PCUSA Divestment – Who Pays?

In his latest posting on the subject of this week’s US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) General Assembly (GA), Will Spotts talks about the wall surrounding the hearts of too many people in the Church which seals them off from comprehension of the harm their activities over the years have caused, and the hatefulness their words and deeds represent. 

Previous to this, he talked about not a wall but a gap, notably the enormous chasm between the absolute evil they assign to the Jewish state (best represented by the “Apartheid” label which, in effect, accuses Israel of being a nation of racist murderers – making Israel’s supporters in the Jewish community accessories to racism and murder) and the triviality of the steps they want to take to deal with this perceived evil.

This walling off from reality and gap between word and deed makes sense once you realize that the church is desperate to find a way to look as though it is doing something important and virtuous without actually doing anything that would involve a genuine act of self sacrifice.

I tend not to use the “Well if you’re going to boycott Israel, you might as well throw your computer away” argument (if only because others have used it better than I could).  But it’s worth noting that the entire BDS effort is designed around providing options for organizations like PCUSA that require no one in the organization to deprive themselves of anything they find useful or take for granted in their day-to-day lives.

Remember that the BDSer’s goal is to get an institution like the church to take a position, any position, which would allow the boycotters to brag in their next set of press releases that “PCUSA agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, which is why you should boycott Israel too!”  So providing them an easy on-ramp to such a decision, one in which the price gets paid by people other than the decision makers, is a cornerstone of BDS strategy.

And who will pay a price if a divestment vote is passed during the upcoming GA?

Not church leaders or the BDS activists (both inside and outside the church) supported by these leaders.  For they seem to be able to avoid responsibility for their behavior year in and year out (which is why they keep doing what they do GA after GA since, simply put, there is no price to pay).  And, surprisingly, not Israel which has managed to weather this kind of abuse for years while maintaining a civil society, growing an allegedly “boycotted” economy and defending itself when necessary.

No in this instance, the price will be paid by church members outside the small circle of Presbyterians who have made getting the church to boycott Israel their life’s work.

Many of these members have made it clear in votes taken in 2006, 2008 and 2010 that they don’t like the church’s lopsided Middle East policy (even if they have no particular love for the Jewish state).  For these people, the leadership is yet again making it clear that an embrace of BDS takes higher priority than the opinions of the people in the pews.

The price will also be paid by those in the church who value inter-faith dialog and relationships, especially if the Jewish community finally decides to cut ties to PCUSA, rather than continue to live with the bi-annual slaps in the face during GAs dedicated to unending Israel bashing.

The price is already being paid by Presbyterians worried that the church no longer seems to carry moral weight in the wider society.  (When, after all, was the last time you saw the media calling on a Presbyterian leader to discuss the moral dimensions of the issues of the day?)  And how could church behavior over the last decade – which has included ongoing abuse of friends, ignoring of member concerns, and the making and breaking promises to both Jews and Presbyterians looking for more even-handed church policy – do anything but wreak havoc on the church’s reputation for honesty and integrity?

In fact, the ultimate price seems about to be paid by the church as a whole which (like the Romans who decided to engage in one civil war after another just as their empire was collapsing) looks ready to continue to divide into smaller and smaller units, just so one part can join the BDS movement without being bothered by those pesky Presbyterians who have other opinions.

With church membership both plummeting and aging and a church polity ready to turn division about secular political issues (including the Middle East) into a new set of formal and permanent schisms, I can envision a day when a smaller, older and even less relevant church finally passes a divestment resolution which no one else notices and cares about.  And it may very well be that this day will arrive sometime in the next two weeks.

PCUSA – Victory and Nausea

I suppose I should be happy with the final outcome of last week’s Presbyterian General Assembly. Divestment was voted down (for the third GA in a row), the Middle East Study Committee’s ridiculously lopsided report was gutted (removing its most egregious sections and curbing the group’s excesses), and ugliness such as accusations of Apartheid were dismissed out of hand. And yet the experience of watching this year’s GA left me feeling profoundly ill.

