One might expect this column to be the “we’ve heard this song before” or “déjà vu all over again” about the battle currently waging between Israel and the Hamas terrorists. It could. We have been here before. Hamas relentlessly fires rockets on Israel, wantonly targeting population centers and avoiding any attempt to attack military targets. Hamas endangers Palestinian citizens by locating rocket launchers and warehouses in densely populated areas, including in schools and mosques. Hamas urges its citizens to ignore Israel’s attempts to flee buildings and areas about to be targeted by an Israeli missile strike.
But this month I am writing about the troubling and tragic actions by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). The déjà vu relates to prior attempts by PCUSA to use its biennial General Assembly as a bully pulpit to place all culpability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the feet of Israel.
Relations with the national PCUSA became strained earlier this year when the PCUSA’s affiliated Israel-Palestine Mission Network issued an overtly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic congregational study guide, “Zionism Unsettled.” The guide deployed accusations, invectives and vitriol labeling Zionism as “false theology,” “heretical doctrine,” “evil,” “pathology” and “cultural genocide.” The publication, a full blown attack on Israel’s very right to exist as a modern nation state, branded Israel an illegitimate entity and repeatedly compared its society to Jim Crow segregation in the American South and apartheid in South Africa. The publication applies the term “Jewish supremacism” – first coined and made popular by KKK Grand Wizard David Duke – to Zionism.
Then, at this year’s General Assembly, delegates to the PCUSA General Assembly were subject to a biased, anti-Israel procedure of reporting and committee management. In one meeting, pro-Israel “witnessing” was allotted less than 10 minutes compared to the two hours offered to the pro-Palestinian narrative. Jewish and Presbyterian leaders in attendance complained about the overt partiality of PCUSA officials. The committee chairperson opened proceedings to consider divestment with a prayer in which she said that “Jesus had many Jewish friends, and he wasn’t afraid to speak difficult truths to Jews in his time,” implying a vote for divestment would emulate Jesus.
Six days into their General Assembly, the delegates voted by a narrow seven-vote margin (out of 613 votes!) to divest from three U.S. companies because of their sales to Israel. The biased process gave voice to marginal, at best, Jewish organizations and ignored the input from the Reform and Conservative movements, a powerful statement from over 1,700 Jewish clergy from all denominations, and the entreaties of the Jewish federation system.
We are deeply disturbed and hurt by the PCUSA’s actions and reject its assertion that this action is an effective tool to alleviate suffering and bring about peaceful normalizations between Palestinians and Israelis. Our national Israel Action Network labeled the action as “outrageous,” noting its disappointment that the Presbyterian Church was unable to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.
But these actions should not be seen in isolation. They are just the latest hateful tract emanating from the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS movement’s message is that Jews have no right to the land. Like “Zionism Unsettled,” BDS presents no real plan to end the conflict. It simply seeks to end the Jewish State of Israel. While PCUSA leaders state they have not endorsed the global BDS movement, their decision to adopt divestment, a central BDS tactic, combined with another vote for their church to review its position on a two-state solution, has the practical effect of supporting a campaign that aims at the delegitimization of Israel.
Representatives of our Jewish community have been in recent dialogue with local Presbyterian leaders, including several who were delegates at the General Assembly. We were elated to receive a statement from Allentown’s First Presbyterian Church (see page 3) condemning the “Zionism Unsettled” publication and expressing that this local church was against divestment in this instance and at this time.
I am hopeful other statements will be forthcoming and as generous. The closeness of the final vote at the PCUSA General Assembly implies this was a divisive issue; national surveys of Presbyterians indicate that about 70 percent are not in favor of divestment as a tool in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is evident that the actions of PCUSA do not represent the majority of Presbyterians occupying pews in our local churches. But the efforts of interfaith dialogue will only be enhanced if they speak out and become active in their Church’s deliberations. The PCUSA’s actions will do absolutely nothing to alleviate Palestinian and Israeli suffering. And without voices of reason from within the Presbyterian community, the PCUSA’s actions will have caused irreparable damage between the Jewish and Presbyterian communities.
This coming year the Jewish Federation will host several programs exposing the BDS movement and better equipping us to respond. The first program will be on August 21 (see page 3). The wars fought for Israel are not solely fought on the battlefield.