TIAA CREF and PCUSA: BDS Friends or Foes?

At first, I was annoyed that last week’s TIAA-CREF BDS hoax was going to take time away from things I wanted to say about the upcoming Presbyterian divestment vote.  But then it dawned on me that these two stories were intimately connected.

Before explaining how, I wanted to first highlight one important aspect of last week’s TIAA-CREF tale that has gone unmentioned until now.

When the BDS “movement” was resurrected in 2009 and began using the strategy of fraudulently claiming institutions were divesting from Israel, one of the big payoffs for them was free media coverage.  The Hampshire hoax was their biggest success in this regard in that the story made national news for weeks before the truth finally got out.  In fact, I read about Hampshire while vacationing in Montana that year (and started this blog soon thereafter).

Once bitten, the mainstream media became a bit shyer about taking BDS press released at face value, which meant that a series of hoaxes related to various financial institutions (such as Blackrock, PGGM and TIAA-CREF) were only covered in some corners of the Jewish press.

But these stories mostly provided those of us who write on the subject an opportunity to debunk this new series of fraudulent BDS claims, which meant that even the Jewish press finally got tired of being had by BDSers looking to manipulate both them and the public.

This time around, the “TIAA-CREF Divested!  No wait!  We mean MSCI divested!” story has gotten virtually no coverage outside of blogs and web sites dedicated to promoting or fighting against BDS.  The closest they came to genuine media coverage was The Forward which last week published a brief story based on a Jewish Voice for Peace press release, only to take down that original piece and replace it with a more accurate one a day later.

In a media age when anyone can be a publisher and mainstream media has been shedding things like fact checking (especially for smaller stories), the currency for getting your story published is a reputation for credibility.  And after years of being caught time and time again fraudulently trying to pass off financial decisions by major institutions as politically motivated, the credibility of the BDS brigade (regardless of how much they huff and puff on their own web sites) seems to be shot.

Getting back to what the CREF story might say about PCUSA, keep in mind that both of these institutions are not considered enemies of Jewish Voice for Peace and similar BDS organizations but potential allies.  As such, you would think the normal way of recruiting people to your cause (such as engaging in conversation, presenting reasonable arguments, and listening to their concerns) might represent good strategies.

But think for a moment how TIAA-CREF has been treated by the boycotters over the years.  In 2010, the divestment cru sent out press releases declaring that CREF had followed its lead and divested from specific Israel-related assets for political reasons (a lie), which required CREF management to spend time and effort clearing the air by alerting the media and angry investors that the story was a fake.

Rather than explain themselves or apologize (or simply avoid the subject of TIAA-CREF altogether out of fear of further embarrassment), instead Jewish Voice for Peace declared that their biggest campaign for 2011 was going to be getting TIAA-CREF to actually do what they just pretended they did the year before.

And after more than a year of that campaign going nowhere, last week they reverted back to hoax mode taking a simple indexing measure that required no conscious decisions by TIAA-CREF and using it to declare the academic retirement as all aboard the “Dump Caterpillar” BDS bandwagon (throwing in the fantasy that CREF made these decisions in defiance of JVP’s political enemies for good measure).

When I penned this little parody that involved my BDS protagonists torturing the CEO of TIAA-CREF while trying to convince him to do their bidding, I thought nothing could ever come close to my time-wasting fantasy.  But the whole Hoax – Campaign – Hoax sequence we’ve seen over the last three years has convinced me that fantasy has got nothing on BDS reality.

How does this relate to the upcoming PCUSA debate?  Well keep in mind that the boycotters will be showing up in droves at the upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly bearing two messages: (1) other institutions are dumping Caterpillar (and so should you); and (2) trust us.  And like TIAA-CREF, the Presbyterian Church is not seen as an enemy, but as a potential ally of the BDS “movement.”

Now it may be that they can keep up enough momentum from their fraudulent CREF/MSCI story going to convince some of the more credulous Presbyterians already in their camp of precedence for the votes they are being asked to take.  But if word gets out regarding not just this most recent BDS fraud but the BDS “movement” history of trying to pass off hoaxes, then that will undermine both of their messages (especially the message that the boycotters should be trusted to tell the truth – either about themselves or about the Middle East in general).

And if the Presbyterians start wavering in their support for divestment, we’re likely to see the kind of hostility and misbehavior we saw during the recent Methodist divestment debate (which ended in yet another BDS failure), wrath one would normally see a political organization direct at its political enemies, rather than someone you are feigning friendship towards.

PCUSA and Israel – Politics

The divestment debate that will be taking place later this month at the US Presbyterian Church’s (PCUSA) bi-annual General Assembly (GA) is fundamentally a political one.

This seems like an obvious statement of fact, but once the debate revs up it will more and more take on the language of a morality play with sides and positions wrapped in the language of religion.  I want to talk about this language in my next posting, but before looking at the words that are being used to describe a political set of decisions, its best to understand as much of the actual politics as we can.

To begin with, any debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political one.  There are two sides to a conflict and whether one defines those sides as powerful Israelis vs. helpless Palestinians (the BDS political framework) or tiny Israel vs. the vast and wealthy Arab and Islamic worlds (the position of Israel and its supporters), PCUSA delegates are not being asked to stake out a theological position but to take sides in a specific political struggle.

Now taking sides is not necessarily required by the Presbyterians or any other church.  In fact, all of the Mainline Protestant churches that have been asked to vote on divestment (which goes beyond taking a side and actually begins punishment procedures against the side that has been rejected) have chosen to instead vote down BDS in favor of policies which ask the parties to the conflict to seek peace with one another.  In other words, PCUSA is being asked (for the fifth time) to reject the calls for compromise and negotiation that they and other churches have been making for years in favor of officially coming down on one side of a political conflict.

The way these decisions get made within the church represents another level of politics: church politics.  This is not a subject I ever knew much (in fact anything) about.  But once the church decided to make political decisions that dramatically impacted people outside their walls (including Israel and its supporters), then knowing how those decisions got made became critical.

Fortunately, Will Spotts has been documenting the specifics of political operations within PCUSA for years (see here and here), which gives we outsiders a glimpse of the particular style of sausage-making that goes into the creation of church policy.  And while you’ll need to read Will to get a full sense of the process, suffice to say that all of the grubby backroom dealing, stuffing of committees, truncating of debate, and hidden influence from outside lobbyists one sees in government, corporate or other institutional decision-making is well represented within the church.

