Archive | Church Divestment RSS feed for this section

Reverend Ufford-Chase’s Faux Dialog

8 Jul

It’s now officially time to call it quits on the whole Presbyterian issue and move onto other vital matters, such as the disintegration of the entire Middle East (or at least those portions rarely mentioned in discussions of a “Middle East Conflict” that seems to include Israel, the Palestinians and precious little else).

But before saying goodbye to this topic, I have to mention this article written by Rick Ufford-Chase which provides techniques and talking points to anyone who must engage in interfaith dialog between Presbyterians who support the church’s return to their 2004 divestment position and the vast majority of Jews who were justifiably appalled by that decision.

Like Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Reverend Ufford-Chase is one of those PCUSA leaders whose fingerprints can be found all over the PCUSA divestment project.  The moderator for the 2004 General Assembly where divestment was first voted in (as a last-minute decision, with barely any debate), Ufford-Chase seems to have dedicated the last decade to undoing every “No” vote taken against divestment (in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12) in order to once again get his pet cause made PCUSA policy.

The first problem Ufford-Chase is likely to run into is finding someone to take his advice, given that many (probably most) Presbyteries were either (1) unaware that the divestment issue was once again going to throw the church onto the front pages (and create new rifts with the Jewish community) or (2) were actively hostile to the leadership’s divestment obsession all along.

But for those clerical and lay leaders who do want to explain church policy to alleged interfaith partners, Ufford-Chase recommends a format for organizing one’s talking points, one which puts a central argument in the middle of a triangle (in his case, that “Presbyterians are committed to bringing about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians”), then putting statements that support this main thesis on the corners of the triangle, with each statement supported by stories or further statements.

In this case, Ufford-Chase’s corners are filled with talking points with which anyone who has followed this debate will find familiar (“Presbyterians do not invest in companies that violate human rights,” “The Occupation must be dismantled and Settlement expansion must be brought to an end,” “Presbyterians seek both an internationally recognized State of Israel and a viable Palestinian State”), with evidence (interestingly) consisting not of facts but of stories that can add a human face to statements being presented as true.

While this might seem like a useful technique for organizing an argument, I could just as easily draw my own triangle which focuses on a different characterization of the PCUSA’s decision such as “A minority within the church has been committed to dragging the Middle East conflict into the organization for over a decade,” and then support my characterization with statements about how PCUSA leaders (including Ufford-Chase) have betrayed principles of Presbyterian governance, broken promises to the Jewish community, and suppressed dissent in order to get their way.  And, again, each of my statements could be well supported by stories and evidence (starting with detailed research, like the work of former PCUSA member Will Spotts).

Now one way genuine interfaith dialog could proceed from such an exercise would be for Rev. Ufford-Chase and I to swap our triangles and attempt to find common ground between them or, failing that, to agree to disagree.

But given how much church leaders have banished Presbyterian voices challenging their preferred (and highly truncated) presentation of facts over the last decade, what are the chances that a church member trying to engage critics outside of the church will be willing to listen to those critics’ legitimate concerns?  In which case, Rev. Ufford-Chase’s Techniques and Talking points become not a means for engaging in a genuine (and challenging) conversation, but a way to ensure any conversation is always brought back to a preferred set of talking points – ones which require an interlocutor to accept their opponent’s assumptions in advance or be accused of refusing to engage in “dialog.”

As I mentioned previously, I’ve reached out to a couple of people who claimed to thirst for the chance to engage with those who disagree with church divestment policy, and while my sample size is pretty trivial, I have noticed increasing discomfort whenever the conversation veers towards questioning PCUSA’s self-characterization as loving, unbiased, peace-makers.

Even keeping in mind the fact that Jews and Christians are destined to come at these issues from different vantage points (a challenge eloquently described in Rabbi Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us), there is a difference between genuine dialog that involves people trying to find common ground and faux-dialog in which one side will only continue if their central premises go unchallenged.

Remember also that there is another audience for Rev. Ufford-Chase’s message: those fellow Presbyterians who warned that a return to 2004 would mean a return to the rifts and acrimony that followed PCUSA’s original divestment vote.  For this group, a call for interfaith dialog (just with Jews, by the way, not with the church’s Palestinian peace partners who are using PCUSA divestment policy as their latest propaganda weapon) is meant to imply that church leaders are holding an outstretched hand which the Jews refuse to grasp.