My first reaction to this surprise nausea was guilt. Have I gotten so used to big and decisive victories against BDS that any sort of ambiguous outcome is disappointing? Certainly successful anti-Israel votes that called for the US government to withhold aid from Israel and the decision to denounce (rather than divest from) Caterpillar Tractor (votes that will surely be used by anti-Israel partisans to imply the Presbyterians are back on board their program) made 2010 less of an unalloyed victory for our side than in years past.

But then again (and with all due respect to the centuries-old Presbyterian Church), it’s been quite some time since an American political administration looked to the PCUSA’s governing bodies for moral guidance. And as far as denunciation is concerned, given how many times the church itself has been denounced for its immoral behavior regarding the Middle East over the last decade, PCUSA offers organizations like Caterpillar an object lesson on how to let such critiques simply bounce off a hardened shell of unquestioned self-righteousness.

Perhaps it is instead a disruption of the narrative I’ve been working under that led to this bout of queasiness. After all, I’ve been working under the assumption that most of the church’s excesses were the result of a corrupted leadership more committed to ruthless interfaith partners in the Arab Christian community than to their own members, coupled with out-of-control political activists whose only link to the church is their efforts to leverage its reputation for their own partisan campaigns. Under this storyline, the church’s rank and file were my heroes, the people that could be counted on to reverse any appalling votes that made their way out of stacked committees onto the GA floor.

But this rank and file has itself been changing over the years. As has been noted before, PCUSA is in the process of disappearing, having lost half its members just in my lifetime. But this shrinkage is not simply a matter of older members dying and no fresh blood coming in. In fact, whole churches have left and are continuing to leave the PCUSA “family,” joining other branches of Presbyterianism or Protestantism. And while these departures are driven more by conflict over social and doctrinal issues than over PCUSA’s attitudes towards the Middle East, with each departure the rump that is left behind becomes more homogeneous and less interested in listening to other opinions. And when individuals (such as Will Spotts), depart the church specifically over the ugliness that’s transpired over the years regarding divestment and other Israel-related matters, the church loses a crucial voice of conscience that should have been listened to all along.

And then there is the question of language. This was actually the third General Assembly I’ve watched via online video feed, and I must admit to having first been intrigued by the religious and spiritual vocabulary that permeated every discussion. In our secular age, it’s impressive to find people who can bring the language of faith to even mundane topics like church budget analysis.

But pulling God via “Christian Witness” into a discussion of political matters has its pitfalls (indeed, Presbyterians routinely identify these pitfalls when other churches drag the Almighty into political areas with which PCUSA leaders do not agree). At the very least, telling voting GA delegates that Witness and their spiritual conscience should drive their decisions more than the views of the members these delegates are supposed to represent implies that the spirit works far more strongly within people attending church conclaves than it does for those populating the pews back home.

And so we come to this year’s Assembly where I got to watch speaker after speaker apply this spiritual language to the most appalling, lopsided, uninformed, unfair, chilling and nasty accusations that by now have become part of the PCUSA liturgy. It was not the Deity that caused a resolution dealing with Christian-Jewish relations to be shelved, while one on Muslim-Jewish relations to be accepted. It was raw politics, the same politics that ensured that Israeli’s alleged human rights abuses would be treated with passionate scrutiny, while the human rights abuses in Muslim lands (including abuses against Christians) would be swept under the carpet.

So maybe it was watching bullying power politics pushing nasty, immoral decisions dressed up in the language of holiness that led to my aforementioned feelings of nausea. Yes, I know there were people working behind the scenes to fight this injustice who were also using the language of spirit to conduct their battles. But as these heroes continue their rearguard action to prevent the church’s reputation from sinking still deeper, they seem to be confronting higher and higher concentrations of church members who are either behaving abominably or condoning such behavior through inaction.

Why should any of us even care, I suppose. After all, there are already three times as many Jews in the US as Presbyterians and, if present trends continue, in 2-3 more GAs there will be more Reform Jews in the US than Presbyterians (meaning come 2016 the Presbyterians may have to send representatives to Jewish meetings to lobby against resolutions condemning their church).