There is another political issue hanging over all of the Mainline Protestant churches: how they are supposed to deal with the twin problems of decline and division.  Membership in the PCUSA, for example, has declined by more than 40% in the last 40 years as fewer and fewer children of aging members make a commitment to the church (choosing instead secularism or some other form of Christianity – such as Evangelicalism which is growing at the expense of the Mainliners).

Those that remain are divided over whether they need to more tightly embrace the theological issues that make them uniquely Presbyterian or continue to immerse themselves in Ecumenicalism which is increasingly defined as partnership with other Mainline churches in secular political activity (like BDS).  Theological division has already caused several splits within the church, with the rival Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) being just one of many splinters churches making up as much as a quarter of US Presbyterians today.

Historically, these splits have taken place of doctrinal issues or (more recently) issues regarding gay marriage and clergy.  And individual churches leaving one Presbyterian group for another have led to bloody fights over money and property, highlighting another political angle to the Presbyterian story – the economic politics associated with an institution with billions in land and retirement assets, high costs, and a diminishing dues-paying membership.

PCUSA has maintained its lead position within this network of Presbyterian sub-churches by keeping an open door to members whose doctrinal differences have not yet led them to bolt the mother church.  But this “big tent” has prevented church leaders from accomplishing many of the things they clearly want to do, including passing anti-Israel divestment resolutions that have long been rejected by voting members who are supposed to have the final say on what the church stands for.

While the endless pushing of divestment and other divisive legislation at GA after GA demonstrates the inability of PCUSA governance to resist manipulation by single-issue fanatics within their ranks, the unwillingness of the leadership to reign in those fanatics for the good of the church (not to mention Presbyterian-Jewish relations) demonstrates that these leaders may just be in the market for a new set of followers.

What I mean by that is that if these divisive issues finally lead to another major break within PCUSA (which seems likely), the part of the church that would make its priority the continuing embrace of controversial secular political positions would be smaller than today’s church, but could still call itself PCUSA.  So rather than trying to win over the membership by presenting a better case, church leaders seem ready to let those that disagree with them go their own way, leaving a rump church that won’t have to bother with divisiveness since it will now be a smaller group made up primarily of the like minded.

You will hear very few of the issues discussed above spelled out in such stark political terms when the General Assembly meets next week.  Instead, these matters will be debated using a vocabulary of faith, witness, love and other religious terminology.  And being a faith-based organization, the use of a religious vocabulary is more than appropriate – but only if it serves to illuminate, rather than obscure, the more “this-world” political decision-making that will be unfolding when the Presbyterians meet in Pittsburg to talk about their future.

The Presbyterians Await

There comes a time when an institution’s continued flirtation with BDS says nothing about the Middle East and nothing about the BDS “movement,” but instead reveals the ugly underside of the institution itself.

And I’m afraid we may be reaching that sad end as the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) readies to meet in Pittsburgh next week to vote (for the fifth time) on whether to divest from its portfolio stocks related to companies doing business with the Jewish state.

My friend Will Spotts has started to blog on the subject here and, as usual, he provides the best material for understanding the complexity of Presbyterian politics (which involves numerous committees and subcommittees where the real decision-making takes place).  And an informational web site Will and I put together in 2010 (which includes Will’s masterful Pride and Prejudice) can still be found here for anyone looking for comprehensive background information on this particular element of the BDS story.

Getting back to my original assertion, when the Presbyterians passed a resolution in 2004 calling for “phased, selective divestment” from companies doing business with Israel, one could make the case that this represented a statement on the Middle East conflict by the church, one that placed primary responsibility for the conflict on just one party (the one targeted for economic punishment: Israel).

But once that vote was taken, it turned out that divestment decisions were actually made by a small group within the church consisting of anti-Israel activists in partnership with church leaders who passed their 2004 divestment resolution with very little input (or awareness) by other church members (even delegates attending the 2004 General Assembly).  In fact, even those who voted for the resolution felt it was no big deal (given that the church routinely passes condemnation of Israel at their bi-annual conferences).

But once the vote was taken, it turned out to have been a big deal indeed.  For the BDSers, this was their biggest win to date.  And regardless of how the resolution was sold when PCUSA delegates voted on it, for the boycotters the message they were delivering across the planet was crystal clear: The Presbyterians agree with us that Israel is an Apartheid State, and every other church, city, school and civic institution in the world should follow the Presbyterians’ lead and also divest from “Apartheid Israel.”

The Jewish community also realized that this was not some meaningless symbolic gesture but a clear official statement by the church that not only placed blame on Israel alone, but made it clear they were only interested in discussing the nature and terms of her punishment.  Needless to say, this message was not taken lightly and Jewish leaders let their Presbyterians friends (including former partners in campaigns such as civil rights) know that the partnership had to include not slapping the Jewish community in the face by allowing the church to be the anchor client for the BDS “movement.”

But the most important constituency appalled by this vote were the common Presbyterians in the pews who revolted at the notion of their church taking such a revolting stand, members who rebelled in 2006 by voting down the 2004 divestment resolution by a margin of 95%-5%.

Now one would have thought that the mile the BDSers took with the supposedly inch-long original 2004 divestment decision, coupled with the clear message that the embrace of BDS was anathema to both Jews and many PCUSA members, would have led to a pause and some reflection regarding the church’s relationship with this issue.  But following a pattern we’ve seen before, the boycotters just treated their 2006 defeat as a speed bump, returning in 2008 and 2010 with more and more anti-Israel resolutions, assuming that they could eventually get the church to vote the “right way” as they did in ’04.

Again and again, the Jewish community and large numbers of Presbyterians expressed their extreme displeasure at these endless anti-Israel moves.  But such opinions held no sway among BDS activists and their enablers within the church leadership that spend the years between General Assemblies (which are held on every even-numbered year) infiltrating any committee or sub-committee designed to provide balance on the issue of church statements and actions regarding the Middle East, ensuring that each new committee would be more one-sided than the last.

Divestment lost in both those years as well, and one would have thought that a project that caused this much anger and this much divisiveness within the church would have moved someone to finally look at whether or not the church belonged in the divestment business.  But, in fact, something far more appalling has taken place instead.

