Six years ago, the nearly 3 million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became the first and only U.S. religious body to adopt a divestment policy against Israel. After a large uproar from Christians and Jews, including a personal appeal from Presbyterian former CIA Director James Woolsey at the church’s General Assembly in 2006, the divestment stance was repealed.
Controversy over the church’s stance towards Israel may now reignite. A special PCUSA study committee is proposing that the denomination’s 2010 General Assembly take a strident anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stance. The committee’s report points to the Israeli presence on the West Bank as the great evil in the Middle East. It urges the United States to “employ the strategic use of influence and the withholding of financial and military aid to enforce Israel’s compliance” with demands for withdrawal. The committee recommends no similar pressure against any other actors in the region.
The PCUSA committee calls the U.S. government “to repent of its sinful behavior throughout the Middle East, including its ongoing war in Iraq, its undermining of democratic processes in Iran and the Palestinian National Authority, its continuing support of non-democratic regimes, and its acquiescence to the ongoing Israeli Occupation.” Such rhetoric, if adopted by the General Assembly in July, would introduce another explosive cause of division into the fractured and declining denomination. And it would certainly not help the PCUSA’s inconsistent efforts at dialogue with the U.S. Jewish community.
This proposed new Middle East policy seems likely to revive the animosities from the 2004 General Assembly, which mandated “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” After bitter public debates, the 2006 PCUSA assembly rescinded the divestment mandate. This reversal marked a turning of the tide against pro-Palestinian activists pushing churches to target Israel for economic punishment.
The 2008 Presbyterian assembly pledged that “we will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians” and advised against “taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality, where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim." But that same assembly also established the special committee, which proceeded to ignore the assembly’s advice.
The special committee report has not yet been released; however, excerpts and paraphrases in an official PCUSA News Service account suggest the one-sided nature of the document. According to PCUSA News, the committee’s lead recommendation is “an immediate end to the [Israeli] Occupation [of the West Bank].” Other demands are likewise directed at Israel: “An immediate freeze on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the relocation of Israel’s ‘separation barrier’ to the internationally recognized 1967 border, a shared status for Jerusalem, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel.”
The special committee, according to PCUSA News, advocates “an immediate cessation of violence by both sides” and “immediate resumption of negotiations toward a two-state solution.” It briefly deplores “threats by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel.” But its only specific request of the Palestinian leadership is that the Fatah and Hamas movements should “work together toward immediate reconciliation,” so as to form a united front against Israel.
The PCUSA committee affirms “the right of Israel to exist,” but adds an apology in a footnote: “The phrase ‘the right of Israel to exist’ is a source of pain for some members of our study committee who are in solidarity with the Palestinians, who feel that the creation of the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.” It supports “the right of return” for all Palestinian refugees—a policy that would quickly submerge Israel under an Arab majority.
The most extreme aspect of the report is its endorsement of a pro-Palestinian manifesto called “Kairos Palestine.” Put forth last November by a group of Palestinian church officials, the manifesto rejects the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.
“The injustice against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation, is an evil that must be resisted,” according to this document proposed for PCUSA approval. “Kairos Palestine” argues for non-violent measures such as an international “system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.” At the same time, it seems to justify violence: “Yes, there is Palestinian resistance to the occupation. However, if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.” The manifesto refers to Palestinian “terrorism” in sneer quotes, as if to doubt the existence of the phenomenon.
Even before its release, this PCUSA report is stirring up a storm. The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent out an e-blast predicting that both Jews and many Presbyterians would be outraged. “PCUSA has some of the staunchest supporters of Israel in its ranks,” declared Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center. “They are as frustrated as we are that their church leadership team spends so much energy on the Arab/Israeli conflict where there are relatively few Presbyterians who live in either Israel or the disputed territories, and spends too little energy on major human rights issues impacting Christians and Presbyterians who live in Muslim countries, China, and North Korea.”
Alan F.H. Wisdom is vice president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and director of Presbyterian Action.