the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘Palestine’

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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Update on PC(USA) Support for Two State Solution


It seems Committee 4 passed item 04-01 “On Reviewing General Assembly Policy Regarding the Two-State Solution in Israel Palestine” without any amendment or alteration.

Of course, this is not an outright rejection of a two-state solution; it only calls for a reconsideration.  If it passes the plenary, it will still not be “acted upon” until the next General Assembly in 2016.

Given the records of the people specifically tasked with this project, I can only say with absolute certainty that it will be bad for Israel.

Perhaps members of Committee 4 were very naive; perhaps they meant well.  (For example, someone said that all 8 YAADs supported divestment …) It doesn’t matter really – we only have their results to look at.  And these are pretty much uniformly bad.  Uniformly unfair – they do not take into account legitimate perspectives that don’t follow their basic narrative.  Uniformly dishonest – they spring from dishonest sources, and they foster continued fictions.  Uniformly unhelpful – nothing in this committees recommendations, if taken, will in any possible way increase the likelihood of peace or bring any conceivable benefit to any Palestinian or Israeli – with the possible exception of a tiny handful of professional activists.

 

PCUSA GA Committee 4: another gift that keeps on giving


Committee 4 is now recommending that the PC(USA) reconsider its support for a two-state solution.  This would necessitate a report to be prepared for the 222nd GA.

And who should prepare such a report?  That bastion of fairness and honesty bias and bigotry, and bulwark of accuracy error, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

[You may remember, for example, an occasion when then ACSWP member, Ronald Stone was widely quoted as saying:

“As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that, according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”

“Also, we praise your initiative for dialogue and mutual understanding. We cherish these statements that bring us closer to you. We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people.”

You may also remember a ridiculous history of the Middle East provided by ACSWP in 2003.

Or perhaps, you recall the ACSWP report on violations of religious freedom that singled out ISRAEL among all the nations of the world for sole criticism …

They’re bound to be an unbiased source.]

And what resources should these reporters use?

Well, they should consult with “mission networks”:  The ONLY relevant “mission network” is the IPMN – famous, among other things, for its lapses into direct antisemitic tropes – tales of Khazars for example, and manifestly and inexcusably false accusations directed at unnamed American Jewish groups of arson of Presbyterian churches and sending a bomb to Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville.

They should consult with “national caucuses”:  Here again, the only relevant one would be the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus.  Again, not noted for its openness to any Israeli narrative.  Also not noted for any great concern for the well-being of Israeli Jews.

 

It goes on.

 

UPDATE:  Naturally the committee passed this.  However, we have to wait to see its final form.  It may not be as bad as the proposal itself.  BUT whatever the case, for this committee, at least, the future existence of Israel is now in question.  Think about that.

1. A Word


It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.

It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well. (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.

Information Update


In a previous post I mentioned two items related to Israelis and Palestinians slated to come before the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) that did not yet seem to be available on line.

They have since been posted on the GA website PC-biz.

The report of the Middle East Monitoring Group (created as a result of perceived inadequacies of the 2010 Middle East Study Committee Report) can now be found here.

And the current form of the paper, “Christians and Jews, People Of God: A Contribution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to the Interfaith Conversation” (that will not come for a vote until 2014 after a period of church-wide) can now be found here.

 

 

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.

Disneyland for Presbyterians: a GA Overview


In a little less than a month, Presbyterians from around the country – commissioners from 173 presbyteries, young adult advisory delegates, ecumenical representatives, national staff, denominational officials, observers, interest groups, activists, and seminarians – will descend on an unsuspecting Pittsburgh. A General Assembly is an event. Even in years of controversy and high drama, it has a festive element. I have heard it aptly described as “Disneyland for Presbyterians”.

Alas, in the midst of the festivities, commissioners will face a daunting slate of proposals and business items to consider. For those unfamiliar with the PC(USA)’s version of Presbyterianism, a GA works something like this. Commissioners will spend most of their week focused on a fraction of the total assembly business. That business is divided among several committees with names like, “Mission Coordination”, “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations”, “Social Justice Issues”, and “Church Polity”. Each commissioner is assigned to serve on one. The committee will have the only in depth opportunity to consider the issues before it, and that committee will recommend a course of action to the whole assembly. Now the whole assembly will have to vote, but in most cases they will follow a committee’s lead.

This year commissioners will bandy about ideas like the overture from the Presbytery of Grace, “On Calling for An End to the Practice of Corporal Punishment in Homes, Schools, and Child Care Facilities”, or “On Supporting the United Nations” from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Commissioners will be soberly counseled by permanent committees of the church, advised by young adult delegates, and ultimately vote.

All kidding aside, a number of these business items actually interest me. You can follow along at home by visiting the PC(USA)’s General Assembly site, PC-biz.  Proposals are helpfully organized by the committee which will consider them.

Several proposals are coming before the 220th General Assembly that directly concern Israelis and Palestinians. Most of these will be addressed by Committee [15] Middle East and Peacemaking Issues.  (I will look more closely at several of these in subsequent posts.)

When you examine the business before Committee [15] all resemblance to Disneyland ends. The most obvious thing you notice is that there are two contradictory types of proposals. On one side you have arrayed the General Assembly Mission Council, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, North Puget Sound, Scioto Valley, San Francisco, Palisades, San Jose, the Redwoods, Genesee Valley, and Northern New England, and the Synod of the Covenant all calling for various schemes of divestment, boycott, apartheid labels, and a peculiar criticism of “religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”.

