The BDSbyterians

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


I recently joked on Twitter (that most serious of places) that I tend to lose my audience once conversation turns to the Presbyterian Church.

Such flight is understandable, given that grasping Church politics requires navigating a sea of individuals and an alphabet soup of committees, some with intentionally ambiguous relations with the official organization.  It also requires enough familiarity and comfort level with the language in which religious discourse takes place to know when phrases like “bearing witness” are being deployed as words of comfort or weapons of war.

But I also suspect some Divest This fans might miss a little of the rough-and-tumble they’ve come to expect from this site whenever a BDS bully comes to call.  After all, I’ve had no problem highlighting Omar Barghouti’s role as a BDS huckster, or sending him and a representative from Jewish Voice for Peace back and forth in time in order to generate some cheap laughs at the boycotters’ expense.

The trouble is that when you use the word “Presbyterian,” you are actually describing both foes and friends of Jewish peoplehood.  After all, it is members of the Presbyterian Church who have seized key decision-making bodies related to Middle East policy-making (such as the Israel Palestine Mission Network) and used them to churn out endless propaganda of the ugliest variety.  And if there’s anyone you could assign the label “Presbyterian” to, surely it would include the leadership of the Church (which enables all the anti-Israel excess we’ve seen over the last two decades).

At the same time, Presbyterians are also at the helm of groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace which has done such a good job battling for reason within the denomination.  And let’s not forget the fact that the General Assembly members who have voted down divestment time and time again over the last four PCUSA GAs are both Presbyterians and friends (or at least not enemies) of the Jewish state.

But then it dawned on me, why should we continue to let the BDSniks continue to brandish the “Presbyterian” label, just because they work so hard to try to stuff their opinions into the mouth of every other man, woman and (if there are any left) child in the denomination?  After all, just as the leaders of the American Studies Association (who have demonstrated a readiness to destroy the reputation of the organization they purport to lead over the “right” to boycott their Israeli colleagues) are BDSers first, academics second, so too the Presbyterianism of the people I talked about last week clearly takes a back seat to their primary identity as anti-Israel activists.

Which is why I am proposing a new term: “BDSbyterian” (pronounced bee-dee-ess-bah-teer-ean) to describe those who have made it their life work to get the PCUSA to say “Yes” to divestment, regardless of how many times actual Presbyterians keep saying “No.”

Now if you want a sense of what a BDSbyterian looks and sounds like, I can think of no better example than Reverend Mark Davidson who proudly shares his story of how his church’s “witness activity” (which involved working with anti-Israel Christians, anti-Israel Jews and anti-Israel Muslims to plaster some of those egregious “Be with Us” ads on the side of busses in Chapel Hill) succeeded in “bringing Jewish-Christian relations in our community to an unexpected deeper and more substantive place.”

And how did a political campaign that has appalled Jewish and non-Jewish Israel supporters around the country generate such deep and substantive Jewish-Christian relations?

Apparently, beyond the Jewish Voice for Peace types Reverend Davidson was able to import (including Jeffrey Halper of ICAHD fame – who also appears on the bus ad simply as a grandfatherly Israeli), the response from the local Jewish community consisted of entirely predictable condemnations.  These were accompanies by the usual calls to have such ads banned, and it was the Jewish community’s decision to rejecting banning Davidson’s deeply offensive political speech that the Reverend decided represents some form of constructive dialog.

Adding to that, someone apparently vandalized Davidson’s Church after the ads ran and while (as far as I know) the perpetrators were never caught, the Jewish community in Chapel Hill did the right thing by joining with other religious leaders to condemn such a stark example of hatred – in spite of (not in support of) the offense Davidson’s political activity was causing the community.

In other words, after having their face slapped by an alleged interfaith partner, Davidson’s Jewish neighbors chose not to turn to the law to shut down his campaign.  They then turned the other cheek when an act of vulgar vandalism created common cause with the Davidson’s church, only to have the good Reverend say “thank you very much” while continuing to let ads condemning Israel as a nation of racist murderers and its supporters a bunch of apologists for Apartheid (but only in the nicest possible way) drive past their houses of worship on a daily basis.

So now we know what passes for “interfaith dialog” among the BDSbyterian set.  In fact, this particular BDSbyterian is so proud of his success that he is urging other churches to follow his lead, no doubt hoping that the whole church voting to divest from that bigoted, Apartheid-y Jewish state will create the greatest opportunity for interfaith dialog yet!

As you might guess, this kind of behavior is welling up the snark in me.  And now that I have something to call these people other than the Presbyterian title they crave but do not disserve, it’s time to finally get around to that BDS musical number I’ve been sitting on for a couple of years, especially now that I have someone’s mouth to put it into.

Stay tuned…

PCUSA and BDS: Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick

This entry is part 8 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion over who allowed divestment to be voted on by the Aldermen of Somerville, MA in 2004, ushering in three years of conflict in a city that ultimately rejected divestment at the executive, legislative and judicial level (not to mention in the voting booth).

I mention this because even when some form of BDS activity gets snuck in through the back door of an institution (be it Somerville or the Olympia Food Coop), there is usually someone in the leadership of the institution heavily involved with the sneaking.

