PCUSA and Divestment – 2014 Edition (sigh)

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014


OK, enough with the procrastination.  Time to hold my nose and get down to business on what will likely be the biggest BDS fight of the year: upcoming votes at the bi-annual General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (or PCUSA).

How do I know this year’s GA will be the site of yet another divestment fight?  Simply because the year ends in an even number.

You see, ever since PCUSA vote in divestment in 2004, the BDSers have decided that the organization belongs to them.  And even if members rescinded that motion in 2006, and refused to reinstate in in votes taken in 2008, 2010 and 2012, that just means the boycotters are committing all their time and energy into forcing the group to take their sixth vote on the subject in hope that PCUSA will finally “get it right” (i.e., do what the boycotters keep telling the Presbyterians is their only moral choice).

Having dealt with every single PCUSA divestment battle since 2006, I may be bringing a weary and occasionally angry tone to this year’s battle, which grows out of the fact that as a member of the Jewish community I’m getting a little sick of turning the other cheek so that PCUSA can have another chance to slap it just because the year ends in 0, 2, 4, 6 or 8.

But having gotten back into the game during a year that ends with one of those digits, it’s best to start the discussion/education process early.  And so this week and next I’ll be looking at some of the trends, activities and individuals that have led the Presbyterians to such a sad and sorry place.

To kick things off, I’ve moved some of the content that previously appeared in a site named Bearing Witness that I and my friend Will Spotts (former church member and fellow anti-divestment activist) created for the 2010 PCUSA GA. The Bearing Witness logo that appears at the top of this piece will be featured in every PCUSA-related thing I write, linking back to that re-purposed content.

As Will and I discussed when we first created this site (and since), presenting background information and reasoned arguments as to why the Presbyterians should finally rid themselves of the divestment virus is always going to suffer in the short term when competing with those who want to just shove photos of dead babies in everyone’s face and demand they take action (i.e., do what the boycotters say).

But in the long run, it is important to inject accurate facts and reasoned opinion into the conversation, even if we know that this material will only be read by a small set of people (not very many of whom have sway over what the church does or does not do).  So for those interested in delving into the question of how we got where we are, check out our Bearing Witness materials, as well as some of the selected stories that appear at the bottom of the right sidebar (which I will update this week and next).

Starting tomorrow, I’ll take a look at how things stand in 2014 beginning with a backgrounder on what’s gone on in the two years since BDS was last shown the door by voters at the 2012 General Assembly.

Methodism Madness

While recent postings may have been a bit flip with regard to the pratfalls and pretentions of our friends in the BDS “movement,” it needs to be stressed that for those infected by the divestment virus, BDS is no joke.

Take for example the Methodist Church. Flirtation with anti-Israel divestment by Mainline Protestant churches has been the subject of frequent discussion here at Divest This, especially since it was the Presbyterian’s vote in 2004 to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in the Jewish state that anchored boycott and divestment projects worldwide until church members overturned that decision two years later (by a margin of 95%-5%).

In 2006 the Methodists also rejected divestment (unanimously) at their annual conference. But because BDS once found a home (albeit briefly) within one of these venerable institutions, certain church members refuse to let it go, regardless of how many times they are told no, and regardless of how much pain and division such efforts cause within their communities.

Both the Presbyterians and Methodists have quasi-democratic structures in which individual churches or groups of churches can propose resolutions to be voted on when the church meets as a whole at bi-annual conventions. I say “quasi-democratic” because these resolutions tend to get driven by small groups of activists within a church, rather than bubbling up from the broader grassroots, meaning most church members are never aware of what is being decided in their names.

In the case of highly controversial issues (such as gay marriage or gay clergy), these matters have been around long enough and have received so much coverage in the mainstream press that heated debates within the church generally represent the differing opinions of large numbers of members. But in the case of church divestment resolutions, these are always driven by small groups of single-issue activists, often working behind the scenes to try to get their measures passed quickly and quietly, so they can later turn around and claim that BDS is embraced by millions.

