Something Wonderful Happened
I’ve just returned from Minneapolis, having attended the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA at the invitation of the denomination’s Israel Palestine Mission Network. The PC(USA) is at the epicenter of the struggle of the Christian community in the U.S. to come to terms with the challenge of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A victory had already been achieved before the start of the Assembly. Overtures from presbyteries from around the country urging action on justice for Palestinians would amount to over 40% of the actions considered by the Assembly. These included revisiting the 2004 decision to undertake phased divestment from companies implicated in the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and an overture affirming that Israel’s actions meet the United Nations definition for the crime of Apartheid. A centerpiece of Presbyterian actions was the call to approve the report of the Middle East Study Committee. The MESC, commissioned by the 2008 General Assembly, had produced a 170 page report entitled “Breaking Down the Walls.” The report documents the committee’s first-hand observation of the Israeli occupation’s impact on Palestinian society and includes specific recommendations, including urging the U.S. government to make military aid to Israel contingent on ending the occupation.
Predictably, the forces of opposition had gathered. As early as February of this year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center attacked the report, calling it a “poisonous document by the Presbyterian Church [that] will be nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel.” This broadside by the Los Angeles-based Jewish advocacy group went on to declare that the report “shakes the foundations of interfaith relations.” This is the tack that has been taken for years by the mainstream Jewish community – both secular organizations like Wiesenthal as well as the religious denominations — claiming that any questions about Israel’s policies or the Zionist project itself partakes of anti-Semitism. The charge of anti-Semitism and the prospect of a disruption in the “interfaith partnership” has been effective in stifling the discourse and in thwarting actions directed at Israel’s policies. Implicit and sometime explicit in these statements is the threat that such “unfriendly” behavior by Christians will result in the removal of Jewish friendship. This strategy has intensified in recent years in response to efforts by church denominations to take a principled stand on the Israel-Palestine issue. Most recently, the biweekly Christian Century published an article by Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine, professors at Vanderbilt Seminary. Appearing the week preceding the PC(USA) General Assembly, the article, entitled “Habits of Anti-Judaism,” strongly critiqued the MESC report. In the opening to a letter to the Christian Century I wrote the following:
“The intent of the Presbyterian Middle East Study Committee Report “Breaking Down the Walls” is clear: “to break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.” But in their critique of the report published in your June 29 issue, Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Seminary strike at the heart of this message. They ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.” In a shocking distortion of the Study Group’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that “’Breaking down the walls’ in order to form ‘one new humanity in the place of two’ evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.” “Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying anti-Semitism whenever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the State of Israel are questioned that we must urgently confront.” (Full text of the letter.)
The aim of the article was clear – to strengthen the hand of those who wanted to prevent passage of the report. And why not? This is a time-honored approach — it has always worked. I feared that it would prove just as effective in this case. I arrived in Minneapolis convinced that, except for the efforts of a courageous but small and embattled minority within the denomination, the natural commitment to social justice and support for the oppressed on the part of most Presbyterians would again be trumped by concern for preserving the relationship with the Jewish community. I was betting that the tactics of the Wiesenthal Center and the arguments of Smith and Levine would serve, as they always have, to muzzle the conversation and block actions that might offend Jewish sensibilities or be perceived as hostile to the Jewish state.
A thing of beauty
I was wrong. Yes, the concerns about the feelings of Jews when Israel is “attacked” are still there, and they exert a powerful pull on Presbyterians’ decisions. But something wonderful happened last week in Minneapolis.
I watched as the committee charged with studying “Breaking Down the Walls,” and recommending action to the GA debated the matter. I listened to the arguments for and against approval of the report. Those in favor passionately talked about the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation. Those against spoke just as passionately about the report’s seeming “anti-Israel” bias, claiming that to approve the report would be to cut off dialogue with the Jewish community. I noted what seemed like a universe of disagreement between the two positions. I despaired that anyone who, unlike the study group itself, had not seen the occupation with his or her own eyes would understand that the report was not biased – that it was simply telling the truth and recommending that the church respond accordingly.
