For years, powerful groups within the Presbyterian Church (USA) have argued against any people-to-people programs, co-existence, and shared society efforts that seek to bring Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs together in a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation. The Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network and their backers in the denomination’s Presbyterian Mission Agency have even promoted study trips to Israel-Palestine that boasted of “co-resistance before co-existence.” They have viewed all people to people programming as an effort to “normalize the occupation.” This approach goes hand in hand with the IPMN’s support for the BDS Movement.
This week the Church held its biennial General Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri, where policy for the next two years is established. The GA had promised to be a continuation of anti-Israel policy making for the Middle East Issues committee. These included the typical attacks, placing all responsibility for the conflict on Israel, and exonerating the Palestinian Authority and Hamas from any responsibility at all. The Assembly’s opening worship service suggested the tenor of the week to come.
The worship call to confession boldly proclaimed that while gathered on the banks of the Mississippi, “we remember other times, other rivers people of faith have crossed.”
The Hebrew people crossed the Jordan into the promised land —freed to build new lives in a land flowing with milk and honey. But at what cost to those already living there?
And how many rivers were crossed as people of faith laid claims to lands already inhabited? How often did their dreams and ambition carry terrible cost for native peoples? For lands rich in resources?
Then, the prayer of confession continued with
God of promise, forgive your people when your dreams of shalom for all are co-opted by yearnings for earthly kingdoms.
It appeared as if the leadership of PC(USA) was implying that God made a mistake sending the people of Israel into the promised land! The audacity of this prayer and the anti-Semitic overtones that were embedded in it was truly astounding. As a result, when the committee hearings began, I was not hopeful. This was made worse by the death threat and attempted battery on Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, after giving a brief speech in opposition to a BDS overture. It was further exacerbated by the gross dereliction of duty by the PCUSA Stated Clerk’s failure to ban the aggressor from the facility, somehow suggesting that the assault was mitigated because Eid was representing a group “slow to criticize Israel.”
In spite of this, the Middle East Committee seemed to grow into its responsibilities, becoming more and more receptive to the arguments for reconciliation that those of us in Presbyterians for Middle East Peace were repeatedly making. The committee rejected a call to end all U.S. aid to Israel, it gutted support for a BDS-inspired letter from an extremist group of churches. Yes, it approved a flawed resolution on Gaza violence, and reiterated distortions and lies about the treatment of children by Israel, but the committee also approved a resolution calling for reconciliation. And when the debate shifted to the full assembly, that resolution was improved even more with language that:
Celebrates whenever and wherever Palestinian and Israelis come together in building honest understanding and peace, working together to address inequality to pave the way to reconciliation.
Directs the Presbyterian Mission Agency to identify grassroots organizations and ministries (especially for youth) in Palestine or Israel working for radical, systemic change.
Directs the PMA to make these ministries and organizations known to PCUSA congregations for support and encouragement.
Where there are obstacles to this grassroots engagement in Israel/Palestine, the PCUSA will advocate for freedom of engagement.
The Assembly overwhelming approved this resolution to call for reconciliation and to push the Church and its agencies to support people to people programs and shared society efforts. This ran in direct opposition to the IPMN and PMA’s entire effort to oppose “normalization.” Their approach of “co-resistance before co-existence” calls for attacking reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and attacking normal relations between Christians and Jews. The commissioners refused to accept this approach.
In 2016, the General Assembly affirmed the rights of both the Jewish people and Palestinian people to self-determination. In 2018, the General Assembly rejected anti-normalization and put reconciliation and people to people programs at the forefront. This unexpected shift towards reconciliation was not only a #BDSFail, it was a change in tenor of the entire proceeding. The anti-Israel advocates within the Church still had victories, but this resolution alone demonstrated that the commissioners representing churches across the nation were not willing to go along with the extremism that IPMN and its supporters actively encouraged and promoted.
As a result, it will now be the task of the Church to provide information to congregations across America of the remarkable work being done by organizations like Kids4Peace, which provides programming for teenagers from East and West Jerusalem; for efforts like Friends of Roots, which bring together Israelis and Palestinians in Gush Etzion in meaningful efforts at shared society. It will require the Church to promote programs like A New Way, which has developed a network of 70 paired schools in Israel; or the network of Hand in Hand Bilingual schools. It will require the Church to put the emphasis on the bilingual reforms promoted by the Peace Center at Givat Haviva, or the work of the Abraham Fund in improving the status and relationship of Israeli-Arab citizens within Israel. It will put the work of the Jerusalem International YMCA and its shared programming for Jewish and Arab kids in Jerusalem before congregations. It will put the spotlight on programs like the new Akko Center for Arts and Technology, offering shared society programming for Jewish and Arab teens in the North, and vocational job programs for Jewish and Arab adults.
The Presbyterian Church has plenty of issues when it comes to Israel, and there are a dedicated group of anti-Israel activists who will continue to cause great harm to Presbyterian-Jewish relationships, but this unexpected shift towards reconciliation alone offers a glimmer of hope.