In June BDS activities took a dramatic turn as the Presbyterian Church-USA narrowly approved a limited Israel divestment resolution. The language and tone of the resolution and the accompanying debate, however, were strongly shaped by traditional Protestant supersessionism. The antisemitic basis of church-based BDS has become difficult to disguise and will shape coming debates over church-based divestment.
With the end of the academic year BDS activism has shifted back to the churches. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church-USA (PC-USA) narrowly adopted a resolution that instructs the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions of the PC-USA to “divest from Caterpillar, Inc, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.” The resolution goes on to state, however, that “This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC (USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.” The statement also reaffirmed the church’s support for a two state solution.
BDS has a long history in PC-USA. A policy of “phased, selective divestment” from Israel was adopted in the 2004 General Assembly by a large margin. At the same time Christian Zionism was rejected as incompatible with Presbyterian theology. In 2006 the divestment language was replaced with a more positive call for engagement and development on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2012, however, the General Assembly called explicitly for boycotting Israeli enterprises in the West Bank.
In 2004 and 2005, as divestment resolutions in the guise of socially responsible investment were being debated within the PC-USA General Assembly, a controversy emerged when staff members organized a meeting of Presbyterian leaders with Hezbollah members in Lebanon. Engagement with the Muslim world, and especially with Palestinian Christians, has long been a PC-USA focus.
The influence of Palestinian Christian was seen in 2010 when the General Assembly instructed a study guide be prepared on the Kairos Palestine Document. The Kairos document is a Palestinian Christian implicit attack on the concepts of Jewish national identity and sovereignty in Israel and an explicit assault on Christian Zionism. It also describes “the occupation” as a sin, legitimizes violence as “resistance,” and calls for a South African style BDS campaign against Israel. It has gained enormous traction within left-leaning Protestant denominations including the Anglican and Methodist churches.
The 2014 vote came after a protracted period of debate that was shaped by lobbying on both sides of the issue. A subcommittee of the General Assembly had recommended the resolution and both there and at the General Assembly a number of BDS supporters had spoken in favor. These included Rifat Kassis, coordinator of Kairos Palestine, and Anna Balzer, national organizer for the US Campaign to End the Occupation. BDS activists were also involved in writing the resolution. The pro-BDS/pro-one state group ‘Jewish Voices for Peace’ apparently also played an important role. Though tiny, the group gave PC-USA cover to claim Jewish support for the divestment resolution.
The role of the PC-USA’s Middle East Issues Committee, Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus, and Israel/Palestine Mission Network in pushing BDS cannot be understated. These and other committees have long been centers for anti-Israel activism within PC-USA. The 2014 debate was also shaped by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network’s Zionism Unsettled document.
The “congregational study guide” is distributed widely by PC-USA. Among other things the document promotes the ideas that Jews were well treated in Arab countries and that hostility is the result of Zionism, and that Israel, supported by the US, oppresses and brutalizes Palestinians. It also relies on strongly anti-Zionist sources and contains numerous misrepresentations of history. Opposition to the document has come not only from Jewish but Presbyterian sources.
The debate was given a more explicit antisemitic tone by statements from participants, such as the vice moderator of the Middle East issues committee, who stated during morning devotions that ‘Jesus was not afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong.’ Another BDS supporter attending the General Assembly posted on Facebook that “America is the Promised Land. We all know this. Come to the land of opportunity. Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends. Stop it. Come home to America!” The same individual also reposted an article celebrating the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers.
The theological dimension was paramount throughout the General Assembly’s debates. The General Assembly rejected a proposal entitled “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy” but added “we take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term “Israel,” very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.”
PC-USA’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, however, took the matter further and noted:
For many worshipers today, the word “Israel” has taken on political and military connotations and the original scriptural meanings are almost lost. Just as PC(USA) adopted inclusive and expansive language for racial and gender justice, ACREC believes it is important and timely to be intentional and well-informed with language that has taken on political meanings beyond the walls of church and worship.
Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, MI has used the following paragraph for several years in their worship bulletin:
“ISRAEL” LANGUAGE IN WORSHIP—We want to be sensitive to the pain of our Palestinian-American friends and others when they encounter “Israel” in the language of scriptures, hymns and liturgy. In our worship, “Israel” is referring to ancient Israel, not the modern political state. At various times in history it meant the collective name of the twelve tribes descended from Jacob, “the people of Israel,” the nation of Israel as a whole, or, during the period of the Divided Monarch, to the Northern Kingdom. We want to be faithful hearers and interpreters of the scripture and recognize that Jesus was a Jew, a descendent of David, King of the United Monarchy, and that what we know as the Old Testament was Jesus’ scriptures.
On PALM SUNDAY, we need to remember that the people who waved palm branches in Jerusalem lived under the yoke of occupation and oppression by the Roman Empire. Over the centuries other oppressed peoples have identified with the plight and the longings of the people of Israel when they were enslaved, exiled, and occupied and also with the message of deliverance and freedom they found in the scriptures. We pray fervently for the day when the Palestinian people no longer live under occupation, a day when Palestinians and Israelis find a way to live together in peace, with justice for all.
This formula effectively casts modern Palestinians as the ‘new Jews’ under a modern Rome, Israel.