It’s been more than five years since divestment was rejected by the aforementioned lopsided margins of 95-100%. Yet the passing of boycott resolutions by individual churches which are then pushed up for national votes has become entrenched as part of the catechism of Mainline church politics.

To get a sense of the corruption this causes, one need only look at how the matter is playing out this year among UK Methodists. Similar to some of the political maneuvering that took place with the Presbyterians in 2010, this year it was the turn of the UK Methodists to stack a committee for the sole purpose of getting BDS rammed down the throat of the organization, with calls for diversity of opinion within the group making these decisions (i.e., voices who were not already loyal anti-Israel partisans) rejected as “unhelpful.”

The bald power grab represented by insisting that a decision-making body not include anyone who might question pre-ordained choices (in this case to boycott Israel) would be bad enough in the context of secular politics. But what are we to make of such grubby behavior within a group claiming that their political decisions are driven by “Christian Witness,” (i.e., representing the will of God himself)?

Now this is the UK and as has been noted before, Britain is where the worst of the worst in terms of BDS seems to have migrated of late. In contrast, good news out of California indicates that in the US BDS proposals are being voted down at the local level, long before they make their way to national conference. This is no small matter since it indicates that more people are becoming involved with the issue at the grassroots and at an earlier stage. And if history is any guide, BDS efforts always tend to collapse when exposed to multiple opinions in the light of day.

The backdrop to all of these votes and debates is the massive decline in membership within Mainline Protestant churches over the last forty years. Rabbi Yehiel Poupko analyzes this phenomenon in his masterful booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us, but it is also worth reading this analysis of decline specifically within the Methodist church posted at a United Methodist web site. In it, the author is trying to make the case that the decline in church membership is multi-causal, and I was interested to read his reason #2 which seems to indicate that certain high-maintenance lay people have a tendency to dominate some local churches, warping organizational priorities and driving many members away.

I doubt the author had in mind BDS activists who have been using the church as their plaything (at the expense of all other members and all other issues for decades), but it would be interesting to find out how many people who have left the Methodist churches in recent years have follows in the footsteps of my friend Will Spotts who was finally forced to walk away from the Presbyterians in disgust over the lopsided, unfair propaganda propagated within these organizations at the expense not just of the Jewish state but also the reputation of the church itself.

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 and the Power of Reason

Will Spotts, my partner at the Bearing Witness site dedicated to fighting anti-Israel animus within the Presbyterian Church, have a little contest going to see who can take the longest to get to the point.

There is a philosophical message regarding this little bit of self-deprication at the expense of our somewhat-longish prose. For you see, Will and I are working off the assumption that reason is the best tool in our battle against divestment and other anti-Israel activities.

This doesn’t mean that all we do is create long-winded rebuttals of every accusation thrown against the Jewish state by PCUSA and other critics. But it does mean that our arguments against such activity, whether longer or (occasionally) shorter, make the assumption that those who are fair minded will choose well if presented with accurate information and informed arguments.

The alternative, to be perfectly frank, would be much easier. In fact, it is the option taken by the vast bulk of those who make it their life work to attack Israel. All that would be needed to fight fire with fire in that case would be to skip prose completely and rely on pictures, preferably of bloody infants killed by terrorists, or pregnant mothers fleeing from Hamas rocket fire.

We could extend this to include heart-rending testimony (in text, photos and video) of women, homosexuals and religious minorities persecuted throughout the Muslim world, and demand that any individual or organization (like the Presbyterian Church) which claims to support the rights of these minorities pass our resolutions condemning “Apartheid Islam.” We could endlessly talk about the “illegal Palestinian government” (without explaining what we mean) or talk about Hamas being in breach of 145 international laws (assuming that by including a number in our claim it will ring more true).

In fact, Will could have stayed in the Church and pressured his Presbyterian colleagues to create overtures and reports that focus exclusively on the racism, sexism, homophobia and totalitarianism throughout the Arab world (as I could do with various Jewish organizations – political and civil – that I belong to), all the time insisting that unless these groups do what we say, they are betraying their most deeply professed beliefs.