Previously, I provided an example of the type of single-issue fanatic driving anti-Israel invective and BDS-related activity within the Presbyterian Church, as well as the infra-structure that allows such activity to find a permanent home within the organization.  But, as has been pointed out over and over, the activity of those representing minority opinion (such as supporters of a church divestment policy that has been voted down time and time again) could only have gotten as far as it has if enabled by those in power within PCUSA.

And the leader whose fingerprints can be found on most of the incriminating evidence regarding attempts to force a position on the church despite the opinion of the membership is Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1996 through 2008, the very period when BDS sunk its fangs into the organization swearing to never let go.

The Stated Clerk is tasked to manage the business of the Church’s General Assemblies, those bi-annual meetings when representatives from the various PCUSA governing units (called “Presbyteries”) meet to elect leaders and vote on church policy.

As I’ve noted many times in the past, Church culture has historically been built around decentralized decision-making, which means power is supposed to rest with the Presbyteries who get to vote on matters before the organization. But, like many institutions whose rules were constructed for simpler times, the Church has experienced an increasing hollowing out of democracy as specialized committees, bureaucrats and professional leaders more and more determine policy with the voting membership of the Church treated like an obstacle to be overcome, rather than the sole source of legitimacy.

This is why GA voters are always asked to vote on a flurry of measures as the assembly is winding down, committee-generated measures which many voters have little time to read, much less understand or debate.  In fact, divestment was just one of many such measures related to the Middle East (most of them hostile to Israel) voted in during the last hours of the PCUSA’s 2004 GA.

Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice (required reading for anyone who wants to understand what’s been going on within the Church), starts by pointing out that when Reverend Kirkpatrick summed up what he thought would be the defining issues to come out of the recent General Assembly he had just presided over, divestment wasn’t even on his list.

This is indicative of a lack of understanding among many Church leaders who have increasingly turned to ecumenical partners such as the Palestinian Christian group Sabeel for all their information regarding the Middle East while also turning a deaf ear to their alleged Jewish interfaith partners trying to explain why BDS is anathema to all but the most fringe members of the community.

Given that anti-Israel resolutions had already become a staple of General Assemblies by 2004, Kirkpatrick can be forgiven for not anticipating the outrage that year’s divestment decisions would trigger. But he has fewer excuses for the dishonest way that decision was framed to Jewish organizations and the press, especially attempt to portray calls for divestment as simply bubbling up from the grassroots (behaviors also well documented in Pride and Prejudice).

By the time the 2006 and 2008 GAs rolled around (over which Reverend Kirkpatrick also presided), I was deeply involved in covering votes the church took to rescind divestment (in ’06) and confirm that decision (in ’08).  And at both conclaves, attempts to suppress voices critical of Church policy were on full display as anti-Israel partisans increasingly took central stage and, more importantly, took over the committees created to restore some sense of balance to PCUSA’s Middle East policies.

And during all that time, leaders like Kirkpatrick – rather than listening to what GA members were telling them in vote after vote – continued to portray previous GA “reverse” decisions as simple pauses on the way towards restoring the “status quo” of the pro-divestment Presbyterian Church from  2004-2006.  And given how much power continues to be centralized into the hands of the few within the organization, those few stand on pretty thin ice when they try to portray their behavior as a simple response to the will of members.  For, as with so many things BDS-related, within the Presbyterian Church some people’s opinions are more equal than other’s.

In doing a little “where are they now” research, I stumbled on this brief Wikipedia article on Reverend Kirkpatrick.  And while I generally recommend against reading too much into material from this particular source, I thought it was telling that the last of the four sentences that make up his entry simply states “After serving the denomination through twelve years of declining membership, Kirkpatrick chose to step down from his position.”

Such a brief article didn’t have time to point out that during a period when PCUSA’s death spiral was apparent to all, it’s Stated Clerk (like many of its other leaders) had other priorities.


PCUSA and BDS: Noushin Framke

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


While it’s easy to trace BDS-related Presbyterian excesses to acronymed organizations: IPMN (the Israel Palestine Mission Network), the church’s MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment) committee and, of course, the leadership of PCUSA, we need to keep in mind that these entities and groups are made up of people.  And as we saw with the American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott, much of the misery the organization is going through can be traced back to responsible individuals such as their new President Lisa Duggan whose behavior continues to demonstrate a readiness to prioritize the BDS agenda over the needs of the organization she has been elected to lead.

You’ve already met the exemplar of PCUSA BDexceSS I’d like to focus on today: Noushin Framke, spokesperson and Steering Committee member of the Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network.

Framke was implicated in many of the excesses noted earlier regarding the IPMN’s notorious (and now deleted) Facebook page, including Likes of that delightful Obama cartoon and a comment that claimed Hamas should continue holding Gilad Shalit as a hostage with “Right of Return” as the ransom.  And if you (like me) prefer to judge people by something other than their behavior in the quick-and-dirty world of social media, then her call for a One State Solution on IPMN’s Facebook site should be judged alongside this article she wrote on the subject in 2010.

Now I linked that Framke piece in my discussion of IPMN, as well as to this detailed rebuttal.  And I should pause to note that while Framke (unlike other One Staters) is open and enthusiastic about the fact that a “One State Solution” must inevitably lead to an end to the Jewish homeland, her goals (which are reflected in virtually everything IPMN does) directly contradicts the two-state policy of the PCUSA which IPMN has allegedly been chartered to serve.

