still pretend one was accomplishing more good than ill. But again we are left to wonder what good it actually accomplishes.

Sanctions are of little usebecause General Assembly commissioners cannot put them in place. They can only appeal to governments to act. Such appeals generally garner no response whatsoever. Partly because they come from people without expertise in the field, partly for pragmatic reasons, and partly because they aren’t representative of a large number of voters.

Unless it is practiced on a truly massive scale, divestment also does nothing. It does not affect either the share price or business operations of a corporation. Many years ago the Presbyterian Church divested from tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers, yet these business have continued to thrive. Presbyterian divestment has not only been ineffective but likely gone unnoticed. If one truly wanted to change a corporation’s policies, the only effective means to do so is through boycott. That is the only tool that has actual financial impact on a corporation. For the Board of Pensions at some point to possibly consider selling shares of Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard – as long as they can do so and still fulfill their fiduciary obligations to plan members – is a non-event.

Boycott alone is a satisfying option; and indeed the 220th General Assembly is being asked to consider boycotting items from two companies – companies that supply dates and cosmetic products. [Way to put yourself out there … how can you get by without them?]. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) has advocated boycotting all products made by Jews in the West Bank, but even this is hardly rigorous.

Here’s the thing, if Israel really is what various Presbyterian statements have described it as being; if Presbyterians genuinely want to change Israeli policies; if these corporations truly are evil – whether in themselves or through their involvement with Israel; if Presbyterians don’t want to benefit from that evil, then Presbyterians will have to go much farther than they are contemplating at this General Assembly. That would be a minimum necessary requirement to take anything remotely resembling a moral stand.

I look at my Motorola phone and the two-way radios I use at work, and I wonder how many Presbyterians use Motorola products. This is pure profit for Motorola – and allows them to continue their untoward business practices. But I – along with all those Presbyterians – also benefit from the use of Motorola products. (Technically, when Google acquired Motorola Mobility, the phone became no longer relevant, but other Motorola products remain tainted.) When Presbyterian churches are blessed with the resources and the need to expand their facilities, or conversely, when these are damaged by hurricanes or storms, how many will use Caterpillar equipment? Not only will money be going to sustain Caterpillar in its production of D9s, but those churches will have entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement with Caterpillar. They will, in short, have benefited from the evils of the Caterpillar corporation. What about Hewlett Packard? The outrageous per page printing costs will certainly continue to support HPQ in its disapproved activities. Then there are the many Presbyterians employed by these companies. Are they not benefiting from the same evil? Are not their homes, their children’s education, their automobiles, their clothes all products partially provided by the (presumably) egregiously unethical business practices of their employers? Would not leaving such jobs be the only moral option? Of course, the commissioners making judgments (like the 2010 denunciation of Caterpillar) would likely not be directly impacted in quite the same personal way. Naturally it is much easier to take a strong moral stand that costs you nothing.

Then there’s the next named MRTI target: Microsoft. I wonder how many Presbyterian pastors, staff, national officials, MRTI members, elders, church members will use Microsoft operating systems in the coming years? I wonder how many MRTI, ACSWP, and GAMC reports will be prepared using Microsoft programs? I wonder if the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly will use Word to compose his communications with world leaders explicitly demanded by the General Assembly. Unless Presbyterians switch to obviously more virtuous Apple products… their moral witness will remain in peril.

The bottom line is this. Many of the characterizations of Israel contained in numerous historic Presbyterian statements are false, are biased, are one-sided. But even if they weren’t, the 220th General Assembly will have trouble converting the suggested PC(USA) actions into anything approaching genuinely moral stands that do not reek of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Majority Report: Committee 15 proposals specifically targeting Israel


At this moment, GA Committee 15 has eleven items on its proposed docket. [By this I mean to indicate GA 220 Committee 15 composed of commissioners who will deliberate on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues – not a permanent standing committee.] Of these eleven items, seven directly target Israel for criticism and/or action. One, item 15-04, supports “peaceful, diplomatic means to resolve tensions forming … between the U.S. and Iran”. It does mention Israel tangentially – but the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) makes the issue entirely about Israel and insists that the overture “points to the continued power of Israeli and U.S. political leaders and interests who favor unilateral war”. Three items recommend a different course for the PC(USA).

Israel = Apartheid Proposal

In item 15-01 the Presbytery of Muskingum Valley calls on GA 220 “to recognize that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.” This overture is supported by ACREC, the Presbyteries of San Francisco, the Palisades, the Redwoods, and by the Synod of the Covenant. ACSWP offers a modified resolution.

 

Divestment Proposals

Items 15-03, 15-08, and 15-11 call for the PC(USA) to place Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions to be placed on the General Assembly Divestment List. (Oddly, item 15-03 from the Presbytery of San Francisco enumerates only Caterpillar but mentions the other two companies in its rationale.)

This divestment proposal is advanced by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). It is endorsed by the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), ACSWP, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, North Puget Sound, Scioto Valley, San Francisco, and Palisades, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

 

Boycott Proposals

Item 15-02 is an overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco calling for the boycott of certain products from the Occupied Territories. It is supported by ACREC, ACSWP, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick and Scioto Valley, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

In item 15-06, the Presbytery of Scioto Valley calls for a response to the Kairos document, particularly in its emphasis on boycott and divestment. This overture is supported by the Presbyteries of Genesee Valley and Northern New England, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

 

Other (Astonishing) Criticism

Item 15-09 is in a class by itself. In this curious overture, the Presbytery of San Jose urges the General Assembly to:

  1. Commend the U. S. State Department for its annual published listing of incidents of religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens.
  2. Commend the U. S. State Department for reporting on the failure of Israel to protect Christian Holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  3. Urge the Israeli government to end any and all religious discriminatory practices.
  4. Urge the Israeli government to enforce its own legal obligation to protect Christian holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  5. Direct that the Stated Clerk contact President Obama and the Israeli ambassador to the U. S. asking them to assist in ending all religious discriminatory practices and to protect religious groups’ holy sites in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

ACREC and ACSWP support this overture.

As observers consider this docket, a very warped picture emerges. The fact that the climate is so weighted in one direction will dictate the tenor of the conversation in Committee 15. It is true that commissioners have less actual material to consider than they did two years ago. At the same time, it is clear that the institutional weight of the PC(USA) supports a particular, lopsided viewpoint. Commissioner depending on information from PC(USA) sources will be hard pressed to hear opinions that differ from what is effectively a majority report.

I’m tempted to say they might as well just place these proposals on the consent agenda for GA 220’s giant rubber stamp and have done with it.

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