A committee of the Presbyterian Church USA has recommended that the church call for freezing all U.S. aid to Israel until it halts all building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, withdraws from the Occupied Territories and moves the separation barrier to the 1967 border.
The recommendations are to be considered in July by the church’s General Assembly, the leadership body of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination said to number nearly three million members. It is not clear how likely they are to be approved or revised by the full body.
Rev. Ron Shive of Burlington, N.C., chairman of the Church’s Middle East Study Committee, said its report and recommendations are “for the most part a re-emphasis of things the church has said for decades, including believing in a shared Jerusalem.” But Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the committee’s decision to “strongly denounce Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of its products” is a first for the church. That company’s bulldozers have been used by Israel to knock down Palestinian homes that have been built without a permit.
“They are not investigating any companies for their violence for actions against Israelis,” Felson said. “The sword only cuts one way when it comes to corporate engagement and theology.”
He noted that the committee makes a dozen demands on Israel and that “any responsibilities they ascribe to the Palestinians are generally accompanied by another demand on Israel.”
Felson added that the committee’s report flies in the face of a Presbyterian document that says the church will not reduce this conflict to a caricature in which one side is portrayed as the villain and the other the victim.
The committee report was also quickly criticized by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP), which said the committee’s statement that the Israeli occupation is “the major obstacle to regional stability” reverses the church’s historical “even-handed” position. And it said the committee’s “radical conclusions” were not surprising because seven of the committee’s nine members had “evinced a strong bias towards a one-sided Palestinian narrative.”
“Is it possible to foresee a secure Israel with absolutely no U.S. government aid and all that is implied by revoking support?” the group asked.
A member of the group, John Wimberly, had been on the committee but resigned because of a disagreement with its members.
The committee recommended also the endorsement of the section of the Kairos Palestine document that stresses “liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy and reconciliation.” But PFMEP questioned in what way that document emphasizes love when the “heart of the strategy” demands divestment from Israel and a “commercial boycott of everything produced by the occupation.”
Shive said the committee was careful not to endorse any other parts of the Kairos Palestine document. But Felson called that a “Trojan horse to bring into Presbyterian policy a document that is a demonization of Israel. How can you refer to Kairos without recognizing that it refers to Palestinian terror as a form of legal resistance? That is gymnastics.”
Shive said Kairos was endorsed in part in an effort to “stand with our Christian partners in the Middle East” who wrote it. The one member of the committee who voted against the recommendations, Rev. Byron Shafer, a retired Bible teacher at Fordham University, said he did so because it is tipped in favor of the Palestinians.
“If it were adopted by our GA in July, it would be identifying the church with one side in the conflict — namely the Palestinian-Christian side,” he said. “Missing from this report is a narrative balance. I don’t find an acknowledgement of the ways in which some Palestinian and Arab nations have contributed to the conflict. The focus is on Israel as the more powerful party and the one that is guilty.”
Shive disagreed with that conclusion, insisting that the report adopted a “balanced approach.”
“We attempted to listen to a number of different groups of people — and be assured we listened to Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian voices. There was earlier criticism that we did not speak enough with American Jewish voices, but our real concern was to talk with Israelis who were in the middle of the conflict.
“We talked to Jewish voices in Israel and most were American born. It made sense to speak with Jews in the thick of things. Our limited time and resources prohibited us from more than a limited engagement. And we did not hear the extensive views of American Muslims either.”
Shafer said that despite the one-sided committee report, he does not believe the Presbyterian Church or its members are anti-Israel. However, he said there is a “huge infusion of anger among mainline Protestant groups over what seems to many of us to be a complete frustration of the dream of a two-state solution.”
“At the present time it doesn’t seem to me that there is much hope for it, and in my opinion if there is not a two-state solution there is going to be a complete disaster,” he added. “That is the only just solution.”
Referring to Israel’s announcement of a new building project in east Jerusalem at the same time that Vice President Joe Biden was in the country attempting to re-start peace talks, Shafer went on to say that the “events of the last two weeks have been an absolute disaster for Israel in its attempt to show a positive face to mainstream American Protestant society.
“I know Israel is conducting a PR campaign to try to neutralize some of the negative publicity of the last year, but what is going on in Israel today is going against that campaign. It is saying to the American government that you can only be a third party as long as you are on our side completely; if you show neutrality, we will slap you in the face. And I’m talking as a friend. Things have got to change or you will see a huge reaction in the American Christian community.”