Whenever they are confronted by this or that IPMN outrage, PCUSA leaders break out the “IPMN speaks to rather than for the church” distinction.  But in this case, the organization is not just telling the church to abandon the policy it claims to hold, but actively working to undermine that policy by (among other things) publicly releasing and distributing anti-Zionist propaganda designed to drive home the message that a Jewish state is the result of a debased and bigoted ideology, which makes the elimination of such a state a thing all good people should strive for.

So like other single-issue partisans within the Church, Fromke is a BDSer first and a Presbyterian second.  Which is why both she and the organization she represents have no problem trying to force the Church as a whole to bend to IPMN’s will, regardless of the fact that Church members (who allegedly set policy) have rejected divestment every time Fromke and her allies have forced it onto the organization’s agenda.

You can get a further sense of this single-issue mindset in this article she has written on why progressives do not instinctively agree with her on all matters related to the Middle East.  As another commenter pointed out, her argument that those who see themselves as politically liberal but who also support Israel (or at least don’t condemn it) are “Progressives Except for Palestine” or “PEPs,” implies that the only possible position for someone who holds to a liberal world view would mirror that of Fromke and her allies.  And if they don’t, the only possible explanation is that they secretly do loath the Jewish state as much as does Fromke and IPMN but will never admit that out of fear.

If this sounds a bit like the behavior pattern of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” you can begin to how Fromke, like her BDS allies, lay claim not just to the Middle East policies of the Presbyterian Church (the opinion of everyone else in the church be damned), but also insist that they and they alone own one half of the political spectrum. And it is from this sense of entitlement that their thoughtless, reckless and endlessly divisive behavior flows.

One would think that an organization that spends so much time working against church policy would eventually find itself marginalized within the wider organization. But when it came time to debate divestment at the 2012 General Assembly, who was on stage invoking people like Peter Beinart to insist that hostility to BDS (which characterizes virtually the entire Jewish community) is just one Jewish opinion among many?  I’m guessing you know the answer to that question.

So why would a church that spends so much effort to ensure critics of divestment efforts (such as Will Spotts who had to personally mail his remarkable work Pride and Prejudice to PCUSA delegates in 2006) don’t get a hearing let Noushin Framke take center stage at a critical debate on the subject?  I suppose this might be the case of money talking. She is, after all, the wife of Greg Framke, a former exec at eTrade.  And whether or not some of that executive salary underwrites things like expensive Mission Trips to the Middle East, it is certainly subsidizing Noushin’s full-time activist lifestyle.

But I suspect the real driver of success for Fromke and other BDS fanatics is our old friend ruthlessness.  For in a world where others are struggling to find compromise and build understanding, the ruthless are free to drive their agenda unburdened by the need to take anyone else’s needs into account.  With a self-righteousness that justifies any sort of behavior, and a world view that allows for no legitimate disagreement, the ruthless are liberated from that which binds the rest of us: actual empathy for other human beings.

The BDS Twitocracy

Before giving the Presbyterians a rest for the next couple of years (wouldn’t it be great if the BDSers could ever bring themselves to say/do the same thing?), some momentary reflections on not the content of the decisions made during last week’s General Assembly, but the medium in which those decisions were communicated.

As background, I first started using Twitter in 2010 in order to follow what was going on at UC Berkeley when the student council was making decisions on a high-profile divestment resolution.  Because those debates were not public, Twitter seemed like the only way to obtain real-time information on what was happening at ground level 3000+ miles away.

At the time, I believe I would have been referred to by other Twitter users as (what’s the technical term I’m looking for?), oh yes – an imbecile.  With no followers and no understanding of the importance of hashtags and at-symbols, I spent my first 20 minutes as a tweeter shouting out messages into the void, oblivious to the fact that no one else on the service knew I existed, much less was seeing what I was typing.

Fortunately, I quickly switched to listen mode, and was able to read about debates and votes as they were happening, an experience I repeated just a few months ago when the Park Slope Food Coop shot down an Israel boycott “live” on Twitter.

By the time both Park Slope and the two big church votes came upon us earlier this year, I moved from being a complete Twitter dolt to someone who knows how to use the service adequately, still mostly listening but occasionally contributing commentary (with appropriate hash tags this time around).

Those who are experienced Twitterers can skip this paragraph, but for those unfamiliar with the service, Twitter allows you to post short, 140-character (or less) messages (called tweets) which can be seen by anyone who chooses to follow you.  In addition, you can mark your messages with hashtags (words in front of the # number/hash sign), and ask Twitter to show you an ongoing stream of all tweets that contain that hashtag.  In addition to typing your own Tweets, you can also “re-tweet” a message you like, which means it will get rebroadcast to everyone who follows you.

In the case of both the Methodist and Presbyterian divestment votes, hashtags were selected by those interested in covering the debate (#churchdivest for the pro-BDS folks and #investinpeace by Israel’s supporters).  You could also follow the debate on general Presbyterian hashtags such as #presbyterian and #ga220.

