Presbyterians Bearing False Witness

Last October, American soldiers serving in Iraq stripped the dead body of a young man, tied it to the back of a humvee, and dragged it through the city. 

No such incident ever happened, of course.  To publish such a story would be to slander America's men and women in uniform, and we would be right to entertain questions about the motivations and prejudices of a person who would not only accept but repeat such a story. 

The story, however, is of a familiar type.  Stories casting enemy soldiers as inhumane monsters capable not only of desecrating a dead body, but of the 'indiscriminate shooting of children and adults' are probably as old as war.

Atrocities do occur in wartime, of course, but responsible people are very careful about circulating unverified atrocity stories.  Which is why it is troubling to read the atrocity stories circulated recently by a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Arthur Suggs of the Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott.

(The Israelis) 'stripped the dead (Palestinian) body and dragged it completely around the city behind the jeep.'

(Israeli soldiers) 'tend to arrive around 11 p.m. and randomly break into homes yelling and trashing, all with machine guns pointed in the faces of the family.'

(The Israeli) 'level of spousal and child abuse is one of the highest in the world.'

'Palestinians, because they are so walled off from the rest of society, they are literally beginning to exhibit more birth defects because people are marrying closer in the families.'* 

These are classic canards, patently untrue statements invented to demonize members of the hated group, in this case, Israeli Jews.

All four false stories, along with a remarkable amount of anti—Israel rhetoric and misinformation, appeared in a letter written by Rev. Arthur Suggs and published on his son's web page while Rev. Suggs was on a tour of the Holy Land organized by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.  While I acknowledge that it is possible that Rev. Suggs is the author of these canards, it seems more likely that he was repeating the things he heard from others. The PCUSA—arranged tour traveled primarily in Palestinian Authority controlled areas and listened to speakers who oppose the Jewish State.

This was as acceptable to the participants as it was to the members of the national staff who made the arrangements.  Rev. Suggs' letters reveal his dislike of  

'Israeli soldiers (every blasted one of them armed to the teeth, AK—47 and side arm and baton).' 

He sought out Arabs, informing them that 'I'm an American studying the occupation of Palestine.' When invited  to

'sit down on these persian carpets... and talk politics... I was in heaven. I was talking only with muslims.'   (, two entries for May 6, 2006)

But this is not a matter of a single Presbyterian minister exercising poor judgment.  Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, has not, as Rev. Suggs did, circulated atrocity stories tied to particular alleged incidents.  Rev. Kirkpatrick has, however, freely and repeatedly used language portraying Israelis as immoral monsters, accusing Israel of  'indiscriminate shooting of children and adults on the streets,' 'merciless attacks,' 'violent madness,' inflicting 'terror,' 'invasion of hospitals,' 'rocket attacks on apartment buildings containing innocent civilians,'  and  'brutal attacks on Palestinian police and civilians, including women, men and children inhabitants of refugee camps.'

That the leader of the Presbyterian Church USA would use, in describing Israelis, the kind of language that angry, intemperate people use of enemies in time of war is shocking.  It can, perhaps, be partially explained by understanding that for many years influential members of the church hierarchy have viewed the Middle East through the eyes of Arabs opposed to the existence of the state of Israel.  As PCUSA missionary and missionary—in—residence at Louisville Marthame Sanders put it, as regards the Middle East "balanced is absolutely not the right approach." 

I am unaware of an instance in which an Israeli Jew who supports the right of the Jewish State to exist was invited to address a national meeting of the Presbyterian Church, USA.  Several Palestinian Arabs who do not endorse the right of the Jewish State to exist have had that honor, including Rev. Naim Ateek and Dr. Fahed Abu Ekel, who was elected Moderator by the Church in 2002.

The Church's relationship with American Jews has also been odd. 

Presbyterian Elder Dr. Robert H. Stone, retired professor of Christian ethics at the Presbytreian Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, may have reflected the views of other Presbyterian leaders when he told the press, during a meeting with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2004, that it was easier to dialogue with terrorists than with Jews when it comes to the Middle East.

Church officials have written similarly dismissive words about American Jews.  Church leaders have warned Presbyterians that the 'emotional rhetoric that Presbyterians encounter in conversation with Jews [that] can easily derail the conversation,' and advised them to 'bring the conversation to the level of personal sharing and away from the sharing of positions.'  American Presbyterians, that is, should not hold serious conversations with American Jews in which they discuss Middle East in terms of facts and policy.  This is so because, in the words of  Sarah Lisherness, Coordinator Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, unlike those emotional Jews,

'as Christians we have received a gift of discernment, not to be controlled by our animal passions, our  reptilian brain, fight or flight reaction to conflict.'

Suiting actions to words, the PCUSA has avoided serious engagement with American Jews on these issues, and avoided engagement with Israeli Jews almost entirely, while maintaining close contact with Palestinian Arabs.  To take just one example, in February 2005 interested Presbyterians concerned about the divestment issue were invited to attend a training event on the Middle East arranged by the national staff.   The featured speakers were  four Palestinian Arabs who told stories about 'dehumanizing encounters with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.' One attendee was troubled by the impression that Israelis are cruel oppressors "who push women and detain youth with no good reason." 

