Autumn Updates

Time to catch up on a couple of stories from earlier this year.

Starting with the forever-coming, but never-arriving “cultural boycott,” I’ve already pointed out that the spillover effect of Elvis Costello’s decision to ditch his Israeli fans didn’t seem to extend to his own bedroom (Costello’s wife Diana Krall played Israel over the summer). An astute Divest This reader provided the best summation of the whole effort to get rockers to boycott the Jewish state coming from Johnny Lydon (aka the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten) who, while defying boycott calls and playing Israel, let it be known that: “Belief is a very personal thing, but when someone inflicts their view on other people, they’re a pig.”

Compare that short and peppy bit of truth-telling (or even Elton John’s one-sentence “We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.”) to Costello’s multi-page, mealy-mouthed explanation as to why screwing his Jewish fans amounts to an act of conscience. Let’s all hope that this leads to a Sex Pistol’s reunion (minus Sid, of course) at the next Superbowl.

Onto more serious matters, Dexter Van Zile (unsurprisingly) has provided the best follow-up to this summer’s Presbyterian divestment/Middle East debates. It’s on the long side (and well worth reading in its entirety), but in brief Dexter makes the case that this year’s excesses by anti-Israel activists within the church has finally awoken a new force – religious and lay leaders of several of the PCUSA’s largest urban Presbyteries – to the fact that the anti-Israel antics that have been allowed to run amok within the church are starting to take their toll on the reputation of not Israel but the Presbyterian Church itself.

It remains to be seen whether the dynamic of the last decade (whereby opponents of divestment within PCUSA only start to organize before a General Assembly whereas divestment supporters – and their enablers within the church bureaucracy – remain active continually between GAs) will change after this year’s conclave. Dexter sees cause for hope, but I’m withholding judgment until I see if the institutions created to build a fair case for church involvement in the Middle East conflict are allowed to do their job or (as in previous attempts to balance church policies) are hijacked once again by anti-Israel zealots for their own purposes.

Finally, after Spring’s antics at Berkeley, it’s a safe assumption that BDS will focus its efforts on student governments this year. Some of the folks who successfully organized against the Berkeley divestment vote are posting their story at Bluetruth. Again, it’s a longer (three-part) piece with part 1 and part 2 already posted. Well worth reading in its entirety. [UPDATE: Part 3 is up now – read it all.]

With school just getting started, supporters of Israel should assume that attempts to subvert student government for the narrow purposes of BDS are already underway and should plan, organize and act accordingly.

PCUSA – In Whose Name?

Will Spotts highlights the series of negative consequences likely to come out of the passing of any anti-Israel resolutions or support for anti-Israel reports at next month’s Presbyterian General Assembly (PCUSA GA).

As he and others have highlighted in the past, anti-Israel measures are different than other controversial matters that church bodies such as the PCUSA routinely pass at their conclaves in that they are directly harmful to people (many, many people) who have nothing to do with the Presbyterian Church.

Changes to the Book of Order (the Presbyterian’s rules and regulations), debates over the marriage and ordination of gay men and women within the church, choices regarding the language used to refer to the deity within the denomination, these are all heartfelt matters which draw a lot of heat (and often light) when debated within PCUSA forums. But the consequences of those actions (good or ill) fall entirely on members of the church itself.

Not so matters related to the Middle East. In these cases, the result of a legitimization of general attacks on Israel for crimes of Apartheid, murder and land theft (all of which are direct charged or implied in PCUSA resolutions) will be a stepped up attack on the Jewish state by other Mainline denominations and by anti-Israel activists generally, all of whom will spend the next two years brandishing any votes PCUSA passes next month as justification for ever-wilder accusations and assaults.

Given all this, and given that members have already expressed their displeasure at similar activity in previous years, why have measures hostile to Israel only grown this year, in terms of both number and ferocity? And given that the goal of this process is to place these words into the mouth of the Presbyterian Church as a whole, making them in effect the official policy of over two-million church members, who do the people pushing these measures truly represent?

