The Presbyterian church USA is about to reconsider its divestment initiative. Will Spotts visited the Middle East and wrote the report below. Previously, Spotts published a detailed and enlightened account of how the Presbyterian Church was led, or rather misled into supporting divestment - PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: THE PRESBYTERIAN DIVESTMENT STORY
. His main findings:
- The General Assembly heard one-sided testimony from those who supported the divestment decision and excluded other relevant voices. Two non-Presbyterians communicated with the assembly, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, and Rt. Rev. Riah Abu el-Assal. The views of Israeli settlers, Israeli Christians, Israelis who opposed divestment, and American Jewish groups who opposed divestment were not considered.
- The General Assembly relied on flawed sources of historical background information. Walter Owensby’s U.S. Policy and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Joel Beinin’s and Lisa Hajjar’s
Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: a Primer were the two main sources used. Both display elements of one-sidedness, biased language, and disputed factual assertions.
- The General Assembly depended uncritically on the testimonies of Palestinian Christian leaders. Those same Palestinian Christian leaders have made public statements that raise clear questions of credibility.
- Several offices and permanent committees of the PC(USA) have demonstrated severe and long-standing bias against Israel. These include the Presbyterian News Service, the Washington Office, and the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy.
- Over-cooperation between the employees of the PC(USA) and the employees of other denominations affected Presbyterian policy in violation of the Presbyterian form of government.
- The General Assembly employed several quirky and potentially dangerous theological ideas to justify Middle East policy statements. Among these are elements of replacement theology and the use of explicitly Christian imagery to demonize Israelis.
- The General Assembly apparently did not consider potential damage to Christian Jewish relations, the danger of contributing to the increase American anti-Semitism, and the danger of encouraging further violence in the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, the picture that emerges is that organization was maneuvered into supporting divestment by activists who staged a show complete with props. For example, Beinin and Hajjar's "primer" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a contemptible document written with the deliberate intention of disinformation. It is one of those "histories" that "forgets" to mention that Arab countries invaded Israel in 1948.
Can we hope for a fairer result this time around? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The outcome will not reflect "truth" or "justice," but rather it will measure how well organized supporters of Israel are in rallying to combat anti-Zionism.
Divestment: Before We Hear It
Will Spotts, May 31, 2006
The book of Proverbs informs us that it is a folly and a shame to answer a matter before we hear it. This is certainly true of individuals; it is also true of churches. I am persuaded the 216th General Assembly of the PC(USA) answered Middle East policy questions before it heard all the relevant information. I fear that commissioners to the 217th General Assembly are being encouraged to do the same thing. Whenever “trusting the work of committees” (such as the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy) or the work of groups (such as the General Assembly Council) is cast as a virtue, commissioners are tempted to delegate the hearing of a matter to others while answering it with policy decisions. An even worse possibility emerges when commissioners are given incomplete information – in that case they will falsely believe they are armed with the facts, having heard the whole story.
The offices, committees, and partners of the PC(USA) have cobbled together a narrative of the situation in the Middle East that focuses mainly on Israelis and Palestinians. This narrative is compelling; it is emotive; it smacks of compassion and a desire for justice; it incorporates the views of some residents of the area; it gives every the appearance of being researched. The PC(USA) has done its utmost to popularize this chosen narrative and has taken action upon its basis.
Last week I was in Israel and the Palestinian territories; I went there to see and hear the situation for myself, and to listen to the perspectives of as many people as possible. Every person with whom I met was extraordinarily gracious. Most presented their views passionately and eloquently. I have no delusion that I have grasped even a tithe of the situation as it truly is, but I came away understanding that the Presbyterian narrative we have received is highly flawed. Let me clearly say I am convinced that majority of those who are advancing this Presbyterian narrative have good motives, but, acting in good faith, they have still overlooked many things. This narrative suffers from extensive gaps – not small details, but important pieces of information that might considerably alter our perceptions of the situation.
I have been very critical of the PC(USA)’s actions, some of its statements that are being heard as anti-Semitic (regardless of intent), and its lack of fundamental fairness. I still believe this assessment to be accurate; however, I must clarify that significant portions of the Presbyterian narrative do, in fact, represent legitimate concerns. My struggle is this: I earnestly want to keep faith with those who have advanced legitimate concerns, while at the same time keeping faith with the competing legitimate concerns of others.
There are four aspects of the Presbyterian narrative that I find problematic. First, it ignores the overwhelming complexity of the situation. Second, a number of important viewpoints are glaringly absent – apparently not taken into consideration. Third, only scant emphasis has been placed on positive action. And fourth, almost no consideration has been given to the harm a divestment movement will cause.
