There comes a time when an institution’s continued flirtation with BDS says nothing about the Middle East and nothing about the BDS “movement,” but instead reveals the ugly underside of the institution itself.
And I’m afraid we may be reaching that sad end as the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) readies to meet in Pittsburgh next week to vote (for the fifth time) on whether to divest from its portfolio stocks related to companies doing business with the Jewish state.
My friend Will Spotts has started to blog on the subject here and, as usual, he provides the best material for understanding the complexity of Presbyterian politics (which involves numerous committees and subcommittees where the real decision-making takes place). And an informational web site Will and I put together in 2010 (which includes Will’s masterful Pride and Prejudice) can still be found here for anyone looking for comprehensive background information on this particular element of the BDS story.
Getting back to my original assertion, when the Presbyterians passed a resolution in 2004 calling for “phased, selective divestment” from companies doing business with Israel, one could make the case that this represented a statement on the Middle East conflict by the church, one that placed primary responsibility for the conflict on just one party (the one targeted for economic punishment: Israel).
But once that vote was taken, it turned out that divestment decisions were actually made by a small group within the church consisting of anti-Israel activists in partnership with church leaders who passed their 2004 divestment resolution with very little input (or awareness) by other church members (even delegates attending the 2004 General Assembly). In fact, even those who voted for the resolution felt it was no big deal (given that the church routinely passes condemnation of Israel at their bi-annual conferences).
But once the vote was taken, it turned out to have been a big deal indeed. For the BDSers, this was their biggest win to date. And regardless of how the resolution was sold when PCUSA delegates voted on it, for the boycotters the message they were delivering across the planet was crystal clear: The Presbyterians agree with us that Israel is an Apartheid State, and every other church, city, school and civic institution in the world should follow the Presbyterians’ lead and also divest from “Apartheid Israel.”
The Jewish community also realized that this was not some meaningless symbolic gesture but a clear official statement by the church that not only placed blame on Israel alone, but made it clear they were only interested in discussing the nature and terms of her punishment. Needless to say, this message was not taken lightly and Jewish leaders let their Presbyterians friends (including former partners in campaigns such as civil rights) know that the partnership had to include not slapping the Jewish community in the face by allowing the church to be the anchor client for the BDS “movement.”
But the most important constituency appalled by this vote were the common Presbyterians in the pews who revolted at the notion of their church taking such a revolting stand, members who rebelled in 2006 by voting down the 2004 divestment resolution by a margin of 95%-5%.
Now one would have thought that the mile the BDSers took with the supposedly inch-long original 2004 divestment decision, coupled with the clear message that the embrace of BDS was anathema to both Jews and many PCUSA members, would have led to a pause and some reflection regarding the church’s relationship with this issue. But following a pattern we’ve seen before, the boycotters just treated their 2006 defeat as a speed bump, returning in 2008 and 2010 with more and more anti-Israel resolutions, assuming that they could eventually get the church to vote the “right way” as they did in ’04.
Again and again, the Jewish community and large numbers of Presbyterians expressed their extreme displeasure at these endless anti-Israel moves. But such opinions held no sway among BDS activists and their enablers within the church leadership that spend the years between General Assemblies (which are held on every even-numbered year) infiltrating any committee or sub-committee designed to provide balance on the issue of church statements and actions regarding the Middle East, ensuring that each new committee would be more one-sided than the last.
Divestment lost in both those years as well, and one would have thought that a project that caused this much anger and this much divisiveness within the church would have moved someone to finally look at whether or not the church belonged in the divestment business. But, in fact, something far more appalling has taken place instead.
For rather than looking at the last eight years as a period screaming out for reflection and moderation, the BDSers and their enablers instead have chosen to pretend that none of these “No” votes really ever said “No.” Instead they have invented a storyline in which a process they initiated in 2004 has been running its course, presenting 2012 as the year when the church must finally act, given that other avenues (such as economic engagement and dialog) have been exhausted (regardless of the fact that engagement and dialog are the very things BDS is designed to prevent).
We’ll take a look at how this dynamic came to be, and what it has done to turn a church that was once a cornerstone of American society into a splintered institution that is no longer trusted by former friends or its own members, one which is on the verge of never being taken seriously again as a moral voice on any political issue whatsoever.
It’s a sad story, but an important one for other organizations to learn so that they can avoid the fate that seems to be awaiting a Presbyterian Church on the verge of becoming the US chapter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions “movement” (which occasionally finds the time to do a little Presbyterianism on the side).