I’ve noted in the past how Israel’s foes seem to be more adept at using this new technology than her friends, something that manifests itself when following streams such as #churchdivest and #ga220 where pro-BDS tweets and re-tweets seemed to outnumber anti-divestment messages by as much as ten to one.

But as I looked at a dizzying dashboard of messages, I began to see the same generic BDS messages appearing again and again (Repression! Apartheid!!  Justice demands!!!, yadda,  yadda, yadda), reflecting the dozens or even hundreds of times these messages were passed on via re-tweet or hashtag-laden repost.  It was only then that I realized why this communication technology has been so effective for the BDS types.

For if you’ve got a small group, no more than a few dozen people, dedicated to repeating the same talking points ad infinitum, Twitter rewards you by not just filling up all relevant timelines with your posts, but by giving higher weighting to frequently re-tweeted tweets.

But this ability to dominate the airwaves comes with some unexpected downsides.  With both the Methodist and Presbyterian votes (as well as the Twitter coverage of the Berkeley vote from two years ago), the BDS bombast was coming fast and furious, implying that a vote in their favor was just moments away.  But once the vote went against them, suddenly there appeared the new voices of “lurkers” (people who had been following the Twitter discussion, but not contributing to it) bewildered as to why they had just lost a vote that seemed to be going their way until mere moments before.

The instantaneous content creation and dissemination nature of Twitter also provides an electronic paper trail of what people are actually thinking when events unfold, vs. the spin they try to put on things later.  The ALL-CAP curses with lots of exclamation points that hit the airwaves the minute after the Methodists and Presbyterians voted no are an example of this.  But so too were the tweets before the big divestment votes insisting that divestment was the only issue that mattered.

Now with regard to the recent Methodist and Presbyterian Assemblies, this sentiment happens to be completely accurate.  The Jewish community was far more concerned about a repeat of the PCUSA’s 2004 divestment vote vs. symbolic votes regarding, for example, boycotts companies like Ahava.  And given that anyone who knew church politics understood that BDS forces were assured of winning these symbolic votes, the fact that BDSers spent thousands and flew people in from around the country to lobby at both church events demonstrates that they too understood that divestment was the only game worth winning.

Which is what makes all the post-GA spinning that says “the settlement boycotts are an even bigger victory than divestment” or making hay of some last minute “relief-of-guilt” option the Presbyterians voted on that means less than nothing is not only contradicted by the facts.  It is also contradicted by the BDSers own statements made during the heat of battle (one of the few times you can fish a little bit of truth out of what they say).

PCUSA Divestment – Follow Up

I was planning to do a final follow up on the goings on at the PCUSA General Assembly last week, which would tie in a couple of more recent events (including the Episcopalians’ recent decision to join the Presbyterians and Methodists in rejecting divestment).

But as luck would have it, a request came in to do a PCUSA follow up piece for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog.  This was followed by a response of the “By Losing We Actually Won” variety, written by someone I strongly suspect to be a frequent anonymous commenter who’s been spending time with us lately.  And in response to his response, I just published the piece I would have written here which pretty much surveys the BDS state of the union after their zero-for-three showing with the Mainline Protestant Churches this year.

So those of you who still need their fix of post-GA commentary, I suggest you check out these articles (as well as any comments they generate).

As one last thought, some of you may wonder why I decided to publish something on Peter Beinart’s site, give that I have been quite critical of him in the past.  The short answer is that I’m happy to get the “BDS Loses Again” word out wherever I can.

But in the back of my mind I am hoping that the man behind Open Zion might come to understand that BDS – whether the full-blown variety he’s letting me criticize on his site, or the narrower “just-boycott-the-settlements” type he advocated for on the pages of the New York Times – always requires a community/institution/organization to do the boycotting, divesting or sanctioning.

And whether those boycotts are defined narrowly or broadly, the message the “I-Hate-Israel” crowd will always be crowing is that “The well-respected [fill-in-the-blank] organization agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment!” (with that blank filled in by the Presbyterians, Methodists, Hampshire College, City of Somerville and other parties who never asked to become a battlefield in the Middle East conflict).

In a world where some people are more than ready to exploit the best nature of others for political gain, we all need to be extremely careful before providing an opening to people ready to turn places like the Presbyterian Church into a club with which to beat their political adversaries.  And it is this lesson that I hope reaches the right ears as much as my general message about the true nature of BDS.

PCUSA Divestment – Results

I understand that we can’t count on anything until the final gavel sounds at the Presbyterian 2012 GA on Saturday, but assuming last night’s victory holds, there are a few important lessons to be drawn from this most-recent continuation of the BDS movement’s decade-plus-long losing streak.

First off, we need to keep in mind that this is not the first, the second nor third but actually the fourth time the Presbyterians have rejected joining the BDS “movement” and instead opting for engagement as a means to play a peace-making role in the region.

Once BDS Twitterers had finished howling derision at church members they had previously showered with praise (once their unexpected loss became apparent), they quickly reverted to “by losing we actually won” mode, citing a closing gap in the margin they have lost by over the last eight years.

But this calendar fails to take into account that BDS actually won in 2004, meaning the BDSers only hope right now is that in 2014 (i.e., ten years after they last managed to win a major battle) they might be able to get back to where they were a decade previously.

