Hijacking the Titanic

'Presbyterian' has become synonymous with Jew-hatred and unreasonable hostility toward Israel for good reason
Display at the PCUSA’s 2010 General Assembly of stones from a Palestinian house destroyed by Israelis trying to curb acts of terror. (Dexter Van Zile)
Display at the PCUSA’s 2010 General Assembly of stones from a Palestinian house destroyed by Israelis trying to curb acts of terror. (Dexter Van Zile)

Over the past decade or so, the word “Presbyterian” has become synonymous with Jew-hatred and unreasonable hostility toward Israel. It is not because Presbyterians as a group hate Jews or Israel, but because a relatively small number of anti-Israel activists in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have effectively hijacked the shrinking denomination’s polity and used it to affirm a dishonest narrative that portrays Israel as a singular enemy of human rights in the Middle East.

Part of the problem is that Israel’s supporters inside the denomination who have gathered under the umbrella of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PMFEP) have faced an uphill battle in stopping the hijacking of their church by these anti-Israel zealots.

Their failure is not entirely the fault of the PMFEP. The organization contends with a highly committed group of aging activists who gather under the banner of the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA (IPMN). These aging activists care more about what their church says about the conflict than they do the denomination itself, which has been hemorrhaging churches and members for decades. In 1993, the church had 3.1 million members; in 2016, it had fewer than 1.5 million.

Ominously enough, many of the people and churches who left the denomination were conservatives who typically supported Israel. Consequently, PFMEP has been starved of support within the PCUSA as the people most likely to support Israel have left the church in droves. Most of the moderates who remain are sick to death of the fighting that takes place every two years in their church’s deliberative body, the General Assembly. They can’t be bothered to participate in a campaign to counter the off-putting activism of the IPMN. One close observer of the church’s internal political life put it this way: “The peanut gallery at the General Assembly has gotten smaller and smaller over the years. People simply don’t care what the GA does any more.”

So-called peace activists display stones taken from a house destroyed by the Israelis in an effort to curb terror attacks against its civilians. They made this display at the PCUSA’s 2010 General Assembly. Presbyterian peace activists regularly highlight Palestinian suffering caused by the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but rarely condemn Palestinian terror and incitement against the Jewish state. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

This is a bad thing, because as the people in the pews have disengaged, anti-Israel activists have done more than use the PCUSA to defame Israel. They have also used the denomination to portray Israel’s supporters, Jews especially, as co-conspirators in a campaign to hide the alleged sins of the Jewish state from the eyes of the American people.

In short, a dying liberal Protestant church has become a haven for ideas that threaten America’s Jewish community in particular and America’s civil society in general. And the people who are in the best position to stop this process — level-headed moderates — are largely done with General Assembly. It doesn’t help that a lot of these moderates stay away from the debates over Israel and BDS because they are so contentious.

As a result of these and other factors, the PCUSA has become part of an apparatus designed to isolate Jews in America from their fellow citizens. As the PCUSA shrinks, its denominational structure has become part of a campaign to convince young American Jews to distance themselves from Israel and embrace the narrative of the Palestinians, who portray Israel’s creation as a catastrophe.

Growing numbers of young Jews are embracing this narrative put forth on college campuses by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. Another group, J-Street, is not as virulent in promoting this agenda as JVP and SJP, but promotes a narrative that portrays Israel as almost entirely responsible for the conflict.

Ostensibly, J-Street “supports” Israel, but this support is contingent on the Israeli government making concessions to the Palestinians, whose elites use hostility toward Israel and Jews as a unifying political agenda and as a result, simply cannot make peace with the Jewish state without threatening their dominant status in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By promoting unreasonable expectations for peace with the Palestinians (expectations that are invariably disappointed) J-Street serves as a gateway into the virulent anti-Zionism put forth by JVP and SJP.

By using Israel as a wedge issue to marginalize and isolate Jews, young Jews especially, anti-Israel activists, many of whom have ties to the Middle East, are working to achieving the self-destruction, assimilation or departure of the Jewish community in the United States — in a manner similar to what is happening in Europe.