Now we would obviously be at a disadvantage if we utilized the same tactics used by Israel’s opponents. After all, there are not dozens of Jewish countries who dominate organizations like the OIC or UN who have state power and resources to dedicate to de-legitimizing Israel’s critics while ensuring that the human rights spotlight never gets turned in any other direction. We cannot afford to charter flotillas of ships to sail across the Mediterranean, or fly people to Israel to take part in political tourism, or hold conferences across the country to strategize on how to boycott the Arab world.

But I suspect that if we went down this route we could be somewhat effective, even if it came at the cost of creating mayhem within the organizations we chose to leverage for our own political gain.

And therein lies the difference between one side of this debate and the other. For the major reason Will, I and other activists choose not to simply use our opponents tactics against them is that we are not ready to cause long-term harm to others just to get our way.

At the end of the day, BDS activists don’t give a damn about what their campaign might do to communities like Berkeley, or Somerville or the Presbyterian Church. For them, these institutions are simply props, playthings to be used for their own political drama. No doubt, they’ve convinced themselves (and others) that the importance of their cause allows them to manipulate anyone they like, regardless of the consequences. But since when is it news that some of the most horrible behavior and actions are done by those who are absolutely convinced of their own unquestionable virtue.

It remains to be seen if an appeal to reason which counts on the wisdom and sense of fair play by people such as those attending this year’s PCUSA General Assembly ends up a good bet. I can’t say exactly what it means if the Presbyterian rank and file take Will’s advice and reject most or all of the anti-Israel measures brought before the Assembly this year, except to say that it certainly doesn’t mean nothing.

And if we lose, well that will certainly be sad. Even if just one resolution is passed, anti-Israel activists will immediately blanket the world with the message that the Presbyterians have now returned to the Israel=Apartheid fold, an unappealing situation to be sure. At the same time, any 2010 resolutions will be placed into the mouth of an organization that’s lost 30% of its members in the last 25 years, and it’s a reasonable question whether in 10 or 20 years time there will even be a Presbyterian Church in the US, beyond a few decaying buildings containing 60-70 year olds, including a core of political activists who have succeeded in having their way within the church they have done so much to help destroy.

This and That

Just a few links in today’s update.

First off, I wrote a feature that appeared in today’s Jerusalem Post that updates the BDS story for the last 1-2 years. Most regular readers will be familiar with the themes and stories which this piece gathers into a single location.

Will Spotts, my partner on the Bearing Witness site dedicated to fighting divestment and other anti-Israel activities at next month’s Presbyterian Church General Assembly provides recommendations on all of the Middle East related votes that will be taking place at next month’s meeting. Here’s hoping they take his advice.

Will also put me onto this story from Christian Century on some of the troubling anti-Jewish theological themes that the two authors (one Presbyterian, one Jewish – sound familiar?) found when looking over the Presbyterian’s main document on the current conflict, an troubling piece of work called “Breaking Down the Walls.” I think the authors are being a bit too generous in interpreting the problems they find in “Walls” to theological excesses in an otherwise noble endeavor. As noted here, I see too much of the same political mendacity I find in most BDS campaigns to assume that this kind of critique wells up entirely from a passion for justice. That said, the theological problems the church seems to be having with my tribe are serious and worth exploring, which the Century piece does quite well.

Bearing Witness 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus Sayeth the Lord!

Divestment debates are ongoing matters at many “Mainline” Protestant churches. I’ve talked before about how anti-Israel divestment resolutions, begun by local churches, find their way to national forums (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists who meet every few years within quasi-democratic frameworks to vote on resolutions submitted from “the field”). While these resolutions get routinely voted down at a national level by whopping majorities, that seems to just give local activists the go-ahead to try to re-craft their rejected calls for resubmission two or four years hence.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us: A Jewish Understanding of Christian Responses to Israel (published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, and sadly not online) is required reading to fully understand why these votes keep coming up again and again among Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and UCC. In his essay, Poupko highlights two critical points:

· Mainline churches are in steep decline, due to falling birthrate/aging of members, and a lack of perceived spiritual vitality, especially among youth who (if interested in religious affiliation at all) are increasingly attracted to growing evangelical churches, whom “mainliners” perceive as competitors

· Mainline churches are the most prominent American institution committed to dissent on US foreign policy matters. Quoting Poupko: “while a variety of advocacy efforts are centered in labor unions, universities, and interest groups, it is primarily in the mainline Protestant churches that persistent voices against American foreign policy are heard. It is from the churches that the resources flow which facilitate dissent.”