Perhaps a strategy based on faux dialog masquerading as the real thing will convince some uninformed souls of PCUSA’s sincerity.  But given the number of people within Ufford-Chase’s own organization who are reaching out to apologize to their Jewish partners for PCUSA behavior (rather than try to explain it away), I suspect Ufford-Chase and other BDSbyterians will have a hard time convincing many members of their own church that this move represents anything other than an attempt to gorge on their divestment cake without suffering any consequences.

PCUSA – Saying Goodbye

2 Jul

Now that a week has passed since the PCUSA decided to turn the clock back to 2004, rejecting four previous General Assembly votes and moving full-steam ahead on divestment once more, there is very little to do but watch the completely predictable consequences of their decision play out.

Remember that this is a church which has been told for over a decade that divestment – which would lump the Jewish state in with Apartheid South Africa and genocidal Sudan – represented an assault on Israel’s legitimacy and a direct attack on the most important Jewish project of modernity.

They have been told by their members time and time again that divestment does not translate to a form of peace-making and even-handedness, but rather represents taking a side in the conflict.  They saw those same members say “No” in divestment votes taken in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12.  And still divestment advocates within the church (enabled by a leadership that has more in common with Sabeel than with their own parishioners) pressed on.

This alliance of boycotters and corrupt leaders continued with their single-minded program, even after Zionism Unsettled shouted to the world the real agenda behind those anti-Israel partisans who have forced divestment onto the church for over a decade.  And they took their vote the moment Israel was looking for its now-murdered children in one territory controlled by the PCUSA’s Palestinian “peace partners” and rockets were being fired into the country from another.

As I’ve noted before, the Jewish community is diverse (i.e., often at each other’s throats – especially on matters related to the Middle East), but patient (as demonstrated by a decade of turning the other cheek while PCUSA prepared the next slap).  But patience ceases to be a virtue when it enables immoral behavior.  And I think it’s telling that in a community as diverse as ours, advocates for BDS are one of the few groups not allowed inside the Big Tent.

And so the condemnations have poured in from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements who agree on little beyond the holiness of Torah and an abhorrence of BDS.  Even stronger statements have been issued by virtually every community organization in the country (other than Jewish Voice for Peace – the “interfaith partners” PCUSA leaders obliquely refer to when they claim that divestment has support within the Jewish community).

More importantly, Presbyterians who warned church leaders what would happen if they continued to insist on pressing divestment are speaking out.  And while I don’t expect whole churches to break away from PCUSA over last month’s divestment vote, I have heard from individual Presbyterians that this vote was the last straw that has caused them to start looking for a new religious home far from the contamination of Louisville.  And given the options churches have to leave this branch of the denomination and still be considered Presbyterians, it would not surprise me to see emigration contribute to the decline of PCUSA as much as the death of the old and disinterest of the young.

A number of people have commented on the “deer-in-the-headlights” performance of PCUSA Moderator Heath Rada as he took to the airwaves trying to explain that last month’s vote does not diminish his denominations love for the Jewish people and devotion to Israel’s continued existence. But after 2004, after Vigilance, after Zionism Unsettled, and after a decade of hearing Presbyterians take to the stage on GA after GA accusing Israel of every imaginable crime, it should come as no surprise that the Jewish community has finally decided to judge the organization by its deeds, rather than its words.

The only thing about the aftermath that caught me off guard was this call by PCUSA leaders asking individual churches to reach out to synagogues with whom they have good relations to explain that a return to 2004 should not be seen as an attack on Israel, a joining of the BDS movement, or anything other than an act of peacemaking and love (supported by statements saying just that within the divestment resolution which passed at the 214 GA).

The trouble is, any Presbyterian Church with a strong relationship with the local Jewish community knows those statements are just a form of equivocation by an organization that – even while assuring their Jewish “friends” that they are not part of the BDS “movement” – can’t seem to find the time to ask that movement to stop claiming PCUSA as a friend and example of what other churches should do immediately.

In other words, local church leaders who have built up enough trust to explain PCUSA policy to offended Jews are the very ones who warned PCUSA of the perils of continuing to push a divestment agenda at all cost.  Which means that Louisville is counting on those Presbyterians most against the policy they forced onto the organization to repair the damage their reckless decisions have caused.

