Righteous Christians Speak Out on Israel

At a moment when the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is holding its meeting in Detroit, a group of Christians on June 13, 2014 has courageously issued an open pastoral letter that criticized the focus and tone of the present and possible future attitude of the Church towards Israel. The General Assembly (GA) is no longer debating, as it has done since 2000, the issue of how the Israeli occupation of territory taken in 1967 can be ended, but the question of whether the State of Israel should exist.

The pastoral criticism stems from the consequences of the publication in January 2014 of Zionism Unsettled, a 74-page supposed “study guide” produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a unit of the PC (USA). The guide is not concerned with how and when the “occupation” will end but whether Israel should exist. It states clearly “the problem is Zionism.”  Therefore, if Zionism is the problem, then logically the end of Zionism is the solution.

The guide, in weird postmodernist language, defines Zionism as the manifestation of “exceptionalist religious ideology fused with political power.” This bizarre formula echoes that of “Jewish Supremacism” coined by David Duke. Not all members of PC (USA), or indeed of any other church, can be happy about its link with Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who in fact highly praised the “study guide.”

So did Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and an acquaintance of Barack Obama when they were both in Chicago. Khalidi’s view is similar to that of the PC (USA): “The denial of the rights of the Palestinians is largely driven by the exception of Zionist ideology and its real world implications.” Despite the endorsement of these “authorities,” the “study” is a remarkably biased document in its demonization of Israel, and its promotion of ethnic and religious stereotypes.

The pastoral letter pungently maintains that it is not only patently false but also morally indefensible to argue as does the PC (USA) that any Jewish desire for any form of statehood within its historic homeland is inherently discriminatory. The pastors also support a two state solution, a secure, independent Israel with a Jewish majority living in peace alongside a viable, independent Palestine.

The letter recognizes a truth that has long been ignored or deliberately misrepresented by the advocates of some form of boycott of Israel and by the mainstream media. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement purports to be limited to bringing an end to the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian lands but its real goal is the end of Israel as an independent state. Divestment should be opposed for that reason.

But the PC (USA) General Assembly is doing the opposite. At the June meeting of the GA, 879 resolutions have been offered, and 138 of them concern Israel. As usual they call for the end of Israeli “occupation,” the condemnation of Israel that continually violates UN resolutions and international law, and divestment, reported to be only $17 million, from the three apparent founts of evil in the world, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.

Since 2004 the PC (USA) has called for “a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” Many resolutions of this nature calling for boycott have been passed. The GA in 2012 overwhelmingly supported a boycott of products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 2014 it is seeking to withdraw church pension fund and foundation investments from corporations that contribute to and profit from what it calls the “growth of the Israeli settlement infrastructure and the oppressive military occupation that controls Palestinian’s lives.”

Even more important is the rejection by the pastoral letter of the charge that Zionism is “like other colonial movements.” This rejection is significant in two respects. It is based on the history of the Holy Land that Jews have been present there for several thousand years, and have a legitimate claim to the land, even if not to all of it. Even more, the now-fashionable accusation of Israel being an “apartheid” state negates the legitimacy of Israel having any share of the land, and denies the Jewish connection to the area.

It is disheartening that the narratives and documents emanating from PC (USA) are the antithesis of dialogue on complex issues and implicitly are grounded in hatred, nor on desire for peace. Perhaps not coincidentally, as a result of its evident bias its membership is reported to have declined from 3.1 million in 1983 to 1.7 million today.

Even more perplexing is that this bias and animosity, not only by the Church but also by others especially the advocates of boycott, should exist and prevail in the light of recent events, two of which are particularly pertinent. One is the kidnapping, assumed to be by members of Hamas, of three Jewish boys, two aged 16 and the third 19, who were yeshiva – religious -- students in the Hebron area on June 12, 2014. The boycotters of Israel might be aware that the boys were taken in an area that is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, not in any “occupied territory.” Moreover, they might be perplexed, even offended, that on news of the abduction, Palestinians handed out candy in the streets to celebrate. 

The second event, on the same day of the kidnapping, is a dramatic illustration of the dialectically opposite value systems of Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land area of which the PC (USA) and others appear unaware. It was the medical treatment in June 2014 of Amina Abbas, wife of the president of the Palestinian Authority, in a hospital in Tel Aviv. She was given a private room with guards at the door while she underwent foot surgery. Paradoxically, the granddaughter of the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, the rival of Abbas, was also treated in an Israeli hospital in November 2013.

It is saddening that members of religious denominations should ignore the complex problems and the horrors of the Middle East, and reduce them to a single factor and source, Zionism. They seem to be unconcerned about the relentless violence in Syria and the cruel terrorism of ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, that glories in slaughter of its enemies. Why do the members of these religious groups, and the secular boycotters of Israel, lose all credibility and any commitment to truth by adhering to a double standards regarding Jews and other people? Are they all hypocrites?

Michael Curtis, author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.