These two issues are linked, with politics filling a void left by a spiritual vacuum among churches dealing with modernity and struggling to find their own unique identity in an increasingly secular and ecumenical world. And having staked out foreign policy as their “turf,” choices often get made based on competitive positioning with rival churches (notably more conservative fundamentalists). While it would be an oversimplification to say that Presbyterian or Methodist choices on matters such as Israel and the Middle East boil down to “if the fundamentalists support Israel, we oppose it,” it’s also fair to say that mainliner’s choices are impelled as much by secular and church politics as they are by “Christian witness.”

As already noted, divest-from-Israel resolutions managed to pass national church votes at the height of divestment’s success in 2004, but have since been defeated time and time again. But at a local level, groups like the New England Conference of United Methodist Church have continued to draw up long lists of companies they want to see the church divest from as part of a high-profile, national action. Remember that the primary goal of divestment is to get a prominent institution like a national church to put its weight and reputation behind their cause. And getting this to happen often requires the same type of rough-and-tumble politics we’ve seen at other institutions such as limiting debate to only one side of the issue, or forcing controversial resolutions that allegedly speak for the whole church by votes of a small subset of members (often members of highly partisan political action committees).

While politics is politics, churches face particular problems when these tactics are exposed (as they have been a national conferences) since church members claim to be taking political stances not simply as institutions but as prophetic voices. Time and again, church members describe their anti-Israel stances and resolutions as cases of “bearing witness,” implying that their statements are made not simply on behalf of themselves or their own church, but in the name of God himself.

My friend Will Spotts pointed out both the human and spiritual problems behind such behavior in his groundbreaking work Pride and Prejudice: The Presbyterian Divestment Story:

“’Thus sayeth the Lord.’ This description of our own opinions can easily result in an unwillingness to actually entertain evidence that contradicts what we have declared to be true – namely that Israel is to blame for violence in the region, that Israel is to blame for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and that Israel is morally deficient for attempting to use a physical barrier to protect its citizens. Since this prophecy has been issued in our name, we, as Presbyterians might do well to remember the stern biblical condemnation of the practice of claiming to speak for God where God has not spoken.”

Churches engaging in politics thus face greater dilemmas that other institutions dealing with the divestment issue (such as schools, cities and unions). For if their engagement with the Middle East wells up from a prophetic tradition, why are so many of church debates characterized by the grubbiest political behavior? Today, even at churches where divestment is not on the agenda, condemnation of Israel serves as constant backdrop with steady streams of speakers, films, art shows and other materials (some directed at children) that straddle the line between education and propaganda. Yet how many times have these churches sought out alternative voices to help them wrestle with some of the most vexing political issues of the day vs. taking their own hidebound political stances literally as gospel?

As I noted during the Presbyterian divestment debates in 2006, one would think that religious institutions would strive to be an example to the rest of us regarding civil and informed debate, especially on the toughest and touchiest of issues. And yet time and time again, these very churches exemplify some of the least attractive sides of our political culture: self-righteousness, insensitivity to others, disinterest in dissenting opinion (including efforts to shield other church members from alternative viewpoints), all wrapped up with the troubling notion of “bearing witness,” implying as it does that their very secular political choices are, in fact, the work of the divine.

A thesis I’ve been discussing since getting onto the anti-divestment bandwagon has been how divestment, designed to inflict moral damage on the Jewish state, tends to boomerang on those who advocate it. “Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?” was the quote of one Presbyterian after a particularly egregious incident involving the church’s 2008 debate over divestment. Indeed, Israel reputation will survive the slings and arrows tossed at it as partisans try to revive the divestment strategy over the coming years. The question is, will the churches’?