The extremely tight vote that killed off divestment last night (333-331 with two abstentions) is definitely the best lubricant for a BDS spinning-wheel trying to turn manure into gold.  But we need to keep in mind that this close vote was over the question of whether or not to do something extraordinary by PCUSA organizational standards: reject a committee report supported by a large percentage of that committee (one that embraced BDS) and replace it with a minority report that rejected divestment.

Given that committee reports tend to get rubber stamped in the General Assembly, it’s telling that the dynamic around PCUSA divestment votes tends to be built around church leaders stacking the committee that gets to bring forth BDS proposals, only to have those proposals shot down by the membership.

It’s also worth noting that once the minority report was accepted by this tight margin, the vote to embrace its call for positive investment (vs. negative divestment) passed by a much more traditional anti-BDS margin of 63%-37%, indicating that no more than a third of members fall into the “divestment or nothing” camp.

The gap between the tight first vote and more traditional second one also highlights the fact that we might be comparing apples to kumquats if we just look at the numbers associated with each year’s key vote that killed off divestment for that year.  For whenever the Presbyterians (or any church or civic organization for that matter) have been given a clear and unambiguous choice to embrace or reject a divestment proposal, rejection of BDS always wins big.

Which is why the BDS brigade within the church and their enablers amongst the Presbyterian leadership put so much effort into eliminating all possible options, other than a request for members to support or reject a report that had passed committee by a wide margin.  In 2006, for example, there was no ambiguity that members were being asked to rescind the divestment policy they had enacted in 2004 which may be why that vote was so lopsided (95%-5% to rescind).  This explains why the BDSers put so much effort into obscuring what they were actually trying to achieve this time around, and worked so hard to funnel voters in just one direction.  And still they lost.

They lost despite making PCUSA divestment their top priority, especially after behind handed an even more embarrassing defeat by the Methodists a few months ago.  They lost despite the tremendous resources they put into trying to convince both churches to climb onboard the BDS bandwagon, which included cold calling delegates and flying supporters into the meeting to lobby hard to get their motions passed.  And they lost despite the fact that the organized Jewish community decided to not put similar effort into filling the GA with their own back-slapping and arm-twisting lobbyists, preferring instead to simply alert church leaders and members that our patience with getting slapped in the face every two years was at an end.

I suppose that this is the point where I should take back some of the negative comments I’ve been making about the church over the last week or so (or keep them in reserve in case last night’s victory is somehow reversed before the end of the GA).  But I’d like to think that some of that commentary, written far more in sorrow than in anger, might still resonate with the majority of Presbyterians who still don’t seem to want their church associated with a sociopathic movement like BDS.

After all, church behavior (or, more specifically, the behavior or church leaders) was indeed appalling before, during and after last night’s vote.  They continued and continue to push ahead with BDS, with Kairos and with all of the other paraphernalia of ugly anti-Israel polemics, despite being told four times by the membership’s voting representatives that the people in the pews prefer engagement to punishment of just one side in the Middle East conflict.

This GA, like the last GA (and the one before that) was accompanied by acts of bad faith between PCUSA leaders and their supposed friends in the Jewish community to whom they kept making promises of moderation they never intended to keep.  And the behavior of those leaders continues to degrade the institution, making it that much harder for PCUSA to be taken seriously about any matter whatsoever.

Now it may be that in two years time the divestment brigade will find the right combination of words and political maneuvers to get the Presbyterian Church back on the BDS bandwagon, regardless of the views of the majority of church members.  But by then, it’s not entirely clear what we’ll be talking about when we talk about “The Presbyterian Church.”

There are hard days ahead for an institution in decline and bitterly divided about so many issues.  And I wish I could say that last night removed the BDS albatross from around the church’s neck.  But that day, sadly, still seems far, far off.

PCUSA Divestment – This Just In

I’m kind of stunned to be typing these words, but with regard to this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly (drum roll please): BDS Loses Again!

As many of you know, I’ve been fairly resigned to the likelihood that the Presbyterians would do to themselves what they did in 2004 and drag the denomination into another two years of internal and external strife, all so a few BDSers could brag to their friends that they finally got the church to vote the “right way,” after having had divestment rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

But once again, sense that was nowhere to been seen in the leadership of the Church, or the partisan-packed committees they enabled, seems to still exist within the membership of the organization.  While church members can’t quite bring themselves to fully understand that, far from being a “peace movement,” BDS is the propaganda arm of a war movement that will quote scripture and subvert the vocabulary of human rights to get its way, the saner wing of the Presbyterian Church seems to know enough to avoid handing their name and reputation over to a third party that shares none of their interests.

I’m a bit blurry eyed from starting at Twitter feeds all night, but expect more commentary in the AM.

And in case you’re wondering what hashtag you want to use tonight, I believe that #BDSFail is starting to trend.

PCUSA Divestment – Seriousness

Several people have sent me the link to this piece which highlights some points I have failed to make until now, notably:

* That divestment may not have historically had the economic or political impact assumed by those who advocate for it

* That PCUSA is not actually making decisions regarding what to do with its own money but is instead putting at risk the money of others (notably pastors and lay people invested in their pension funds)

That the PCUSA’s ongoing divestment efforts could be interpreted as passing Natan Sharansky’s “3-D” test for anti-Semitism

Like other negative behaviors and outcomes associated with PCUSA’s current attempt to rejoin the BDS “movement,” none of the points above are likely to impact the thinking of those who are driving divestment within the church since their goal, simply put, is to be able to claim they speak in the name of a 400-year old, two-million member church whenever they hurl their accusations against the Jewish State (regardless of whether those accusations were ever voted on or even mentioned during debates on the subject).