The anti-Israel activists who have taken over the PCUSA and other institutions like it are playing the role in American civil society similar to the one played by jihadist thugs in the streets of France, Germany and Sweden, where Jews are forced to hide their kippahs to be safe.

It is a more genteel form of the war against the Jewish diaspora that is evident in Europe, but it is a war nonetheless. The strategy is to make Jews feel unsafe and unwelcome in the greater society and convince them to purchase their acceptance by abandoning the goods of sovereignty in Israel and collective self-expression in the U.S. Young Jews attempt to inoculate themselves from this hostility by internalizing — and broadcasting — the self-destructive belief that they are part of a community that is an obstacle to humanity’s wellbeing.

The logic of the narrative offered by the apparatus is that Jewish well being equals other people’s suffering.

This is the narrative baked into the overtures that will be voted on at the PCUSA’s upcoming General Assembly in St. Louis. At this assembly, scheduled to take place between June 16 and June 23, 2018, commissioners will look at approximately ten resolutions related to Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish people. Much of the early deliberations will take place in the “Middle East Committee.”

Currently, there are nine overtures related to Israel before this committee, eight of which deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of these eight, there is one “balanced” overture that calls on people to consider the sins against children perpetrated by both the Israelis and the Palestinians – as if there were an equivalence in how Israel and its adversaries, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority treat children. (This overture does have one selling point: It highlights Israel’s efforts to respond to concerns raised by UNICEF over how Palestinian children are treated in detention.)

Another overture before this committee highlights the suffering of the people in Syria where half a million people have died since the start of that country’s civil war in 2011.

The rationale makes no specific reference to the crimes Bashar Al Assad has committed, such as barrel bomb and gas attacks on civilians and the construction of a concentration camp near Damascus where enemies of the regime are starved, tortured, executed, and burned in mass pits. No reasonable Christian witness to the civil war in Syria can gloss over these evils, but that’s what this overture does. In fact, the rationale for the overture reads like a text prepared by Christians in Syria who hope their strong man, Bashar Al Assad, remains in power despite all the crimes he has committed.

In sum, the anti-Israel activists in the denomination were able to get eight overtures that condemn Israel onto their church’s national agenda while their opponents in the PCUSA could get only two “balanced” overtures onto the agenda of the General Assembly. One of these balanced overtures was described previously — the one that suggests a false equivalence between how Israel and the Palestinians treat children.

The other “balanced” overture calls on the church to confront the twin evils of antisemitism and Islamophobia suggesting that Jews and Muslims are subject to the same levels of hostility in Europe and the United States when that is simply not the case.

Getting two “balanced” overtures onto the General Assembly is the best Presbyterians for Middle East Peace could do because to put it simply, the anti-Israel folks with the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA run the show when it comes to determining the agenda of the church’s General Assembly. Israel haters in the denomination can — and will — effectively block any overtures that are too explicitly pro-Israel from even getting on the agenda.

The preponderance of anti-Israel overtures on the GA’s agenda demonstrates how astonishingly weak the PCUSA’s Israel supporters are in the denomination. It takes only three presbyteries, or groups of local churches, to get an overture onto the agenda of the General Assembly. Given that the PCUSA is comprised of a total of 170 presbyteries, that’s a pretty low bar. PFMEP cannot get over it.

It isn’t for lack of trying. One activist trying to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment in the PCUSA said that the denomination’s rank and file are unhappy when the General Assembly passes anti-Israel divestment measures. “But they show zero interest in doing something proactively to stop it,” the activist said. “We’ve tried.”

The upshot is that the anti-Israel folks in the Presbyterian Church USA have set the terms of debate at the denomination’s General Assembly in June, increasing the damage the PCUSA will inflict on American civil society as it sinks below the waves like the Titanic.

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is the Managing Editor of Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), established by the Middle East Forum in 2022.