As I’ve said before, Israel will survive the slings and arrows thrown against it by the phalanx of ruthless hypocrites who make it their life work to defame the Jewish state. But what of an organization that year by year is creating an internal reality whereby wicked behavior can be presented and celebrated as the ultimate act of goodness?

In all of history, there have been very few Lex Luthors or Magnetos leading organizations with names like The Legion of Doom or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Rather, acts that we see today as the ultimate evils were, at the time, hailed by their practitioners as supreme examples of virtue. Watching this same history unfold before my eyes over the last few weeks is, no doubt, the real reason why a satisfactory outcome from this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly still leaves such an aching feeling deep in my stomach, if not my soul.

PCUSA – Moving in the Right Direction?

Because a number of US political leaders and Israel’s Prime Minister were attending last April’s AIPAC Policy Conference final dinner, security was tight which meant most of us had to wait in line over an hour to get through the metal detectors (an appliance commonly found at pro-Israel political events, although strangely enough, not at anti-Israel ones).

While most people were annoyed by this long wait, it was actually the highlight of my evening, for I got to stand next to and talk to a group of women from Aglow, a women’s Christian organization I had never heard of before. Looking at their Web site after the event, it occurred to me that this organization’s stance on many issues would likely appall Presbyterian leaders (although not necessarily rank and file members). But, as fate would have it, the Aglow member closest to me in the AIPAC mob/queue was a Presbyterian.

When I told her about what was likely to happen at this year’s denominational General Assembly, she just shook her head and informed me that this was all a game being played within the Church whereby PCUSA leaders let activists run amok in committees during the time between GA’s, but that once everyone gets together, over-the-top proposals generally get voted down by rank and file delegates. She also added that the level of nonsense that tends to emanate from GAs on the subject of the Middle East has so soured church members that do not attend or follow PCUSA politics that most churches simply ignore policies voted on at such events.

Sure enough, it looks as though common sense is beginning to peek its head into General Assembly discussions over the last 48 hours. Some of the most egregious portions of the Middle East Study Committee’s Breaking Down the Walls report have been nixed or modified for the better, and attempts to turn the MESC into a perpetual Star Chamber have been nipped in the bud. Demands to divest from Israel or have it declared an Apartheid state won’t be making it to the floor, and the general tone seems to be turning towards curbing the excesses we’ve seen coming out of the committees over the last few months.

I suppose I should be grateful that grownups seem to be ready to take the wheel on PCUSA Middle East policy, and I surely am grateful – tremendously so – to the wise members of the delegate ranks who have managed to keep an open mind despite the propaganda that passes for debate within the church.

That said, regarding the church as a whole I find it a bit strange to be ready to say “thank you” to an organization just because it’s done me the favor of not declaring my people’s national homeland a racist stain on humanity, or PCUSA’s “flexibility” in simply condemning those that do business with Israel, rather than divesting from them.

If you follow the politics of not just the Presbyterians, but Mainline Protestantism generally, you’ll find that the most divisive issues are: (1) ordination of gay clergy; (2) whether to religiously sanction gay marriage; (3) modification of liturgy; and (4) official church stances on political issues – most prominently Israel and the Middle East.

As Will Spotts has pointed out, of all these controversial issues, only votes on Israel tend to involve the church doing harm to people who are not members of the organization. There is legitimate controversy over gay marriage and other matters, but at the end of the day, it is the church itself that has to live with the consequences of decisions made in those areas. But when the church passed its infamous divestment decision in 2004, it was Israel and its friends (many of whom had never heard of the Presbyterian General Assembly before that date) who had to deal with the worldwide propaganda campaign that was built upon that decision.

In 2006, activists pushing the church to maintain its divestment policies claimed that they were a great gift by the church to friends and allies within the Palestinian Christian world that should not be taken away. But as I pointed out then, what kind of gift is it for one group of people (PCUSA) to give another group of people (Palestinian Christians) something that is not there’s to give (Israel’s reputation on a platter)?