Now one would think that an organization would only make a decision with this many negative consequences after the most careful of deliberations in which every effort was made to verify facts, expand dialog, scrutinize past decisions and precedence, and honestly communicate to decision makers the exact nature and likely results (both positive and negative) associated with either a “Yes” or “No” vote.

But one of the most striking things about what’s been taking place in Pittsburgh is how little effort has been expended to ensure (much less carry out) this kind of competent debate.

I’ve already mentioned how fake quotes from Nelson Mandela (quotes that were exposed as fraudulent years ago) somehow made it unchallenged into eight different forums associated with church divestment policies.  The committee report that recommends the church carry out the divestment policies that were rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is filled with similar errors of fact, both about the Middle East and about what the church actually said and did during those previous divestment debates.

Accurate information could have easily been brought before the committee if church leaders driving this process had opened up discussion to include voices that might challenge (rather than just confirm) the “consensus” preferred by those same leaders. Why not, for example, call Will Spotts as a witness, given that he has written and thought about this subject than anyone else in the country?

No doubt the fact that BDS drove Will from the Presbyterian Church would be a difficult thing for committee members to have to hear.  But the whole point of this debate, allegedly, is for the church to confront one of the most challenging political issues of our day.  But just as those driving divestment seem to be doing their utmost to ensure a divestment vote does not actually require financial sacrifice on the part of those who are voting it in, they also seem to be doing everything in their power to narrow debate as much as possible in order to ensure a specific outcome, rather than an enlightened one.

The most egregious example of this behavior can be seen in the Rationale section of the Comments page associated with the recent Committee 15 report (linked above), in a statement that tries to minimize the impact a divestment vote will have with regard to PCUSA-Jewish relations.  Rather than simply state fact – that antipathy to divestment unites the Jewish world like no other issue (with organizations as diverse as J-Street and Peace Now through JCPA and the Zionist Organization of America all condemning BDS), they instead try to claim that this unprecedented consensus actually just represents “some Jewish groups” that should be balanced with the support divestment receives from others (such as the fringe group Jewish Voice for Peace).

Now a serious, grown-up argument regarding the impact a PCUSA divestment vote would have on Presbyterian-Jewish relations would not play rhetorical games with the word “some,” but would instead communicate honestly that the vast majority of mainstream Jewish organizations – representing an unprecedented across-the-spectrum consensus on the issue – have condemned BDS and are likely to break ties with the church if they decide to vote divestment in this week.  With this accurate information as backdrop, proponents of BDS would have to argue that divestment is such a high moral priority that losing the friendship of the American Jewish community is a price worth paying.

This fundamental lack of seriousness is particularly remarkable, given how seriously the church wants to be taken on this (and other) political subjects.  In fact, the only reason people would even consider listening to the pronouncement of a church like PCUSA (vs. some other political or civic organization) is that the church claims to represent exceptional moral authority, backed not just by history, but by “spirit” and “witness” (implying divine support for their political positions).

But what becomes of that moral authority if the church acts in a fundamentally immoral way to reach its decisions?  It’s one thing to support a political-spiritual leader like Martin Luther King who was willing to suffer the consequences of his actions and speak the same true and honest words to all audiences.  But PCUSA leaders who have decided to let others suffer the consequences for church actions and who speak out of different sides of their mouths (depending on who they are talking to) have no more moral authority than a political ward healer or corporate executive manipulating unwitting council members or stockholders by carefully and deliberately truncating and circumscribing debate to achieve a pre-ordained outcome.

I still hope the people in the pews will find the courage to avoid the trap that church leaders and their BDS allies have set for them.  But even if they do so by voting divestment down (again), there is a sickness in the church that will not be cured until PCUSA divests itself from BDS for good.


PCUSA Divestment – Struggling to Care

As the PCUSA divestment debate winds to a conclusion, I’ve been surprised how difficult it’s been to gin up the emotions (anticipation, gloom, excitement) that usually come to the surface in the run-up to a big BDS vote.

Perhaps I am simply suffering from a sense of false optimism, hoping that the divestment measures that have passed the vote of a stacked and/or largely uninformed committee will be voted down in the plenary (the same dynamic that played out during previous Presbyterian votes on the subject).  But given that, even on good days, I figured BDS stood a better than 50:50 chance of passing this week, optimism cannot explain this atypical lack of anticipation.

It’s possible I’m simply protecting myself (both emotionally and politically) in case the church does decide to rejoin the BDS movement by convincing my mind and heart to be indifferent to the results.  But given the level of enthusiasm I recently felt during a far more important BDS battle (the Methodists) and a far less important one (Park Slope Food Coop) – two votes with outcomes just as uncertain as the Presbyterians – this doesn’t feel like either an intentional or subconscious game of managing expectations.

Perhaps I have been hanging around BDSers so long that some of their lessons have rubbed off on me.