As already noted, church leaders officially sit at the top of the hierarchy of the organization, and they have been fully onboard the divestment/de-legitimization bandwagon for decades. But given the quasi-democratic nature of the institution, their job is supposed to be to enforce choices made by the General Assembly, including votes in 2006 and 2008 that asked the organization to get its act together and begin looking at the Arab-Israeli dispute from more than one side. But in the years since those votes were taken, measures designed to breathe some fresh air into the debate have faced a veto not by organizations within the church, but by “interfaith partners” (read Palestinian Christian organizations) who never hesitate to make one-way demands on the church in the name of “Christian solidarity.”

The Middle East Study Committee was created to study the Middle East, i.e., to bring some needed perspective into a discussion of Middle East politics that had degenerated within the Presbyterian Church to a tale of cartoon villainy and victimhood with you know and who playing their designated roles. Yet this committee became just the latest deck to stack, creating a document whose lack of balance dwarves anything that had come before. So, again, we have to ask just who the people pushing such a report claim to represent?

The Presbytery of San Francisco seems to be a fountainhead for the worst of the worst in terms of anti-Israel Overtures, including calls to have Israel labeled an Apartheid State and attempts to resuscitate divestment actions that have been unquestionably voted down again and again. This group seems to have determined who it represents: the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a political organization behind many of the most irresponsible propaganda and divestment measures taking place in the US and beyond (including the ill-fated flotilla incident that looks likely to trigger more international incidents before long). Now there is nothing wrong with the San Francisco Presbyterians meeting with whomever they like, but given that they are attempting to drag the entire church with them in a direction that will unquestionably discomfort a large number (if not a majority) of church members, it’s again worth asking in whose name this group claims to speak.

Once PCUSA passed its divestment resolution in 2004, late in the day and with very little understanding of its impact (even from those who voted for it), they pretty much announced themselves to be occupied territory. Once on board the anti-Israel bandwagon, understood BDS activists, you can never get off. And thus there are no brakes put on flooding the next GA and the one after that with dozens of resolutions in hope that at least one of them will stick, allowing anti-divestment activists to once again claim the church (all if it, all two million members, all 400+ years of history) as their own, consequences to the full membership, consequences to others (including the Jewish community), consequences to peace in the Middle East be damned.

And now the stage has been set, the deck has been stacked, the witnesses carefully culled, information needed to make informed decisions deliberately denied to those who will be making them, debate curtailed, emotive rhetoric turned up to 11, all to maximize the chances for some kind of “success” at next year’s GA that can fuel anti-Israel activism for another two years.

It’s clear what these activists will get out of things going their way next month in Minneapolis. The question remains, what possible good is it going to do a struggling church like the Presbyterians to turn themselves into the political plaything of people who have no interest in the organization beyond its usefulness.

PCUSA – Stacking the Deck?

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) voted to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in companies doing business with Israel. Putting aside the fact that this vote was taken towards the end of the General Assembly (with even its proponents unaware of the significance it would have in energizing the global BDS “movement” and driving a wedge between Presbyterians and Jews), divestment was built on a worldview pushed by church leaders for many years.

That view, developed in conjunction with some of the PCUSA’s interfaith partners discussed earlier, is built around “The Occupation” (implying Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but never truly defined) as the root cause of problems in the Middle East. Corollaries to this world view (stated quite clearly in Presbyterian communications on the issue) include:

· Palestinian attacks on Israelis represent responses to this root cause (“The Occupation”) and thus the only way to end terrorism is for “The Occupation” to end

· That the Israel-Palestinian issue (by which they mean “The Occupation”) must be solved in order to solve any other issue in the Middle East

Now many people would claim that this worldview puts the cart before the horse. That, unless you have a start date of 1948 for “The Occupation” (which would imply a negation of the state of Israel’s existence – something the Presbyterian leadership vigorously denies), then Israel’s control over territories like the West Bank and Gaza were the result of wars waged against it from neighboring states, and thus could not simultaneously be the cause of those wars.

Also, claiming that totalitarianism, repression of women, inter-Arab warfare, violence directed against religious minorities (including Christians), and – most recently – jihadi civil war are not the responsibility of the Arab states, but somehow can also be traced back to a root cause of “The Occupation” also seems like a refusal to place responsibility where it belongs, similar to the refusal to assign Palestinians responsibility for their own choices and actions.

