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Presbyterians, BDS and Israel — Here We Go Again

June 6, 2014 By:
Noam E. Marans
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Members of the First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Ohio, attend a Sunday service in 2012. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
In the charming movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character relives the same day until learning from the repetition transforms him from lout to worthy wooer of his colleague. The “Groundhog Day” of Presbyterian-Jewish relations is coming soon, but if we do not fully engage the issue, a Hollywood ending is unlikely. 
 
The biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has regularly included an unhealthy confrontation between pro- and anti-Israel voices. This struggle is out of sync with the norms of American interreligious comity.
 
For the sixth time since 2004 — this time in Detroit on June 14-21 — a minority within the denomination will attempt to convince fellow Presbyterians that Israeli-Palestinian peace can be encouraged by anti-Israel resolutions, divestment from companies doing business with Israel, boycott of Israeli products produced in the territories, labeling Israel an apar­theid state and replacing church support for a two-state solution with a one-state vision signifying the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
 
In 2012, at the last biennial, a divestment proposal was narrowly defeated by only two votes out of 664 cast. Despite multiple defeats, divestment supporters are back with new tactics.
 
The Presbyterian BDS camp has revealed its desperation by publishing a virulently anti-Israel document, “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide,” for sale on the Presbyterian Church’s website. In it, the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network openly admits that its argument with Israel is not about the territorial dispute but rather the entire Zionist enterprise and Israel’s very existence.
 
This screed presents Zionism as “false theology,” “heretical doctrine,” a “pathology,” “racism,” “evil,” “colonizing” and responsible for “cultural genocide.”
 
The denomination’s leadership has said of the document: “Our church has a long history of engaging many points of view when it comes to dialogue on critical issues facing the world around us — it’s who we are, part of our DNA.”
 
Really? Are there no limits? Does Presbyterian DNA include a document that respected Presbyterian theologians have labeled anti-Semitic? 
 
While BDS minions are harming the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship, it is not yet beyond repair. Jews and Presbyterians can still prevent a minority of Presbyterians from using the ignominious demonization and delegitimization of Israel from driving an irreparable wedge between the two groups.
 
First, Jews and Presbyterians must clearly reaffirm their commitment to a two-state solution achieved through direct negotiations. That solution envisions a future Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. BDS, in contrast, promotes the ideology of those who do not accept Israel’s existence, and therefore must be rejected.
 
Second, Presbyterian leadership must rein in the excesses of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network. To say that it speaks to the church but not for the church is a cop-out. The network is chartered by the church, which in turn markets its propaganda.
 
Third, Jewish religious leaders and laypeople should reach out to Presbyterian friends and tell them what is being done in their name. Let them know how central Israel is to your Jewishness and how hurtful this process has been. 
 
American Christians overwhelmingly support the State of Israel. Presbyterians are no exception. But a vocal minority — with tacit approval from the church’s leadership — has dominated the conversation. They cannot be allowed to turn back the clock on Presbyterian-Jewish relations.
 
It’s time for Presbyterians and Jews to reclaim their historic alliance on issues of mutual interest, including working together for Israeli-Palestinian peace. That would be a Hollywood ending — or, in this case, a beginning.
 
Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations.

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