After all, the boycotters never let their repeated failures get to them – or even acknowledge to themselves or others that they have suffered a setback.  Have they ever responded to questions as to why, if their “movement” has been so successful, that investment in Israel has skyrocketed during the BDS decade?  Have they ever been willing to acknowledge the fact that their “victories” (such as the Olympia Food Coop and even PCUSA in 2004) are exceptions that prove the rule (since no other food coop or church has shown the slightest interest in buying their snake oil)?

Given that divestment champions will never acknowledge the endless victories of their opponents, or even respond when caught trying to pass off lies (such as the recent TIAA-CREF hoax), it’s not entirely clear why Israel’s supporters need to respond to every one of their baits, just because a hundred BDS Twitter feeds insist we must.

Digging a little deeper, however, there are some emotions I’d rather not confront that might be short-circuiting the usual feelings of anticipation accompanying a major BDS battle: disappointment laced with a fair amount of disgust.

We’ve already talked about what this week’s vote is really about: the right of the BDSers to speak in the name of every man, woman and child in the Presbyterian Church in declaring Israel an “Apartheid State” (i.e., a nation of racist murderers), and to blanket the world in propaganda encouraging others to follow the PCUSA’s lead in boycotting “Apartheid Israel.”

The fact that there is nothing approaching consensus on this political opinion within the church means nothing to the boycotters and their enablers, an indifference matched only by the belief that the Jewish community’s patience with being kicked in the teeth on a bi-annual basis is endless.  And if this vote might lead to more hardening of positions on both sides, leading to more suffering and greater chances for conflict, what do the divestment-volk care?  All they want is the right to be able to brag that they brought PCUSA back into their fold, regardless of the cost to anyone else inside or outside the church.

In the past, I’ve been able to pin blame on this bi-annual misbehavior on radicals inside and outside the church who have made it their life’s work to drag the organization under their umbrella.  But looking at the behavior of too many Presbyterians this time around, I can’t help but fear that the cancer represented by BDS attitudes has spread beyond a core group of fanatics.

We’ve all grown used to the manipulative arguments, the truncated versions of history, the silencing of dissenting voices that have accompanied PCUSA divestment debates in the past.  But the level of dishonesty accompanying this year’s debate seems to indicate that the church’s readiness to bear false witness is climbing close to the same level as the one practiced by the BDS “movement” as a whole.

Why else would long-ago debunked fake Nelson Mandela quotes not get called out when they were brought up before not one, not two but EIGHT church forums dealing with the divestment issue?  Why would committee members contort the language of their resolutions and discussions to claim that divestment was something other than divestment and a boycott something other than a boycott?  And why would they pretend that this entire debate was a continuation of an ongoing discussion of corporate engagement, rather than the recycling of divestment resolutions rejected three times before?

Having gotten to know many kind and thoughtful Presbyterians over the years, I suspect my current emotional state has something to do with the sympathy I feel for their pain as they watch a church they have dedicated their lives to become a place best characterized for its dishonesty, hypocrisy and impotence.

Israel and its friends certainly have nothing to fear if an organization like PCUSA decides to embrace these three characteristics by ignoring its members, ignoring its friends, and ignoring its mission to make joining the BDS “movement” its top priority (leaving just enough time to simultaneously manage a vanishing membership and internal civil war).

No doubt I’ll be watching video feeds of the final debates and votes (unless the kids want to do something outside while those debates are going on), but I shall do so with an air of melancholy as a church with a 400 year old history demonstrates its readiness to join other organizations (such as the Green Party – remember them?  I thought not.) that have clutched BDS to their breast as they sunk beneath the waves for the third time.

PCUSA Divestment – Ethos

A major assumption surrounding this year’s PCUSA divestment vote (which can also be said for all the votes the church has taken on the subject) is that a “Yes” on divestment by the Presbyterians should be taken seriously as a moral statement.  But is this a reasonable assumption?

Part of the reason we think this way is that publicity surrounding the church’s 2004 vote was cast in these terms.  But 2004 was a unique year, especially given that the PCUSA divestment story was such a major surprise (even to most Presbyterians), and BDS itself was still a relatively new phenomenon.  Given all of the activity surrounding the 2004 event, no one stopped to ask the simple question of why the Presbyterians were being taken so seriously on this matter, given how little pronouncements by the church have impacted any public discussion about any political matter for decades.

The weight one can assign to the moral pronouncements of the church (or any institution) rests entirely on the organization’s ethos, i.e., the level of respect the organization has earned by its own actions and behavior.

Now any organization that’s been around for centuries (like the Presbyterian Church) starts in a good place, ethos-wise, since people are normally deferential to an institution that’s been shaping minds and hearts for this long.  And, with the exception of those who are hostile towards religion on principle, most of us are respectful to an institution (and the people who make it up) that is dedicated to more than worldly matters.

But age-old institutions (like people with long lists of credentials) can and do frequently misbehave, which is why ethos is primarily earned through one’s current behavior.  And it is the current behavior on the part of the church that makes this week’s votes a referendum not on Israel but on the church.

We’ve already talked several times about how church members time and time again have expressed their displeasure at the political positions leaders and activists in the church were taking in their name, some going so far as to leave the church in disgust.

