Reactions continue to mount against the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) General Assembly, which voted Friday to support a motion supporting divestment from three companies doing business with Israel. Critics included leaders of the Reform Jewish movement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and pastors within the church. The narrow vote was a nominal victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, threatening both the credibility of the church and interfaith relations.
Yair Rosenberg writing at Tablet Magazine summarized the issues.
This evening in Detroit, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA approved divestment from three companies which do business with Israel–Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola Solutions–on the grounds that their products abet the Israeli occupation. The motion passed narrowly 310-303. An amendment stating that the Church was not divesting from Israel, only these U.S.-based companies, was added in a last-minute attempt to disassociate the move from the controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, despite the fact that BDS activists were instrumental in drafting and lobbying for the resolution. An amendment to reinvest the divested funds in Israeli companies engaged in “peaceful solutions” was rejected, and the Assembly also approved a resolution calling for the reexamination of the Church’s support for the two-state solution, by a tally of 482-88.
The vote in favor of divestment was not unexpected, as the move was defeated by only two votes, 333-331, at the 2012 General Assembly. Unsurprisingly, the debate leading up to this year’s vote was heated. To many Presbyterians and Jews, it was also deeply troubling. Earlier this week, one longtime Israel boycott activist in the Church, Presbyterian minister Larry Grimm, told Jews to leave Israel and that America was really their “Promised Land.” At the General Assembly itself, a shocked Presbyterian blogger reported that during prayers, Virginia Sheets, the vice moderator of the Middle East issues committee, “suggested that Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong.”
The PCUSA has tried to disassociate the move from the broader BDS movement, claiming that the vote was consistent with their respect for Jews:
“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.”
Immediately after the vote, Moderator Heath Rada reaffirmed that, saying, “In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.
However, other members of the church undermined these claims of love and understanding.
“Divestment has the symbolic power to humiliate our Jewish friends in this country,” said Teaching Elder Commissioner Sid Batts from the Presbytery of Salem. Batts serves a church across the street from a Jewish temple and values the strong relationship between the two congregations.
The divestment vote is one more example of the growing anti-Semitism that is finding a voice in the church. Ahead of last week’s divestment vote, a Presbyterian pastor named John Vest posted an open pastoral letter that criticized the Presbyterian “study guide,” Zionism Unsettled.
With the publication of Zionism Unsettled, a “study guide” on Zionism produced by the PC(USA)’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network, and a series of overtures pending before the 2014 General Assembly that reflect its arguments, we are no longer debating how the occupation should end, but whether Israel should exist. Zionism Unsettled announces this shift from its opening section, saying: “put simply, the problem is Zionism.” It makes no distinction between different forms of Zionism, arguing that any form of Zionism is inherently discriminatory. Some forms of Zionism have been violent and exclusionary; the same is true of any form of nationalism (American, British, Chinese, Palestinian, etc.). But to argue that any Jewish desire for any form of statehood within their historic homeland is inherently discriminatory is not only patently false but morally indefensible. And the conclusion is obvious: if Zionism is the problem, then ending Zionism (i.e., Israel) is the solution.
It is telling that one of the earliest and loudest affirmations of Zionism Unsettled was by David Duke, perhaps the most notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite in the United States today…
Rabbis Richard Block and Steven Fox of the Central Conference of American Rabbis decried the vote in terms of the damage it would do to interfaith relations.
The General Assembly vote constitutes an implicit repudiation of previously fruitful Jewish-Presbyterian cooperation. In 2004, when the General Assembly stunned the Jewish world and the Church’s own membership with a previous vote for divestment, Presbyterians and Jews, including many Reform Rabbis, came together to redouble their joint efforts at dialogue, resulting in a rejection of BDS at the 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 General Assemblies.
During the past decade, Presbyterians, Reform Rabbis, and others have worked together toward the goal of achieving peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, living side by side in two states for two peoples in peace, security and mutual recognition. Now, regrettably, the PC(USA) has returned to a path that prior General Assemblies repeatedly rejected. By so doing, it has also turned aside from the wide mainstream of the American Jewish community and aligned itself with a miniscule fringe element.
Israeli officials were extremely critical of the vote as well. On Meet the Press today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked by David Gregory what he thought was the proper response. He answered:
It should trouble all people of conscience and morality because it’s so disgraceful. You know, you look at what’s happening in the Middle East, and I think most Americans understand this — they see this enormous area riveted by religious hatred, savagery of unimaginable proportions. Then you come to Israel and you see the one democracy that upholds basic human rights, guards the rights of all minorities, protects Christians. Christians are persecuted throughout the Middle East. So, most Americans understand that Israel is a beacon of civilization and moderation. I would suggest to this Presbyterian organization to fly to the Middle East, come and see Israel for the embattled democracy that it is, and then take a bus tour — go to Libya, go to Syria, go to Iraq and see the difference. I would give them two pieces of advice. One is: Make sure it’s an armor-plated bus. Second, don’t say that you’re Christians.
At the end of his report, Rosenberg observes that the divestment vote is more likely to hurt the Presbyterian church than it is to hurt Israel:”Critics are skeptical, and liken the vote to the Israel boycott of the American Studies Association, which evoked widespread condemnation and turned the ASA into the ‘pariah of the United States higher-education establishment,’ in the words of the New York Times.”
In the embedded clip below, Presbyterian church “moderator” Keith Rada can’t explain to CNN journalists how Zionism Unsettled is not reflective of his church’s views when it is still being sold on the church’s website.
In In Bethlehem, the Wrong Kind of Christian Festival, which appeared in the April 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine, Luke Moon described a growing anti-Israel movement within Evangelical Christianity: “What really makes the new anti-Israel activism so dangerous, however, is how quickly support for Israel can be eroded and how fast the poison of anti-Semitism can spread.”
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