I sincerely hope that votes that will take place between now and when the Presbyterian conclave finishes this weekend will continue to go in the right direction. But I more sincerely wish that the organization as whole finally faces up to the fact that they have a problem and stop torturing their own members (not to mention those of us who have not chosen to join their church).

And if church leaders and hardcore anti-Israel activists determine that they must give Sabeel and other allies a gift, could they please make it something they actually own themselves (such as a confession of their own sins, rather than a recitation of someone else’s). Or barring that, there’s always a Whitman Sampler.

PCUSA – Selfless or Selfish?

There is an interesting construct that has taken hold within the Presbyterian Church (and not just there) that allows Israel’s most vocal critics to identify themselves as being above concerns such as nationalism and other forms of particularism which they identify as the source of war and other misery. They are citizens of the world and, in contrast, we supporters of Israel are seen as narrow partisans, acting selfishly out of interest for a particular people or state.

As is often the case, Lee Harris (one of my favorite political philosophers) describes far better than I or anyone else can the irony of this self-identified cosmopolitanism as just another form of particularism. But for purposes of discussing what’s happening at the PCUSA General Assembly this week, I will try to make a couple of particular observations of my own.

To begin with, the type of activities we’ve been seeing taking place within PCUSA committees dealing with Middle East issues are probably best described as motivated by what I would call “vulgar cosmopolitanism,” rather than the more sophisticated cosmopolitanism described in detail by Harris.

Like “vulgar Marxism” which reduces every political discussion to some form of economic determinism (a la Naomi Klein), “vulgar cosmopolitanism” ironically defines global citizenship around level of support for a particular strain of nationalism.

The notion, for example, that a new state – a Palestinian state – is not just urgently needed, but represents the ultimate expression of justice and virtue is unquestioned by members of stacked PCUSA committees dealing with the Middle East. While they may debate whether such a state should live alongside or replace the state of Israel, the idea that there should be a 197th state, a 25th Arab state, a 51st Muslim state in the world goes unquestioned, as does the religious particularism (not to mention human rights abuses) within the Muslim world.

The PCUSA’s own “vulgar cosmopolitanism illusion” makes delegates particularly open to the harshest of partisan voices. For the easiest nationalism one can reject is one’s own. But when confronted by those who guard their own nationalism most jealously and fiercely (including countries who insist that repression of their own people is an internal matter which the “international community” has no business interfering with), the vulgar cosmopolitan is faced with a dilemma: face up to the limitation of their world view, or somehow convince themselves that by acting in the narrow interest of nationalist partisans representing a people not their own, they are, in fact, truly “acting globally.”

This attitude makes an individual or organization vulnerable to the nationalist most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of internationalism and human rights for narrow, self-serving ends. In the case of PCUSA, this means that a group like the Palestinian Christian Liberation Theology organization Sabeel can pretty much have its way with the organization by threatening to “expose” the Presbyterians as not truly standing up for their cosmopolitan principles if they do not follow the dictates of Sabeel and its fellow partisans.

Thus, more than any time in the past, PCUSA itself has become what could best be described as “occupied territory” with individuals and organizations outside of the church setting the terms of debate within the organization and determining the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. One need only look at this week’s committee work where concerns over Presbyterian-Muslim relations are allowed to impact not just discussion (or lack thereof) of human rights abuses (including those directed against Christians) within the Islamic world, but can also determine what can officially be said regarding Presbyterian-Jewish relations.

I’ve previously noted the irony of how the supposedly narrow goal of defending the honor of tiny Israel has universal implications while those who use universal ideals like human rights and the rule of law as a smoke screen for their narrow attack on the Jewish state are the ones sacrificing global principle for provincial aims.

To point out one additional irony: I (an alleged partisan who supposedly is concerned about nothing beyond my tribe and it’s homeland) am just as concerned (if not more so) with what the current debate will end up doing to the Presbyterian Church as I am with how this debate might harm Israel.