Now I suppose it’s possible that divestment represents a majority of church opinion.  But more than likely, it represents an opinion that can be made official church policy if positioned carefully among the small number of members who vote at General Assemblies, with primary decision making carefully channeled through committees stacked with BDS partisans.

In other words, the many, many anti-Israel votes coming up this week at the Pittsburg GA are not being brought because a majority of members support them.  Rather, BDS activists within the church (aided by church leaders) are taking advantage of the fact that a majority of members are probably indifferent to the whole subject (and ignoring the fact that many thousands of members are appalled by such votes).

If indifference to their own members doesn’t strike a blow against PCUSA’s ethos, then the harm the church is doing to people outside of their community certainly does.  As Will Spottshas pointed out, most of the divisive political issues causing fissures with church polity (many having to do with gay marriage and clergy) at least only inflict damage to the church itself.  Not so divestment which is designed specifically to harm Israel (by signaling it as so odious to be alone in the world at deserving economic sanction).  Divestment also harms the Jewish community (the vast majority of which supports Israel).  It harms Presbyterian -Jewish relations (which will likely never be the same if a divestment vote wins this week.) And it harms the chance for peace, given that it holds out hope for Israel’s foes that an option exists (i.e., BDS) that doesn’t require the compromise and negotiations needed for peace to be achieves.

If lack of concern for one’s own members and for former friends and partners aren’t enough to question the ethos of those hoping to stand in judgment of the Jewish state, there is also the reputation for honesty required to be considered an “honest broker.”

An honest broker, for example, would not promise its’ Jewish friends that church opinion would be more open minded and balanced one year, only to turn around and ram even more hostile anti-Israel resolutions down the organization’s throat a year after that.  It wouldn’t release the one honest appraisal of the impact of church policy and bask in praise for this honesty, only to take down that report weeks later and replace it with one more piece of lopsided anti-Israel agitprop (and “forget” to tell anyone this switcharoo had taken place).   And it would not limit discussion of Middle East politics to a tiny subset of militant activists, only inviting others to “join the discussion” well after all decisions had been made.

It’s one thing to stack the deck of committees, truncate debate and limit the exposure of decision makers to just one set of opinions if you’re playing the politics of Chicago City Hall.  But the Presbyterian Church is claiming to not be engaging in politics, but to be “bearing witness” to a human struggle with moral dimensions.  And if one is claiming to speak on behalf of God (the ultimate claim when one talks of “Christian Witness”), then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that church leaders – partnered with BDS activists – are engaging in the grubbiest of political maneuvering in order to shove words into the mouth of not just millions of church members, but into the mouth of God him/her-self.

A person (or organization’s) ethos is what determines if moral pronouncements should be taken seriously (and even if statements of fact should be taken at face value).  So as committees meet in Pittsburg to decide if the church will once again become a wholly owned subsidiary of the BDS “movement,” it is not Israel’s reputation that is being decided upon but the reputation of the Presbyterian Church itself.

PCUSA Divestment – Fallout

Will Spotts provides an admirable Fisking of an FAQ document provided by members of the Presbyterian Church to explain their divestment positions.

The original FAQ, full of reasonable sounding language, tries to make the case for continuity between previous divestment-related General Assembly decisions and this year’s choices (although they leave out rejection of divestment in 2006, 2008 and 2010 from their historic timeline – and seem to portray last Spring’s rejection of divestment by the Methodists as a decisions still pending).

This document also deftly avoids charges of hypocrisy by highlighting past church divestment activities that fell well within church consensus (Sudan and Apartheid South Africa), but avoiding an explanation as to why church investments in human rights disaster areas like China and Saudi Arabia remain unchallenged.

But what is most remarkable about this FAQ is that it avoids altogether the unquestionable consequences of any PCUSA 2012 divestment vote, consequences we know full well will happen because we’ve been here before in 2004.

So just in case anyone is listening, if PCUSA decides to pass this “humble, reasonable” divestment overtures they are being served by those smiling, friendly BDS advocates, here is what will happen minutes later:

* Those friendly BDS champions will immediately announce to the world that the Presbyterian Church is now fully onboard the BDS bandwagon in condemning Israel as an Apartheid state (i.e., a state made up of racist murderers)

* They will leave your hall and fan out across the globe to declare that every other church, city, school, union and other civic institution should join the Presbyterian Church in singling out Israel for economic punishment

* The Jewish community will react with outrage at being slapped in the face (yet again) despite a decade of broken promises that the endless propagandizing against Israel would cease (or at least be moderated)

* Thousands of church members, unaware of what is being voted on in their name, will be appalled and angered and wonder why divestment (which they thought was voted down time and time again) is once again the policy of a church they thought took their concerns into consideration

It would have been great had those pushing divestment within the church had the decency to let members know that this is what they will be voting on, rather than trying to wrap a radical departure from church policy in the appearance of continuity and moderation.

But, as noted before, PCUSA boycott advocates seem to be BDSers first, Presbyterians second. And if the church decides to rejoin the BDS “movement,” members of that movement will not stick around to help PCUSA deal with the fallout of such a decision.  Rather, they will have left the hall to travel the planet finding the next sucker to buy their snake oil.

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.