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.

Aside

GA221 Moderator Rada on CNN


CNN interviewed Dr. Heath Rada, the moderator of the 221st General Assembly along with Rabbi Rick Jacobs president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Moderator Rada seemed to have great difficulty parsing the decisions of the GA.

Watch the interview here.

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.

 

Aside

And Now for Something Completely Unexpected


The New York Times is already reporting the PC(USA)’s choice for divestment as part of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement.

Commissioners tried very hard to pretend that they could be D supporters without the BS.  Doesn’t work that way.

 

UPDATE:  AP articles are reporting it the same way – as BDS.  [Seems reasonable to me … just saying…]

PCUSA Divests by Seven Votes


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

I’m sure that means a lot.

Of course, the moderator is now agreeing that divestment “affirms our Palestinian friends And our Jewish friends”.

And can’t Presbyterians feel so good about themselves now that they’re so affirming?

I have no words.  Tomorrow I will feel pity for the PC(USA) as a whole.

It is done.

Aside

We’re Up


The General Assembly is now considering Middle East Issues.

If you’re interested, you can follow it live here.

For General Assembly Home Gamers


Many of the controversial issues considered by this General Assembly have been considered by committees, but remain to be decided by the whole assembly.

Committee recommendations are, of course, not official actions of the PC(USA).  They are indicators of the mood of a General Assembly, and there is a higher likelihood that the plenary will take the action recommended by the committee.  Nonetheless, I’ve seen this go either way many times.

In the meantime, we wait.

If you – either Presbyterian members, or concerned non-Presbyterian stake-holders, are trying to follow this from home, you might find these links helpful:

1.  The PC(USA) General Assembly plenary meetings are live-streamed here

This, of course, would not have helped us follow committee deliberations as they were not streamed.  However, some of the reports from the committees will be presented today, and the more controversial votes will likely take place tomorrow.

If nothing else, watching this will give an insight into the odd process of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) politics.  The effect of blending religious worship, spiritualized language and church jargon with political wrangling is – and should be – rather jarring.  It doesn’t lend itself to clear thinking and good decision making.  It does, however, lend itself quite freely to the manipulation of commissioners without their complete awareness.

2.  The docket gives an indication of the times issues will be debated.

This is NOT a hard and fast thing because business items can always be reconsidered – or even sometimes rescheduled if discussions on other items go long.  But if you have an issue that concerns you closely this will give you an idea when to tune in.

The version of the docket I have linked to has Middle East issues being addressed Friday afternoon.  The item on distinguishing between “biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel” (that the committee recommended against) should come up tonight.

3.  PC-biz is a system that has been used for several General Assemblies now.

I find it easiest to follow the progress of specific items by looking under the “Committees” tab.  Here is where you will find the current status of business items – how committees handled and what action the whole GA has taken.

This is particularly useful if you want to know the exact wording of a measure, or if you want to see the supporting materials that accompany it.  The fact that many business items have been amending during the process makes this more complicated and more important to keep straight.

This was done by Committee 4, for instance in that the committee chose not to act on the MRTI divestment recommendation, but instead to amend an anti-divestment overture – keeping its more spiritual and ethical language, but adding divestment to it.  Someone simply following the overture could easily be confused because now, it takes the exact opposite action than that intended by its authoring presbytery.

 

Aside

Thankful for Small Hypocrisies


Well, at least PC(USA) GA Committee 4 thinks Zionism Unsettled doesn’t represent the PC(USA).

While it was, of course, produced by an official mission network of the PC(USA), and while it was heartily endorsed by a former long-time stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, and while it is distributed by the PC(USA) … it really has nothing to do with Presbyterians.

Could it be that the lack of support of Committee 4 for Zionism Unsettled has less to do with the work’s objectively offensive content than it has to do with David Dukes fawning praise of it?

I’m sure I don’t know the motivations.  But it is at least a relief that Presbyterians can rest easier knowing there is no relationship between them and Zionism Unsettled.

 

Mazel Tov.

Balance, Bias, and other Four Letter Words


In defending his trademark diet from criticisms that it was unbalanced, Dr. Atkins argued that the proper corrective for an existing imbalance was imbalance.

He may have been right … or not, but the premise has some merit.

One of my chief concerns with Presbyterian activism and advocacy about Israelis and Palestinians – for as long as I have observed it – has been that it is one-sided; that it is not balanced.  A few months ago I watched a live stream of the Evangelicals for Social Action’s Impact Holy Land Conference.  One of the speakers asserted that, when talking about the Holy Land, balance should be a four letter word.

I was kind of taken aback by this claim.  I was familiar with it, of course, because the same assertion has been made in various PC(USA) contexts.  Usually this was a bromide offered as a rebuttal to charges of a lack of balance in PC(USA) materials on Palestinian and Israeli issues.  Most luminaries did not attempt to deny that there was an imbalance – because such a denial would rightly be met with laughter.  But the general thinking was that imbalance was justified.