Yes, the Presbyterians rejoining the anti-Israel bandwagon will be a pain, but we’ve lived with that before between 2004 and 2006 and I have few doubts that any gains the Sabeel crowd makes this year will be reversed in two year’s time.

On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church – once a cornerstone of American civil society – is well along in the process of destroying itself. One can ask if anti-Israel animus is a symptom or the cause of the church losing half its members since 1965, but one cannot deny that this self-immolation is taking place.

While it would be insincere of me to claim a great history of love and support for the Presbyterian Church (although I’ve met many wonderful church members in recent years), this alleged particularist is cosmopolitan enough to understand that we are all worse off when a major element of civil society – through its own actions – either goes away or makes itself irrelevant to their own and everyone else’s lives.

PCUSA – Process vs. Spirit

I was going to write something on the social aspects of Israel bashing within the Presbyterian Church, but Dexter Van Zile beat me to the punch with his insightful comments on the subject which can be read here.

We’re a day away from when matters before the various PCUSA committees get forwarded to the plenary where votes determine whether or not measures become official church policy. As has already been mentioned, the committees have generally been stacked against Israel getting a fair shake, and those advocating condemnation of the Jewish state are calling most of the shots with regard to what information gets communicated to the full assembly. So even more than in previous years those advocating fair treatment for Israel will have to count on the good sense of the everyday Presbyterian delegate.

In thinking through the way decisions are being made in the quasi-democratic structure of the Presbyterian Church, I remembered that the synagogue I recently joined had just passed policies regard when and how the temple could take official stands (i.e., stands that spoke in the name of the synagogue) on controversial political matters.

The steps needed to get this to happen would strike some as cumbersome. First, an issue has to be brought up within a relevant committee, or (if triggered by an individual concerned temple member) would be referred to committee. It must then move up another level (to the VP of a so-called “cluster,” or group of committees) before being forwarded to the temple’s Executive Committee and then (if passed) onto the full board for a final vote, after which it becomes official temple policy.

While not required, consultation with senior clergy is highly recommended throughout the process and the clergy itself, while having more flexibility than members to take public stances on political matters, is also bound to go through proper procedures in order to officially speak for the temple as a whole.

Undergirding this seemingly excessive bureaucracy is the assumption that the temple community contains many diverse voices, particularly on the most controversial matters of the day. And while it’s safe to say that a majority of members probably fall into the political demographic associated with the Boston and Cambridge suburbs, the safeguards put in place by the procedures mentioned above are designed to minimize the chance that a members will wake up one day to discover a political message is being delivered by their temple (i.e., in their name) that they both find abhorrent and never even knew was being discussed.

Now this is not to say that Jews have gotten this system buttoned down correctly. In fact, I know of other temples, as well as secular Jewish organizations, that function much more like PCUSA than my temple in terms erring on the side of openness vs. carefulness. But while the potential harm from a process heavily weighted towards achieving consensus means my temple might someday have trouble weighing in on important matters, the downside of the alternative is now on full display at the Presbyterian GA.

As is being made abundantly clear right this minute in Minneapolis, the fact that many thousands of Presbyterians (including large numbers who will not be voting on church policies) are profoundly uncomfortable (if not openly hostile) to how the church portrays the Middle East conflict or the policies it sets with regard to the politics of the region. Yet this fact does not in any way inform what gets onto the agenda and what doesn’t.

Is the fact that members voted down divestment 95-5 four years ago something that needs to be taken into account when assessing church investment policy, or just a stumbling block that can be overridden if divestment advocates simply continue to push their agenda year after year after year, regardless of the will or interests of other members of the church? Will Presbyterians who do not follow church politics closely be happy or appalled if they discover next Monday that their church has once again become the poster child for divinely inspired political invective targeting one and only one country in the Middle East (the Jewish one)?

If this GA is like the last two I’ve watched via online broadcast, many advocates on both sides of different issues will point out that delegates have a higher calling than simply representing their constituents, a calling to speak (and vote) based on the divine spirit of Christian witness.

