“In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love” for the Jewish people.
So assured Heath Rada, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s moderator, at their annual Assembly on Friday, June 20, 2014, moments after his church voted to divest from three companies. Their crime: selling products to Israel security forces and Jews living in Judea and Samaria.
Supporters of divestment erupted in tears when the results were read out. It had taken ten years – previous votes had come close but didn’t receive enough support to pass – but on June 20, the Church voted, by a margin of 310 to 303, to single out Israel as the one nation on earth so uniquely evil that it merited the Presbyterian Church’s special condemnation and divestment of funds.
Amid the debate about Israel, no resolution was called for to demand the teens’ safe return.
Coming weeks after Hamas terrorists abducted three Israeli teenagers – one an American citizen – it seemed a cynical double standard not to debate the reality of terror with which Israelis live on a daily basis. Amid the debate about Israel, no resolution was called for to demand the teens’ safe return. No calls were made for divestment of Arab regimes with horrendous human rights record. The delegates did not suggest using their moral weight to persuade Hamas to release the teens. They did not address political situations elsewhere in the world, nor mention human rights abuses around the globe. Their focus remained firmly, narrowly, on Israel and its alleged crimes.
The vote has split the Church. One pastor confided afterwards “when I went to prayer after the Presbyterian General Assembly voted for ‘divestment’, I almost shouted to the Lord, ‘I am NOT a Presbyterian!” After the vote, Rev. Paul deJong of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, Fl, deplored his Church’s double standard: “One must question the motives of anyone who vilifies Israel with greater fervor than any other nation, especially when we consider the numerous places in which violence is being reported continuously.”
Zionism as Evil
Others, however, cheered the results. One group that has been working towards divestment is the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The group, which features a segment called “Boycott 101” on its website, urging the boycott of various Israeli goods, issued a study guide for Presbyterian congregations earlier this year called “Zionism Unsettled”. Focusing entirely on alleged Israeli crimes and ignoring any context or history that has led to current political realities, the study guide paints Zionism as evil and irrational. It’s been criticized by Jewish groups as grossly simplistic, unfair, and one-sided. The Anti-Defamation League called “Zionism Unsettled” perhaps the “most anti-Semitic document to come out of a mainline American church in recent memory.”
Another source of rabid anti-Israel sentiment within the Assembly – and among contemporary Christian churches in general - was featured speaker Rifaat Odeh Kassis. Described in the New York Times as “a Palestinian Christian who traveled from Bethlehem to urge the Presbyterians to vote for divestment”, Kassis is much more than a simple concerned individual. He’s a founder and organizer of the Kairos Palestine Document, a widely disseminated 2009 essay that calls on Christians of all denominations around the world to repudiate the Jewish state. It’s available for sale on the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s website, where it’s described as “the Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for our time.
Terror attacks are ignored, while Israeli reactions to violent provocations are depicted as Israel’s unstoppable blood-lust.
Kassis’ influential essay states that Israel, in its present form, is “a sin against humanity”. In the black-and-white world of the Kairos document – and the Presbyterian study materials that explain it – Israel is painted entirely as a bully, an irrational force for evil that has only to be countered, never sympathized with, learned about, or understood. Arab violence and terror attacks are ignored, while Israeli reactions to violent provocations are held up as examples of an unreasonable desire for violence, an unstoppable blood-lust on the part of Jews and the Jewish state.
Jewish groups and pro-Israel delegates tried desperately to present a more balanced picture at the annual meeting. In an unprecedented show of unity and action, over 1,700 American rabbis and Jewish leaders from all 50 American states signed a letter to the Presbyterian Assembly, urging them to reject calls for divesting from Israel. “Placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace” the letter read.
One national Jewish leader even offered to broker a meeting between senior Presbyterian leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so they could discuss their concerns and present the Church’s positions, on condition that they vote against divestment. The delegates declined, and instead, after hours of passionate, emotional debate, voted to divest Church funds totaling over $20 million from three companies that sell to Israelis, Motorola, Hewlett Packard, and Caterpillar.
Sadly, the Presbyterian Church is only the latest in a string of mainline Protestant churches that have begun to boycott the Jewish state. The Mennonite, Quaker and Methodist Churches have all imposed partial divestments of companies that do business with Israel in recent years.
Their divestments and one-sided proclamations on Israel, place them on the wrong side of history. Amid the repressive regimes of the Middle East and beyond, where Christians are increasingly persecuted, where human rights are routinely violated and ignored, Israel alone represents an island of tolerance, a liberal democracy where freedom of religion means that all can worship as they choose.
Following the Presbyterian vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an invitation: “fly to the Middle East, come and see Israel for the embattled democracy that it is, and then take a bus tour. Go to Libya, go to Syria, go to Iraq, and see the difference…. I would give them two pieces of advice: one is make sure it’s an armor-plated bus, and second, don’t say that you’re a Christian.”