Will a Shrinking Protestant Church Obsess Against Israel, Again?
You’d think that with the church experiencing this degree of decline, its leaders would be wary of taking any actions that could further damage the denomination’s reputation. So why are they catering to a group of unreasonable anti-Israel zealots whose views are completely out of sync with those of Presbyterians in the pews — most of whom, just like the vast majority of Americans, support Israel?
The answer has a lot to do with the PCUSA’s organizational structure, and the way in which decisions are made at the national level at its biennial General Assembly (GA).
The structure for decision-making at the GA virtually ensures that a few presbyteries and synods — along with a small group of virulently anti-Israel activists, working through the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) — are able to dominate the Middle East-related agenda there. At the GA, they collude to field proposals targeting Israel for condemnation, and to advance the goals of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.
At the upcoming 223rd GA, which will be held from June 16-23 in St. Louis, voting commissioners will be considering no fewer than eight Israel-related resolutions. By contrast, they’ll be debating only one overture “responding to the current Syrian crisis.”
The IPMN has produced a printer-friendly “voter guide,” which recommends that GA delegates vote “yes” to a resolution opposed to anti-BDS legislation at the Federal and state levels, and encourages them to support another overture urging the real estate company RE/MAX LLC to stop “selling Jewish-only housing” in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, referring to Jewish neighborhoods there as “colonies.”
It also wants the GA to endorse a letter — penned last year by a group of vehemently anti-Israel Palestinian NGOs — that backs BDS, defines Israel as a colonial, apartheid state, and deems the Balfour Declaration “unjust and unlawful.”
Tellingly, the one Israel-related overture in the bunch that IPMN opposes calls for protecting both Israeli and Palestinian children from harm. IPMN apparently doesn’t like it because it’s too “balanced.”
Founded in 2004 with a mandate from the 216th General Assembly, the IPMN describes itself as committed to “advocate for Palestinian human rights and to deepen the involvement of Presbyterians with their struggle…and change the conditions that erode the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians…”
These are lofty-sounding principles and goals. But in reality, this group has a long history of “broadcasting anti-Zionist and in some instances antisemitic propaganda.”
One of its so-called “peace” activists, IPMN communications chair Noushin Framke, declared that Israeli soldiers “are not human beings.” Framke also reportedly also once said that Hamas should keep Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit until “Palestinians are granted a right of return.”
Nor is Framke the only anti-semite connected to the IPMN.
Back in 2012, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) issued a press release condemning it for a Facebook post featuring a cartoon of President Obama wearing Star of David earrings — to suggest Jewish control of American leaders. Dozens of other social media postings that display anti-Jewish hostility on the part of IPMN members are documented in a 2014 report compiled by the watchdog group NGO Monitor.
The IPMN presents various curriculum, online resources, and study guides for PCUSA members, and conducts highly biased tours to the West Bank, which present a convoluted perspective of the conflict’s history and current contours.
Several years ago it produced a widely discredited 72-page “education resource” and accompanying DVD, Zionism Unsettled: a Congregational Guide, which views Zionism as an “oppressive, imperious, and exploitative” ideology. Its postscript characterizes the movement for Jewish self-determination as a “false theology” and a “struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege.”
At the GA in St. Louis, IPMN is planning to promote (and give out free copies) of its latest publication, Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism, a collection of chapters most of which are authored by people who aren’t Presbyterians. Former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign Cary Nelson describes this new IPMN study guide as “Church-sponsored demonization of the Jewish state that is propelled by insinuation more than responsible argument.”
IPMN activists have turned the GAs into forum for a Palestinian solidarity politics that is actually anti-peace. Their agenda demonizes Israel, while also effectively crowding out other critical issues, like radical Islamist anti-Christian hostility, the genocidal persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East, and even the harm and abuse of Palestinians meted out by their own governments in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is presented as a racist, oppressive state and the greatest source of suffering in the region — despite the fact that the Christian community in Israel is thriving.
Like at previous GAs, in St. Louis, another church sub-group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP), will valiantly labor against difficult odds to challenge IPMN’s outlandish claim that BDS is based on Christian values.
PFMEP doesn’t do any of the kind of fancy marketing that IPMN typically rolls out to persuade GA delegates. But what it lacks in snazzy PR, it makes up for in sheer dedication to the truth and commitment to the survival of its beloved church.
PFMEP is a “moderate organization” that refuses to demonize either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and supports grassroots Jewish-Arab coexistence efforts and a two-state-for-two-peoples solution. Back in 2012, it actively worked with the JCPA to successfully vote down a church divestment resolution.
In recent weeks PFMEP has been busy sending newsletters to presbyteries and to voting commissioners that condemn the anti-Israel overtures slated for consideration in St. Louis. They emphasize the legitimacy of Zionism, recognize Jews as indigenous to the Land of Israel, and berate the resolutions which, if passed, would squander precious church resources on fruitless endeavors and leave other mission initiatives “unfunded or underfunded.”
These powerful statements are grounded in the Presbyterian faith and its tradition of Christian peacemaking to effectively challenge IPMN’s central claims. For example, one newsletter notes that neither Jesus nor David or Mary were “colonialists”: “…for Presbyterians, the Bible matters. One cannot read the Bible and declare Israel to be a ‘colonial project.’”
PFMEP’s compelling pushback may just work to generate sufficient opposition to the anti-Zionist agenda at the 223rd GA. If so, this will serve as an important lesson: arenas that have long been hijacked and corrupted by horrible BDS hate campaigns can be turned around — and eventually even reclaimed.
Note: An earlier, separate version of this article was featured in Legal Insurrection on June 3, 2018. To access it, click here.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University where she holds the title of Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @MiriamElman.