Sharp reporting exposes anti-Israel PCUSA study

I once made a Presbyterian leader sputter.

Didn’t mean to. I just asked a question about the Middle East that he didn’t like. Things like that happen.

He was a Palestinian-American activist who was addressing the Religion Newswriters Association several years ago. His topic was the need to divest stocks of companies that did business with Israel until that bad ol’ country stops oppressing Palestinians.

During a Q&A period, I asked if companies should apply similar pressure on the Palestinian side. That’s when he sputtered: “Do you realize how poor Palestinians are? Were you born on the moon?” Etc., etc., etc.

I let him run his bolt before pointing out: “Many companies do business with nations that support Palestinian guerrillas. So there is a corollary.” He finally conceded that he opposed violence on all sides.

How diplomatic. But the exclusive focus of his speech was on Israel.

Why the trip down memory lane? It was occasioned by a new story on “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Guide.” Issued by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the study doesn’t appear to move much from the viewpoint of my friend years ago.

I’m heartened to see that my skepticism is shared by the likes of the new religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith’s robust and many-sided article says the new guide “includes depictions of Zionism as a heresy at the root of the Middle East crisis.”

Smith reports also that a “major governing body” — which he identifies later as the Presbyterian Mission Agency — recommends dumping investments in three corporations that deal with Israel. As his story notes, this is the measure voted by the Presbyterian General Assembly a decade ago, then reversed at subsequent assemblies.

He says the two events have “combined to roil already-tense relations between Presbyterians and Jews,” giving local examples in the Pittsburgh area. And he quotes both sides:

The study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” while not an official church declaration, represents the work of a group created by the denomination 10 years ago. The illustrated 72-page guide, produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decries what it calls years of fruitless talk over a two-state solution, saying Israel has effectively been creating a single state with apartheid-style oppression of Palestinians. It decried Israel for “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from hundreds of communities in 1948 and said the state resulted from a “toxic relationship between theology and politics.”

Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he realizes the study guide “isn’t something that is emanating from the grassroots.” But he called it “a crash course to advocate for an end of the Jewish state.”

He said it reads “as if there were no wars waged against Israel, no campaign of terror by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah and … ignores the reality that Israelis and the American Jewish community support a two-state solution.”

The reporter says the PCUSA leadership has “distanced itself from the publication, emphasizing the decentralized nature of the denomination” — an odd claim in a church body that has long stressed its connectional nature. Smith quotes the executive director of the Mission Agency that the report is a “statement to the church rather than on its behalf.”

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