The corrosive self-delusion of the Presbyterian Church’s Israel divestment vote

Click photo to download. Caption: An IDF Caterpillar D9. At its 2014 General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA targeted Caterpillar for its resolution to divest from Israel because Israel allegedly “weaponizes” Caterpillar tractors—a misnomer for the fact that Israel puts armor on them to protect operators from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other attacks—and because its tractors are used to build the West Bank security fence, write Roberta P. Seid and Roz Rothstein. Credit: MathKnight via Wikimedia Commons.

By Roberta P. Seid and Roz Rothstein/JNS.org

Much has been written about the deplorable anti-Israel divestment vote at the recently held 221st General Assembly (GA) of Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). I (Roberta P. Seid) witnessed the proceedings and was struck by an aspect not covered in the reporting on the GA: the corrosive self-delusion that led to, and justified, PCUSA’s positions on Israel. 

Self-Delusion No. 1: “PCUSA prides itself on its fairness and democratic procedures.” As it turns out, the Church’s Committee on Middle East Issues did not meet those standards at the GA. The moderator originally appointed for the committee—centrist Rev. Al Butzer, who had visited the Holy Land with Jewish and Palestinian groups—was unceremoniously replaced through behind-the-scenes manipulation. Since resolution proponents get a longer time to speak when they present the resolution’s rationale, anti-divestment committee members asked for equal time to respond. The Middle East issues committee rejected their request and limited them to 90-second comments. Proponents of divestment also provided supposedly neutral resource experts to answer questions, but their “experts” were committed anti-Israel ideologues. The result was an almost unchallenged barrage of anti-Israel hate propaganda that ignored all context, including the ongoing terrorism and threats Israel faces from the terrorist group Hamas and its allies, Hezbollah, Iran, and other self-declared enemies in the region.

Self-Delusion No. 2: “Committee members, who are chosen randomly shortly before the GA meets, can learn enough from the committee debate to vote on complex international issues.” Not true. Several of the 66 committee members admitted they had known little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and were swayed by the debates. Given the committee’s structural bias, they clearly were in no position to make informed, responsible judgments.

Self-Delusion No. 3: “Divestment promotes peace and ensures that PCUSA is not ‘profiting from violence and human rights crimes.’” Given the three companies targeted for divestment, PCUSA is encouraging violence and the murder of Israelis. The companies provide equipment that is non-violent, saves Israeli lives every day, and is critical for Israel’s self-defense in a violent and hostile region.

PCUSA named Caterpillar because Israel allegedly “weaponizes” its tractors—a misnomer for the fact that Israel puts armor on them to protect operators from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other attacks—and because its tractors are used to build the West Bank security fence. While the fence inconveniences Palestinians in its path, it has also reduced Israeli casualties by nearly 100 percent. As Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq complained in 2007, “[carrying out] such attacks [suicide bombings] is made difficult by the security fence and the gates surrounding West Bank residents.”

PCUSA targeted Hewlett-Packard because it sells biometric screening equipment to Israel and allegedly provides Information Technology Systems to the Israeli Navy. The biometric screening is used to identify Palestinians entering Israel to ensure they have security clearance. The system is neither violent nor invasive and was implemented to speed up passage through checkpoints. It does not violate anyone’s human rights, and in fact is used  in airports across Europe, Australia, and the U.S. PCUSA objects to helping the Israeli navy because of the naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, a blockade that the U.N. Palmer Report confirmed was entirely legal and necessitated by Hamas’s state of armed conflict against Israel.

PCUSA indicted the third company, Motorola Solutions, because it sells “ruggedized” cell phones to the IDF and surveillance equipment to some Jewish communities in the West Bank. This equipment does not harm Palestinians, and saves lives.

PCUSA’s criminalization of these critical self-defense measures sends an ugly message to Israelis: respond to aggression passively, and die quietly.

Self-Delusion No. 4: “PCUSA’s divestment is not part of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” Not true. No matter how much PCUSA claims otherwise, divestment advances a central BDS strategy.

PCUSA divestment advocates’ mantra that they weren’t divesting from Israel, but only from three American companies, is nonsense. It called on these companies to boycott Israel.  

Furthermore, the divestment clause and its rationale are replicas of those used by the BDS movement in other venues. BDS leaders were prominent in the committee and lobbied assiduously at the GA, though their affiliation with BDS was never acknowledged. Rifat Kassis, a committee “expert advisor” who spoke frequently, works directly with the Boycott National Committee, the central leadership of the BDS movement. Members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a leader of the global BDS campaign, were omnipresent. Immediately after the resolution passed, BDS diehards took to social media, claiming a new BDS victory. As many divestment opponents reiterated, PCUSA unwittingly or willingly became part of a movement it cannot influence.

Self-Delusion No. 5: “Divestment does not reflect anti-Semitism.” It does. After the divestment vote, PCUSA leaders protested that they “love their Jewish brothers and sisters”—clear evidence they were worried about anti-Semitism. JVP activists trumpeted their Jewish identity, declared their support for divestment, and reassured PCUSA members that many Jews actually support the measure, even though JVP is a fringe group far outside the mainstream of American Jewry.

The obsession with Israel was another tell-tale sign. All 14 resolutions in the committee were about Israel and the Palestinians.  The silence about the atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere, and about the persecution of Christians, exposed the committee’s double standards and yes, anti-Semitism.

PCUSA may have distanced itself from the “Zionism Unsettled” study guide—an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic screed written by its Israel Palestine Mission Network—but the document’s bigotry pervaded the speeches of divestment advocates. The committee debate resurrected anti-Semitic canards, now applied to the Jewish state. Worse, PCUSA passed another resolution for a study group to evaluate whether PCUSA should continue to support a two-state solution—that is, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. These measures and the demonizing views of Israel are unabashedly anti-Semitic.

Roberta P. Seid

Self-Delusion No. 6: “The divestment decision will reinforce PCUSA’s image as a faith group that works for reconciliation, peace, and morality.” Just the opposite is true. PCUSA has exposed its bias and dishonesty and ruined its credibility. Once highly respected, the PCUSA has disqualified itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East and elsewhere. PCUSA’s judgment simply cannot be trusted.

Self-Delusion No. 7: “This decision will strengthen PCUSA.” Actually, the anti-Israel stance has already caused bitter divisions inside the Presbyterian Church, and with its former friends. Divestment clearly is divisive. It passed by a margin of only seven votes among 613. As a whole, Presbyterians in the pews do not support the anti-Israel measures adopted by their leadership. At the Church’s last GA two years ago, divestment was replaced with a call for “engagement” that passed overwhelmingly in a 369-290 vote, with eight abstentions. In the ensuing two years, PCUSA lost 500 of its larger member churches in part because of the leadership’s anti-Israel positions. Many PCUSA members who worked hard to defeat the bigoted anti-Israel resolutions have said they may separate from PCUSA. Jewish organizations across the ideological spectrum have denounced PCUSA for irreparably harming interfaith relations.

Roz Rothstein

These are fitting results of PCUSA’s pernicious anti-Israel resolutions, and the manipulations and self-delusions that enabled their passage.

Roberta P. Seid, PhD, is the education/research director of the Israel education group StandWithUs. Roz Rothstein is the CEO of StandWithUs.

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Posted on July 2, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S., Christian.