Same Old BDS, Not a New Gentler Kind

Nathan Guttman has written in the Forward (“After Presbyterian Win, BDS Advocates Trumpet Divestment as Path to Two States,” June 24, 2014) that BDS activists may be embracing a new strategy linking their activism with support not for a one-state but a two-state solution. Drawing on the language of the resolution adopted at the 221st Presbyterian General Assembly, Nathan Guttman suggests that we who are opposed to BDS may be seeing a serious new kind of challenge on the horizon.

Guttman’s journalism confuses tactics in a specific case with general BDS strategy and also mistakes the clauses expediently permitted to be tacked on to the divestment motion at the Presbyterian assembly with the movement’s persisting basic commitments. These actions were tactical gestures by divestment forces affirming simply for the moment the Church’s stand on the right of Israel to exist and supporting a two state solution. An additional tactical move done with some chutzpah was getting the Church to disown a tie with BDS while pushing it simultaneously to do BDS business.

The win at the General Assembly in Detroit, however, was exceedingly narrow, and is not a turning point for the BDS movement or for pro-divestment forces in the Church. The vote was close: 310 to 303. Had four commissioners – just four — switched allegiances, the vote would have been against divestment. That outcome is not something BDSers can cheer about nor can it support pro-divestment forces in the Church in thinking they have won once and for all. Members of the PCUSA who are against divestment and who were at the assembly are already gathering to try to overturn this vote at the next assembly. Some believe they may also face another BDS-driven campaign and vote in 2016 aimed at moving the Church away from its recently reiterated support for a two-state solution.

Letters are already circulating in the Church by progressive Presbyterians opposed to divestment affirming yes, divestment was voted, but there were irregularities and other problems visible in Detroit that raise basic questions of fairness and democratic process in the Church polity. Most of these letters are private, but I have been granted permission to summarize some main concerns (without using names).

One concern has to do with the removal before the assembly of the originally designated moderator of the Middle East Committee, Reverend Al Butzer, known in the Church to be a wise and seasoned pastor and a talented consensus-builder. Butzer was pressured to step down by pro-divestment forces because he had traveled on two joint Jewish-Christian trips  by members of Virginia synagogues and congregations that were sponsored by the Virginia Jewish Federation to Israel/ Palestine. Actually, the truth is that Butzer traveled four times to Israel/Palestine, not twice, including two Palestinian-sponsored trips to witness Palestinian conditions and issues.

Another has to do with the biased antics of the vice-moderator of the Middle East Committee, Virginia Sheets, who in a homily during committee worship before the divestment vote on Friday, June 21, said openly and publicly: ““Jesus was not afraid to tell the Jews that they were wrong. Why should we?”

Yet another was that Middle East Committee staff at the assembly, acting as “resource” persons, were extremely biased in their behavior. Their efforts to provide background and education were one-sided and, in some instances, even  derogatory toward anti-divestment positions.

Finally, yet another concern is about the inhospitable response by the Middle East committee to outside groups from the local Jewish community opposed to divestment. When a significant number of Detroit Jewish youths and families opposed to divestment came to the convention center, they were barred from standing in groups and doing anything like demonstrating or protesting. But when the divestment session was about to start, a group of 50-75 pro-divestment advocates were permitted right outside the assembly room to gather in a large circle, demonstrably singing and praying.

In the correspondence, members uniformly write about the “one-sided statements of deeply biased denominational staff acting as ‘resource’ people at the assembly,” and the immoderate actions by the committee’s vice moderator; they also take umbrage at the deeply manipulative actions of a “one state anti-Israel movement” that has been active inside the Church. There is also now considerable distrust of the Church leadership generally that, in Detroit, placed the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy in charge of a two-year study to recommend in 2016 whether the PCUSA should continue affirming a two state solution. Letter writers express a bitter wariness for they have had their consciences rubbed raw.

The circumstances were that to win support for divestment in a closely divided community, activists had to steer clear of confrontation with basic positions embraced by earlier Church assemblies. The Church changed its view on Christians and Jews in the late 1980s, erasing all signs of replacement theology in its teaching and declaring that Christians and Jews are equally children of God. Zionism Unsettled, the document circulated this year as a congregational study guide, created by the Sabeel Center and its allies, was a frontal attack on that view, and so the guide had to be disowned.

The PCUSA was also clearly on record in support of the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty in their own nation and in support of a Palestinian state to be created alongside it. In assessing their chances, BDS activists knew to go softly to win some middle support.  It was they only way to win on divestment.

So they did, supporting moderating clauses to pass divestment. One participant in her circulating letter thinks adding these phrases permitted those in the middle to rationalize voting for divestment. The pro-divestment forces knew headlines would  focus on divestment, not the accompanying caveats. And so the headlines have done: “Presbyterians Vote to Divest Holdings to Pressure Israel,” announced the New York Times.

Meantime, circumstances have been created for yet another confrontation in two years – over divestment, and over a one-state solution. The BDS movement, on the other hand, calls the victory a culmination of work in the PCUSA for ten years and sees it as a way to jump start divestment to other churches. The idea of a kinder, gentler, more accommodating BDS, one truly embracing two states for two peoples, is a figment of the journalist’s imagination.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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