Presbyterian anti-Israel report causes stir

by Institute on Religion and Democracy

A new Presbyterian study resource is being condemned by Jewish groups for its harsh anti-Israel rhetoric. But the controversy over the booklet could actually help defeat anti-Israel divestment, which the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly will consider once again in June, after defeating it in 2012 by only two votes.

“Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide” blames Palestinian suffering exclusively on Jewish “exceptionalism” and “a pathology inherent in Zionism.” It accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” “cultural genocide,” and “apartheid” and faults American Jewish groups and pro-Israel Christians for abetting these evils. The 74-page booklet was produced by the church’s semi-official Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN).

“The Jewish community should be very concerned,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “that the Presbyterian Church has seemingly rejected a half-century of interfaith reconciliation.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center called the booklet “not an attack on particular Israeli policies but on the very idea of a Jewish return to Zion.” It deploys the “nuclear option against the vast majority of Jews, calling us inherently racist and abusive,” he said, and aims at “delegitimizing and demonizing the world’s largest Jewish community and all lovers of Zion.”

A Presbyterian critic, the Reverend Chris Leighton, called the study guide a “dishonest screed that attributes the plight of the Palestinians to a single cause: Zionism.” Executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, Leighton noted that the document disregards a previous church General Assembly directive “to avoid 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 a victim.”

Trying to mollify critics, a Presbyterian Church (USA) news release distanced the church from IPMN, claiming it “speaks to the church and not for the church.” Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of intergroup and interreligious relations, was unpersuaded. “This is a distinction without a difference,” he said, “when you are chartering IPMN and selling their propaganda on your home website.”

Presbyterians are no strangers to controversy over Israel. Their 2004 General Assembly approved anti-Israel divestment, though this created such a stir that the next biennial General Assembly revoked it. IPMN and some official church voices, like the Presbyterian lobby on Capitol Hill, nevertheless continued to take anti-Israel stands. In 2012 the oldline Protestant lobbies including the Presbyterians urged a cutoff of U.S. military aid to Israel. In response, Jewish groups suspended interfaith dialogue with those denominations. But no other denomination has come as close to adopting divestment. The United Methodists rejected it two-to-one in 2012.

That’s the year the Presbyterian vote was a cliffhanger. Since then, scores of conservative congregations and tens of thousands of members have left the denomination, joining the exodus sparked when the Presbyterian Church (USA) liberalized its sexuality standard in 2010. But at least one leader in the anti-divestment caucus thinks this year’s push lacks the momentum of two years ago. He notes that in early February the Greater Atlanta Presbytery, home to prominent anti-Israel activists, declined to endorse divestment, albeit by one vote, while two other presbyteries—New Covenant (the Houston area) and Santa Barbara—recently endorsed the same resolution, or “overture,” rejecting divestment.

This overture notes that “until the rocket attacks and other violence end permanently, and Palestinians as a people come together and abandon the idea of destroying Israel, there can be no free and independent Palestinian state.” And it warns that the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) effort is a coordinated international movement targeting Israel,” exclusively faulting the “occupation” while ignoring the “legitimacy of Israeli security concerns” and portraying “all of Israel” as “occupied Palestinian territory” that must become “‘one-state’ of Palestine.” It further surmises:

If Israel were to unilaterally pull out of the West Bank area before a negotiated settlement is achieved as the result of political and economic pressure from the international BDS movement, it is likely that armed groups like Hamas would take over the West Bank just as they took over Gaza and put millions of innocent lives at risk.

By contrast, an overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco urges the church’s pensions board to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions until they are “no longer complicit in … and profiting from the relentless, five decade long, military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

Presbyterians have been debating anti-Israel divestment for over a decade. A decisive defeat this June—perhaps thanks to the rhetorical overreach of “Zionism Unsettled”—might finally put the effort to rest. Even so, animus against Israel would persist among many church activists, who, for somewhat mysterious reasons, see Israel, uniquely in the world, as deserving the church’s disdain.

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