Perhaps pastors like Mark Davidson will be able to sit down with his local interfaith partners and convince them that PCUSA is sincere in its love and peacemaking (after riding over to the synagogue on a bus plastered with the anti-Israel ads his church has sponsored).  But my guess is that the Jewish community is ready to maintain friendly and productive relations with local Presbyterians who (like most Presbyterians) reject divestment, cordial relations with those who support the policy, and no relations with PCUSA at a national level.

In other words, our involvement with PCUSA should be treated as an entirely local matter.  Which means we should treat Louisville and whatever Louisville and its real friends and partners at Sabeel, IPMN, and JVP cook up over the next two years with the same indifference and contempt it will be shown by the rest of the world.

As I noted last time, one of the strengths of American religious culture is the ease with which someone who dislikes their local church is free to start their own.  And while PCUSA has shown itself ready to fight to the death to hang onto its property, hanging onto its membership seems pretty low on their agenda.  So perhaps this year’s GA can mark the beginning of a new era of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, one which has no use for a PCUSA national organization and agenda that has caused so much misery to others while hastening the death of their own denomination.

Presbyterian BDS and the Attack on Common Sense

23 Jun

Occasionally, a critic will show up in the comments section of this site questioning my claims of sympathy with civic groups suffering from having had the Middle East conflict dragged into their organization by boycott and divestment advocates.

It’s a reasonable challenge, given that I never had anything to do with groups like the food co-op movement or the Presbyterian Church until I became engaged with them over my particular political issue.  But such an accusation assumes that engagement can’t involve learning and growth, especially as it provides access to people with whom I can empathize (given that my own journey began when divestment reared its ugly head in my home town a decade ago).

Since emotional attachment and empathy are both psychological constructs difficult to “prove” through the written word, let me instead provide an argument over why the PCUSA’s recent decision to return to the BDS fold is such a tragedy (for the Presbyterians, not for Israel), after which you can decide how much such an analysis reflects sympathy vs. sour grapes.

Any discussion of American Mainline Protestantism (of which Presbyterianism is a part) must begin by pointing out that the United States was founded and built by Mainliners and entirely led by them until the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Now their decline in both numbers and influence in the second half of the 20th century has created some anomalous behaviors (best summarized in Rabbi Poupko’s mini-masterpiece Looking at Them Looking at Us), notably a critique of US foreign policy driven by church members who often resemble a retired CEO lecturing successors from the sidelines about everything they’re doing wrong.

Such contemporary oddities should not, however, blind us to the remarkable role Presbyterians and other Protestant churches played in creating the founding principles of the nation, including religious tolerance and pluralism.  This is not to say that Protestantism is inherently more tolerant than other faiths (as testified by centuries of post-Reformation religious wars in Europe).  But in the United States (unlike Europe), no denomination had the numbers to establish themselves as the official state church, which meant that pluralism and tolerance were matters of self-interest to groups that might be a majority in one part of the country, but a minority in another.

As Joseph Bottum describes in his book An Anxious Age, this peculiar dynamic allowed churches to foster patriotism based on a shared American identity while also giving institutions with no official role running the country a platform to critique the society in which they lived.  And as Mainline Protestantism has declined to the point of potential extinction, no other institution – secular or religious – has been able to provide an alternative moral language to replace the one originally provided by Protestant Christianity.

Getting back to matters specifically related to the Presbyterians, Will Spotts (author of Pride and Prejudice - which describes how the original 2004 PCUSA divestment policy came about) has justifiably criticized the process used by the organization to come to conclusions about weighty matters – including international politics – a process where (among other problems) “time limits and workload has the effect of precluding competence.”

While I can’t argue with any of the particulars Will describes, I would urge people to consider the driving force behind such a process as not hubris but the Common Sense philosophy I talked about a few weeks back.

Just as a reminder, Common Sense – like Presbyterianism – originated in Scotland (not a coincidence, by the way) and laid out a means for knowledge creation and societal organization that assumed every question could be answered or problem solved by small groups of committed individuals working together cooperatively.  The Church’s decentralized political structure as well as the devolution of powers to the small, local community envisioned by America’s founders all derive from Common Sense principles which many of us still long for (even if we no longer understand what they are or where they originated).

