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August 5, 2012 8:20 pm

What Really Happened With the Presbyterian Church (USA) BDS Motion?

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Presbyterian Church Assembly. Photo: Screenshot.

To understand what really happened at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) when the members voted on an anti-Israel, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions motion, it is necessary to take a look beyond the headlines.

At its 2012 GA,  the PC-USA resolved to promote positive investment in the Middle East. The Church membership voted decidedly in favor of The Positive Investment resolution, passing it by a solid margin, 369-290,  thus promising financial support for projects that include collaboration among Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Church voted to foster and help develop viable Palestinian infrastructure projects, for job creation and to encourage economic development.

As the voting phase of the convocation began, what was reported in much of the media was that an anti-Israel divestment resolution was defeated – albeit by a thin margin.  The 333-331 vote was headlined by many media outlets.  What many didn’t explain, however, was that this was not a vote on “BDS” – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – action, but rather concerned a procedural matter.

In an exclusive conversation with Reverend William Harter, a Pennsylvania pastor with life-long involvement in the Presbyterian Church USA, this reporter was told that the first time the plenary had the opportunity, it defeated divestment. While the initial vote was close, subsequent attempts to pass pro-divestment motions failed by increasingly wider margins. Harter, a recognized expert on the Middle East, said the widely reported “close vote” at the Presbyterian General Assembly “does not tell the complete story. Those interpreting the vote as being ‘razor thin’ are not fully attuned to typical Presbyterian parliamentary process.”  He stressed that “the initial vote was on a procedural motion presenting a minority report from the Middle East Committee as a substitute motion.  There are numerous reasons why people vote against procedural substitute motions that are not necessarily grounded in their position on the issue.”

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Once the motion substituting positive investment for divestment was approved, a full debate took place. With each subsequent ballot, a more significant margin of approval of the positive investment motion was revealed. The decisive vote, specifically, on a motion to support positive investment, followed and was adopted by a significant majority (369 to 290).

The rejection of divestment, said Harder, also scrapped the recommendation contained in the so- called Kairos Document which had called for broad approval of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) action against Israel. Attempts to attach pro-divestment amendments also failed. “It was clear that the general assembly desired to affirm invest and reject divest.  The margin was significantly greater than that reflected in the initial procedural vote,” declared Harter. He noted that the vote was “the culmination of a 10 year process which ultimately rejected divestment and affirmed investment as the direction the Presbyterian Church USA…The general press treatment of this issue has not fully grasped the weight and direction of the Presbyterian action.”

The Church’s Executive Council and its Coordinator of Social Witness Policy, however, remain in favor of divestment and are adamantly opposed to “positive investment.” They called Israel an apartheid state and had anti-Zionist, pro-BDS Jews speak to the GA’s Middle East committee. The counter weight, said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), was that “there were also several major Presbyteries, seminary presidents, former national moderators and other key leaders who opposed divestment. One group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, successfully advocated for a balanced approach that was clearly more in keeping with the mind-set of Presbyterians.”

Felson said that a reading of the report promulgated by the PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) “reveals that it relied on resolutions filed by radical groups better known for harassing corporations than engaging them” in developing its BDS motion on Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. “Companies are companies,” he says.  “Their jobs are making money, not playing politics — and they get attacked so often, it’s just noise to them.”

In an exclusive conversation, Felson discussed the significant difference between the people in the pews and those speaking to the people sitting there.  Asked whether the anti-Israel, pro-divestment efforts signify a rise in anti-Semitism in the Presbyterian Church-USA, he suggested that “to the extent that we observe (anti-Semitism) it is often explained away as ‘other things.’  One of the most damaging things is how important it has been for anti-Zionist Presbyterians to align with anti-Zionist Jews who assure them that their positions are not anti-Semitic.”

Given the depth of the pro BDS positions of many in the Presbyterian hierarchy, Felson was asked  how the GA vote was successfully turned to support of the “positive investment” referendum.  “The only way we were able to be successful in the Presbyterian community is by having anyone – everyone – in the Jewish community, from Peace Now to Stand With Us – all the segments – work together.  We need a big tent to do the work we need to do.  The difficult conversation on “Boycott” is helping identify people pushing for Boycott.  These are people who do not support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.  For that group, a boycott is an incremental step in the Durban de-legitimization strategy.”

Asked how Christians in Arab countries, knowing of Israel’s singular tolerance and religious freedom, “balance their equations,” Felson said “their position is very complicated. Some American denominations, including the Episcopal Church which has congregations in the Middle East, have rejected divestment.  Many Christians in Arab and Muslim countries (Turkey, Egypt, Syria, etc.) request that their co-religionists remain silent – the opposite of what is often heard from Palestinian Christians – whose numbers in the West Bank – under Israeli jurisdiction – are actually increasing.  The former group is pleading with the western churches to ‘stay out of it.'”

Felson considers the next major challenge to be helping members of the “liberal” Christian churches understand that there are legitimate security needs that Israel has and that must be considered – just as the aspirations of the Palestinians must be respected. “This is not  a conflict that lends itself to a 0-sum solution.  Any resolution formula of a single loser means that conflict continues.” Following a recent trip to Israel and “extensive conversations with Christian leaders,” Felson says there are dire concerns on both sides, coupled with “some wonderful messages of hope. We must build a future for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, while always working towards enhancing the security of Israel as a Jewish State. Peacemaking requires a path that is faithful to all who seek peace.”

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  • DaMav

    A most interesting article. It seems the Church narrowly avoided being hijacked by its own bureaucracy, i.e. “The Church’s Executive Council and its Coordinator of Social Witness Policy”.

    The next step should be an organized effort to remove these radicals who do not represent most “Presbyterians in the pew” from office before they succeed in spreading their anti-Jewish poison in the next close procedural vote.

  • DaMav

    A most interesting article. It seems the Church narrowly avoided being hijacked by its own bureaucracy, i.e. “The Church’s Executive Council and its Coordinator of Social Witness Policy”.

    The next step should be an organized effort to remove these radicals who do not represent most “Presbyterians in the pew” from office before they succeed in spreading their anti-Jewish poison in the next close procedural vote.

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