When in 2006 PCUSA members voted 95%-5% to reject divestment – in the light of day and with a full articulating of the controversy before them – they were clearly expressing discomfort with the worldview of church leaders, not simply rejecting a symptom of that worldview (i.e., divestment).

This discomfort was on display in 2008 when proponents and opponents of anti-Israel measures within the church decided to create a neutral body that would help guide them to better decision making once 2010 rolled around. The language of that decision should be read in full:

“The 218th General Assembly (2008) requests that the Moderators of the 218th, 217th, and 216th General Assemblies (2008), (2006), and (2004) select a nine-member committee from a broad spectrum of viewpoints from PC(USA) members] to prepare a comprehensive study, with recommendations, that is focused on Israel/Palestine within the complex context of the Middle East. The study should include an evaluation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission and relationships, including an assessment of the future for the Christian presence and witness in the Middle East, an overview of the complex interactions among religions, cultures, and peoples that characterize the region, an analysis of U.S. policies that impact the area, and steps to be taken with our partners in the Middle East and the United States to foster justice, improve interfaith relations, and nurture the building of peace toward a secure and viable future for all, and report back to the 219th General Assembly (2010).”

The result of this decision was the creation of a Middle East Study Committee (or MESC) which released its report on the issue earlier this year.

Looking over the wording of the 2008 decision to create the committee, the insistence that the group include “a broad spectrum of viewpoints” was paramount. Indeed, such a request would not have had to be spelled out if church members felt they were getting their information from a “broad spectrum of viewpoints” up to that point.

So how did things go?

Well once again I turn to Will Spotts who has provided a detailed analysis of not just the membership of the MESC, but also the people and organizations the MESC visited to research their recommendations. The nine-person committee included six PCUSA Ministers and three Elders, and all but one of the nine had histories of anti-Israel bias and polemics within the church. (The one dissenting view, Reverend John Wimberly, quit the committee in disgust over its one-sided makeup.)

Four church employees assigned to the group were no less biased in their approach to the subject, and during their two years of research, the group talked with 55 individuals and organizations, 43 of which seemed to have shared the biases of the committee itself.

Needless to say, everything old is new again. The resulting report, entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” contains a reiteration and, indeed, an amplification of the worldview upon which the rejected 2004 divestment decision was based. Once again, Israel and “The Occupation” are the epicenter of all misery in the region. Once again, Israel must take primary responsibility for making things right. And just to be helpful, the report includes dozens of recommendations built on their assignment of responsibility, highlights of which can be found here.

Given that church members rejected divestment and other anti-Israel petitions in both 2006 and 2008 by huge majorities, it may seem strange that (with one exception) the only people found to put on the committee came with like-minded pre-dispositions on all important issues. And while some of us who worked to defeat divestment are not Presbyterians, many are which makes it even more peculiar that nearly no voices rejecting the 2004 worldview could be found to staff the MESC. Unless, of course, a stacked committee was the goal all along, not an unhappy or unlucky blind chance outcome.

Now stacking a committee is no crime if your organization is a political one, dedicated to one particular outcome. After all, political partisans will generally gravitate to the like minded, and even political blogs (like this one), choose issues to discuss based on our interests and pre-conceived opinions.

The thing is, PCUSA is not claiming to be a political institution, but is rather presenting itself as a distinct spiritual voice desperate to gather and present truths that will allow members to make sound moral decision. More than that, if you look through the language of the report, full of stories and statements regarding Christian witness and being guided by the spirit, it’s clear that elements of this report are meant to imply an origin drawn from the deepest well of religious faith.

Which makes the grubby politics behind MESC seem all-the-more appalling. After all, it’s one thing to cut corners, stack the deck, leave out opinions detrimental to your cause, knowingly communicate inaccurate and/or biased data, and limit your opponents from having their say if you’re a secular politician trying to ram through your desired budget or program. But what are we to make of the fact that these same hardball tactics are being used to pressure a decision that will be claimed to carry the moral authority of the 400+year-old Presbyterian Church, if not representing the voice of God himself?

Friends and Allies

A couple of the more laughable moments during the recent divestment follies in California involved attempts to lump the Berkeley “victory” with a similar “win” at Hampshire College last year. The fact that both the Berkeley and Hampshire BDS attempts were epic failures (the latter having the after-effect of putting every college administrator on guard for similar fraud and manipulation, the former hopefully doing the same thing for student governments) never seemed to intrude into the fantasyland in which the boycott crowd dwells.

