There are seven overtures and two agency recommendations coming to the Detroit assembly that all seek to convey criticism of Israel’s human rights record, by harsh words or by BDS economic pressure. On the other side, there is only one overture casting doubt upon this confrontational strategy. Regarding the rest of the world, there are so far only three items of business that raise concerns about human rights violations by actors other than Israel or the United States.
Like the drive to convey the church’s blessing upon same-sex marriage, the campaign to bring the church’s condemnation upon Israel will be back at this year’s Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. Both causes suffered narrow defeats at the 2012 assembly, but their proponents are returning with fresh determination.
Since 2004 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been second only to sexuality issues in generating controversy at PCUSA assemblies. And judging by the volume and ferocity of the overtures advanced this year, the intensity of the anti-Israel activists will again almost match that of the same-sex marriage champions.
The objective of those activists has been to enlist the PCUSA in the international movement to target Israel for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS). The 2012 General Assembly urged Presbyterians to boycott products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank; however, it turned down a proposal to divest PCUSA holdings in three companies that sell non-lethal equipment to the Israeli military. By a 333-331 vote, the assembly commissioners preferred a resolution that emphasized “active investment” in Palestinian development projects.
A groundswell against Israel?
Nevertheless, the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) is coming forward again this year with another proposal to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. This MRTI proposal will likely be the focus of debate at the Detroit assembly. But there will also be at least eight other resolutions and overtures aimed against Israel.
These measures will create the impression of a popular groundswell of Presbyterians demanding that their denomination rebuke the Jewish state. In fact, however, the overtures come from a handful of presbyteries that have a record of pro-Palestinian advocacy. PCUSA members in general are more moderate, and more divided, on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
In a 2009 Presbyterian Panel survey, PCUSA members chose “addressing extremism and the threat of violence” and “freedom of worship” as their highest priorities in the Middle East. “Limiting the influence and military capacity of the Iranian government” was endorsed by 64 percent. Some 40 percent said it was “very important” to “maintain the close diplomatic and military relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments” and “maintain positive relationships between Presbyterians and members of the U.S. Jewish community.” Only 36 percent favored “permanent Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
But the bulk of this year’s Middle East initiatives aim to impel such a withdrawal through economic and other pressures. Several overtures lend direct support to MRTI’s divestment drive. Frequently, they speak in sharper tones than the denominational committee.
Backing the divestment drive
Item 04-02, from San Francisco Presbytery, denounces the three companies for “contributing to and profiting from the relentless, five decade long, military occupation of the Palestinian territories.” It alleges that “the occupation of Palestine … destroys lives and cultures.” The overture would address this problem by mandating PCUSA divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.
Item 04-06, from Mackinac Presbytery in Michigan, seeks “occupation-free investment in Palestine.” Like the item from San Francisco, the Mackinac overture does not define the “Palestine” whose occupation must end – whether it is limited to the West Bank and Gaza, or whether it includes the territory that is now Israel. The overture affirms both “active investment” and “long-standing denominational procedures of corporate engagement with companies that contribute to or benefit financially from the work of occupation.”
Mackinac maintains, “To the extent that such procedures of corporate engagement do not produce satisfactory results, we affirm the denomination’s commitment to pursue prudent steps to withdraw any funding currently invested in such companies.” Unlike Item 04-02, the overture does not name companies targeted for divestment.
Item 04-07, from the Synod of the Covenant, takes the simplest approach. It asks the Detroit assembly to approve the MRTI recommendation. Divesting from the three companies would “preserve the integrity of the church’s witness for a just peace,” according to the synod.
Item 04-05, from New Brunswick Presbytery in New Jersey, singles out one of the MRTI-targeted corporations. It also turns to a different means of economic pressure. The overture “call[s] for the boycott of all products manufactured and sold by Hewlett-Packard until the company ceases to profit from all non-peaceful pursuits in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
Escalating the rhetoric against Israeli ‘apartheid’
Item 04-03, from Grace Presbytery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, would escalate PCUSA rhetoric against Israel. The overture asks the General Assembly to “[r]espect the human rights of the Israeli people and oppose all forms of anti-Semitism, and deplore the violation of the human rights of the Palestinians by the government of Israel.” It then lists seven types of Israeli abuses against Palestinians, and also condemns “Israeli violence against its neighboring countries.” There is no concern expressed about violence against Israel by Palestinian and other Arab governments and movements.
The Grace overture would deliver a General Assembly verdict “that the actions of the Israeli government listed above meet and surpass the United Nations definition of apartheid.” The implications of this analogy to white-ruled South Africa are clear: The Jewish state is fundamentally illegitimate, and it needs to disappear as did the white minority government in Pretoria.
The overture has an extraordinarily long rationale – 10 pages – that presents accusations against Israel in great detail. It boasts, “This rationale will demonstrate that in addition to apartheid, Israel’s policies and practices include additional elements of crimes against humanity.”
Charging a government with “crimes against humanity” usually suggests that top officials, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should face criminal prosecution in the International Court of Justice. The overture brings no such charge of “crimes against humanity” against any other Middle Eastern government – not even Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that drops indiscriminate “barrel bombs” and starves rebel-held areas in the civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives.
Grace Presbytery takes pains to insist that “[t]his overture is not anti-Israel” and “[t]his overture is not anti-Semitic.” On the contrary, it contends, “This overture is part of an honest interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians.” Some Jews (and some Presbyterians) might disagree about the honesty of an endeavor that finds fault only with Israel.