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Op-Ed: Look between the headlines to understand the Presbyterians’ vote

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 220th General Assembly had just cast its first vote on an anti-Israel divestment resolution when the spin began. Major news outlets and activists on each side could hardly wait for the debate to finish the next day before declaring winners and losers. 

This was my fourth GA and one thing I’ve learned is that reality lies somewhere between the headlines. Here are some reality checks on the GA.

* The defeat of divestment was narrow — and it wasn’t. 

The widely reported 333-331 vote earlier this month was on a motion to substitute a positive investment minority report for the main divestment resolution. This means the very first time the plenary had a chance, it shot down divestment. It was close, but in subsequent votes the positive approach passed by a much wider margin — and additional pro-divestment motions continued to fail by increasingly wider margins. The Positive Investment substitute — passed 369-290 — calls for financial support for projects that include collaboration among Christians, Jews and Muslims and that will help develop viable Palestinian infrastructure, job creation and economic development.

* The PCUSA is different from other churches – and it isn’t. 

Think of the most intense anti-Israel delegitimizers you’ve ever seen, heard or read. They run the show at the PCUSA.

Before the GA, the PCUSA’s coordinator of social witness policy defended divestment, attacked positive investment and said an Israel-apartheid comparison is unavoidable. An advisory committee called as its resource person before the GA’s Middle East committee a Jewish representative from an anti-Zionist group that actively favors boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Even the church’s executive council backed divestment.

But there were also several major Presbyteries, seminary presidents, former national moderators and other key leaders who opposed divestment. One group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, successfully advocated for a balanced approach that was clearly more in keeping with the mind-set of Presbyterians. 

* The targeted companies are profiteers — and they aren’t. 

The PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, or MRTI — the body that originally recommended divestment — concluded that no further conversations would matter for Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. They were irredeemably and unequivocally guilty. The Methodist pension board, meanwhile, reached the exact opposite conclusion.

A close reading of the MRTI report reveals that it relied on resolutions filed by radical groups better known for harassing corporations than engaging them.

Motions filed on a broader human rights issue were presented as if they were about Israel, and corporate transgressions like a corporate officer rescheduling a conference call were submitted as conclusive proof of indifference. But companies are companies. Their jobs are making money, not playing politics — and they get attacked so often, it’s just noise to them. 

* The divestment debate is really about anti-Semitism — and it isn’t.

A church leader told me that he had never heard of Israel’s security fence described as being even partially a defensive move, indicating that the silencing of Israel’s legitimate security stance isn’t just about choosing sides but about something much deeper.

More than 1,500 American rabbis representing a broad geographical and ideological range sent a letter against divestment to every PCUSA commissioner. Had women or ethnic leaders in the United States sent a letter on a topic of concern, the PCUSA leadership might have stopped dead in its tracks. Disturbingly, that didn’t happen with this letter.

Even more disturbing was a pro-BDS letter signed by fewer than two dozen rabbis and trumpeted by a PCUSA committee that said it was tantamount to racism to suggest that the Jewish community opposes divestment. That doesn’t rise to the level of anti-Semitism. Yet the church leadership’s failure to challenge this outrageous comment certainly isn’t a measure of respect either. 

* The divestment debate is actually about Christian Zionism — and it isn’t.

There is an intense struggle between left and right in American churches that plays out over many issues, including sexuality and Israel. The struggle is so intense that it drowns out the real debate over issues; Israel becomes a proxy for a much wider conversation.

We are told sometimes that we need to choose between friendship with liberal or with conservative Christians. Not true. We should not be forced to choose between neighbors and friends. Peacemaking requires a path that is faithful to all who seek peace, including Palestinians and Israelis, Christians, Muslims and Jews.

* The PCUSA has become irrelevant — and it hasn’t.

The membership of the PCUSA is dropping — rapidly. As with many of the “mainline” churches, it has lost half its members in 40 years, with one in five leaving in the past decade. The median age is 61 and fewer than one in 10 Presbyterians is aged 18 to 34. But there also is new life in many parts of the church — and little to celebrate in the exodus from other parts of the PCUSA. It is a major American institution and an important partner on a range of issues.

It helps no one if responsible voices bolt and leave behind a denomination less able to discern between peacemaking and radicalism.

* The debate is really about what Palestinian Christians want – and it isn’t.

The PCUSA has close connections with Palestinian Christians. They visit them, hear from them and care about them. They have skin in the game.

But there also are American denominations with sister churches in the Palestinian areas that have rejected divestment, most recently the Episcopal Church, which heard from Palestinian Christians who oppose divestment.

There are many myths about the Palestinian Christians. Some friends of Israel believe the only stresses that Palestinian Christians face are from Muslims. And many detractors of Israel have fabricated a story that the Palestinian Christian population is in free fall due to Israeli policies (it isn’t — the West Bank Christian population is actually increasing). Palestinian Christians do face stresses, as do Israelis.

* Not surprisingly, the story is far more complex than either “side” would have it. The battle continues.

Well, that is true.

The PCUSA passed a troubling boycott resolution. While there are committed Zionists who have supported a boycott of West Bank settlement groups, the effort in the PCUSA was led by groups that don’t support a Jewish state. For them it is incremental delegitimization. 

Presbyterians have much to decide. Do they want their church to be positive or negative? One that understands that there are multiple narratives or just one version, with characters conveniently symbolized by American companies to reduce a painful conflict affecting real lives to a caricature of innocence and evil?

In the end, that is a Presbyterian conversation. And it isn’t.

(Ethan Felson is the vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.)

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