For rather than looking at the last eight years as a period screaming out for reflection and moderation, the BDSers and their enablers instead have chosen to pretend that none of these “No” votes really ever said “No.” Instead they have invented a storyline in which a process they initiated in 2004 has been running its course, presenting 2012 as the year when the church must finally act, given that other avenues (such as economic engagement and dialog) have been exhausted (regardless of the fact that engagement and dialog are the very things BDS is designed to prevent).

We’ll take a look at how this dynamic came to be, and what it has done to turn a church that was once a cornerstone of American society into a splintered institution that is no longer trusted by former friends or its own members, one which is on the verge of never being taken seriously again as a moral voice on any political issue whatsoever.

It’s a sad story, but an important one for other organizations to learn so that they can avoid the fate that seems to be awaiting a Presbyterian Church on the verge of becoming the US chapter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions “movement” (which occasionally finds the time to do a little Presbyterianism on the side).

The Beinart Effect

While this year has mostly been dark clouds for the forces of BDS, both small (failure at the Park Slope Food Coop), medium (another year of getting nowhere on college campuses) and large (the Methodist Church rejecting divestment yet again), there is a silver lining for them that we in the boycott-fighting business should take note of.

You saw it play out with the Methodists who rejected divestment and just as sensibly rejected various partisan resolutions that could be presented as the church taking sides in the Middle East conflict.  But they did pass a resolution supporting boycott of one segment of Israeli society, namely businesses located in the disputed territories (better known as the settlements, or – to use BDS parlance – “The Settlements”).

We saw a similar decision last month in the UK where the largest food cooperative organization in the country also passed a settlement boycott measure, and it’s very possible you’ll see something similar play out when the Presbyterians meet in June (although I still anticipate that they will reject divestment, as did the Methodists, for a fourth time).

The settlement boycott issue is a tricky one, for while general rejection of BDS has pretty much reached consensus across the entire Jewish political spectrum, attitudes towards what should ultimately happen with the disputed territories remains an issue of deep contention within Israel, among Israel’s supporters, and within the wider world.

And when these two issues (BDS and the politics of the territories) become conflated, it’s much easier to present a boycott of certain Israelis as the “moderate” option located halfway between “doing nothing” (which is deemed unacceptable) and broad-based BDS (which is deemed equally unacceptable).  This is the argument that was used (successfully) in the UK where decision makers thought they were actually being supportive of Israel by seeking this “moderate” option as an alternative to the blanket boycott that was being requested of them by anti-Israel partisans (who are quite strong in Europe).

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m planning to start a series on the use of rhetoric in the Middle East/BDS conflict.  But just to give you a taste, what is described above is something called the fallacy of moderation which is often employed by partisans who want to convince you to do what they really want by presenting their preferred option as a compromise between “extremes” contrived for the sole purpose of locating their real goal in the mid-point between them.

To take a simple (fictional) example, a candidate who wants to raise the tax rate to 45% by insisting that this represents the moderate option between extremists in his own party who want to raise the rate to 90% and the opposing party that wants to eliminate taxes altogether, is intentionally using the fallacy of moderation to present what is really a major tax increase as the moderate choice located exactly between two extremes.  The fallacy comes in when you realize that the two extremes he is describing are not genuine, real-world options, but exist solely to locate his desired tax rate between them.

In the case of “partial BDS,” this too is an example of a moderation fallacy since there are any number of alternatives to “doing nothing” (defined as not having any boycott or divestment policy) and implementing a total boycott of all things Israeli.  You could, for example, pass a policy urging positive investment (as did the Methodists), which may not have pleased the BDSers but is certainly one of many alternatives to the false choices that frame an argument which says “well since you must do something, a boycott of settlements is better than nothing.”

When settlement boycotts are debated within the Jewish community, they are generally framed as an alternative to what is sometimes called “Full BDS” (meaning a boycott of companies within Israel proper).  But this analysis (like all analysis of which Israeli companies to boycott) misses the bigger picture.

For as I’ve noted ad nauseum on this site, the goal of BDS is NOT to hurt Israel economically, but to stuff the political positions of the BDSers into the mouth of a well-known, respected institution.  And once a boycott or divestment resolution of any size based on any target gets passed by one of these institutions, the message sent to the world is not “The such-and-such organization has passed a highly limited boycott of just a certain subset of Israelis…”  Rather, the message is “Such-and-such organization agrees with we the BDSers that Israeli is an Apartheid State.  And so should you!”

I titled this piece “The Beinart Effect” in honor of writer Peter Beinart who first proposed a Jewish version of BDS, not targeted Israel’s foes but targeted fellow Jews on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.  This was Beinart’s too-clever-by-half attempt to both subvert a BDS movement (which he claims to loath) by using their own tactics to allow some Jews (who think like him) to demonstrate their dislike of other Jews (who don’t think link him), thus proving their righteousness while showing what a virtuous version of BDS might look like in the hands of people as moral and forward thinking as Beinart himself.

But as anyone who knows anything about BDS could have told him, his complex and somewhat convoluted strategy was doomed to be boiled by the BDSers into a much simpler message: “Progressive Jews (like Beinart and those he claims to represent) want you to engage in a boycott of Israel, and we’re the ones to tell you how to do it.”

With a couple of settlement boycott wins under their belt, it’s just a matter of time before the BDSers re-align their strategy to push for more of these kinds of votes (as opposed to the general divestment measures that have been such a bust for them) and begin to claim any wins they receive regarding such measures (and not their many losses elsewhere) as the only metric with which the rest of us should judge their success.

Having seen BDS tactics morph time and time again, I’ve never been much for whining when they eventually stumble onto something that works.  Rather, those of us who fight against boycotts and divestment activities need to be just as flexible in finding tactics that can counter this new offensive, and let the world know that the success of both Israel and its supporters is not something to be measured by the embrace of a new gimmick by a bunch of narrow-minded, self-righteous partisans who (like their new-found accidental ally Peter Beinart) cannot think beyond themselves.

Methodist Fini

It’s time to wrap up with last week’s Methodist story and move onto other topics.  Before doing so, however, it’s best to take a pause and reflect on exactly what the Methodists did and did not do during their most recent General Conference vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.

