The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) announced the membership of a group authorized by the 2014 General Assembly to study the two state solution as a peacemaking strategy for Israel and Palestine. Sadly, ACSWP has chosen to create a study team with an ideological imbalance that predetermines the result of its work. In the lead-up to the study team’s creation, ACSWP stressed that it would find experts to produce an objective analysis of the situation in the Middle East. Instead, ACSWP has chosen several well-known pro-divestment activists to serve on the committee. One member has written media op-ed pieces lobbying for the PCUSA to pass divestment overtures. Another study group member was a staff person and current board member of Friends of Sabeel, an early leader in the divestment movement.
Members of the study group are:
Mark Douglas, professor of Christian ethics, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
Sam Jones, principal at Third Coast Consulting, formerly of the Carter Center, from Atlanta.
Leila Richards, a physician and former medical volunteer in Southern Lebanon and Gaza, of Pittsburgh.
Douglas Tilton, political scientist and Southern Africa Coordinator for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, based in South Africa.
Steven Webb, economist formerly with the World Bank and a member of ACSWP, from Reston, Virginia.
Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) has no quarrel with the right of any of the individuals chosen for this study team to hold their views. Our complaint is with ACSWP. It was their responsibility to find individuals to generate a fresh, objective look at PCUSA polices. Placing divestment advocates or opponents on the committee simply recreates the divisive dynamics that have dominated this issue. Indeed, PMEP would be as opposed to strong anti-divestment advocates being on this study group as we are opposed to strong pro-divestment members being on it.
Out of a membership of almost two million, ACSWP had the responsibility to find five people who have not been partisans in the highly divisive divestment controversy. Instead, they chose several advocates for divestment and none known to oppose divestment. This is not acceptable.
There are other troubling aspects of the way this process will work. First, the ACSWP press release states, “Drs. Douglas and Webb may not be able to participate in part or all of the Middle Eastern set of discussions, while Dr. Tilton may not be able to participate in part or all of the US sets.” So three out of five members of the study team will not be able to participate fully! The two members who will participate fully are those members with a history of pro-divestment advocacy.
Second, the study group includes a PMA staff person as a full member of the study team. With so many qualified non-staff available in our denomination to serve on this team, we challenge the appropriateness of placing PMA staff on the small study group. Also, the PMA staff person who works on interfaith issues is not listed as one of the support staff for the study group. With an issue that has created enormous problems for the PCUSA’s interfaith relationships, why would such a key staff person be ignored for advice?
Third and finally, instead of being focused on the two state solution as requested by the GA, the study team will focus on “prospects for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.” In its press release, ACSWP acknowledged that this approach is a deviation from what the GA requested. Why would ACSWP take upon itself the right to move away from GA’s assigned task? Again, it feels like an agenda, other than the GA’s agenda, is driving the study team.
The membership, redesigned mission, and lack of full participation by 60% of the group’s members don’t make us angry. They make us very, very sad. The creation of an objective, fresh look at PCUSA Middle East policy filled many in the denomination with hope for a less divisive day moving forward. Flawed decisions by the ACSWP and its staff in creating to a specific GA mandate tell us that, as the author of Ecclesiastes writes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”