This weekend, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ended the bi-annual meeting of its General Assembly in Minneapolis. Among the many issues of deep religious doctrine discussed at the meeting (should the church ordain non-celibate gay clergy, and which confessions should be included in The Book of Confessions) was included the rather more-political-than-religious call to divest US military aid from Israel. All in the name of deep religious faith, of course.
That proposal was approved by an 82% vote of the General Assembly on Friday. Along with a 172-page report on the Church’s rather heavily anti-Israel “approach to the Middle East.” So much for all the lip service given to positive interfaith relations.
Allow me to just put this in context for a moment.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, in fact, one of at least 10 Presbyterian denominations in the United States alone. It’s referred at as PC(USA) for that very reason – if you just said “the Presbyterians,” no one would know which church you really mean.
Specifically, this particular Presbyterian sub-denomination has approximately 2 million members. So there are 3 times as many Jews in the US as there are Presbyterians associated with this particular church.
And I know that anecdote is not the same as data, but just to check, I called a Presbyterian friend, and asked her about this particular vote, and the stand that her church was taking on Israel and the Middle East. Now she is a rather committed Presbyterian, and is quite a regular at her church. Turns out, she had never even heard of this particular “church ruling.” Was rather shocked by it, too. So I wonder how many of the people in the pews are actually supporting this move by the church leadership, or for that matter, have even heard of it. I happen to think that people should know what their movements are officially up to, but it sure seems like more of top-down, from-above decision by a few big shots, than a real grassroots movement of the believers.
But let’s take this situation seriously for a moment.
Let’s forget the size of the denomination, or the number of people who actually got to vote on this issue, and take a look at what they’re actually trying to do.
According to the Star Tribune, the main push of this “resolution” is “a call for Israel to pull back to its 1967 border and one asking the U.S. government to withhold aid to Israel if it doesn’t comply.” Essentially, this would mean calling on the US government to deny military aid to Israel until Israel evacuates all of its settlements in the West Bank (as everyone will recall, Israel already evacuated all settlements in Gaza back in 2005. What a resounding success – a real win for peace and non-violence – that was).
I would like to call your attention to the fact that the US has provided no economic aid to Israel since 2007, when Israel voluntarily gave up the economic aid it had been receiving. (The aid had been promised to both Israel and Egypt as part of the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement. Always nice to know that, at least according to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the US government can promise things as part of treaties, and then simply take them away whenever they feel like it, or don’t like something in the future. Really builds confidence in us as a reliable peace broker, that does.)
However, the United States does continue to provide military aid to Israel (again, as part of the Israel-Egypt arrangement, in which the US committed to helping ensure Israel’s continued military capability, so that Israel can continue to defend itself). Essentially, the US government gives Israel a certain sum of money each year, most of which Israel must spend buying American weapons and other defensive technologies (propping up the American economy in the process, I might add).
But according to the members of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Israel is not entitled to help defending itself, as long as we don’t like something they’re doing. I guess if I don’t like your clothes, or the way you treat your boyfriend, I should just let you get beaten up in the street.
As a note, the report also called for the US to remove its support for Israel and Egypt’s blockade to prevent weapons entering the Gaza strip. I guess you’re not only not entitled to help defending yourself, but you’re not even allowed to try and prevent the guy who’s trying to kill you from getting a gun to do it with.
“We are refusing to designate a winner or loser,” said the Rev. J.C. Austin, who helped prepare this report. Well, that’s funny. I always thought they called it a “negotiation” for a reason – I thought you were actually supposed to, you know, “negotiate” the final result. If you’re prejudging in advance that of course Israel will have to evacuate all settlements, remove all Jews from the West Bank, and go back exactly to the 1967 cease-fire lines, and only then start to negotiate – that sure sounds like prejudging the final result to me. It sure does sound like “picking a winner and a loser.”
Who’s to say that Jews will not be able to live in Palestine in the final settlement? (After all, we all expect that Arabs will be able to live in Israel.) Who’s to say that the precise 1967 lines will be the final borders? Perhaps the negotiations will settle at something else. We don’t know that. It is beyond bias, and beyond folly, to demand that one side give up everything, and only then start to negotiate, and not call yourself biased, or having prejudged a winner and a loser.
Aside from their moral position, I also wonder whether the Presbyterian Church (USA) is actually out to make a difference, or make a point?
Are they actually trying to make things better in the region, or are they just trying to look all holier-than-thou, and make a grand statement? Because yes, the US can deny military aid to Israel. That would only mean that Israel would be less secure, Israelis would feel more afraid, and therefore far more suspicious of the Palestinians, or what danger they might be under if they let the West Bank become an independent state, just a few miles from Tel Aviv. They would also feel far less positive about the United States as a potential friend that they can trust and rely on, when promises are made.