At the highest level, what they did is easy to demonstrate since it’s the same thing they did four years ago.  Indeed, it’s the same thing every Mainline Protestant Church has done for the last two decades which is declare their devotion to peacemaking, call for reconciliation between the opposing sides in the conflict, and ask members to work and pray for an end to war in the region (and the world).

If you look at any of the resolutions regarding the Middle East that were presented at the Methodist Conference, discussed in committees and/or brought to the floor for a vote, you will find language that either began as calls for prayer for reconciliation or ended up speaking that language when the majority of committee members or plenary voters decided to align various proposals to their overarching message of peacemaking.

The only reason why this sentiment had to be processed through dozens of divestment and various other anti-Israeli resolutions is that those resolutions were brought into the organization by a small minority within the church whose top priority is to get the Methodists to put their overall brand on this or that partisan proposal condemning Israeli for that or this “crime” (or calling on the church to move directly to the punishment phase by reconsider divestment proposals already rejected over and over in the past).

Because the only barrier to bringing forth a resolution is self control (i.e., a willingness on the part of issue advocates to think through the consequences of pushing an issue within the wider church before submitting one or twelve resolutions), nothing prevented anti-Israel partisans from clogging the agendas of various committees with calls to condemn Israel for building a security barrier, Apartheid, settlements or any other accusation.  This low barrier to entry also explains why you saw a number of pro-Israel resolutions brought before these same church councils, as supporters of Israel within the church decided two could play the game of partisanship at the Methodists’ quadrennial conclave.

Now I’m ready to concede that within the Mainline Protestant churches, support for Israel probably falls below the recent all-time high of 70% within the US as a whole.  But the other key percentage to keep in mind is that 100% of delegates to the Methodist General Conference are passionate in their concern about the Methodist Church.  Which is why Middle East passions cooled as various partisan resolutions made their way through committees and onto the plenary floor, eventually playing out as a set of votes that confirmed the church’s long-standing principles of “Yes” to peace and “No” to taking sides in a conflict that is nowhere near as black and white as BDS partisans insist it is on their blogs and Twitter feeds.

Which is why BDSers spinning that one or two resolutions squeaking through committee with enough anti-Israel language intact (while ignoring votes that went against them, other than their one big divestment loss which they had played up too much to pretend never took place) is so disingenuous, if not preposterous.  For if the Methodists put their brand on any message last week, it was a message that negotiation and reconciliation should win out over conflict and blame – i.e., the very opposite of the principles motivating BDS.

As a final thought on the subject, when BDS got all of that momentum in 2004 after the Presbyterians passed their one and only divestment motion (one they promptly rescinded in 2006), very few people were aware of the efforts Israel’s foes were putting into lobbying (or conniving) to get churches and other well known civic organizations to join their campaigns.  Given this lack of awareness, it was easier to convince a broader public that a divestment vote by a well-known church represented the true sentiment of the organization (providing – it was hoped – an example that other institutions should emulate).

But that was eight years and at least five General Assemblies and Conferences ago (and that’s just counting the Methodists and Presbyterians – never mind the other churches that have met during this period and also rejected BDS).  And during this period, partisan lobbying (on both sides) taking place in church debates was well known and highly publicized.  Which means that even among those who do not follow these issues closely, claims that the aspirations and goals of the Methodist Church align with those of the BDS movement ring empty and false, for the very reason that they are just that.

The one other downside of presenting the Methodists, Presbyterians, or other Mainline Protestant churches as taking sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict (based on selective interpretation or outright fraud) is that this no longer lets the BDSers bathe in the warm glow of these church’s centuries-long names and reputations.  Rather, it taints those centuries-old institutions with the dishonesty, negativity and hypocrisy of the BDS “movement,” making it that much more difficult to take these churches seriously when they make moral pronouncements on any subject.  Which is why it is in the interest of the churches (never mind Israel and its friends) to get the BDS virus out of its system once and for all.

As I’ve said in the past, Israel will do just fine regardless of how the Methodists or Presbyterians vote this time or next.  But for churches fighting decline and other crises, the last thing they need is to tie the BDS anchor around their neck just to please a bunch of activists who are boycotters first, Methodists or Presbyterians second (if at all).

Tantrum

It’s astounding how rapidly the mask comes off the minute the divestment brigade doesn’t get what it wants.

For weeks, the BDSers invested countless hours into writing, phoning and pressing the flesh with delegates to the soon-to-be-finished 2012 Methodist General Conference, quoting scripture, telling teary (and context-free) tales of Arab suffering, and generally playing their traditional pre-BDS-vote role of Dr. Jeckyl.

But once the vote was taken and BDS lost yet again, out came snarling Mr. Hyde, storming the stage at the conference and marching up and down in an impotent rage, resembling nothing so much as a collective four-year-old throwing a temper tantrum after discovering he really wasn’t going to get his way.

You actually didn’t have to wait until the vote was cast to begin to get a sense of what would happen the minute the Methodists didn’t do as they were told. On blogs, on Twitter, and on countless Web pages it was all smiles in the run-up to the conference, and even through committee hearings (which ended up transforming the original anti-Israel divestment petition into a neutral pro-peace, pro-investment initiative).

But once divestment became the minority opinion (requiring the plenary to reject the majority anti-divestment position in order for BDS to pass), suddenly panic laced with hostility began to creep into the online conversation.  The quotes from scripture and John Wesley were still there, but they were attached to finger wagging and threats of holy retribution if the Methodists didn’t do what the boycotters were telling them was the only choice God himself would permit.

Years ago, a friend and I used to collect videos (on VHS!) of wacky television preachers from various Evangelical denominations pouring forth threats of fire and brimstone which would strike down all non-believers unless they repented immediately.  But none of this prepared me for the holy fury that enwrapped the Internet during the hour-long final plenary debate when actual voting Methodists finally put the whole divestment mishagas to rest (at least for another four years).

Suddenly Methodists and non-Methodists BDSers were ratcheting up their holy hysteria up to 11,000, insisting that only a vote to reject the majority opinion and immediately embrace divestment would have any meaning, with options for investment and peace-making condemned as a betrayal of everything the Methodists stood for (at least as far as the BDSers were concerned).  And when the vote finally went against them they marched, both literally in the halls of the Tampa Convention Center and across the Web, demonstrating to all (including, one hopes, the Presbyterians scheduled to ringlead the same circus in a few months time) the true face of BDS.