So is it?  Should balance be a four letter word to Presbyterians? (more…)

The PC(USA)’s elephant


Underlying most of the unresolved questions I raised about the PC(USA)’s decisions on Israelis and Palestinians, there is a larger question.

It is the single largest source of contention – and it is one Presbyterians commissioners to the 221st General Assembly should have to conclusively answer yes or no if their views are to be taken seriously.

Should there be a Jewish state?

I don’t mean a state perhaps called Israel.

I’m not even asking about the two state solution – which is up for debate at this year’s GA.

The fact is, some people within the PC(USA) argued for a two state solution that meant one Jew-free state of Palestine, and one multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with a Jewish minority. (That is the NET EFFECT of the disparate demands made on Israel by various PC(USA) GA’s and interest groups.)

It occurs to me that this question is the PC(USA)’s elephant in the room when it comes to Middle East policy.

Where to Now St. Peter?


In Pittsburgh, the smoke clears, and the dust settles. The PC(USA) has emerged from its 220th General Assembly, having received its due flurry of media attention. Now the denomination, like a groundhog that’s seen its shadow, will recede from public notice and go about business of its own. A fair number of members and attenders of Presbyterian churches around the country remain unaware that anything even took place. At most, they will eventually receive a summary of the points someone, somewhere considers noteworthy. Observers are unlikely to get a clear picture of events.

What just happened? What does it mean really? What road is the PC(USA) on now? How do you even evaluate a General Assembly?

Is it like American Idol? “This assembly was in it to win it”. “What we really love about you is that you stay true to yourself.” “It was a bit pitchy for me.” “That was like really bad karaoke.” “It was appalling.” Will Americans have an opportunity to call in and vote? (more…)

Watch GA 220


All of the decisions made by GA committee 15 are recommendations only. To be official acts of the Presbyterian Church (USA), these must be passed by the plenary. It is often the case that committee recommendations are rubber stamped – because of the amount of business a GA must consider, only committees received testimony and examine the proposals before them in any depth. Nonetheless, on controversial issues, a plenary does sometimes depart from the committee’s advice.

 

For those interested, the plenary of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is being live-streamed here.

 

The word is Committee 15 issues will likely be acted upon on Thursday.

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.

 


In Between Days


149 years ago tonight, in a Pennsylvania town there was relative calm between the second and third days of the Battle of Gettysburg. Nothing had yet been decided. Few at the time on either side grasped the degree to which this was a watershed moment. It would have taken very little – a different decision here or there – for our entire national history to have been re-written.

Tonight, also in Pennsylvania, there is relative calm between the second and third days of the deliberations of the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues Committee (Committee 15) of the PC(USA)’s 220th General Assembly. Nothing has yet been decided – though things already trend heavily in one diabolical direction.

So far, committee activities seem to have a surreal cast. Observers will seldom have the opportunity to witness so many peculiar notions and odd discussions assembled in one place. Two in particular merit a closer look. (more…)

Presbyterians Are Moving Up in the World


The PC(USA) has finally arrived. Proposed Presbyterian policies are getting celebrity endorsements. And I don’t mean boring celebrities, or celebrities within specific constituencies of the church. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has endorsed the divestment action proposed by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).

And a number of pro-divestment Presbyterians “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”.

At last, Presbyterians can once again start getting invites to the good parties. The cool kids will finally flock to our churches. The days of trying to rationalize 45 years of membership declines are coming to an end. We’re crossing the Jordan ….

But I would caution commissioners: maybe you shouldn’t just jump on the bandwagon of the first celebrity to look your way. Maybe you should find out what OTHER celebrities think about divestment. You don’t have to decide anything today. You’ve got to the end of the plenary after all. Even Committee 15 members have until tomorrow night before the have to make a decision – regardless of their posted schedule.

Why not conduct an emergency straw poll of celebrities to see where they stand. I mean, God forbid you get stuck with a bunch of B-listers. I’m sure some of the better tabloids would be willing to help in this crisis.

All kidding aside, I don’t generally fault Waters – or any celebrity for having an opinion and for expressing it. But I do fault people for giving more weight to celebrity opinions than they do to others. Yes, celebrities do have a certain platform – they have a fan base. But their opinions are no more likely to be right than the opinions of anyone else. It would be the height of stupidity not to treat ideas and proposals on their own merits.

Additionally, I am a little concerned that the PC(USA)’s anti-Israel proposals, rather than being about justice or peace or truth or God, are more about political fashion. There are three possibilities only: 1. The church has something to offer the world different from the world. 2. The church takes its cues from the world – and is basically kind of an appendix. 3. Neither the church or the world has any more or less likelihood of being right. Judging solely by the proposals coming to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I’m not seeing very much of option #1.

 

Will Spotts

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