Why the Presbyterian Divestment Vote Matters
The recent decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) is hurtful on real-world terms and gets in the way of what most Israelis and Paletinians want: two secure states. Most Israelis support the formal establishment of Palestine, as do most American Jews. The Palestinian Authority has actively stated that the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is inimical to Palestinian interests, recently arresting a BDS activist in the West Bank.
I deeply appreciate the Christian calls to peacemaking and justice that inspires the PCUSA. Even so, this decision to divest from three U.S.-based companies undermines the church in its ability to do either. Instead, it has marginalized its voice from the Israeli and American Jewish communities who would be willing partners in realizing common aspirations and goals. Its ability to be a respected and trusted partner in these critical conversations has been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.
This unfortunate move comes on the heels of the church’s publication of “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide,” which is widely viewed as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish in that it denies the right of the State of Israel to exist as the Jewish state. As noted in an open letter signed by more than 1,700 rabbis, cantors, rabbinical students and cantorial students, it charges Zionism and Israel as “false theology,” “heretical doctrine,” “evil pathology,” “racism” and “cultural genocide.” (Disclosure: I am a signatory.)
The official “State Department Guidelines on Anti-Semitism” includes denying Israel’s right to exist as well as applying Nazi imagery to Jews or Israel in its list of offensive actions. By this definition “Zionism Unsettled” is anti-Semitic. This confluence of action is all part of a larger movement of the PCUSA to place the entire onus of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict solely and squarely on Israel, to view the Palestinians exclusively as victims and to appease an extremely vocal minority subset of the church at the expense of any semblance of fairness. As noted in an open letter to the PCUSA by Rev. Christopher Leighton, the executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and a Presbyterian minister, it turns the church “from peacemakers to polemicists, and from honest dialogue partners to partisan ideologues.”
This lack of balance is reflected in how the PCUSA process mainstreamed Jewish Voices for Peace, outliers in the Jewish community, for its own purposes and at the expense of the relationships with the Jewish community’s recognized leaders in interfaith dialogue. Jewish Voices for Peace ostensibly shares the same goals as the Israeli government and majority of the American Jewish community: a just and secure peace built on a two-state solution. Yet, the organization goes beyond the pale in its absolute support of BDS.
It is not the mainstream representative of the American Jewish community as are the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Council of Jewish Federations. It is they who represent all the Jewish religious denominations and Jewish communities across the country through the Israel Action Network. Not only did the PCUSA cadre responsible for hijacking the process of open conversation rely on JVP outliers, while ignoring the overwhelming chorus of American Judaism, it even disallowed their own church members who have gone on interfaith trips with Jewish sponsorship from providing their perspectives of witness and testimony to the proceedings at the General Assembly.
If the American Jewish community feels frustrated and ignored, Israelis feel an even more pernicious betrayal. Protections for Christian in Israel are taken seriously by the Israeli government. Israel is the only area in the Middle East that safeguards the practice of Christianity in its widely diverse presentations. Government funds build churches and parochial Christian schools. Only in Israel proper does Christianity thrive in the region. Yet, these values and commitments are ignored by the Christian BDS activists as are the Christian tribulations under Palestinian rule. Israelis do not understand how these facts on the ground can be ignored.
The PCUSA decision is even more distressing, especially to Israelis, when three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped (and subsequently murdered), Hamas has been shooting rockets at southern Israel and the Golan Heights is being bombed. It seems that the only concern that commands the attention of the Presbyterian Church is Israel and the Palestinians. It is befuddling that the church has nothing to say about human rights abuses in China, the attacks against Christians in Africa and the Middle East, Buddhist oppression of Muslims in Asia, the Russian annexation of Crimea, repression of or attacks against women such as the laws forbidding women to drive cars in Saudi Arabia or ongoing kidnappings of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram. There has been no call to divest from companies doing business with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the like. One wonders what makes Israel so special in the hearts and minds of the PCUSA to warrant such exclusive attention.
The PCUSA has led the way in creating a roundtable including other Protestant and Roman Catholic representatives. Sadly, the majority of the mainline Protestant churches are represented in this effort. While the financial reality of divestiture may have limited impact, these denominations share a message that reaches millions of Americans. When these messages are built on anti-Semitic agendas that demonize Israel and Jews, the concern extends far deeper than investment dollars. The movement from anti-Israeli activism to anti-Jewish theology might not be overt or even conscious. That does not make the threat any less pernicious or the concern any less real.
Rabbi David Greenspoon is an educator, theologian and writer who has been deeply
involved in interfaith dialogue and education efforts for more than 25 years. A former Navy reserve chaplain, he is a guest rabbinic scholar in a wide variety of Christian and Jewish settings. He is based in Baltimore.