Given this video and paper trail, it’s kind of amazing that the boycotters are even trying to put a brave face on the conference results, highlighting a few pebbles they can pick from the rubble (notably, routine and toothless condemnations of Israeli settlements that have been repeated at various Mainline conferences for years – along with similar votes condemning Hamas and other forms of Palestinian militancy such as suicide bombings).  Given that none of this impressed Team BDS when they were claiming that the divestment vote was the only genuine issue, I’m not entirely sure why they should be taken seriously now that they are trying declare victory after losing the one fight they had already insisted was the only one that mattered.

But, then again, it’s never been clear to me why the divestniks should be taken seriously about anything, especially since their behavior clearly indicates that to them the Methodist (and Presbyterian) churches are not centuries-old institutions with a wide range of critical issues to deal with, but rather are simply playthings that exist only to pass BDS resolutions and – failing that – to absorb the level of abuse usually reserved solely for the Jewish state and its supporters.

The Methodists Say No

Only if you understand the centrality of the Mainline Protestant churches to the BDS strategy can you begin to grasp why the BDSers put so much time, energy and resource into yesterday’s Methodist vote, and why they will be doing just as much (if not more) to get the Presbyterians to vote yes on divestment in a few months.

The role the Presbyterians played between 2004 and 2006 (when divestment was briefly church policy) in anchoring the entire BDS “movement” is one reason why regaining church support continues to be such a high priority for the boycotters.

The year 2004 resembles 2011 very much in terms of a divestment “movement” making lots of noise, but having little to show for its efforts.  In ’04, the Presbyterians threw BDS organizations a lifeline, giving them at least one major example of institutional support they could capitalize on, which they did for the next two years before the Presbyterians rescinded their divestment stance in 2006.  Given this history, today’s BDSers (whose bombast of impending victory stands in such sharp contrast to the triviality of the actual results they’ve received after more than a decade of effort) are starved to repeat this briefly successful past.

It’s also hard to minimize the significance role churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists play in defining the boundaries of progressive political positions, especially with regard to foreign policy issues.  As Rabbi Poupko points out in Looking at Them Looking at Us (which I continue to urge everyone to read), within the US it is the Mainline Protestant Churches (not the universities, not the unions, and not secular grassroots organizations) that provide the support, funding and foot soldiers for dissent on issues of foreign policy.  Thus, church support is absolutely vital if the BDSers are to be successful in their efforts to define their issue as central to a progressive political agenda.

Which makes yesterday’s rejection of BDS by the largest progressive Mainline church (the fifth such rejection by the Methodists and Presbyterians in the last six years – never mind the other Mainline churches that either rejected divestment or never gave it the time of day) so significant.  For if the BDSers themselves insist that support for their efforts within Mainline Protestantism legitimizes their claims to representing progressive values, the overwhelming rejecting of BDS by those very institutions illustrates that boycott and divestment continue to be embraced by nothing more than a small (albeit noisy) unrepresentative minority.

It was intriguing to watch the run-up to yesterday’s vote (as well as coverage of the vote itself) play out on Twitter.  Like most online BDS debates, the boycotters dominated the airwaves; spending weeks quoting scripture, painting pictures of unvarnished Palestinians suffering, making their usual comparisons to Selma and Apartheid South Africa, and insisting that divestment was an obvious (indeed, the only) moral choice the Methodists could possibly make.

As the vote got closer, language turned harsher, with pleas for charity and witness soon replaced by an insistence that any vote against the BDS position would represent a betrayal of both man and God, punishable by fire and brimstone.  And when their calls to reject the majority opinion (which replaced divestment language with language of positive investment and engagement) and embrace a minority opinion (that left the original divestment language intact) went unheeded, up popped the familiar tweet of someone who was stunned when all votes turned against divestment (having followed one-sided Twitter feeds that seemed to imply an impending BDS victory).

This lopsided online coverage had an equivalent in the physical world (leading to even more surprise and anger when the Methodists simply did what they and every other Mainline church chose to do before: say no to BDS).  For while the boycotters pulled out all the stops to lobby for their cause in Tampa this week (flying down speakers and arm twisters, distributing expensive materials in multiple languages, and bombarding delegates with calls and letters in the run-up to the event), I can’t seem to find any equivalent level activity from Israel’s supporters.

Certainly the letter signed by over 1000 rabbis helped counteract BDS claims that Jews, rabbis and Israelis (outside of a marginal fringe) support BDS resolutions.  And I know Jewish organizations have maintained good relations with members within the UMC who oppose not just divestment but the general anti-Israel animus they find within the church.  But our side’s lobbying and even commentary seems to have been kept to a minimum (which may mean we simply counted on church members to show the same common sense they’ve shown with previous votes on the matter).

In the case of this blog, I gave the Methodists a wide berth largely because I’m not that familiar with them and their governing procedures, having only lived through their last General Conference in ’08, during which I did little more than comment on their overwhelming no vote.  But the Presbyterians are another story, one we’ll be returning to many times over the next several months, both to cover the next major BDS battle of the year, but also to provide a powerful illustration of what an organization does to itself when it lets boycott, divestment and sanctions in through the front door.

What I meant to say…

Apologies if my last write up on the Methodist divestment debate left people feeling like the cause was lost (or if I simply left people bewildered).  Realizing my mistake in referring people to 50-page documents to understand the background of what I was talking about, I’m going to try to sum up the debate so that everyone has some context regarding what’s going on this week at the Methodist’s Tampa Conference.

While I still recommend you read Rabbi Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us in full (or at least Section II on Mainline Protestantism), the relevant general points to remember regarding Mainline Protestant churches in America (which includes the Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as Episcopalians, Lutherans and the UCC) are that all these churches face the same twin crises:

* Attempts to put aside their doctrinal differences and join together in Ecumenical communion (which began in the 1950s), while sensible if you think about church perception that they were threatened by rising tides of secularism and competition from growing evangelical churches, left them washing away their spiritual distinctions and gravitating towards secular politics as a means of finding something to unite around.

* Despite these drift towards Ecumenicalism and secular politics (or possibly because of them), church membership has dropped by 20-40% during this period, much of this drop involving new members not joining the churches (which means decline will continue to accelerate as the current Mainline cohort continues to age and too few young people join).