Largely unnoticed in the controversy surrounding the PC-USA’s divestment vote was another resolution that called for the organization to undertake research toward “a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance that seeks not to determine for Israelis and Palestinians what the right “solution” should be.” Such a recommendation, to be debated at the 2016 General Assembly, would likely result in the PC-USA following the lead of Palestinian Christians in calling for a one state solution. In addition, another resolution was adopted that condemned Israel for human rights violations and pervasive racism.
After the vote church leaders again took pains to publicly stress that the resolution did not mean the church backed the BDS movement and that Jews should not be offended by the move. The moderator of the General Assembly added that“in no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
Responses to the vote were swift, with condemnation from across the political and religious spectrum of Jewish organizations, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Non-Jewish sources including Presbyterian also condemned the move. The resolution will have a negative impact on national and local Jewish-Presbyterian relations.
BDS supporters and self-proclaimed anti-Semites such as David Duke, far-right politician and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, offered congratulations to PC-USA for the resolution. Despite the PC-USA’s efforts to distance its decision from the broader BDS movement, Duke characterized their move more plainly as “Victory! Presbyterian Votes Israeli Divestment!”
Understanding the Presbyterian Church-USA’s decision is difficult. The movement has experienced a dramatic loss of membership in recent years while at the same time moving culturally and politically farther to the left. The 2014 General Assembly for example voted to allow same-sex marriage. The relationship between membership trends and cultural and political orientation is difficult to assess from the outside but has long been seen in rapidly shrinking Protestant denominations, especially the Anglicans.
At the same time, unlike historic “peace churches” such as the Quakers, which have long been on the left politically and strongly anti-Israel, but which lack well-developed theology, PC-USA appears to be reemphasizing traditional Protestant supersessionist attitudes and rhetoric. The elevation of the Palestinian Christian narrative of its own suffering and Israeli’s evil, the pains taken to distinguish modern Israel from Old and New Testament Israel, and efforts to expunge the term ‘Israel’ from both, meld traditional and modern antisemitism. The support given the church by David Duke and others also show again that the far left and the far right in America are converging on the issue of opposing Israel.
Several BDS developments marked the end of the academic year. The University of California, Santa Cruz student government passed a divestment resolution. In an observation that speaks to the non-grassroots nature of academic BDS campaigns one opponent noted “On the other side, there was a large number of [former] students. This is an undergraduate student assembly supposed to represent undergrads at Santa Cruz. It’s not a place for somebody who graduated 40 years ago.”
The membership of the Modern Language Association rejected a resolution condemning Israel for allegedly restricting the movement of Palestinian academics. In online voting the resolution failed to receive the minimum of 10% of votes from the membership for passage. Only 6% of the membership voted in favor but a leading BDS supporter mysteriously characterized this as indicating “MLA members showed that they were 60 percent in favor of such a resolution.” The vote came after many months of public debate, including at the annual MLA meeting, and strongly organized opposition to the resolution.
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has now has requested input from its members for an “informed” position on “Israel-Palestine.” The request explicitly sets this request in the context of academic BDS efforts and states “that a boycott is not the only possible AAA response, should the AAA choose to act. Without prejudicing an open-ended conversation, we present some alternatives to a boycott that have been proposed or can be imagined” including condemnation and divestment. The request was put forward by the president, vice-president and executive director of the organization, allegedly at the request of members.
The debate within the AAA has thus been shaped in a way that guarantees BDS activists will dominate the flow of information toward the goal of adopting BDS resolutions. The organization has a long tradition of taking political positions on various issues.
Two developments in the arts world point to new types of BDS related pressure in this area. A Pittsburgh art show bringing together Israeli, Palestinian and American artists was cancelled shortly before opening when the Palestinians withdrew. The gallery posted an apology on its web site directed “to all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition.”
The nature of the “misunderstanding” was revealed in another web posting which noted “This show was never intended to be about normalization.” The term “normalization” is used by Palestinians to denote any form of cooperation with Israelis that suggest acceptance of Israel’s existence or rights, or that Israel is a “normal” state.
In another case a traveling art show was attacked for exhibiting at the Technion Institute in Israel. A newly created BDS group approached participating artists to request that “cultural organizations must halt their partnerships with institutions that contribute to or normalize the Israeli military-industrial complex.” The curator responded that the organizing group does not support BDS or participate in boycotts.
Both incidents show that the arts world will emerge as a new front for BDS campaigns, directed at individual artists, collectives, curators and galleries.
The sports world also saw another attack on Israel with sanctions overtones. The Palestinian Football Federation complained to the FIFA Congress, the global football association, about Israeli restrictionson the movement of Palestinian players. The possibility of expelling Israel from FIFA was raised but the organization insteaddecided to create a committeeto monitor Israeli treatment of Palestinian players. Palestinians and Arab countries have long sought to expel Israel from international sports.
At least onecommentator noted that FIFA’s focus on Israel is bizarre, particularly in light of the immense bribery scandal surrounding the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and the hundreds of deaths of workers constructing the Qatari stadium, in addition to match-rigging and other scandals.
Finally, despite heavy BDS pressure,the Rolling Stones performed a sold out show in Israel and other artists are scheduled or are in negotiations to appear. In contrast, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor has announced that she will attempt to cancela scheduled performance in Israel. She stated “I was not informed by my booking agent, and was unaware myself, that a boycott of Israel had been requested by the Palestinian people.” She added “I do not appreciate being bullied by anyone on either side of this debate any more than I appreciate not being properly informed by my booking agent of the potential ramifications of accepting work in war zones.”