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The Presbyterian Church and Israel

The Presbyterian Church and IsraelOn Saturday July 10, 2010 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church just ended its annual meeting, held this year in Minneapolis. One notable achievement of the gathering was the approval, by a vote of 558 to 119, of a 172 page report on the conditions in Israel-Palestine. The approved report called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel if that country continues its colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. This is a strong position from which the Presbyterians will have difficulty retreating when, after September 2010, Israel almost certainly speeds up its illegal settlement process.

However, the report is not all good news. The previous 2004 call by the Presbyterian Church for selective divestment from Israel and its corporate suppliers was allowed to lapse, and while the report called for an end to the Gaza blockade in terms of civilian imports, it recognized Israel’s "security need" to maintain a blockade on weapons. So, when you put the Presbyterian’s previous stand together with this year’s resolution, you might say that they have taken two steps forward and one step backward.
Even though the overall momentum is forward, we might ask why the small step backward? The answer is an intense six year long campaign by American Jewish Zionists to pressure the Presbyterians to change their increasingly critical stand on Israel. The most recent phase of this lobbying campaign was headed up by Ethan Felson, the assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Felson sees a Zionist victory in the facts that the Presbyterians dropped the issue of divestment from this year’s report and recognized Israel’s right to blockade weapons from Gaza. There are also minority elements within the Presbyterian leadership who are actively pro-Israel. The Rev. Susan Zencka complained about an attitude that saw "Palestine as good" and "Israel as bad." This she felt "misquotes the Jewish voice." Rev. Zencka sees herself as one of the Presbyterians who are "long term friends of the Jewish community" and fear that the General Assembly’s position puts that friendship in jeopardy.
In terms of institutional relations, local churches to local synagogues so to speak, she is quite correct. Here is how the deterioration of relations has taken place. After World War II many local American Protestant churches, among them the Presbyterians, reached out to their neighboring Jewish synagogues. This may have been motivated by feelings of "Christian guilt" following the Holocaust. Whatever engendered it, a process of regular cross denominational meeting, workshops, discussion groups and the like began at the local level with the goal of establishing better understanding of each group by the other. Some of these interactions have now lasted for decades. Simultaneously, the institutions governing American Judaism became more and more integrated with Zionist nationalism. After 1967 this process accelerated until, as we see today, institutional Judaism, in the U.S. as elsewhere, is essentially an offshoot of Israel and its nationalist ideology.

Then, starting in the early 1990s, the national organizations of some American Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterians, began sending delegations to Israel-Palestine to find out what was really going on there. They were particularly, though not solely, concerned for the fate of Palestinian Christians. What they found deeply disturbed them and a movement, at a national level, began to disassociate various Protestant denominations from and condemn Israeli policies and practices toward the Palestinians. As this movement developed, local Jewish leaders in dialogue with local Protestants protested and warned that years of beneficial interaction were now in danger because of the anti-Israel actions at the national level of the Protestant churces. The result was pressure from local Protestant leaders upward to their national governing institutions to back off from their criticisms of Israel.
It is to the credit of the Presbyterian General Assembly that the retreat, so heralded by the Zionists, is really a minor one. And, aspects of that retreat, such as the dropping of divestment, are almost certainly temporary. For the immediate future is quite predictable. The Presbyterian position as of now is that the Church condemns aid (all aid) to Israel if it continues to expand its illegal colonies on the West Bank. There is no way that the Netanyahu government is going to permanently stop this expansion. It is ideologically committed to it and a powerful part of its political base is demanding it.

When it does start again (probably is September) what will the Presbyterians do? They are not powerful enough to get the U.S. government to actually end aid to Israel. The greatest probability is that its General Assembly will be led to revisit boycott and divestment. The local churches will also be forced to revisit the issue. Some will quietly state their disagreement with their national leadership and try to continue their friendly relations with the synagogues. Others will quietly allow that relationship to drop away. Or, perhaps, a small number of synagogues will break with their own national Zionist leadership and become independent operations thus allowing them to retain their ties with the Presbyterians. There are many possibilities.
A process that is two steps forward and one step backward is to be expected when we are moving away from a position that has been so solidly pro Israel for so long. The important point is that the solidity is dissolving and movement in a pro Palestinian direction is now taking place. To use a child’s metaphor, Humpty Dumpty has fallen from his wall and all the King’s horses and men cannot put him back together again. The campaign to breakdown the American alliance with Israel is gathering momentum and there is no reversing it. There will be occasional steps backward, but the general direction forward will continue until finally the United States is no longer a partner to this particular case of injustice.

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