Keep in mind that in addition to grappling with spiritual and political matters, these churches are also huge corporations with substantial land holdings and multi-billion dollar investment and retirement accounts under management.  So as dues-paying members and contributors decline, these churches face financial and organizations crises.  Sometimes this plays out in the form of ongoing financial and organizational restructuring (a major component of this week’s Methodist discussions and debates), although in other cases you can see ugly fights over property and assets unfold when a church decides to leave the umbrella organization over spiritual or political disagreements.

Within this broader Mainline story, the Methodists have some unique characteristics, notably:

* They are, by far, the biggest Mainline denomination with 8.2 million US members in 2005 (down from 10.6 in 1960) vs. 2.4 million Presbyterians (down from 4.2 million 1960 members)

* The church also has a substantial international population, most notably 1.2 million members from African churches

This latter group has always been a wild card in church debates, especially since they tend to think (and vote) more conservatively than their US colleagues on issues such as gay marriage.  They also tended to break largely against divestment when the church voted on this issue in 2008.  Which is why BDS advocates have put so much resource into winning them over, translating their literature into African languages and making every effort to play up the angle of race and racism, hoping Africans will fall into line through such an appeal.

Divestment (and all other issues) come to the floor of the conference through an resolution process with resolutions on all matters being submitted by individuals or churches, then passing through subcommittees and committees for recommendation and amendment before moving to the conference floor for a final vote.  If you look here, for example, you will see dozens of resolutions coming before the group on Middle East issues which include implementing divestment, rejecting it, supporting Israel, condemning it, or condemning Israel’s enemies (such as Hamas).

Most of these resolutions get combined, consolidated or eliminated before a single (often largely amended) compromise resolution is passed onto the Conference as a whole with a positive or negative committee recommendation.  And the major divestment resolution left standing after this process is 21071, originally a stark call to divest from Israel immediately, which (if you look at the amendments listed in the Legislative Committee Report) seems to have been transformed into a more general call for positive investment and prayers for peace.

To a certain extent, this is already a good sign (best testified by the negative reaction by BDSers to amendments made in committee).  But, as we have seen in the past, anything can happen once a resolution comes before voters.

At the very least, this will give individuals and groups within the church who have been driving divestment debates (and their allies) the chance to grandstand on the issue before a large audience.  But it also gives Methodists who don’t care for church anti-Israel policies the chance to air their opinions and concerns.

The question remains what will happen with those delegates (which I suspect includes a majority of American and international representatives) who have concerns about suffering in the Middle East (as do most of us), who do not automatically feel those concerns must be translated into a divestment policy which – no matter how much you sugar coat it – comes down to the Methodist Church putting its name and reputation behind public condemnation and blame directed against just one party to the conflict.

As committee work wraps up, general conference votes will begin to be taken this week.  So stay tuned to see if the Methodist church manages to avoid the trap that’s been set for them, or if they will have to suffer through the same upheaval that visited the Presbyterians when they flirted with BDS (and the BDSers) in 2004 before eventually coming to their senses.

Methodism Madness

I must admit to being somewhat stunned by the amount of effort Team BDS is putting into the whole Methodist vote taking place this month in Tampa and the likely equal amount of resources they plan to put into the Presbyterians during their upcoming June meeting in Pittsburgh.

Anyone who has followed BDS activity for more than a few years understands the centrality of the Mainline Protestant churches to the BDS story.  For back in 2004, when divestment advocates were struggling to get any traction (given that their project was not making any headway in their primary target of colleges and universities), their “movement” gained new momentum when the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) passed a divestment resolution at their bi-annual General Assembly.  And with that victory, divestment spread like a virus to cities and towns, unions and gained renewed energy on college campuses.

But if the Presbyterians can giveth, they can also taketh away.  Which is why when church members met again in 2006 and voted down their previous divestment stance by a margin of 95%-5%, the air went out of the BDS balloon (which led to the divestment virus lying dormant until 2009).

Why the Presbyterians (as well as other Mainline churches like the Methodists) flirt with these anti-Israel divestment motions in the first place is a long and involved affair.  And a Website I set up two years ago to deal with this issue when it came up (again) with the Presbyterians in 2010 contains a number of documents worth reading for anyone who wants to be fully briefed on this complicated and intriguing tale.  (I especially recommend Rabbi Puopko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us and Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice – both longer, but hugely worthwhile reads.)

While these monographs explain why the churches got started down the divestment road in the first place, they don’t explain why divestment continues to be on their agenda every two years (for the Presbyterians) and every four (for the Methodists) ever since.  For the reasons behind this ongoing drama has less to do with the churches themselves and more to do with the nature of BDS.

You see, in addition to their skill in utilizing new media communication techniques, BDS advocates also have one other important talent: the inability to ever take no for an answer.

If the Methodists rejected BDS unanimously in 2008 and the Presbyterians reiterated their anti-divestment position in votes taken in 2008 and 2010, what does that matters to the boycotters?  In their minds, their only goal is to keep bringing this issue back to the churches again and again until they vote “correctly.”

And what if this causes enormous rifts within these churches, creating division and rancor inside institutions struggling with hosts of other issues (some of them potentially existential)?  To a BDSer, mentioning such matters would trigger nothing but blank stares.

For in the mind of divestment champions, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches are not organizations made up of human beings with their own needs, history and hopes for the future.  Rather, they are simply stepping stones to a hoped-for re-energized BDS “movement,” one which can try to sell its wares to a new group of institutions by starting each conversation with the claim that “The Methodists and Presbyterians agree with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, which is why you should divest as well!”

The sad thing is, if divestment gets voted in at either of these churches, that will be the last any Methodist or Presbyterian sees of those “friends” currently wining a dining them, handing them slick literature printed in multiple languages, or inundating them with calls and letters.  For if a church ever passes such a vote, the BDSers will immediately fan out across the globe using the name and reputation of the Methodist or Presbyterian Church (claiming to speak in the name of every man, woman and child who has ever been part of either church) to push an agenda that bears no resemblance to what they were saying when divestment was being sold in Tampa or Pittsburgh.

And once that happens, the churches will be left behind to deal with the wreckage their votes have caused in terms of ongoing conflict under their own roofs and increased alienation from a Jewish community that’s been asked to put up with these ongoing (and seemingly endless) slaps in the face every two or four years.