Listening  to the voices of those who dispute the right of Israel to exist, too many Presbyterian clergy and leaders have begun to believe that Israelis are, as Rev. Kirkpatrick put it, the kind of people who would 'indiscriminate(ly)  shoot... children and adults.'   In March, 2002 a number of Christians resident in the Holy Land, including five Presbyterians: Christopher Doyle, PCUSA missionary, Bethlehem; Hala Doyle, PCUSA missionary; Bethlehem, Rev. Marthame Sanders, PCUSA mission worker, Zababdeh, Palestine; Ms. Elizabeth Sanders, PCUSA mission worker, Zababdeh, Palestine; and The Rev. Christine Caton, Christian Peacemaker Team, Hebron, signed an Open Letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell in which they accused Israel of:

'indiscriminate shootings by IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers at checkpoints of civilians, including children, women, the elderly and the disabled...,'

alleged that

'US—manufactured missiles shower down indiscriminately on civilian areas from US—manufactured Apache helicopters and F—16 bombers, or from Israeli tanks,' 

and, more generally, of  'greed and arrogance, violence and death.'   Like Rev. Suggs' allegation that Israeli soldiers 'randomly break into homes,' these allegations demonize Israeli Jews, employing classic wartime stereotypes of a bloodthirsty enemy lacking human empathy and morals.   Rev. Suggs makes clear how thoroughly he accepts the racist stereotypes of Jews as brutal murderers  when he writes:

'Some other time I'll tell you about what it is doing to the souls of the Israeli's (sic) as well. Militarism is hard wired into them at a tender age, such that in dealing with a problem thats (sic) the solution they choose first.' And 'The Israeli's (sic) murder somewhere between 1 to 2 per week, usually young males.' 

This is a very problematic statement.  For one thing, 'murder' is not the proper verb for killings that occur as part of gun battles between armed men; it is the verb of choice for demonizing a hated 'other.'   Furthermore, accusing an Israeli electorate that has not only voted to trade land for promises of peace, but supported governments that have actually made such trades, of always choosing militaristic solutions is to speak from prejudice rather than evidence.  But to accuse an entire nation of being  'hardwired' for 'militarism' is a racist statement.

It is troubling to realize that Rev. Suggs and others could have learned to speak of Israelis in this vocabulary of demonization by reading the Presbyterian News Service.  Rev. Alexa Smith, reporting**  from Bethlehem in 2002, freely published hearsay accounts that 'They (the Israeli soldiers) are vandalizing everything,'  'soldiers executed three men in the town, put their bodies in a car and ran over the car with a tank,'  and about 'the army's refusal to allow ambulances inside the city to gather the dead and wounded,'  without any indication that she exercised the diligence of reporters who phone military officials, morgues and hospitals to verify that the reports are not mere lies. (See also this.)

Presbyterians not employed by the national PCUSA  often exercise greater caution.   Rev. Charles Henderson, also visiting Bethlehem, told of a Palestinian Arab family whose 'car was riddled with hundreds of bullets and, before the firing stopped, George's daughter, Christian, age ten, was dead.'   He does not, however, accuse Israeli soldiers of 'random' or 'indiscriminate' violence.  'Young Christine,' Rev. Henderson explains,  'was the innocent victim of the Israeli governments policy of 'targeted assassinations.' The Israeli soldiers had mistaken George and his family for terrorists simply because their car was similar in appearance to one the terrorists were known to be driving.'  Rev. Henderson in his report home avoided unsubstantiated accusations and the language of demonization, showing that it is possible to discuss the situation in the Middle East, and even to advocate for the Palestinian position, without sliding into demonization and unthinking hatred of the other.

Too many Church publications slide easily into the casual demonization of Israeli Jews.  To take one last example, a poem entitled  'Land Holy,'  was published in inSpire, a publication of  the Princeton*** Theological Seminary, PCUSA.  The editors understood the qustionable nature of the language in the poem, and added a notation that reads: 

The editors realize that some of the language might be offensive to some readers. However, we hope that readers will agree that the obscenity of the violence it describes is the real obscenity to be concerned about.

The editors apear to be concerned that they may offend by using a four—letter word, not that accusing Israeli soldiers of shooting people like wild dogs, murdering a child, not believing in God, and stating that the life of an Israeli Jewish child is worth less than a single freckle on the cheek of a Palestinian Arab child might offend.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the poem is that  it was later established that the incident the poem describes — the deliberate targeting of a Palestinian child by Israeli soldiers — never took place.

To date, inSpire has failed to publish a note to that effect.

Here are lines from the poem:

they were shot down in the streets like wild dogs...

anti tank missiles fired into buildings, crowds, into families and bodies?

His father reduced to a human shield begging.

we watched this little boy murdered

justifications and the dragging of feet over his blood on the ground

even the ambulance driver who ran to reach him was killed

And fuck an eye for an eye. The body of a twelve—year—old Israeli

boy will not equal one freckle on Rami's cheek

I will remember this little boy murdered in Palestine by those who do not believe in God—the story on repeat two thousand years after a carpenter was crucified for his magic.

Whether we dismiss this hate—filled poem about an alleged atrocity that never actually occurred as wartime propaganda, or condemn it as hate—speech because of its vicious language, or excuse it on the grounds that poets take poetic license, questions remain about why a Presbyterian magazine published such a hate—filled poem, and why Presbyterians officials and clergy continue not only to use the language of demonization when speaking about Israel, but to publish false accusations against Israeli Jews.

* The accusation that Israel is causing birth defects by 'walling off' Palestinian Arabs is a politically inspired distortion of the fact that the cousin marriages so highly valued in Arab societies cause a tragically high incidence of birth defects in Arab countries, not only among Palestinian Arabs. 

** for more on the language used by the Presbyterian New Service, see this.

*** attentive readers identified inSpire as a publication of Princeton Theological Seminary, not Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as the article originally stated. Apologies to both institutions.