The single thing that struck me most powerfully was the extraordinary complexity of the situation. Everything was complicated. Take, for example, the security barrier. The vast majority of it is a fence – literally. It is not electrified; people will not be electrocuted when they touch it. Its route is changeable – the Israeli Supreme Court has required this. In Bethlehem, in particular, however, it is a wall – a large, intimidating, concrete wall. Somehow I managed to cut myself on razor wire while there. Residents are required to go through checkpoints that are both an inconvenience and a humiliation; on a good day they may be able to pass these fairly quickly; other times they face long waits. To be honest, if I lived in Bethlehem and had the resources to move, I would probably do so. On the other hand, this barrier has dramatically reduced the incidence of terrorist attacks. If inconvenience and humiliation saves lives . . . it is less egregious. All four major terrorist attacks in Haifa, for instance, were perpetrated by residents of the West Bank – if the barrier had existed earlier, many people who were murdered would still be alive today. There is a similar wall between Israel and Gaza. The Israeli government has gone to great lengths to facilitate the movement of people needing medical care and the flow of goods in and out of Gaza. This humanitarian task is made more difficult by the firing of Qassam rockets and the activities of would be suicide bombers and snipers. The government of Israel has a moral imperative to protect its citizens from bombings and shootings; many of its actions look to the Palestinians an awful lot like collective punishment. Who’s right? Or does the truth contain elements of both? The government of Israel is committed to moving toward a two state solution with or without a Palestinian partner. This is what we claim to want, but will it benefit innocent Palestinians? Every major issue of contention is equally complicated, but this complexity is not reflected in the Presbyterian narrative. Instead, the state of Israel is portrayed solely as an aggressive human rights violator.
The current Presbyterian narrative laudably includes the stories of many Palestinians. Whether by design or accident, however, this same narrative ignores a wide variety of other viewpoints. Exclusivity of opinion is significant because it dramatically colors the perspective informing Presbyterian actions. Absent are the testimonies of the families of victims and the survivors of terrorist attacks. Yes, the Presbyterian Church (USA) does condemn terrorism, but this statement without hearing from affected people is a theoretical condemnation only. Excluded are stories like that of Yossi Mendelevich whose thirteen year old son, Yuval, was murdered on his way home from school in a bus bombing in Haifa. (An account of this can be read at http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/comment/0,10551,1097737,00.html) Excluded is the story of vascular surgeon, Dr. Shmuel Yurfost, who, among other things operated on wounded terrorists. He was blinded in an explosion at a mall. (His story can be read at http://www.clalit.org.il/haemek/Content/Content.asp?CID=75&u=205) Excluded is the story of Abigail Leitel, a fourteen year old American killed by Mahmoud Hamdan Kwasma on the same bus as Yuval. Kwasma’s mother reportedly said she was proud of his deed.
Another perspective notoriously absent from the Presbyterian narrative is that of the large number of Palestinian Christians not represented by our partners in the region. I visited a Baptist church in Bethlehem that had been firebombed fourteen times; several members had been murdered by other Palestinians. I also spoke with a man whose name I do not know (and would not reveal if I did). He converted from Islam to Christianity and was subsequently kidnapped, jailed and tortured by the Palestinian Authority. This treatment is not uncommon as conversion FROM Islam is illegal under Sharia law, and in many countries in the region. He was liberated by the IDF, currently resides in Israel, and has been separated from his family for several years. Hamas has announced plans to institute the jizya in areas under its control. Christians are the losers in property disputes in the Palestinian Authority. (For more information on the situation of Christians in the Palestinian territories, please see Justus Reid Weiner’s work, “Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society”. http://www.jcpa.org/text/Christian-Persecution-Weiner.pdf)
The third issue I have noticed with the Presbyterian narrative (in all of our official statements, papers from national offices, action alerts, PNS news articles) is the fact that very little emphasis is placed on positive action. Action is almost universally cast as methods of punishing Israel (or exerting pressure on Israel), as methods of stopping US funding of Israel, as methods of stopping US support of Israel, as methods of convincing Christians to oppose Israel, as methods to combat Christian Zionism. I have seen virtually no workable suggestions of ways that Presbyterians can actually help Palestinians or Israelis. If Presbyterians are interested, several such opportunities do exist . . . all that is required is a change in our approach. I heard from a group of Arab and Jewish businessmen in Jerusalem. They strongly disagree on politics, but they are working together to try to create a win-win economic situation. I realize that few Presbyterians are inclined to view business relationships as something that creates peace, but there is potential for understanding and compromise wherever people work together. I also had the privilege of visiting the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Center in Haifa (for more information on Beit Hagefen see http://www.icci.co.il/beithagefen.htm); founded in 1963, it works toward democracy and coexistence between Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze. Haifa itself is a model community in that regard.
A final issue skirted by the Presbyterian narrative is this: what are the actual effects that divestment will have? If it were solely a Presbyterian action, following our established policies, its economic impact would be minimal, and it would not be a major issue. However, our divestment initiative was intended rhetorically: to make a statement. This statement by itself unduly criticizes one side and lacks fundamental fairness. But even if one agreed with the interpretation supplied by our narrative, one is left with a potentially unintended result. The Presbyterian example is being followed by others – an occurrence I believe intended by the initiative – their divestment programs will not be as limited as ours. Rightly or wrongly, our narrative encouraged divestment out of concern for the conditions under which Palestinians live. If a general divestment were to occur, we would be no closer to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and those very Palestinians we claim we want to help would be the ones most harmed economically by our actions.
I am convinced as a matter of conscience that this issue demands a full and fair hearing at the upcoming General Assembly. Any attempts to bypass that hearing – to shuffle the responsibility off to others; to “trust the work of committees” while following their policy advice; in short, to answer the matter once again without hearing it – will amount to a gross moral failure. For Presbyterians in the pews to content themselves with such a result will also amount to a moral failure. Instead, let us listen to all the information, all the views available to us; let us refrain from demonization, de-legitimization, and double-standards; let us offer something positive if we are able; and let us at the very least do nothing that would cause more harm.
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