The work of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly ended late Friday night. I was a commissioner, and deeply engaged in the Middle East issues before the body. I argued a resolution, which enabled me to educate an assembly committee to the realities of the goals of the BDS movement, and how BDS is counter to peace. I used the actual words of the movement’s leaders to help the commissioners see that the underlying purpose of BDS is to end Israel as a Jewish state, and I argued that any real chance for peacemaking must respect the rights of both peoples, and not delegitimize one.
Unlike in prior assemblies, the debates around Israel-Palestine were among the most civil and productive we have seen in a long time. More importantly, the Church rejected a major push towards one-state activism. Don’t get me wrong. There was an onslaught of anti-Israel resolutions presented to commissioners as the opening salvo in what BDS expected to be the beginning of developing Church support for a one state solution. The centerpiece of this was the divisive study by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which presented a one-sided biased report placing the vast majority of blame in the conflict on Israel, practically exonerating the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Although the General Assembly voted to receive and approve the report in spite of its derisive tone and flawed arguments, something incredible happened along the way. The commissioners tasked to deal with these issues in committee were extremely frustrated by the bias they saw in the report and, when presented with knowledge about the true goals of the BDS movement, rejected them.
Amendments to the resolution were approved by the General Assembly in a near consensus vote, which were clear, unequivocal restatements of the Presbyterian Church USA’s historic commitment to two states for two peoples, and the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to self-determination. The language is remarkable.
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… 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 statement, inserted at the very beginning of the report will serve to effectively neuter the impact of the study. ACSWP and its supporters wanted to distance the Church from support for a two-state solution, but the General Assembly made it clear that it opposes any effort to deny or undermine the rights of either peoples to self-determination. I’ll admit I could hardly believe how far we had come from 2014.
This assembly rejected further efforts to expand divestment, and made it clear that a resolution seeking a “faithful study” of BDS had to include anti-BDS materials, and to have congregations engage in study with Jewish and Muslim neighbors, something that is almost foreign to PCUSA in recent years on such issues.
I don’t want to sugarcoat what happened in Portland, as there were some damaging resolutions approved by the assembly, and pro-BDS advocates will certainly claim victory, but even in the passage of an outrageous resolution filled with unsubstantiated allegations of Israel’s treatment of children, the assembly insisted on language calling to task both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the way they have incited youth to attack Israelis. While ACSWP and the Church’s BDS advocates often refuse to acknowledge it, the assembly was making it clear that the conflict is complex, and is not entirely the fault of one party.
Any real peace plan must respect Israel’s right to peace and security alongside the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) is slowly beginning to actually understand this.