There is some appeal to such thinking (especially within a spiritual community) until you realize that – absent direct communication from the almighty – individuals are required to discern what Christian witness means on their own. And while I have no doubt in the quality of soul of people taking part in such decisions, we are all subject to moral weakness, including a susceptibility to being bullied or manipulated into making poor decisions at the behest of aggressive partisans telling us we have no moral choice, other than to do what they say.

It is specifically within an organization where the conscience of legislators is raised above the responsibility to represent constituents that safeguards (like those in place at my temple) are most needed. Alas, for a Presbyterian Church, the only thing standing in the way of going over the precipice one more time is the hope that the majority of delegates gathered in Minneapolis are wise enough to ignore the sirens of partisanship (which includes the very top leaders of the church) and act to restore good faith and sound judgment into church thinking on Israel and the Middle East.

PCUSA: And so it begins

Well PCUSA delegates are gathering in Minneapolis to begin their week-long debate on the Middle East, with (I assume) some time left over to discuss the future and fate of the Presbyterian Church in the US.

I don’t know about other writers who have spent time commenting on the upcoming PCUSA debates, but I am fully cognizant of the fact that, whatever we may have been saying about the situation within the church over the last month or two, that the fate of the organization rests solely and entirely with those delegates who have streamed into Minneapolis over the weekend.

Yes, a few hundred, maybe even a few thousand people have read what Will, Dexter, I and others have written on the subject, and some may have also visited our Bearing Witness web site to obtain some background on the relationship between PCUSA and Israel. But how many of these visitors are Presbyterians seeking to educate themselves vs. people who already agree with what we have to say (the usual demographic for a blog)? And even if some searching individuals have found their way to alternative sources of information, how can this compete with groups within the church like the Middle East Study Committee (MESC) which has the full support of the church establishment behind it to communicate its (and only its) views?

To a certain extent, this is as it should be for the debate that will be going on this week is really not about Israel at all but, rather, about the fate of the church itself.

After all, during the divestment debates in 2006 and 2008, delegates made it clear that they wanted to see a more fair, accurate and thoughtful discussion on the Middle East within the church. In fact, the MESC was created specifically for this purpose. But, once again, anti-Israel activists within this church decided that MESC was just the latest loophole to exploit, the latest committee to pack, the latest tool they could use to try to stuff their own opinions into the mouth of the church as a whole.

What is amazing about this year’s process has been that in creating the MESC, a group originally designed to take in and communicate a broader range of perspectives, PCUSA has instead spawned a report that is more biased, more unfair, more grotesquely accusative than anything that’s come before.

It’s almost as if the activists who have dragged the church into this minefield over the last two decades cannot control themselves. When presented with an opportunity to bash the Jewish state in the name of their faith, all their instincts turn to cramming in as many accusations (including more questionable theology than has ever appeared in a PCUSA document on the subject) as possible.

As we enter this week of debates, there are some positive signs within the delegate body itself. The Presbytery of Chicago, for example, has provided a heartfelt plea to reject the MESC report, and Presbyterian organizations such as Presbyterians for Middle East Peace are doing yeoman’s work trying to get another point of view injected into the discussions. And while this or that blog may not get much attention, critiques of Presbyterian actions on the part of theological scholars has raised the heat on the upcoming conference enough for anti-Israel partisans to cry foul (despite the fact that they have done everything possible to hog the microphone for the entire debate).

This is now the third PCUSA General Assembly that I’ve been covering closely and I must say that it seems at times that I am looking more at an addict than a religious institution. No matter how many times members indicate that they are not interested in a church that makes its top priority bashing the Jewish state (especially in religious terms), every two years they are back at it once again, fighting the same fights all over again.

This phenomenon is an offshoot of what I’ve referred to in the past as “The Vampire’s Kiss,” the notion that divestment, like a vampire, once invited into an organization can be virtually impossible to toss out. Having tasted the propaganda power of having their words and accusations come out of the mouth of an established organization like PCUSA, local activists demonstrate a willingness to do anything: corrupt processes and procedures, stack the deck in debate, even drag an organization to the point of ruin, to once again grasp the illusionary power of claiming to speak for more than themselves.