But Common Sense ran into challenges the moment society became too complex to allow every decision to be made like a jury trial.  Modernity, industrialization, transportation that allowed national and international travel, all led to the rise of a new political order: technocracy, where trained and skilled experts would make a bulk of the decisions on the behalf of the citizenry.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this new type of power relationship.  We all benefit, after all, by having our electrical grids designed by engineers rather than a group of citizens chosen by lot.  At the same time, much of contemporary political debate that is force-fit into categories such as Left vs. Right make a lot more sense once you realize that nostalgia for living in a Common Sense community in an era when that is no longer possible drives much of our political thinking (at least at the subconscious level).

Unfortunately, if the PCUSA’s committee-based decision making reflects a desire to hold onto Common Sense principles within an institution (or sub-culture), it has yet to come to grips with how much technocrats within the organization have inevitably come to run the show.  And unlike the electric grid example I just used, in the case of PCUSA those technocrats are not experts but authorities (the full-time PCUSA professionals working out of Louisville Kentucky) whose decision making is not driven by unique knowledge and expertise but by a political agenda.

As we have seen over the last ten years of debate over divestment, such agenda-driven authority-crats are more than willing to subvert Common Sense principles in order to get their way.  For example, no genuine Common Sense community would be asked to vote in divestment at the last minute of a conference with minimal input from the membership (as happened in 2004).  And if Common Sense still reigned within the organization, a huge majority of members rejecting divestment in 2006 would have been the last word on the matter.

These new authorities, however, have tools at their disposal that allow them to portray their choices as something other than their own dictates.  There is a reason why PCUSA has chartered multiple committees to bring a certain point of view into discussions on the Middle East while Presbyterians who have alternative viewpoints must fend for themselves.  And is it reasonable to assume these committees could have become so packed and lopsided without the ascent of the church’s professional leadership?

Even the notion of divestment welling up from the grassroots through the Overture process is subject to manipulation since it’s been made apparent to all that Overtures on certain matters (such as criticism of Israel) will be put into action whenever a GA rolls around (thus encouraging activists who hold this position to submit multiple Overtures on the matter) while other issues will, at best, be filed under “Miscellaneous.”

What this all adds up to is a system whereby an elite drives their political agenda within the church while creating the illusion (through a corrupted GA process) that decisions are still being made by the men and women of the pews.  In other words, what we saw in Detroit last week was an attack not just on Israel and its supporters, but on the very decentralized, citizen-based, Common Sense principles upon which the Presbyterian Church was founded.

I suppose I could channel the spirit of Chicago Presbytery (the one that proposed new church liturgy to make a distinction between the Jews in the Old Testament and the ones living in the Holy Land today) and try to come up with language that would clarify the distinction between the Presbyterian Church which made so much difference in the world during its first four centuries and the mutant entity that traveled under that name in Detroit last week.  But feeling more generous than Chicago, I simply wish that those hoping to reform PCUSA back to sanity or, more likely, follow the time-tested American tradition of leaving to found their own alternative, will rediscover those things which led them to Presbyterianism in the first place, including the Common Sense principles that Louisville has worked so relentlessly to eradicate from PCUSA.

Presbyterian BDS – What to Do?

21 Jun

I was watching my youngest son perform in one of my least favorite musicals while the Presbyterians were debating whether or not to hand their reputation over to Omar Barghouti and his friends for another two years. And given that my kid’s shows (and associated ice-cream based socializing) can go well into the night, it wasn’t until this morning that I had time to digest yesterday’s decision-making at the 221 Presbyterian General Assembly.

I’ve actually had two years to prepare for a PCUSA divestment squeaker that went the boycotters’ way, given that I had fully expected the strategy chosen by the BDSers and their enablers in 2012 (and repeated this year) to work for them the last time around.

Just as a reminder, that strategy started with ensuring that every committee that would in any way touch the issue of Middle East politics was completely and utterly under the domination of pro-divestment forces, ensuring that the uncommitted would be subject to a barrage of anti-Israel sentiment with alternative views relegated to the margins and facts that might confound a black-and-white storyline already dumped down the memory hole.  And that was exactly how things played out in Detroit as Committee 4 made decisions after an egregious (and fully intentional) lopsided “debate” on the subject.

