PCUSA and the Power of Reason

Will Spotts, my partner at the Bearing Witness site dedicated to fighting anti-Israel animus within the Presbyterian Church, have a little contest going to see who can take the longest to get to the point.

There is a philosophical message regarding this little bit of self-deprication at the expense of our somewhat-longish prose. For you see, Will and I are working off the assumption that reason is the best tool in our battle against divestment and other anti-Israel activities.

This doesn’t mean that all we do is create long-winded rebuttals of every accusation thrown against the Jewish state by PCUSA and other critics. But it does mean that our arguments against such activity, whether longer or (occasionally) shorter, make the assumption that those who are fair minded will choose well if presented with accurate information and informed arguments.

The alternative, to be perfectly frank, would be much easier. In fact, it is the option taken by the vast bulk of those who make it their life work to attack Israel. All that would be needed to fight fire with fire in that case would be to skip prose completely and rely on pictures, preferably of bloody infants killed by terrorists, or pregnant mothers fleeing from Hamas rocket fire.

We could extend this to include heart-rending testimony (in text, photos and video) of women, homosexuals and religious minorities persecuted throughout the Muslim world, and demand that any individual or organization (like the Presbyterian Church) which claims to support the rights of these minorities pass our resolutions condemning “Apartheid Islam.” We could endlessly talk about the “illegal Palestinian government” (without explaining what we mean) or talk about Hamas being in breach of 145 international laws (assuming that by including a number in our claim it will ring more true).

In fact, Will could have stayed in the Church and pressured his Presbyterian colleagues to create overtures and reports that focus exclusively on the racism, sexism, homophobia and totalitarianism throughout the Arab world (as I could do with various Jewish organizations – political and civil – that I belong to), all the time insisting that unless these groups do what we say, they are betraying their most deeply professed beliefs.

Now we would obviously be at a disadvantage if we utilized the same tactics used by Israel’s opponents. After all, there are not dozens of Jewish countries who dominate organizations like the OIC or UN who have state power and resources to dedicate to de-legitimizing Israel’s critics while ensuring that the human rights spotlight never gets turned in any other direction. We cannot afford to charter flotillas of ships to sail across the Mediterranean, or fly people to Israel to take part in political tourism, or hold conferences across the country to strategize on how to boycott the Arab world.

But I suspect that if we went down this route we could be somewhat effective, even if it came at the cost of creating mayhem within the organizations we chose to leverage for our own political gain.

And therein lies the difference between one side of this debate and the other. For the major reason Will, I and other activists choose not to simply use our opponents tactics against them is that we are not ready to cause long-term harm to others just to get our way.

At the end of the day, BDS activists don’t give a damn about what their campaign might do to communities like Berkeley, or Somerville or the Presbyterian Church. For them, these institutions are simply props, playthings to be used for their own political drama. No doubt, they’ve convinced themselves (and others) that the importance of their cause allows them to manipulate anyone they like, regardless of the consequences. But since when is it news that some of the most horrible behavior and actions are done by those who are absolutely convinced of their own unquestionable virtue.

It remains to be seen if an appeal to reason which counts on the wisdom and sense of fair play by people such as those attending this year’s PCUSA General Assembly ends up a good bet. I can’t say exactly what it means if the Presbyterian rank and file take Will’s advice and reject most or all of the anti-Israel measures brought before the Assembly this year, except to say that it certainly doesn’t mean nothing.

And if we lose, well that will certainly be sad. Even if just one resolution is passed, anti-Israel activists will immediately blanket the world with the message that the Presbyterians have now returned to the Israel=Apartheid fold, an unappealing situation to be sure. At the same time, any 2010 resolutions will be placed into the mouth of an organization that’s lost 30% of its members in the last 25 years, and it’s a reasonable question whether in 10 or 20 years time there will even be a Presbyterian Church in the US, beyond a few decaying buildings containing 60-70 year olds, including a core of political activists who have succeeded in having their way within the church they have done so much to help destroy.

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3 Responses to PCUSA and the Power of Reason

  1. Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    “All that would be needed to fight fire with fire in that case would be to skip prose completely and rely on pictures, preferably of bloody infants killed by terrorists, or pregnant mothers fleeing from Hamas rocket fire.”

    This is the constant temptation I face doing “street level” hasbara. But how can “The 5 reasons the 6 day war was a defensive action” ever compete with dead babies and olive trees?

  2. Bella Center June 18, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    Although I am quite disappointed with some of his conclusions, Bernard Avishai's new anti-boycott article for The Nation has many very good practical talking points for an anti-BDS campaign.

  3. Jon June 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    I saw Avishai's piece and agree that it is an important critique of BDS from an interesting perspective (that of a writer for “The Nation”), even if I have concerns (which I suspect parallel yours) that the writer assumes Israel is guilty and is just debating that BDS may not be an effective punishment.

    In truth, I think Hussein Ibish takes a much bolder position on the topic (you can find things I've written about his statements using the new Search gadget I just added to the site yesterday).

    I also think that Avishai (like most of his colleagues) is similar to many people on the Israel advocacy side of things in that he's primarily thinking about BDS from the perspective of Jews and Arabs. He does not seem to notice the damage that BDS projects cause to neutral third parties (such as PCUSA or Berkeley), an issue that goes beyond the Middle East conflict itself.

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