Meanwhile, back at Hampshire, attempts to portray last year’s divestment hoax as something other than the Pinky-and-the-Brain type bollocks that it was has been chronicled by one of my favorite bloggers, Citizen Weld who dwells in the lands Massachusetts’ Western Plains. CW blogs on a lot of topics pertinent to his wide ranging interests, but two recent posts of note regarding the Hampshire SJP’s attempt to document their own supposed wonderfulness can be found here and here.

And speaking of anti-divestment blogs, I’m thrilled to announce that Will Spotts, the former Presbyterian whose masterful treatise Pride and Prejudice provided the intellectual foundation for the successful battle to get divestment overturned at the Presbyterian Church’s 2006 General Assembly is back to blogging again.

While Will has left the church, he remains steadfast in his belief that his former religious home must stop its persecution of the Jewish state, for the sake of justice but also for the sake of the church itself which this year seems to have decided that it is free to engage in any type of anti-Israel animus, so long as it stops short of divestment.

Will and I will be working together again on the PCUSA issue in preparation for this July’s 2010 General Assembly where a dozen anti-Israel overtures and reports will be voted on. Stay tuned and make sure to visit Will’s site on a regular basis.

What’s Behind BDS?

I’m still waiting for more news on the latest apparent BDS hoax coming out of Canada, but in the meantime a commenter’s point about previous hoaxes involving, among other organizations the Red Cross, alerted me that it might be worth mentioning one of the main theses of this site (especially to the many new readers who have joined us in the last few days).

I’m ready to admit that there are strong arguments for and against the use of boycott and divestment to solve political problems. But whether you’re talking about divestment programs launched against South Africa, Iran or Sudan, or boycotts that go back to their origins in 19th century Ireland, there is one thing that distinguishes these political projects from the anti-Israel BDS program we’ve seen over the last decade: truth in advertising.

There is no question that when people signed up to divest from South Africa (or when institutions are lobbied to pull funds from Iran or Sudan), that those campaigning are being absolutely clear about what they are advocating. While there is serious and legitimate debate about the effectiveness or efficacy of such campaigns, these projects are not being carried out in secret or behind anyone’s backs.

Not so BDS which only achieved its limited successes in the mid ‘00s by secretly negotiating with leaders of institutions like the City of Somerville or the Presbyterian Church whose citizens or members only discovered divestment from Israel was being carried out in their name at the last minute or when it was too late. And once these citizens or members discovered that their institutions were being manipulated, they revolted and rejected divestment by overwhelming majorities.

Remember that divestment is all about stuffing the political message of divestment advocates (that Israel is an “Apartheid State” alone in the world at deserving economic punishment) into the mouth of an organization more well known that the BDS advocates themselves. And given the tiny minority the BDS crew represents, the list of better known institutions includes just about everyone.

Thus divestment becomes a way to attach the BDS message to an institution by any means necessary. In the past, this involved manipulating people behind the scenes. But once initial BDS successes achieved in this way were defeated or reversed, a new strategy emerged involving outright fraud.

Adding false signatures to divestment petitions seems to have happened in both Canada and the UK, but before this practice came to the fore you had countless examples of BDS advocates pretending that decisions that had nothing to do with Israel were in fact anti-Israel divestment successes. Hampshire, TIAA-CREF, Blackrock and Motorola come to mind, but – as my commenter pointed out – there are other examples across the country of such divestment hoaxes.

It’s an open question as to whether these fraudulent campaigns are part of a deliberate strategy to deceive the public (in hope of creating momentum for the BDS “movement” based on fake success) or whether divestment advocates are primarily deceiving themselves in order to imbue their lives with fantasies of political importance and success.

But ultimately, it does not matter if the list of people BDS-niks are trying to deceive includes themselves or not. The result is the same: a political movement that bears no resemblance to boycott or divestment campaigns against South Africa or anyone else, a campaign of failure and fraud that has achieved nothing in ten years beyond poisoning the atmosphere of colleges campuses, churches and other civic organizations who have been slow to understand the true nature of the snake oil BDS is selling.