For reasons having to do with work, family and a desire for tranquility, I’ve kept some mental distance during this year’s PCUSA divestment vote compared to previous General Assemblies. That said, I have participated in a couple of online discussions with religious bloggers over the last few days, one of whom has decided that the Presbyterians should vote to divest (even if the situation in the Middle East is more complicated than often described), and another who – after careful personal deliberation – decided that “Apartheid” might actually be a perfectly apt term to describe the Jewish state.
What fascinated me most about each of these conversations was the way the authors have determined that, if PCUSA chooses to divest (which will necessarily be followed by the BDS movement blanketing the world to insist that “The Presbyterians agree with us that Israel is an Apartheid State, which is why everyone should follow their lead and boycott Israel too!”), all that will be required to calm Jewish concerns over the matter is patient interfaith dialog facilitated by thoughtful Christians like themselves.
The problem with such a perspective is that it does not take into account the important dialog that has been going on between Presbyterians and Jews for the last ten years, dialog that has included a clear set of messages (which seem to have been forgotten) that succeeded in straining interfaith relations to the breaking point.
For example, in 2006 the General Assembly not only rescinded their 2004 divestment motion by a margin of 95%-5%, but coupled that rejection with a statement apologizing for the anguish that 2004 decision caused to interfaith partners in the Jewish community. But apparently, that apology was not heartfelt enough to prevent more toxic accusations of racism and Apartheid to fill the agenda of the organizations 2008, 2010 and 2012 Assemblies, coupled with new votes forced on the church by divestment advocates who refused to take No for an answer.
If my interlocutors in this week’s discussion are looking for a reason why Jews might be distrustful of remaining in the kind of dialog they envision, they need look no further than the 2008 controversy over Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias. This was a document created (and publically posted) by PCUSA that, for the first time, took on the issue of how church debates over the Middle East might represent a lack of balance (if not overt bias), potentially sliding into anti-Jewish bigotry. The document was frank, honest, reflective, and went a long way towards assuring the church’s Jewish friends that PCUSA was ready to keep the promises it had made two years earlier when divestment was rescinded.
But only for a few weeks. For even as those Jewish partners were penning letters of thanks to the church for acknowledging dangerous biases and welcoming the chance for reconciliation, people within that church quietly removed the original version of “Vigilance,” replacing it with a new document “infused with the very bias that the original statement condemned.”
Understandably, this switcheroo led to condemnations by a Jewish community that realized it was playing Charlie Brown to the PCUSA’s football-pulling Lucy yet again. And, to this day, no one has provided an adequate (i.e., honest) explanation as to who vetoed and replaced the original version of “Vigilance” and who decided it was appropriate to make this swap without telling anyone it was happening. As one Presbyterian put it so aptly: “Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?”
Re-reading claims by my recent discussants that interfaith dialog will somehow salve wounds related to this year’s PCUSA debate, the sense I get is that calm, forgiving words from kind and thoughtful Christians will clarify that the activity we’ve seen going on in Detroit should be seen as the fight for justice for the oppressed coupled with expressions of love towards the oppressor.
But what if the Jewish state currently searching for kidnapped teens and fending off rocket attacks from the Palestinian government’s new-found Hamas partners does not accept the role of “oppressor” being assigned to them by Presbyterians who, as far as I can tell, have chosen to ignore both those kidnappings and rocket attacks as they take it upon themselves to officially assign blame (and suggest punishments) to one side and one side only for the lack of peace in the region?
Should we be grateful that the same committee (#4) that just voted for divestment yet again (ignoring what previous GAs decided in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12) have distanced themselves from a document that claims the very notion of a Jewish state is racist and illegitimate (even as they struck passages that would require the church to stop distributing those PCUSA-imprinted calumnies to churches across the country)?
Should we be pleased that a different General Assembly committee decided not to modify their liturgy to ensure church members know Biblical reference to Jews in the Holy Land are not applicable to Jews living there today? Or should we be appalled that such topics are considered worthy of debate by an organization claiming to stand for modern, rather than Medieval, values?
And what should we say to the choice of Committee 4 to open up discussion of whether or not the church should be supporting a Two State solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, given that the obvious alternative advocates for this position want as church policy is a One State solution that – as specified in Zionism Unsettled (the very document this same committee distanced themselves from) – has no room for Jewish self-determination.
Finally, if issues like the right of Jews to self-determination and self-defense, the role the Palestinians and the wider Arab world have played in their own suffering (and the suffering of Israelis), or the dishonest behavior of PCUSA over the last decade are worked into the conversation, will our friendly dialog partners be ready to talk about them or will they instead go out and find new interfaith partners (like the fringe Jewish Voice for Peace) to ensure “dialog” only takes place with Jews who are already in full agreement with them?
More than a decade of being accused of murderous racism (the essence of the Apartheid slur) followed by smiles and calls for reconciling dialog has led Jews (understandably) to come to the conclusion that they their relationship with the Presbyterian Church is equivalent to that of an abused spouse. And if the only thing those claiming to be dialog partners are looking for is a way to have their cake (i.e., bi-annual denunciation of the Jewish state and its supporters) and eat it to (i.e., pretend they still have warm relations with the very people they keep denouncing), then perhaps we need to remove ourselves from such abuse, even if the punches are delivered by those convinced they are on the side of the angels.