Sadly, if some of the nastier overtures or the MESC report itself becomes official PCUSA policy, once again thousands of Presbyterians will awake after this week to discover that propagandists are blanketing the world with accusations against Israel made in their name.

Naturally, those who have hijacked the church yet again will be too busy spreading their calumnies to notice what they have done to their brethren, especially once condemnation and ridicule start pouring onto the church itself from, among others, Presbyterians who had thought they had seen an end of this type of disgusting behavior.

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.

Bearing Witness 2010

Well the Presbyterian Church’s (PCUSA) 2010 General Assembly is just a month away, so it’s time to turn our attention to the many Middle East related resolutions and reports that will be presented at that meeting.

Given how this week’s Flotilla of Peace/Hate story continues to dominate the news, now might seem a strange time to turn our attention to a church that only seems to make news every two years when votes on divestment or other resolutions hostile to Israel take center stage at their bi-annual conclave.

But the Flotilla/Blockade Runner story only emphasizes one of the key elements in the struggle for Middle East peace: the struggle over definitions.

Who is a “peace activist,” for example? Everyone involved on both sides of the issue at the PCUSA GA would claim this title, but is there some way of determining if someone deserves that honorific vs. simply demanding that it be applied to them? This week, we discovered that the definition of “peace activist” might extend to those who use clubs, knives and guns to attack others. Is there some point where being infinitely elastic about how you define your friends and allies (regardless of their words or deeds) becomes part of the problem?

This is why the PCUSA story is compelling, even if it is not as relevant as it was six years ago when divestment was briefly the official policy of the church. For war consists of more than people killing each other. Its starting point rarely coincides with when the first shot is fired, nor does an end to physical violence mean a war has necessarily terminated.

Just as words (as part of negotiations or compromises) can be tools of peace, so too (in the form of incitement, propaganda, vilification and de-legitimization) they can be weapons of war, or at least tools that make a shooting war more likely or more lethal.

And so I and others will be turning our attention to the PCUSA for the next few weeks, in hopes that the good sense the rank and file members of the church have shown since 2006 (when they rejected divestment 95%-5%) will continue as delegates gather from around the country to vote on various pro- and anti-Israel measures (far more of the latter than the former) in July.

To kick things off, my friend Will Spotts and I have restarted a Web site we created in 2006 that covered that year’s PCUSA General Assembly, a site that can be seen at www.bearingwitness2010.com. In ’06, Will was still a member of the church, and he and I used that previous site to analyze and discuss various aspects of the Presbyterian divestment debate.

Today, both Will and I have our own blogs that allow us to communicate our thoughts on the PCUSA and other matters, so this year’s Bearing Witness site instead presents a case. Those who are pushing anti-Israel overtures and other measures at this year’s GA have not been as good as they should be about presenting both sides of the issues, either in their information gathering or their communication with GA delegates or other church members. Bearing Witness 2010 hopes to rectify that situation with some well-reasoned analysis that puts the entire matter of Presbyterian relations with the Jewish state into context, as well as taking on individual issues related to this year’s GA votes.

Towards this end, we have included materials from some extremely thought-provoking writers alongside our own opinions, including Dexter Van Zile whose work fighting anti-Israel animus within the entire Mainline Protestant movement is second to none.

In a perfect world, this information would be provided to every delegate attending this year’s GA who, one hopes, would take the time to read through it before making decisions regarding the most controversial issues facing the church. Now we have no illusions that this will necessarily happen, but it made sense to present our case as though it were being delivered to such an audience. That said, anyone interested in interfaith relations, or just curious about how anti-Israel animus – best symbolized by BDS campaigns – enters and ruins an organization would be hard pressed to find a better documented example of how this happens than by reviewing the Presbyterian Church’s deteriorating relationships with Israel and its supporters.