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Alan WisdomNovember 8, 2012
Mr. Wisdom delivered the following paper to the Consultation on Mainline Protestant Churches and Israel in Jerusalem, Israel.
The position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the modern State of Israel is not determined by the denomination’s theology. The PCUSA holds to a Reformed theology that emphasizes continuities between God’s covenant with ancient Israel and God’s covenant with the Church. The status of the Jewish people, modern Israel, and the promise of the Land are unclear.
In earlier centuries most Presbyterians would have said that the Church had replaced Israel as God’s covenant people. But in recent decades most Presbyterians have come to the conviction that God has a continuing covenant with the Jews. Yet they hesitate to claim clarity on biblical prophecies of the end times, and are not sure how modern Israel might fit into those prophecies. So Presbyterian sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are guided less by theology and more by a sense of common values and interests with one party or the other.
Presbyterians have a history of identification with Arab nationalism. When they first sent missionaries to the Middle East in the nineteenth century, they planted moderately sized Reformed denominations in Lebanon and Egypt. (There is no Presbyterian church among the Palestinians, as far as I know.) Their greatest achievement, however, lay in the establishment of prestigious educational institutions such as the American University in Beirut. These institutions became seedbeds of Arab nationalism, and their graduates assumed important roles in movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is the testimony of Arab Christian partners that many PCUSA officials cite in justifying their anti-Israel stance.
PCUSA General Assemblies in recent years have shown a distinct tilt toward the Palestinian side, with occasional lurches back toward a middle course. The most current PCUSA policy statement on the Middle East is a report entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” adopted by the 2010 General Assembly. The report singles out the Israeli presence in the disputed territories as “the major issue for a just peace” in the region. While affirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders,” the report criticizes a long list of Israeli policies and demands changes:
By contrast, the PCUSA policy statement makes only one request of Palestinian political leaders: “We call upon the various Palestinian political factions to negotiate a unified government prepared to recognize Israel’s existence.” There is no sense here that recognizing Israel would require a profound change of direction in the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza.
“Breaking Down the Walls” expresses a general desire for “an immediate cessation of all violence, whether perpetrated by Israelis or Palestinians.” While the Israeli government is clearly held responsible for Israeli use of force against Palestinians, the report does not identify the parties responsible for Palestinian violence. The report assures readers that “only a relatively small minority [of Palestinians] has resorted to violence as a means of resisting the occupation.” It blames this violence on Israel: “If there were no occupation, there would be no Palestinian resistance.” The report notes that “Hamas is a militant organization,” but adds that “over 90 percent of Hamas’ resources are spent on social services to the Palestinian refugees.” By lumping disparate activities under the single term “violence,” the report implicitly treats Israeli army strikes against suspected terrorists as morally equivalent to Hamas terrorist attacks on civilians.
This same kind of moral equivalence appears repeatedly in the PCUSA policy statement. Wherever a concern is raised about any of Israel’s antagonists, that concern is immediately paired with a slam against Israel. For example, criticism of “threats by Iranians and members of Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel” is balanced by criticism of “Israeli efforts to deny the Nakba [Palestinian refugee flight during the 1948-49 Israeli War of Independence] and threats of a mass transfer (expulsion) of the Palestinians into Jordan or elsewhere.”
Concerns about Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons are equated with concerns about Israel’s longtime presumed possession of nuclear weapons. Condemnation of “the interference of one government in the internal politics of another country” includes “American complicity in the Israeli occupation” alongside “Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah” and “Syrian interference in the Lebanese political process.”
The reverse logic, however, is not followed. There are dozens of criticisms of Israel that are not matched by any concerns about Israel’s neighbors.
To enforce its demands for change, the report seeks to direct pressure against Israel. It “[c]alls on the U.S. government to exercise strategically its international influence, including making U.S. aid to Israel contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” More specifically, the report insists on “the withholding of U.S. government aid to the state of Israel as long as Israel persists in creating new West Bank settlements.” There is no similar suggestion of withholding aid from the Palestinian Authority or any other government in the region.
Yet the original draft of “Breaking Down the Walls” was even more harshly anti-Israel than the final product. It was moderated significantly by commissioners at the 2010 General Assembly, as a result of pressure brought by an unusual coalition. Gathered under the banner of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) was a surprising alliance of conservative evangelicals and pro-Israel progressives. They were not seeking the assembly’s blessing of Israel and its policies; their objective was merely a sense of fairness toward the legitimate grievances and requirements of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. PFMEP has worked with U.S. Jewish leaders who have raised similar concerns with the assembly and its officials.
Opposing this coalition is a fairly small circle of pro-Palestinian activists gathered around the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (IPMN). But the IPMN activists have the advantage that their network is sponsored by the PCUSA, while PFMEP has no official standing.
The seesawing struggle between IPMN and PFMEP has been renewed at every biennial General Assembly since 2004. Assemblies had been critical of Israel long before 2004; however, the confrontation escalated to a new level with that year’s mandate for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” That action provoked a storm of protest across the PCUSA and in the Jewish community. The 2006 assembly backed off a bit, replacing the anti-Israel divestment mandate with a broader instruction that PCUSA funds should “be invested only in peaceful pursuits.”
The 2008 General Assembly expressed the sentiments of many Presbyterians in its pledge that “we will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or the Palestinians.” It also warned 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 clearly is the victim.”
Despite this warning, an IPMN-influenced committee brought to the 2012 assembly a proposal that the PCUSA divest its holdings in three corporations (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions) whose products had been used by the Israeli military. The divestment proposal was turned aside on a narrow 333-331 vote. In its place was substituted a call for “active investment” in Palestinian development projects. At the same time, the 2012 assembly approved a “boycott of all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories.”
A “Presbyterian Panel” survey conducted by the denomination shows PCUSA members divided on a number of questions related to Israel. The 2009 survey reported that 36 percent of church members strongly or moderately favor permanent Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, while 22 percent are opposed. The separation barrier between Jewish and Palestinian communities meets with strong or moderate opposition from 35 percent of Presbyterians, while gaining the support of 18 percent. Expanded Jewish settlements in the disputed territories are favored by only 10 percent, opposed by 51 percent. In each case, the remainder of survey participants said they did not know enough to form an opinion. Also in each case, Presbyterian ministers were significantly more likely to hold anti-Israel views than church members at large.
Nevertheless, the survey does reveal some points of broad consensus. A solid 65 percent of PCUSA members support a “two-state solution” allowing self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. More than 70 percent agree that addressing extremism and the threat of violence is a top priority in the Middle East. Almost equal numbers affirm freedom of religious worship and a nuclear-free Middle East as being high priorities. More than 75 percent of Presbyterians say that maintaining positive relationships with Israel and the Jewish community is important or very important.
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