In contrast to this comparative Goliath, three lonely presbyteries – New Covenant, Philadelphia, and National Capital, – have sent overtures recommending taking a different course. All three would reject divestment. National Capital would expressly reject the BDS movement. Philadelphia would reject the label of apartheid.

Two other issues related to Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to come before this GA, but at this time I cannot locate them on PC-biz. Both of them are referrals from the 219th General Assembly. “Christians and Jews: People of God” was to be re-written, and part 3 of the Middle East Study Committee report was to be replaced by narratives and a bibliography.

 

 

What You Can Expect


My purpose in this blog is to offer observations and opinions.  Readers can do with them what they want.  My focus is chiefly PC(USA) actions on Israel and Palestine, but I reserve the right to post on other topics that capture my interest.  The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

I have given up strategic and tactical considerations.  I was never very good at them anyway.  More importantly, as long as I’m thinking about how something I say might be used or misused by people with agendas of their own, a particle of falsehood will intrude into the equation.  My adventures in Presbyterianism have taught me that those with agendas will, in fact, do this no matter what approach I take.  So I here and now abandon thinking about it at all.  I do not go to cause offense, but I refuse to worry about it if I accidently do so.

Comments are welcome; abusive comments are not.  For instance, within the confines of my blog universe, an idea or an action may be stupid or evil; a person may not.  Possible motives of others may be suggested; absolute motive may not be declared.  False statements about and false characterizations of people are also off limits.

I will make two commitments for this site.  I will always be honest and candid in my opinions; and I will make every effort to be accurate and fair.  By accurate and fair I mean I will try not to misrepresent the actions and statements of others.  I will not impute motives unless they are stated.  I have no intention, however, of framing issues as their advocates might prefer:  the framing is part of the argument, not the thing itself.  As such, the framing is inherently biased.  I also have no intention of skirting foreseeable bad consequences or reads of proposals – even if these are unintended.

Having said these things, I invite you along for the 220th General Assembly ride.  With any luck it will prove interesting.  At the very least, it should be entertaining.

About 2012


This is a blog about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). More specifically, it is about that organization’s biennial national meeting, the 220th General Assembly. Even more specifically, it is about that assembly’s business that concerns Palestinians and Israelis.

I write as a former member and ruling elder in a PC(USA) congregation. For a variety of reasons, I still attend services with that congregation. But I gave up my membership in the PC(USA) when it became clear I could no longer, in good conscience, be a part of a national organization that indulged behaviors and attitudes I found morally repellant. Figuring prominently among these behaviors and actions was the PC(USA)’s long term posture toward Israel and Palestine.

I want to make a few things perfectly clear. First, I have no objection to examination and criticism of the State of Israel or of Israeli policies. I have no objection to examination and criticism of US policies that relate to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In fact, these can be beneficial in an open society. Like most people (at least those I know), I long for peace in the Middle East. I long for solutions that will benefit all Palestinians and Israelis.

I recognize that many Palestinians have been victimized and live in conditions I would hate. I recognize that Israeli actions have contributed to that situation. Those are facts. People immediately jump to rationalizing and defending and appealing to historic contexts – and sometimes they raise valid points, but it doesn’t change the basic facts. It is understandable that Israelis and Palestinians alike tend to argue only one side; it is extremely difficult for people to see those truths that don’t advance their cause – that may, in fact, hinder it.

I have no interest in apportioning blame. As an outsider, I see a multiplicity of blameworthy actions coming from a variety of sources. What interests me is looking toward positive ways forward; anything that offers that, I support, and anything that does not I remain neutral or oppose. (My response depends on the specific action – some cause harm, some simply do no real good.)

The PC(USA) has frequently tried to support Palestinians – particularly Palestinian Christians. That is a laudable emphasis. But the PC(USA)’s stance has often been morally problematic.

I admit, I have allowed myself to be distracted in the past by issues of process – whether GA actions have been followed by employees and permanent committees of the denomination either in spirit or in letter; whether PC(USA) officials egregiously misrepresented those actions in an attempt to get the best spin; whether incomplete, false, or misleading information was provided by employees and committees to voting commissioners; whether PC(USA) statements and actions reflect the beliefs of ordinary Presbyterians. All of these can be argued, but they’re irrelevant.

Exponentially more important are three things: 1) The PC(USA) has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of bias. In order to take moral stands, a modicum of fundamental fairness is needed. That has been noticeably lacking. 2) The PC(USA) has provided non-factual information. For a stand to be moral it must be based in truth. 3) The PC(USA) and its partners have often trespassed into the realm of classical antisemitism. Of these, the first two are problematic; the third is reprehensible.

Commissioners to the 220th General Assembly have another opportunity. They can choose to embrace bias, to embrace untruth, to embrace classical antisemitism. They can choose to reject these. Or they can choose to pretend all three are not happening.

In the past I have erred. I have sought to persuade… I have argued… I have pled… that denominational officials do something about bias and particularly antisemitic discourse, that commissioners take their responsibilities seriously and insist on full information before they vote on anything to do with the Middle East, that ruling and teaching elders get involved, that members and attenders pay attention and require basic fairness from their denomination. At a minimum I had hoped that antisemitic discourse would not be regarded as an acceptable norm within a 21st Century US denomination. And I believed that presenting information would have an impact. For the most part these pleas have reached deaf ears, have been met with yawns and hollow denials.

I won’t do that any more. My role now is to observe. Denominational officials, commissioners, members, ruling and teaching elders, members, attenders: do what you want. Do what seems good to you. I can’t pretend I don’t care; and I certainly won’t stop commenting. But I won’t plead anymore.

Posts about the 2010 General Assembly can be found at the PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine 2010.

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




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