To date, the membership of these churches have always ended up doing the right thing (often against the wishes of church leaders), voting down divestment by overwhelming margins and pleading with BDS champions within their ranks to take into consideration the needs of someone other than themselves.

Time will tell if this year’s story ends up so positive.

BDS Comings and Goings

Catching up on a couple of BDS-related stories that have broken since I returned from vacation last weekend:

The latest BDS “victory” or another post-hoc fallacy?

The latest boast regarding BDS effectiveness comes from Europe (of course) and has to do with the private security company G4S failing to win a renewal of a security contract for European Parliamentary buildings a few weeks ago.

Apparently, a month before this announcement was made, a group of Parliamentarians sympathetic to the BDS cause wrote a letter to the European President condemning G4S for the business it does providing security services within Israel (no mention why the boycotters have not been effective getting similar decisions made by other countries the company does business with, such as those human rights paradises on earth Saudi Arabia and Yemen).

By now, we all know the formula that says if BDSers did anything before such a contracting decision was made, then their efforts must be the cause of such decisions (see post hoc ergo propter hoc).  After all, large, governmental purchasing bureaucracies are well known for turning on a dime the minute they receive complaints from politicians or constituents.  And there couldn’t be another explanation as to why G4S didn’t get their contract renewed in a competitive bid with other providers, could there?

Now I’m not saying that the boycotters protest didn’t cause the effect they claim.  I’m simply pointing out that after years of fraudulent announcements of BDS victories (many of them based on post hoc fallacies), it is incumbent on the boycotters to prove that their activity was the cause of this decision which should be a simple task for them if they speak true.  For example, they need only use their claimed influence to get the EU purchasing agency to explain the rationale behind their decision publically.  Absent that, we have yet another example of the cock taking credit for the sunrise.

Go and Leave

Well Jewish Voice for Peace/Young Jewish and Proud have scrubbed my hometown of Boston from their epic Go and Learn campaign, a program we’ve met before which will allegedly be teaching students across the country about the wonderfulness of BDS.

Interestingly enough, their listing for Boston (which retained a TBD date and time in their announcement of a meeting that was supposed to take place this Thursday) disappeared from the Go and Learn site less than twelve hours after I dropped them a note asking where and when the event would be taking place.

Now I’m not making the causal connection between one of the critics with whom JVP claims to crave debate showing interest in coming to an event they claim was open to those “actively opposed to [BDS].” That, after all, would be a post hoc fallacy.  But it is interesting to note that the whole JVP/YJP gang can’t seem to manage getting their events off the ground in one of America’s most progressive cities.

Then again, (as Ian Faith once put it) Boston’s not really a college town.

Methodist Redux

I’ve been remiss in covering what will likely be the two big BDS stories of the year: divestment votes taking place at the Methodist and Presbyterians General Assemblies between now and June.

As many readers know, divestment ballots (both pro- and anti-) have become mainstays at Mainline Protestant Church gatherings since 2004.  And while these have been voted down again and again, the fact that BDS was once considered by these churches means the Middle East conflict is now permanently on their agenda.

This time around, the boycotters have pulled out all the stops, cold calling delegates to these events at their homes, and even having their propaganda materials translated into multiple languages (including Swahili).

Why Swahili?  Well, a large contingent of people attending this week’s Methodist confab come from African churches which were a major constituent for anti-divestment votes that last time this issue came before the Methodists in 2008.  But this mass translation and distribution is just one example of the intense level of activity and investment the BDSers are making in these two key sets of votes.

Now the pro-Israel side is not being somnambulant about the issue (as attested by this letter signed by over 1200 rabbis, including mine).  And it’s not entirely clear that the Methodists are ready to turn from their unanimous rejection of divestment four years ago just because lots of partisans are writing them letters or calling them at home.

We’ll be tracking progress of the various BDS votes taking place among Methodist delegates gathering in Tampa this week.  And I promise to provide more detailed coverage of the General Assembly of the much smaller, but must further infected Presbyterian Church whose own rendez vous with divestment comes up in a few months.

Stay tuned…

Presbyterians Behaving Badly (Again)

As stories about the PennBDS conference fall off headlines in the U Penn student newspaper (to be replaced by tales of student chicken-wing-eating prowess), I suspect the time has come to move onto other BDS-related stories that may have been missed over the last month.

That said, I promise to return to this subject if the local BDSers strategy of desperately Twitterwhining about how no one is talking about the support they received from Desmond Tutu (Tutu’s support for any BDS program on earth being about as newsworthy as the story about a chicken laying eggs) returns them to public notice.

But in the meantime, there are other BDS victories to cover! Such as…, Well…, Hmmm…; OK, I can’t find any. But that doesn’t mean the dreaded Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions juggernaut has not been getting some notice.

Most significantly, this is an even-numbered year.  And as those who have been following BDS ups and downs (mostly downs) over the last 7-8 years know, even numbered years are when some of the Mainline Protestant churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) gather for bi-annual conclaves to set church policy regarding a number of religious and (increasingly over recent decades) political

When the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) actually passed a divestment resolution in 2004, they may not have realized that they invited in what was to become a permanent houseguest. For even though the church reconsidered their hastily decided 2004 vote in 2006 (the year in which the membership rejected divestment by 95%-5%), this just doubled the BDSers commitment to reintroduce the issue in 2008. And when that failed, they tried again in 2010.  And when that (you guessed it) failed, the boycotters simply began planning to re-introduce it two years hence (and again and again after that – no doubt – until the church finally voted the “right” way).

The entire Presbyterian divestment tale is a long and interesting one (to me, anyway) and if you would like to get the full background you can read all about it at this sitethat I and a Presbyterian (actually former Presbyterian) friend created to address the 2010 vote.

The thing to keep an eye on this year is the configuration of forces that show up to fight it out yet again when PCUSA gathers in Pittsburgh this summer for their 2012 General Assembly (GA).

Traditionally, BDS forces begin planning for the next GA the minute they lose at the current one with voices supportive of Israel not getting their act together until a few months before the gathering.