As in 2012, the foreordained outcome of such a fixed process was a pro-divestment measure sent to the floor that was characterized as having arisen from thoughtful input and careful discussion (rather than a process marinated in bias) in hope that General Assembly members unfamiliar with the issues (and unwilling to believe that the church they loved could behave as corruptly as it has) would not reject divestment yet again.  When this hardball set of tactics was rolled out in 2012, there were still enough Presbyterians in the room able to see through the stink to defeat divestment one more time.  But in a church losing between 50-100,000 members between every GA, it was inevitable that the remaining rump would eventually concentrate the power of radicals enough to drag BDS past the finish line (in this case, by less than ten votes).

The only thing I found interesting about this year’s debate was the portion I did watch yesterday afternoon when amendment after amendment was proposed (and many accepted) meant to blunt the impact of what the Presbyterians seemed about to do.  One of those amendments even tried to put distance between the church and BDS, despite the fact the only reason they were having this debate was at the behest of that very movement.

The boycotters did very little to sabotage such amendments since they fully understood that once news went out regarding any pro-divestment vote, all such subtlety would be lost (just as it would be ignored in the BDSers own press releases) in favor of the only thing they were ever truly after: newspaper headlines that simply state: “Presbyterian Church divestment from Israel.”

For Presbyterians who have not yet realized that they were only ever means to the boycotters ends, those little caveats are supposed to help when they visit their Jewish interfaith partners to insist that what they did was small, qualified, and well-intentioned (even as other interfaith BDS partners blanket the planet with the very Israel = Apartheid message PCUSA allegedly rejected).  But chances that Jews outside the JVP fringe will be interested in the kind of dialog I experience recently – in which all our legitimate concerns are ignored in favor of being told that we are still loved (presumably in spite of our support for a murderous, racist state) – would likely have been higher in the 12th century than the 21st.

So for reasons of self-respect alone, it’s time to follow the Wiesenthal Center and say goodbye to this abusive partner, ideally in a public manner that makes it crystal clear that while individual Jews and Presbyterians and even synagogues and churches can continue to work together on issues of concern that this does not mean (and should not be presented as meaning) a continuing interfaith relationship between the Jewish community and the everything Presbyterians mean when they refer to “Louisville.”

As for the rest of us, I think our choice of how to treat this recent decision by the church is also pretty clear: we should ignore it the same way 99.99% of the rest of the world ignores everything else that comes out of PCUSA General Assemblies year after year.  If you doubt my statistic, keep in mind that divestment was just one of dozens (if not hundreds) of political matters the church voted on over the last decade. Yet can anyone think of a single one of these decisions that made news (outside, perhaps, of those related to gay marriage where PCUSA might have been part of a story regarding much larger trends)?

Of the 1.6 million+ Presbyterians who were not in Detroit this week, many will wake up today appalled that their church has decided to accept a divestment policy they rejected four times, while others will just roll their eyes and tell us that this is just more nonsense originating from Louisville.  So given how little many Presbyterians care about their leadership’s choice of priorities, should Jews take those choices any more seriously?

Finally, the BDSers have given us the clearest lesson in how we should treat this matter having ignored vote after vote by previous GAs calling for balance, fairness and an end to divisive divestment battles within the church.  And if they are free to ignore Presbyterian No votes on divestment, it’s not clear why we should treat Yes votes any differently – even if people are screaming in our faces insisting that we must.

Why Presbyterian BDS Doesn’t Matter

20 Jun

Some people will look at that headline as the pre-positioning of sour grapes in case this afternoon’s vote does not go well, while others might suspect that I’m trying to find any means to avoid spending the afternoon watching a political debate wrapped in religious clothing whose jarring style is so wonderfully described by my old friend Will Spotts.

Both accusations (particularly the second one) probably have a grain of truth to them.  But let me try to outline why a Presbyterian vote to re-instate their divestment policy from 2004 will have far less impact than it did when divestment was first passed ten years ago.

First, when that original divestment vote took place in 2004 it was a bolt from the blue.  Only those in the Jewish community who had been following the degeneration of discourse on the Middle East that had been going on in the Presbyterian Church over the previous decade knew that it might be coming.  And even the leadership of PCUSA didn’t think much about the passage of a resolution to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” from the Jewish state (to the point where that year’s GA moderator didn’t even mention the vote as one of the important items to come out of that year’s General Assembly).

