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When history and facts don’t seem to matter: The Presbyterian Church, BDS, and the ‘largely non-violent First Intifada’

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been tied up in the politics of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel for more than a decade, culminating in a narrow four-vote majority in the 2014 General Assembly to divest church funds from HP, Motorola, and Caterpillar because of those company’s products being allegedly used to violent ends by Israel in the Palestinian territories. The GA tried to claim that its vote to divest was not about joining the BDS movement, but was a statement on socially responsible investment. This was wishful thinking because within 30 minutes of the GA’s vote, the New York Times reported that the Church had become aligned with the BDS Movement.

Now, two years later, another PC(USA) General Assembly approaches. This time, the BDS agenda is a bit more nuanced. A task force was commissioned by the GA in 2014 to examine the continued viability of the Church’s commitment to a Two State solution. Responsibility for this study fell on the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which recently issued a report titled "Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Justice Peace."  The ACSWP seeks to have their report endorsed by the GA this summer in Portland, Oregon, when it meets in mid-June. It should surprise no one that the report that was written mimics many of the Israel-targeted BDS arguments that have been used again and again.

It does not take even the casual reader long to realize that this report is fundamentally flawed and dishonest at its core. On the very first page, the report provides a brief history of the conflict, in which the First Intifada is described as a “largely non-violent movement that led to the Oslo Accords.” Let that sit in for a minute. The First Intifada was a non-violent movement. What the authors of the report apparently are trying to do is to equate the Palestinian resistance, then led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO as being on the same moral level as the American civil rights movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience to effect change. King led bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches to over-come legal segregation and accomplish voting rights for Black Americans in the American south.

Yet, the First Intifada included far more than boycotts of Israelis by Palestinians. Arafat’s uprising consisted of widespread throwing of stones, Molotov Cocktails, and assaults on Israeli citizens. It is estimated that over 1100 Palestinians and 200 Israelis were killed between 1987 and 1991. Yes, the First Intifada was far less violent than the Second, which began in September 2000, and was characterized by suicide bombings, and on going acts of terrorism, but in no way was the First Intifada a non-violent movement. For a report by ACSWP to even use such language not only questions the intellectual integrity and honesty of the task force that wrote it, but also calls into question the entire report that follows. The Report treats the conflict between Israel and Palestine as entirely one sided, with Palestinians always the victim, seeking justice, and Israel as always the aggressor.

The ACSWP Report’s duplicity goes beyond this however. The report’s authors make blatant historical errors and distortions of facts that serves to push PCUSA to pursue an extremely narrow BDS agenda. The Church’s BDS supporters realize that their affiliation with BDS is one that most Presbyterians have little desire to be associated yet, so it is not surprising that the report itself never uses the BDS words. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to avoid mention of the movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. While the words BDS never appear, the message is clear. The historic commitment to a Two State Solution is called into question, and the Report seeks to open the door to consideration of a One State Solution; a solution in which all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would gain Israeli citizenship. What they never say, of course, is that simple math would mean that Israel’s Jewish citizens would immediately become a minority in a Palestinian state. In some ways it is a confidence game, in which ACSWP and its allies seek to push the Church into opening the door for a One State Solution by approving a report that delegitimizes the State of Israel, without ever acknowledging it.

The reality is the conflict is far more complex, and both sides have acted in ways that have perpetuated it over time. The description of the First Intifada is just one of many problems with the Report, but it illustrates the intellectual dishonesty that the Church’s BDS proponents are willing to engage in. Such a blatant effort to tie violent resistance to the American civil rights movement is an insult to the faithful members of the Church who are truly interested in pursuing the difficult job of peacemaking. Hopefully commissioners in Portland will see beyond the smoke and mirrors offered by the Church’s BDS advocates.

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