the 221st General Assembly

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The Wall

When people say “the wall” in the context of Israel and the West Bank, they generally mean the separation barrier. “The wall” is used for rhetorical effect: it summons ominous images of Berlin and Pink Floyd. For the more literate, it might conjure China or Hadrian. Some might even be put in mind of the Wailing Wall. The rhetorical use is often amplified by adding modifiers – things like “the apartheid wall”. For a while, supporters of Israel employed the term “fence”. It sounds almost friendly, pastoral. The thing is, portions of the separation barrier are a fence; other portions are a wall. And while less draconian than its detractors often imply, it is anything but friendly.

I am no fan of the separation of populations. I acknowledge the security issues the barrier is intended to address, but it does not bode well for the prospects of long term peace.

Then there are concerns about the route of the separation barrier. Some of these are clearly legitimate; others (seemingly intentionally) misquote UNSC resolutions.

The whole process applied to this one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian contention is illuminating. Most people on all sides of the issue are unconcerned with what is real. It’s all about the spin; about how things sound; how they appear. It’s all about rhetorical oneupsmanship and jockeying for some imaginary moral high ground. Decisions are not made on substance, and what legitimate concerns the parities once had, become obscured in a haze of pure (or rather, impure) rhetoric.

This is how we have learned to get our own way – in personal relationships, in politics, and in church affairs. Even those who don’t start out on this dishonest marketing express quickly discover that getting on the wrong side of spin is a mortal liability.

Don’t get me wrong. Some statements on all sides of the Israeli Palestinian controversy have some basis in fact. Some are whole cloth, of course, but by no means all. Unfortunately the facts always seem to get twisted, turned around until the truth disappears into an extreme and simple-minded mirage.

Presbyterians get quite exercised about “the wall” in the West Bank. But there is another wall to which they remain oblivious. This wall is as wide and high and impenetrable as any real or imagined wall Presbyterians might oppose. There is a wall around the hearts and minds of Presbyterians that keeps them from feeling or perceiving the fact that their Middle East witness is compromised and the reasons why it is compromised. This is true of members, elders, denominational officials and staff, news outlets, and activists. It is even true of many who desire more fairness in PC(USA) Middle East policies and statements. Something interferes with their thinking on the subject. Something prevents them from acknowledging that there is a problem; and something prevents them from acknowledging the extent of that problem.

The facts are clear. The PC(USA) has a history of institutional anti-Israel bias that makes them unable to fairly treat the issues. The PC(USA) has a history of toleration for, encouragement of, and indulgence in antisemitic themes. There is no gray area in these classical antisemitic tropes. There is no doubt on these points. Both can be confirmed easily by examining the statements and actions of General Assemblies, of PC(USA) officials, of PC(USA) partners, of PC(USA) networks and interest groups. The task is unpleasant; it’s nauseating at times; but it is easily enough accomplished.

Yet the vast majority of Presbyterians – members, elders, pastors, various officials and committees, news organizations – simply refuse to do it. They will, in fact, employ mental gymnastics and tortured pseudo-moral reasoning to excuse and ignore bad behavior.

As a side note – if these actions and statements were directed at any other people group, we would not be having this conversation. There is no other ethnicity or religion that Presbyterians would feel comfortable treating in the same manner. We would not have denominational officials saying things like, “African American groups go nuts … because we refuse to be one sided,” or “I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Buddhist community,” or “The phrase “the right of Italy to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the … committee.”

Presbyterians would not be quoting people for our edification saying things like, “France acts as a spoiled child … Even though the state of France is supposed to be a democracy, it acts as a NAZI state,” or “Tibetans in the diaspora must get a life,” or “If we are not careful, Christian churches … will turn into Museums and be on tours run by Hindu tour guides as if in a theme park.”

Presbyterians would not be indulging in speculations about the blood purity and origin of Norwegians – suggesting that their ancestors were really Khazars pretending to be Norwegian.

Presbyterians would never dream of suggesting that Koreans control the banks or Congress or the U.S. media.

The reasons for this are manifold.

First, the PC(USA) does not really have the institutional bias problem against any of these groups – so it is very easy for Presbyterians to see just how wrong those bigotries would be. Self criticism is much harder. If a person is a Presbyterian, he or she has some vested interest in the label Presbyterian being a good thing. Instinctively Presbyterians know that the anti-Israel bias and toleration for antisemitic themes is objectively bad … therefore they cannot bring themselves to see the PC(USA) as participating in these things.

Second, even people who don’t agree with the direction of PC(USA) action recognize that most pro-Palestinian activists are decent people. It’s true. Their motivation is often good. They are spurred by compassion and empathy and a legitimate desire for peace and justice. Nonetheless, the bias itself, the tenor of the dialogue, the use of antisemitic tropes is not good. The motivation doesn’t matter at this point. Tragically, the history of the church has demonstrated exactly where this type of rhetoric always leads. It is objectively bad; it is objectively harmful; it is objectively dangerous. Surely, truly well-meaning folks could manage to advocate for Palestinian friends and partners and for human rights without indulging in a type of discourse that is always wrong, always harmful. And surely, when they can’t do so, the rest of Presbyterians should be able to confront the issue even though its practicers are “well-meaning”.

Third, there is another type of argument that has become common in the PC(USA). It runs a little something like this: a person will employ a well-known antisemitic theme and someone will – shocked and horrified – call them on it. The one who employed the theme will immediately respond, “Every time someone criticizes the government of Israel, he is accused of antisemitism.” A large number of people (in this case Presbyterians) who imagine they’d never personally indulge in antisemitic discourse, jump in to support the original antisemitic speaker. This notion is eventually amplified to rather strongly suggest that antisemitism and anti-Israel bias are ultimately a result of Israeli and Jewish action. As a certain PC(USA) mission network informed the General Assembly in 2010, ““This “anti-Jewish rhetoric” [referred to in the paper] does not arise out of a vacuum, or some inchoate reservoir of anti-Semitism. In fact, the case can be made that it is a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel.”

Fourth, to actually acknowledge the facts – that the PC(USA) has a long-standing institutional bias; that the PC(USA) is applying two double standards – one in how they judge Israel versus how they judge other nations, and the other in how they treat Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people in Presbyterian actions and statements versus how they treat all other nations, religions, and ethnic groups; that the PC(USA) needs to take much greater care to avoid blatant antisemitic themes – is to damage relationships within the denomination. Even though true, very few Presbyterians will actually admit these things because it would cause offense and make future cooperation with their colleagues more difficult. Some of the most courageous do try to speak out, but even they constantly backpedal and downplay the facts.

The bottom line is that there is a wall that keeps Presbyterians from responding to something profoundly ugly, destructive, and unfair within their own denomination. If commissioners (and Presbyterians generally) want their Middle East witness to have integrity, if they want to actually help, if they want to (as they have said) break down the walls, they must first break down this will. Then Presbyterians will see clearly to break down others.

Will Spotts

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