But last time around, BDS opponents got the attention of important members of the church who had stayed on the sidelines during previous Middle East debates. Most notably, leaders at some of the larger urban Presbyteries were beginning to get sick and tired of hearing the same arguments by the same people year in and year out. And they were also getting annoyed that the only stories reaching the public about important church gatherings was how the Presbyterians were alienating Jewish interfaith friends and supports via what seemed like perpetual Israel bashing.

People more experienced with church internals have informed me that this re-alignment of forces may mitigate said bashing during the 2012 GA, but that is a story that has yet to play out.

In the meantime, anti-Israel activity continues to be concentrated in the church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) committee, members of which have spearheaded most controversial divestment votes in the past.  In 2008, the church asked that a report be generated that would strike some balance in the church’s Middle East policy. But by then the group charged with creating such a report had become so infiltrated by IPMN BDS activists that the group was only able to create a document more laughably lopsidedthan anything the church had ever created before. In fact, it was the excesses of those involved with the creation of this report that doomed divestment at the 2010 event and galvanized the previously uncommitted church members noted above into action.

If the cartoon that appeared on the IPMN Facebook page (and the associated story behind this charming image which follows on that linked page) is any indication, IPMN has somehow discovered a way to become even more radical, more offensive, and more self-righteous in the last two years, best exemplified by the decidedly un-Christian responsethey provided to critics pointing out that images like the one linked above (as well as others that have routinely appeared on their sites) were as ugly and inappropriate as they look.

Time will tell if this time around the forces of BDS make progress with the Presbyterians, the Methodists or some other church in 2012.  Trends (including eight years of rejection and reversals) say otherwise,  but like a Fractured Fairy Tale version of the Pandora’s Box story, when all hope has fled they still have ruthlessness and hate to fall back on.

Targeted BDS

NOTE: I was getting set to respond to some questions/comments from earlier this week and it looks like some comments have disappeared from the last few posts. They’re not showing up in the Blogger spam filter, so I’m suspecting they may be related to a Blogger technical outage yesterday morning. If you think something was lost here and you want a response from me, please re-post it on this or one of the newer blog entries since I’m not that good at keeping current with discussions going on at previous postings. Now back to our regular broadcast…

As mentioned previously, there is a growing trend to replace general boycott and divestment calls with ones that specifically target “the Occupation,” an approach that seems to have found some traction, at least in Europe, a continent serving as a kind of incubator for new BDS tactics.

While researching this issue, I discovered a pretty exhaustive list of reasons why this so-called “targeted BDS” is a bad idea. And though there is not much to add to this well thought-out run down, there is an overarching framework for understanding (and hopefully rejecting) this new tactic, namely, that “targeted BDS” is a scam.

First, we must never lose site of the ultimate goal of the BDS “movement:” to get well-known and respected organizations to attach their names and reputations to the BDS message that Israel is an “Apartheid state,” worthy of the same economic punishment visited upon Apartheid South Africa. But as the last decade of BDS failure at major institutions has demonstrated, these institutions are not interested in having their names attached to someone else’s propaganda campaign.

Which is why you see the behind-closed-doors and dead-of-night deals being struck in places like Somerville, the Presbyterian Church and Olympia Food Co-op where BDS advocates have met with leaders behind the scenes in order to get a boycott or divestment resolution passed quickly and quietly before members of the organization have any knowledge of what is being discussed.

Now when the boycotters approach such institutions, it is important for them to maintain a façade of reasonableness and decorum in order to present their case for BDS being obvious and fully fitting into a human-rights or other appealing or acceptable framework. This is what I call the “all smiles” phase, during which divestment activists try to mask their true intentions which only get revealed after an organization “signs up,” to some simple “human rights measure,” only to discover 24 hours later that their name is being broadcast around the planet as being 100% onboard the Israel=Apartheid bandwagon.

But as we’ve seen over the last ten years, this strategy has either led to immediate rejection (by institutions now wise to the BDS game) or, at worst, temporary victory after which someone (usually the membership of an organization) reverses a boycott or divestment “win,” insisting that no one (and certainly not the Israel-haters) speak in their name.

Given this background, the BDS message needs to be constantly retailored. And targeting “the Occupation” gives its proponents a way to say that they are not attacking Jews or Israel (heavens no), but some amorphous entity known simply as “the Occupation.”

Putting aside the fact that use of phrases such as “the Occupation,” or (more frequently) “Israel’s illegal Occupation” is a matter of opinion and subject of negotiations, rather than an unquestioned fact, it’s clear that BDS proponents themselves have a near-infinitely elastic definition of what falls into this category.

After all, I have yet to see champions for this new improved “targeted BDS” turn around and reject or condemn their fellow BDSers who have not yet gotten the message and are working to boycott companies as far away from the “Green Line” as Taunton, MA (where Tribe hummus – target for a boycott – is located).

For one of the great skills of the BDS project is its ability to make a connection between any company or product they decide to put on their blacklist and their ultimate target (be it Israel proper or simply “the Occupation”).

Why target Tribe hummus? Well the company was acquired by an Israeli food manufacturer that supplies snacks to Israeli soldiers and they contribute to the Jewish National Fund, an organization with is traif to the boycotters because it plans trees in “the Occupation” (whatever that means), blah, blah, blah.

This ability to concoct a connection between any company and their ultimate target found its ultimate expression last summer when BDS activists were pushing their short-lived “Harvard has divested from Israel” hoax. In that case, Israeli companies whose stock was held in certain emerging market funds owned by Harvard were removed from those funds for the simple economic reason that Israel was no longer considered a developing but a developed company. And once that happened, BDSers tried to spin this purely economic decision as a politically motivated divestment activity.

During the 48 hours that this fraud was making headlines we were exposed to a list of Israeli companies that had never once been mentioned in the context of any previous BDS campaign. In this case, the divestment champions simply made on-the-fly connections between the companies leaving Harvard’s emerging market fund and “the Occupation” in order to flesh out their fictional tale of Harvard selling off these stocks for political reasons.

In other words, “targeted BDS” is simply a new opening line, a new marketing campaign that boycotters hope will get them into the door of organizations that are wary of the widely rejected, broad-based divestment calls that have been part-and-parcel of the BDS project since its inception in 2001.

To date, civic organizations seem have been able to see through the various facades the Israel-dislikers use to mask their true goals. So there is hope that people of good sense and good will shall be able to see through this latest variation on their long-standing bait-and-switch tactics.