This element of surprise meant no one really understood how that vote came about and, absent such information, they took as given statements coming from church leaders and external divestment advocates that this vote represented the will of a 2.2 million member church, a decision supposedly representing the moral condemnation of an established and still-respected institution.

But that was before analysts like Will Spotts’ provided the kind of detailed analysis needed to understand the politics behind this decision, politics that we have seen play out in public in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012.  And if sausage making and legislation are two procedures one never wants to get too close to out of fear of triggering violent nausea, watching the hardball tactics, dishonest and manipulative campaigning, and nasty innuendo blanketed in a religious vocabulary that has constituted church debate over this subject for the last decade has made it clear to all that any decision to re-participate in the BDS “movement” represents, at best, the success of a fringe minority to force its accusations into the mouth of another civic organization.

That aforementioned surprise in 2004 also meant the Israel’s supporters within the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds (including many Presbyterians) needed time to figure out what was going on and how to respond.  But after ten years of being kicked in the teeth, ten years of having promises broken, ten years of lies about Israel as a nation of racist murderers treated as gospel fact and preached from the alter, these communities know what they need to say if the boycotters manage to find the right combination of backroom politics and front-room deception and moral blackmail to drag their sordid divestment measures over the finish line.

No speculation is required to understand what will happen next if divestment does pass this afternoon since we saw this exact same story play out ten years ago.  Jewish organizations will decry yet another betrayal by alleged interfaith partners (although this time likely calling that abusive relationship off for good).  Thousands of Presbyterians will wake up this weekend to discover what is being said in their name (yet again) on an issue many of them chose (and even voted) to stay neutral on again and again.  Condemnations will rain down on PCUSA from across America’s civic landscape.  And as church leaders turn to those they thought would become their alternative ecumenical partners (i.e., groups like Jewish Voice for Peace), they will find their new friends have fled the room (after a brief chest-thumping victory parade on the Assembly floor) in order to spread the word that “Israel is an Apartheid State – See the Presbyterians say so!” to the world, leaving behind others to deal with the wreckage.

And even as defenders of such a decision (presuming it takes place) point to those tiny clauses inserted into their divestment measures to earn them the checkered flag (such as a clause which claims that the church is not participating in the BDS movement, despite voting to take part in an activity that is BDS’s middle name), don’t expect them to expend much effort telling the boycotters to stop shouting otherwise through bullhorns across the planet.

So this afternoon’s divestment vote is taking place within an organization whose biases and behavior on all things Middle East are now well known by Jews, Presbyterians and civilians alike.  So while Presbyterian BDS might create a brief media bump for the boycotters, it won’t take long before those stories are replaced by ones talking about a denomination that has lost all moral bearings, if not become totally senile, during its declining years.

Speaking of decline, I did a little spreadsheet work on the numbers appearing in this piece and calculated that the year in which the membership of the church will decline to 0 is 2040 (i.e., within the lifetime of most people reading this, although not within the lifetime of most current Presbyterians whose average age is 62).

Well before then, however, numbers will fall below a million (meaning they will be outnumbered by affiliated Jews in the US), but the nature of such an institution means that a final implosion will happen well before the last PCUSA member kicks the bucket.  For a church that maintains over 10,000 congregations will probably start running into serious trouble once the average number of members per congregation falls below 100 (which, according to my calculation might happen as soon as 2020).  And, as numbers continue to decline, there may come a point where PCUSA remains nothing more than a real-estate holding company and retirement home, best remembered for a long glorious history they abandoned to become a bullet point on the boycotter’s next PowerPoint slide.

I should point out that, as someone familiar with American religious and intellectual history, I take no joy at the decline of a Mainline Protestant movement that has defined so much of what this country means.  But watching how the attack on Israel has played out in the church over a decade, my thoughts turn to those brave people in the pews who have kept this monster at bay for so long.  And for those kindly ones, I pray that they can again act as a brake on the schemes of their corrupted leaders or, failing that, can find a safe lifeboat before the ship finally goes down.

PCUSA BDS – Will Dialog Solve All?

19 Jun

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.