The Presbyterian General Assembly decision to narrowly approve Israel-targeted divestment began with the hearings of the Middle East Issues committee. The group of approximately 60 committee members was chosen at random from the broader group of voting commissioners. They collectively had minimal knowledge or understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the international Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. Some committee members chose to learn as much as possible about the issues before arriving, but many others intentionally chose otherwise, perhaps seeing their role as a quasi- “jury” needing to “hear the evidence” without preconceptions. For this reason, the need to hear both sides of the arguments for and against divestment and BDS was essential to a just outcome.
We at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace and others contacted committee leadership and expressed our concerns about both sides being given equal time before the committee. Our hope was that the committee would extend invitations to diverse and knowledgeable speakers who could provide objective and accurate perspective on the conflict, and that time would be allocated equally to speakers with opposing viewpoints. We got no response.
At the start of committee deliberations, committee leadership spoke against a policy of equal time for opposing viewpoints. Once deliberations began, severely disproportionate time was given to divestment/BDS advocates, and almost no time was given for rebuttal of the claims and accusations these advocates made. The committee listened to a series of vicious and sometimes hateful accusations and screeds, all aimed at the state of Israel, all aimed at depicting Israelis as monsters and Palestinians as innocent victims. Here are a few examples of what Presbyterian clergy, elders, The Jewish Voices for Peace organization, and Palestinian Christian “partners” said in testimony:
Israel has a policy of systematic dehumanization and humiliation of Palestinians.
Israel subjects Palestinians to “biblical scale enslavement”.
Israel is an apartheid state.
Jewish settlers poison Palestinian livestock.
Israel operates hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank.
Israel controls all of Gaza’s borders.
Israel forces Palestinians into cattle cages.
Israel holds Palestinians in “barbaric conditions”.
Israel tortures children as a matter of policy.
Israel denies drinking water to Palestinians.
Israel destroys the homes of Palestinians simply because they are Palestinian.
Israel’s checkpoints and barriers are arbitrary restrictions on Palestinian movement.
Israel uses HP ID cards to segregate Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
Israel holds Palestinians in “giant outdoor prisons” in the West Bank and Gaza.
For a more complete and detailed list of these accusations, one can read the Israel-targeted overtures and supporting materials still residing on the General Assembly website. These inflammatory and unproven accusations were the basis of the “non-peaceful pursuits” and “Israeli policies toward the Palestinians” alluded to repeatedly by denomination leaders and by pro-divestment speakers on the floor of the plenary as justification for divestment. All are subject to dispute and some are outright fabrications. Despite the reckless disregard for the truth, they were the foundation of the divestment decision.
The vice-moderator of the committee, supposedly a leader committed to impartiality, said in a devotional that “Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews they were wrong. Why are we afraid?” Words were spoken about “prophetic witness” and “standing with the oppressed”, along with statements about “love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
For the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community and the people of Israel, these words ring hollow and insincere. What our Jewish “brothers and sisters” have seen from the PC(USA) is a consistent pattern of flagrant hostility. Earlier this year they saw the distribution of the document “Zionism Unsettled”, which attacks the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel and is loaded with hateful and demonizing statements. They then saw many of the same demonizing accusations contained in overtures presented at General Assembly, and witnessed a barrage of vicious attacks in verbal testimony at the GA. To claim that divestment was an “act of love” is implausible, and to watch a denominational leader make that claim on national television was unfortunate.
We have received complaints for mentioning the fact that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke strongly endorsed “Zionism Unsettled” (he also heaped praise on the General Assembly for approving divestment). To any decent person, producing a document that is praised and quoted by hate groups should raise a red flag. The definition of hate speech is the intentional dissemination of false information intended to incite hatred and violence toward a targeted group of people. There is subjectivity in determining what is and isn’t hate speech. We urge Presbyterians to read “Zionism Unsettled”, along with the accusations made by BDS groups within the PC(USA), and decide for themselves (Under intense pressure, PC(USA) officials recently removed "Zionism Unsettled" from the online bookstore. It remains for sale by the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the PC(USA)).
Looking ahead, Presbyterians should anticipate more of the same, with perhaps even greater intensity. The GA approved a “study” by a pro-divestment committee (The ACSWP) questioning the “two-state solution”. This “study” will be nothing more than a re-hash of the Israel-targeted slurs tabulated here, along with reaffirmation of the “Zionism Unsettled” document. We suspect much less attention to this “study” when presented in 2016. Most of the Jewish community no longer sees the PC(USA) denomination as the friend and partner it once was, and large, ever-growing numbers of Presbyterians see the position of the PC(USA) and General Assembly on Israel as incongruent with their faith. As members and congregations leave, the PC(USA) may well feel the forces of disengagement, boycott and isolation directed toward it, not with it.