Portrait of a Presbyterian divestment activist

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Robert Ross is the son of a Presbyterian minister from West Virginia and currently an assistant professor of global cultural studies at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He graduated from West Chester State University in Pennsylvania, majoring in sociology and anthropology, and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Geography from the University of London and from Syracuse University. He then taught for several years in American Studies at the American University in Beirut. His key academic interest is the geographies of capitalism; his specialized areas are the Middle East and North America. He dubs himself in Unbound: A Journal of Christian Social Justice “an occasional Presbyterian.”

During his time in Beirut, Ross grew interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He visited refugee camps in Lebanon and began reading critical literature on Israel. He writes: “Over the course of several trips to the camps, I received an education from the many courageous men, women, and children I met there, hearing stories of their forced exile from Palestine more than sixty years ago, their endurance of various domestic, internecine, and regional wars, and their degraded status under Lebanese law…. Most importantly to the Palestinians in Lebanon whom I met, they are prohibited by the Israeli government from returning to their homes and land in what is now called Israel.”

After coming to Pittsburgh, he joined the Palestine Solidarity Committee in that city and became active in the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). During the 2012 Presbyterian General Assembly which convened in Pittsburgh, Ross began to see the Church as a channel through which his activism could be directed. Then in 2013 Ross went to Israel as part of a seminar run by the Palestinian-American Research Center (PARC), aimed at developing ties with Palestinian academics and providing a crash course on the Palestinian West Bank.

Ross’s ideological commitments are transparent. In a piece for the Electronic Intifada in December 2012, Ross took the New York Times to task for being too biased in coverage of Israel/Palestine. “The New York Times,” the piece asserted, “keeps the American public in the dark about the true nature of Israel’s occupation.” This bias TOWARD Israel is not something usually attributed to the Times. In Ross’s view, the Times didn’t emphasize the nakba enough, the occupation enough, or the siege of Gaza. In all Ross writes, there is obsessive preoccupation with the nakba as well as the ongoing occupation, and not the slightest effort to understand 1948 in its context or complexity.

In a more recent piece for The Nation, in July 2013, he wrote critically of settler “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, placing them in the context of sixty years aimed at, purposeful ethnic cleansing. Although Israeli leaders condemned such attacks, Ross saw these actions as aiming at the same goal Israeli leaders have long sought and which they pursue by other methods, including housing demolitions and the destruction of property – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel/Palestine.

Now Ross is a Presbyterian activist in the Israel-Palestine Mission Network. This Network is armed with Church authority to make recommendations about divestment and other policies and is once again bringing divestment motions to the 221st Presbyterian Biennial General Assembly in Detroit. Ross writes on Unbound that divestment is “an investment in love, peace, and justice.” He writes in Mondoweiss (June 13, 2014) that the effort at divestment focused on three companies – Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard — is consistent with Presbyterian efforts aimed at peace, justice, and human rights, and there is no reason the Church should vote against divestment.

When some Presbyterians, on the contrary, openly oppose divestment motions, seeking to keep the Church from becoming partisan, and point out that the current initiative is one-sided, attacking Israel only, even as Palestinians have repeatedly violated human rights, firing rockets and suicide bombing innocent Israelis, Ross responds no, this neglects the uneven weight between “occupier and occupied, displacer and displaced.”

When several Church members express misgivings about the Israel Palestine Mission Network Zionism Unsettled study guide that was distributed to congregations before the Assembly as a departure from long-standing Presbyterian doctrine on relations between Jews and Christians and from the Church’s position on a two-state solution, he says again, no, this is a document of “considerable nuance” probing the relationship between “the political ideology at the heart of Israel’s creation,” and the displacement of Palestinians. Zionism, he says, in defense of the openly bigoted study guide, which racist David Duke praised, basically repurposed the “Zionism as racism” canard, is at the heart of Palestinian dispossession.

Finally, in the end, the partisan Ross gets most upset with those individuals with some prestige in the Church who strongly insist that a move on disinvestment will endanger Presbyterian-Jewish relations and put Presbyterians on one side in the conflict. For such people, he reserves his final charge – such people are “apologists for Israel.” For Ross, there are believers in peace and justice, and there are “apologists for Israel,” nothing imbetween.

Ross’s animosity in his recent Mondoweiss piece is especially directed at Dr. Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, whose open letter to the Church in February is a primary document in the internal fight against divestment. Leighton says, straightforwardly, about the study guide that it “fails to meet the historical, ethical, and theological standards that the Presbyterian Church has … set.” It is riddled, he says, with historical errors and glaring omissions and a fails to be a balanced, comprehensive reckoning. Leighton also argues that the “Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) and their allies have once again mounted initiatives that advance an extremist posture …. Their agenda threatens to polarize our community, betray relationships with our Jewish colleagues, and ultimately undermine our credibility as ‘peacemakers.’”

To date, the Presbyterian Church has been quite even-handed in policy, affirming the right of Jews to self-determination in the State of Israel and also supporting the creation of a Palestinian state. The move to support divestment, which has come before General Assemblies over the past ten years, if it now wins approval, will put the Presbyterian Church on one side only. Rank-and-file Presbyterian Will Spotts senses and deplores this. Spotts wrote a remarkable document in March rehearsing the charges against Church activism on disinvestment: “the PC(USA) has an extraordinary negative focus on Israel that borders on the obsessive; the PC(USA) provides information to both Presbyterians and the non-Presbyterian world that does not tell the whole story; and the PC(USA) chooses to uncritically repeat one perspective only – even when that perspective has extremely problematic elements.”

Since 2006, the Presbyterian Church has sponsored a permanent committee on the Middle East. This reflects that the largest volume of business at each assembly is about Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. All other social justice issues and international issues are vetted by two additional committees. The focus on Israel is universally negative and always unbalanced. Spotts observes: “… in every case, where facts are disputed, where perspectives disagree, the PC(USA) has endorsed and propagated the sole perspective of the Palestinian activist community.” What is the result? “Sometimes that support amounts to demonization of the other – from a Presbyterian insider perspective, the OTHER is anyone who disagrees with the claims of the pro-Palestinian activist community. “

In truth, peacemaking is not Robert Ross’s concern or that of others pressing for divestment. Divestment in this or that company will have no impact on “the geographies” of the Middle East. Neither is ending occupation. In Ross’s mind, the Church should take partisan action because – as he writes, and the study guide emphasized — Zionism aimed and still aims at the dispossession of the indigenous Palestinian population. Ross conveniently elides past the two-sided history of Israel/Palestine. He erases the facts of the UN proposal for partition, the willingness of the Zionists to accept two states, and the refusal of Palestinians and Arab states to live with Israel. Ross similarly elides all other mutual efforts to create peace in the Middle East and their outcomes. “Peace and justice,” as he understands it, requires symbolic action against companies supplying Israel. The Jewish state must be tagged as a special pariah. So much for love, peace, and justice.


Portrait of a Presbyterian divestment activist

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