But something happened. The committee clearly wanted to find a way to have the report adopted. A group from the committee stayed up all night to craft a number of changes. Problems with perceived bias against Israel were fixed. The obligatory language about Israel’s right to exist was inserted. None of these changes touched the faithful witness and prophetic heart of the report. While strongly asserting the church’s commitment to Israel’s security and wellbeing, the Study Committee’s report as presented to the General Assembly clearly presents the narrative of Palestinian dispossession and suffering. It asserts that Israel’s actions, illegal and in violation of international law, are an “enduring threat to peace in the region.” It receives the Palestinian Kairos document, a courageous and heartfelt call of Palestinian Christians “from the heart of Palestinian suffering” to the churches of the world, and recommends it for study by Presbyterians. It calls on the U.S. government to end aid to Israel unless the country stops settlement expansion in Palestinian territories.
The report came before the 730+ commissioners on Friday July 9 and was approved by a vote of 82%. When the results were displayed on the screen, the assembled broke into applause – which is against the rules but in this case the moderator, smiling, allowed the spontaneous outburst to go on! The applause, breaking through these restraints, meant one thing: this is where the denomination wants to go. Then something else unusual happened – the Moderator, Cindy Bolbach, offered a prayer, thanking God for guiding the assembled to this act, for breaking down the walls dividing people and standing in the way of peace. The thousands of people in the hall bowed their heads in reverence. They knew that something important had happened.
It is not always clear from down on the floor, in the thick of things. But looking back, I see that the PC(USA) General Assembly is a thing of beauty. This church is committed to tearing down walls. Watching the plenary, one witnessed a courageous and heartfelt struggle with things that matter: gay and lesbian ordination and honoring of marriages; benefits for civil union partners; how to respond to state laws that violate the rights of immigrants. With respect to the Israel-Palestine question, the struggle will continue. Other overtures did not fare as well as the MESC report. Even though overtures to divest denomination pension funds — close to 10 million dollars — from Caterpillar (the company manufactures the bulldozers that destroy Palestinian homes and build the separation wall) have been proposed at every General Assembly since 2004 (actually it passed in 2004 and then withdrawn in the face of a juggernaut of institutional Jewish pressure, but that’s another story), the overture failed. In addition, Presbyterians could not bring themselves to approve the overture naming Israel’s policies as Apartheid.
But here is the thing: it is clear to me that all but a small minority of the 36 who voted against that overture in committee (the vote was 16-36) agree that Israel’s actions meet the UN definition of the crime of Apartheid. What drove the vote was not the substance of the overture but rather the belief, as stated in a comment on the vote inserted by the committee, “that dialogue is hampered by words like ‘apartheid.’” It was also clear to me in listening to the debate that, despite the stubborn unwillingness to move to divestment, all but a fringe within the denomination agree that Caterpillar is building machines that illegally and criminally destroy Palestinian life and that the denomination must pressure the company to stop (the Assembly did pass an overture that “denounces” the corporation). The issues are not in question. What is in question for a steadily decreasing percentage — again, this is clear if you are paying attention — is the proper method for action.
To the Presbyterians: learning to love us
Sixty five years ago, Christians, confronted with the horror of the Nazi genocide, began a painful, faithful process of reconciling with the Jewish people. Presbyterians today didn’t choose to be in the difficult position of having to choose between their commitment to justice and preserving their hard-won friendship with the Jews. But the hard fact is that there has been no getting around this conflict. It has come about because of the policies of the State of Israel and the choice, so far, of the American Jewish establishment to adopt a bullying, defensive stance in response to Christian efforts to address the injustice. Under these challenging conditions, you have had to struggle to learn how to love us well and rightly. And that you are doing. The more you call us to account for our sins and challenge us to be true to the values of our tradition, the more you show your commitment to our friendship. The spirit and the specifics of the MESC report are fully in line with Jewish aspirations and beliefs. More than that – in its powerful plea to break down the walls, it takes my people where we urgently need to go today – to tear down the walls – both psychological and physical – that we have erected between ourselves and the people with whom we share a land and a common history. For thousands of years, our survival as Jews depended on building walls. Now it depends on tearing them down.
In commissioning and producing this precious and faithful document of “Breaking Down the Walls” you have demonstrated your love for us. It is love in the deepest, truest sense – love as Jesus and Paul teach us to love – love the way Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah taught us when they spoke truth to power and reminded us of our responsibility to our fellow creatures and to the earth itself. In going back into the fray, year after year, to consider divestment from the companies that are participating in our sin, and to call us to account for building an apartheid state in full view of the world, you are loving us well. This year, the arguments marshaled against these faithful actions of the denomination, calling them biased and unbalanced, claiming that they will disrupt your “partnership” with us, simply sounded tired.
Minneapolis is the beginning of the end of all that.
Coming: General Assembly, Part 2 – The Jewish response.