Yitzhak Santis

Presbyterians can enflame conflict or be peacemakers

This week in Detroit at their biennial General Assembly, members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have a profound choice to make: to be peacemakers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to become participants in the dispute.

Presbyterians have a unique opportunity to act as peacemakers. As Christians who care about the Holy Land and the peoples and faiths living there, as well as U.S. citizens whose government remains deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Presbyterians hold genuine potential for positive influence.

Aware of the responsibility of being peacemakers, and the importance of peace to Israelis, Palestinians and the future of the region, Presbyterians for over four decades have repeatedly reaffirmed support for a two-state solution. A reversal of this long-held position would be catastrophic for Christian-Jewish relations, setting back the positive gains made in the interfaith relationship in the last half-century.

Frustration with the ongoing conflict and repeated failures to reach a final peace settlement can lead to taking sides in ways that actually backfire, no matter how well intentioned. Regrettably, developments in church bodies – namely the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) and the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) – suggest that some PC (USA) members have moved in this direction, veering away from the peacemaker role of reconciling adversaries, by taking one side and joining the conflict.

Over the last decade, the numerous divestment and boycott overtures in the church uniquely and solely aimed at Israel demonstrate this development.

And this year is no different.

On the GA’s agenda are no less than ten resolutions addressing Israel and the Palestinians, nine of which are negative toward Israel. These include calls for divestment in companies doing business with Israel, and one that questions whether Israel should exist at all, by calling on the church to review its position on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As an antidote to the pull of lopsided politicization that so often moves those who become involved with this conflict, remembering what it means to be a peacemaker is paramount.

To succeed, peacemakers should not feed into the existential fears of either party in conflict by demonizing, dehumanizing or delegitimizing those in conflict. Calling into question the two-state solution does exactly that, which is what Zionism Unsettled, published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, does.  This booklet invalidates the very existence of the State of Israel, and dismisses the internationally accepted moral right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is promoting this booklet on their website.

So extreme is this document that the Ecumenical and Interreligious Work Group of the Chicago Presbytery stated that it “finds similarity to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (the notorious antisemitic forgery used to justify the genocide of European Jews). Rev. Chris Leighton, a Presbyterian minister, wrote about Zionism Unsettled, that the “IPMN and their allies have once again mounted initiatives that advance an extremist posture with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Their agenda threatens to polarize our community, betray relationships with our Jewish colleagues, and ultimately undermine our credibility as ‘peacemakers.’”

We will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians. Instead, we will identify with the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror.

PC (USA) General Assembly, 2008

The 2008 Presbyterian General Assembly understood this by recognizing the importance of not “over-identify[ing] with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians,” instead focusing on “the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror.” Upholding its tradition of open-minded intellectualism the GA also declared, “we will avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim.”

True peacemakers avoid worsening conflict. True peacemakers seek to create trust between disputants, and foster an atmosphere of reconciliation. By taking sides, PPF and IPMN have undermined their peacemaker’s mission, failing both Palestinians and Israelis alike. Tragically, they contribute enmity and misunderstanding to this conflict with their words and deeds.

It is hoped that Presbyterians will choose wisely. That they will assert their influence, intellect and prophetic voice toward being the peacemakers both parties to this conflict truly need.

About the Author
Yitzhak Santis resides in Ramat Yishai in northern Israel. He is studying for his MA in Holocaust Studies at the Weiss-Livnat International Program in Holocaust Studies at University of Haifa.