What actually happened at the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly in Portland last week? If one reads the various Jewish news sources out there, its totally unclear. Did the Church vote to continue to expand divestment? Did it reaffirm commitment for a two state solution? Did it approve some egregious allegations against Israel? Did it further an anti-Israel agenda, or did it step back from the brink? Did PCUSA once again demonize the Jewish State?
I think it is essential to set the record straight. The initial news report out of Portland was by the AJC, and it erroneously stated that the PCUSA had rejected a two-state solution. In reality, the General Assembly adopted several critical amendments stating a preference for a two state solution – and supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. it was apparently released before the assembly actually voted on the issues, and presented actions that had not yet occurred, ignoring the vital amendments that were approved during plenary debate. AJC has since retracted that story and written a new analysis, but the damage was done. The Religious News Service picked it up, and the news seemed to be completely based on incomplete information. Even the Times of Israel news story that ran today was erroneous, focusing on divestment, and even confusing the one piece of anti-BDS legislation the assembly considered —a commissioner’s resolution I authored, seeking to have PCUSA end its affiliation with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation—with other anti-Israel overtures.
Is there reason to be critical of the actions of the PCUSA? Absolutely. The report by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is an anti-Israel tract that is filled with factual errors, distortions, bad theology that denigrates Israel. It largely exonerates the PA and Hamas for their role in the ongoing conflict. The report was so vague in its support for a two state solution that, that it, if adopted, it could have opened the door to church bodies supporting a one state “alternative.” This would have spelled a new chapter in the PCUSA’s tortured relationship with Israel and the Jewish community. But it didn’t happen. Yes, the PCUSA agreed to approve the report. BUT it did so only after making very important amendments, first in committee, and then by the larger assembly. Committee members were deeply bothered by the one-sided approach in the original report. They insisted that their approval was conditional on a preference for a two state solution.
The full assembly went much further, amending the report to include a new preface that made an unequivocal statement of support for the two state solution as a commitment, and not a preference. And the assembly voted to make it clear that we would support no action that opposed the rights of self-determination for either Jews or Palestinians. The report now begins with this statement:
As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace, of the people of Abraham and the lineage of David, we stand with the people of Israel, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation, and we stand with the Palestinian people, affirming their rights to exist as a sovereign nation. Therefore, the 222nd General Assembly (2016) affirms Footnote 8, which emphasizes a preference for a two-state solution. The assembly also affirms our desire to stay in conversation with our partners in Israel who work for peace. Finally, the assembly expresses its opposition to any efforts to deny or undermine the rights of the Palestinian people or the Jewish people to self-determination.
This is not insignificant, and deserved to have been reported. It wasn’t just a preference for two states. It was the exact opposite of what was being sought by the anti-Israel groups in the denomination. It was a rejection of supersessionsism (replacement theology) and a clear rejection of anti-Zionism and anti-Palestinianism. It was passed by a wide majority.
The General Assembly also approved a resolution to conduct a faithful study of BDS. But here too, there is a critical missing piece in some of the reporting. The committee insisted that this study include resources opposed to BDS and engage interfaith partners in the process. This was not at all what the advocates of the resolution wanted—an effort to provide a repeat of the disastrous “study guide” Zionism Unsettled, which was issued in 2014 and which the General Assembly had to declare not to represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The headline of the Times of Israel article focuses on BDS. But the assembly rejected by a 2-1 margin in committee the overture to boycott Hewlett Packard. And the resolution on RE/MAX didn’t call for divestment, but instead focused on on sales of West Bank properties, praising Remax for responding positively to the church’s concerns, and encouraging further engagement with the company. Not divestment. Engagement.
Another resolution expressing support for boycotts and economic leverages was amended to remove all references to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
The one other piece of business that was approved was the resolution on the treatment of Palestinian children. This resolution had numerous unfounded allegations, and was deeply flawed. Yet, even here, the assembly insisted on adding language calling out the Palestinian Authority and Hamas for its incitement of young people to violence. And I’ll be honest; it is very hard, in a church general assembly to get commissioners to oppose a resolution that seeks to improve the treatment of children — even though that resolution was deceptive and wrong.
The Presbyterian Church USA is deeply divided on Israel-Palestine issues. There is a strong anti-Israel voice within the church, and within elements of the Church’s leadership. The anti-Israel focus was most prevalent during the presentation of an offensive four-minute video comparing Palestinian checkpoints to Nazi cattle cars that carried Jews to concentration camps. Yet even here, committee members were incensed by that claim, and it served to build support for the more balanced approach. Jews are right to be suspicious of the Presbyterian Church, but this assembly was not like 2014. People deserve to hear the full story of what happened in Portland, and that should begin with its rejection of anti-Zionism, commitment to a two state solution, and the desire to respect the rights of self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. None of those are insignificant.