Result? We (the US) would lose the Israelis’ trust, and our ability to be a potentially powerful broker for peace in the region, as the Israelis would feel betrayed, abandoned, and misunderstood, and would not trust us again so easily. So a less secure-feeling Israel, with more fear of their neighbors, and less trust (and power in the region) for us. Sure sounds like making a statement instead of making a difference to me.
I would also like to address the rest of the approved “report on the Middle East.”
The claim can be made that the call for ending US military aid to Israel is simply a political position, and not at all an anti-Israel or anti-Jewish one. (We could argue over how seemly it is for a church to advocate overtly political, vs. religious, positions, but let’s not get into that here.) The rest of the report does make me wonder, though.
For instance, the Star Tribune reports that one section in this report “demands that Bethlehem “be a free and open city accessible to all people” and blames the Israelis for “the exodus of Christians from other parts of the region caused by various military, economic, religious and cultural factors.”" I would like to highlight that when Israel controlled Bethlehem – as well as Jerusalem, Hebron, and other cities of historical and religious importance – they were indeed “free and open cities accessible to all people.” On the contrary, under Arab rule, Jews are no longer allowed in Bethlehem and Hebron, and their Christian populations are persecuted and dwindling. Rachel’s Tomb is encased in a concrete bunker, to ensure the safety of those Jews coming to pray there. And the Tomb of Joseph was destroyed immediately upon being handed over to the Palestinian Authority (with solemn promises of it being kept safe).
In fact, the only time in history when Jews were barred from Jerusalem was the 19 years when it was under Arab control between 1948 and 1967. The Jordanian government hung a big “No Jews Allowed” sign over the entire Old City of Jerusalem – which had had a Jewish population non-stop for nearly 3,000 years at that point. On the contrary, since Israel retook Jerusalem, worshipers of any religion – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – have been allowed to come and worship freely in Jerusalem (with the only exception being Jews not being allowed on the Temple Mount, to avoid upsetting the Muslims).
I would also highlight that the Christian population of Israel is the only growing Christian population in the Middle East, while the Christian populations of such Palestinian-controlled cities as Bethlehem are shrinking rapidly. So it seems a bit rich to me to blame Israel for the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
I would also like to address the report more generally.
If you remember, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the same denomination that back in 2004 called for divestment from Israel. So confidences in their positions on Israel are not exactly running high in the Jewish community.
Apparently, this highly non-biased report actually does state its support for Israel’s right to exist. However, it has been reported that “such support caused “pain” to committee members “who are in solidarity with Palestinians.”" So much for having an actually non-biased committee to write the report. Must be very painful to support the right to exist of the entity you’re trying to tear down.
The Anti-Defamation League said that “bias against Israel continues” in the final report. The Simon Wiesenthal Center said the report “takes definite sides in a complex struggle.” But who are you gonna believe? The ADL, or the well-meaning committee of PC(USA)?
Speaking of the committee that drafted the report, apparently, there was a large number of changes made to the final report before it was approved. All of the changes were to make the report less one-sided against Israel. My question is this – when even your own overall governing body thinks your report is too biased to approve, and makes changes to it – how unbiased can the resulting report really be? When an entire document was originally authored by an inherently biased committee – can a couple of small edits really ever take the overall bias away?
Just as a minor example, apparently the original report featured a “Jewish voices” section. More accurately, it featured one Jewish voice – titled “Notes from a Humanistic, Liberal Zionist.” This was meant to represent the entire Jewish perspective. This was considered so slanted and one-sided that the General Assembly itself demanded that this section be replaced with four separate narratives of comparable length “arising from the range of authentically Israeli perspectives.”
Speaking of bias, apparently in 2008, the denomination’s own Office of Interfaith Relations issued a statement titled “Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias,” in which they reported that “strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read” regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Church leadership, however, revised this document, removing acknowledgment of such sentiment as a matter of current church practice, and instead declaring that the church’s current stands are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. I’d say when your own office on Interfaith Relations says you have a problem – you’re in trouble. And when you go on to change their report to say you don’t really have a problem – you’re really in trouble.
Not surprisingly, given such a past, two nationally prominent Bible scholars from the Vanderbilt Divinity School (Drs. Amy-Jill Levine and Ted A. Smith) both said that “the report relies on centuries-old theological views that, intentionally or not, use stereotypes to undercut Israel’s right to a homeland.”
Having said all that, I would like to mention one small glimmer of hope.
“There are many longtime friends in the Jewish community who believe this report misstates Jewish theology and misquotes the Jewish voice,” said the Rev. Susan Zencka, pastor at Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church in Stevens Point, Wis. “We have come to a position of Palestine good, Israel bad. Life is not that simple.”
Thank you, Pastor Zencka, for being willing to speak the truth, to your own denomination. Let’s hear it for good old honest Wisconsin. Maybe someday, somebody will listen.
(Image: First Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.))