The 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (#GA222) is taking place this week in Portland, Oregon (June 18-25). You might rightfully ask yourself what does a Jew have to do with a church gathering? Quite a lot it seems, especially when Israel is on the table.
In the past few years, Israel has been subjected to a continuous smear campaign, conducted through boycotts of all sorts: economic, cultural, academic etc. This effort has manifested itself in the form of BDS: Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel, but we refer to it rather as a campaign of Bigotry, Dishonesty and Shame. Its ultimate aim is to negate the Jews’ right to self-determination, delegitimize the only Jewish state in the world and tarnish its image in the eyes of the public, by depicting it as the “ultimate villain” in the Middle East. This is a campaign of black and white, in which there is no room for complexities or compromise.
Indeed, one of the resolutions put forth before #GA222 deals with “Nonviolent Means of Resistance Against Oppression” and is guilty of discrimination through its targeting of Israel and only Israel. This nefarious campaign tends to disguise itself using lofty words and expressions (justice, dignity, human rights etc). This deceives too many who truly believe they are standing by a just means for a just cause. Unfortunately, they are wrong. There is nothing noble nor decent about the Boycott Movement.
This week, to counter those negative forces and their attempts to pass a boycott resolution at #GA222, StandWithUs, in collaboration with the Israel Action Network (IAN), has sent young articulate leaders to present Israel’s case before the Assembly. Three of those leaders, of whom I am especially proud, are members of our StandWithUs Northeast team, and as they stand up for Israel in Portland, Oregon alongside many other activists and pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations, they shared with me their remarks before the gathering concerning Israel. It is those inspiring words, written by young, passionate, peace-loving people, that lead me to believe in the next generation:
“The Pacific Northwest is no stone’s throw from the Northeast, but since various resolutions surrounding a potential boycott of Israel have been subject to debate at the 222nd Presbyterian General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, StandWithUs Northeast has been on the scene to stand up for reconciliation and dialogue instead of discrimination. On Monday, the Peacemaking Committee heard testimony regarding Overture 12-05: “On Affirming Nonviolent Means of Resistance Against Human Oppression.”
Drawing from both our experience as educators on this subject as well as our extensive personal experience on the ground in Israel, we, StandWithUs Northeast coordinators Josh Warhit, Zach Shartiag and Rena Nasar , were called upon by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace to provide testimony against the overture at hand on Monday morning. While we expressed our gratitude that the Presbyterian Church is concerned about peace for Israelis and Palestinians, we felt it was our duty to warn the committee that making boycott a viable option would in fact worsen an already toxic atmosphere in which cooperation is stifled and xenophobia is contagious. “Boycotting Israel will only embolden extremists,” said Zach Shartiag, who works with students on college campuses throughout New England. “It cancels the flow of ideas, preventing Israelis and Palestinians from engaging in dialogue and learning to hear the other side.”
The oppositional testimony tried to paint the conflict as a black and white issue, even describing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, which is both contested and complicated, as sheer evil. “This is not a story of good vs evil,” expressed Rena Nasar, Campus Coordinator for the Tri-State region. “This is a story of two peoples and we need to respect that.”
The Presbyterian Church is divided when it comes to Israel and the Middle East conflict, hosting an array of opinions and policy preferences. What many opponents of Israel have tried to do here at the General Assembly is present the idea of boycotting Israel as just another link in the chain of boycott efforts that Church members have adopted over the years. But not all issues are the same, and applying the same strategy to all of them can have devastating consequences.
Boycotting Israel may be non-violent, but it is anything but peace-making, which is how some at the assembly have chosen to describe it. In fact, a discriminatory stance against Israel, even if well-intentioned, will only create more incentive for Palestinian leaders to avoid direct negotiations for a lasting peaceful solution. BDS leaders have objected repeatedly to the notion of two state solution, making it clear that in their mind, there is no room for a Jewish state in the Middle East. “All human beings are created equal, but the same cannot be said of boycotts,” said Josh Warhit, High School Coordinator for the Northeast. “As someone who has supported several boycotts on various issues in my life, this is one I pray the Church does NOT endorse. This is for the sake of both reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
If one enters the exhibit hall here at the Oregon Convention Center and searches for a booth screaming co-existence, with Israeli and Palestinian flags hanging side by side, one will inevitably stumble upon that of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. We are proud that StandWithUs members joined our friends here to express our desire that people of all backgrounds engage in dialogue and mutual understanding, and that the Presbyterian Church does not present discriminatory boycott of Israel as a viable option to its church members. Let us say “no” to BDS, and instead embrace the opportunity before us to create a brighter future.”
The Middle East is a complicated place and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no less so. Let us not allow anyone to abuse the kindness of our hearts in order to distance people from one another. Our passion for peace and reconciliation should lead us to building bridges, bringing people together, if we really want to make a difference in this world.