The 2012 national meeting (220th General Assembly) of the PC(USA) will be here in a month. Once again, commissioners will consider a number of proposals on Israelis and Palestinians. Once again, many of these proposals are problematic at best.
This site is an archive of posts from the 2010 GA. Posts on the current (220th) General Assembly are available at The PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine
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Tagged 219th General Assembly, 220th General Assembly, anti-Israel bias, church, Israelis, Palestine, Palestinians, PC(USA), PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine, Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 11, 2010 Edit This
This is not the post I planned to write.
That post was called “From Fictions to Lies: Institutional Support for the MESC”. It was a scandalized reaction to recent official and semi-official Presbyterian strategic moves to push forward the anti-Israel agenda at the General Assembly. I found myself thinking about how best to persuade, how best to counter, how to even get a hearing from commissioners.
Then I remembered a line from the 1968 movie, Lion in Winter:
I’m vilifying you. For God’s sake, pay attention.
(I admit it; I’m a sucker for quotes.) When I thought of this, I laughed out loud. It struck me as eminently appropriate; it described both what I was doing in my intended post (and what I have done in one or two others), and what the MESC, the ACSWP, the MRTI, the IPMN, and some presbyteries are doing to Israel and to the Jewish people.
I’m no good at strategy; I detest marketing; I don’t even particularly like politics – except as a study in human behavior. I’m just a guy with a blog, spending way too much time (I don’t really have), hoping to dissuade people I actually care about from embracing something ugly, harmful, and untrue. At that point, I realized there was nothing I could do to improve the situation – the 219th General Assembly was going to do what it was going to do, and my best response was to wait it out.
So here we are, several days later. The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has adjourned. For good or ill it has completed its work. And for the next few weeks a variety of interested parties will attempt to interpret their actions – both to Presbyterians and to people outside the denomination.
How did they do?
My first reaction is to say, “The lamps are going out in Presbyterian churches all over America; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
But that is unjust. It is not an accurate reaction. It is no more true than the statements that celebrate the miracle at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
More accurately, the 219th General Assembly attempted to split the difference.
They seem to be seeking the illusion of safety by carefully steering a course between the virulently anti-Israel, the occasionally anti-Judaic, the sometimes openly antisemitic on one side and the less virulently anti-Israel and moderately prejudiced on the other. At this point commissioners do not seem to have realized that the coveted middle ground is only middle ground within the context of business items overwhelmingly skewed in one direction.
What they did that was good:
1. They rejected divestment.
2. They rejected the use of the word “apartheid”.
3. They elected to only receive the first section of the Middle East Study Committee Report. As such, it has no real status in the PC(USA) – so its statements criticizing American Jewish groups, its quirky theology, its patronizing letters, and the peculiar vignettes (whose status was never clear – as these were randomly interspersed in this section) aren’t PC(USA) policy. Nonetheless, receiving this section and using it as rationale for the large number of approved recommendations gives it some authority.
4. They altered the language on the Gaza blockade from blanket opposition to this:
Calls on the Israeli and Egyptian governments to limit their blockade of Gaza solely to military equipment/devices and to guarantee adequate levels of food, medicine, building supplies, and other humanitarian items, and to allow free commercial exchange in and out of Gaza, and calls on the U.S. government to end any support for the blockade that interferes with the adequacy of such items or such exchange.
5. They explicitly re-affirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”
6. They rejected the call for the MESC to become a permanent monitoring group. Instead, they call for the creation of a seven member group selected by the current and immediate past moderators (Elder Cynthia Bolbach and Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow). This group must include at least one but no more than two MESC members; the total membership must “together comprise an authentic balance representing the fullness of the spectrum of commitments within the PC(USA) toward the people and issues in the region”.
7. They rejected part 3 of the report with its extremely one-sided history. Instead they solicited eight narratives of comparable length, four “from the range of authentically Palestinian perspectives” and four “from the range of authentically Israeli perspectives” to take its place. These narratives and an additional bibliography are to be approved by the monitoring group.
Clearly, the GA made some improvements to the MESC Report, and clearly the GA chose to avoid extremity in a couple of business items. Nonetheless, a great deal now hinges on the good faith of the current and immediately past moderators to select an authentic balance of participants in the new monitoring group. It should be pointed out that a similar requirement for balance was in place when the original, highly unbalanced MESC was selected.
There is one other positive outcome I must mention – in order to be fully honest and accurate. A large number of clearly moderate and even very pro-institutional Presbyterians (with regular critics of Israeli actions among them) recognized that the Middle East Study Committee Report went too far – was too unfair – and needed a greater degree of balance. Even two members of the committee supported some change in this regard. Some people place great hope in this change of heart; I am not among them. But it is a development worth watching.
What the 219th GA did that was neutral:
1. They switched the order of words in their partial endorsement of the Kairos document. Perhaps this helps to clarify the intent of the MESC recommendation. Yet it still leaves an open question: what exact elements of the Kairos document are indicated by, “emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation”? [For those unfamiliar with the document, it should be mentioned that (among other things) it supports boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, and it rejects the concept of a Jewish state. The bottom line: the moral character of this endorsement depends entirely what exactly it is interpreted to entail.]
2. They passed resolutions criticizing the U.S. for its military aid to Israel, and calling on the U.S. to make all aid to Israel “contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” [I have listed this as neutral because it is not a new action for the PC(USA); prior General Assemblies have made comparable demands. Yet the modified MESC report replaced the original report’s “military aid” with the broader phrase “U.S. aid to Israel”.]
What the 219th GA did that was bad:
1. They referred the paper, “Christians and Jews: People of God”, for a re-write. [Rejecting the paper was not necessarily bad in itself – one could have had legitimate reasons to do so. Nonetheless, the instructions the GA gave for the re-write, the overture to which it responded, and the fact that it passed the paper, “Toward an Understanding of Christian Muslim Relations” add up to an extraordinarily negative decision. Among other things, this rejected paper included a Presbyterian rejection of Christian antisemitism.]
2. They approved the inexcusably unbalanced ACSWP Human Rights Update 2010. [This committee was tasked with
Identify[ing] Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly.
The only nation the ACSWP saw fit to mention by name as a violator of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim civil rights and a violator of religious freedoms was Israel.]
3. They denounced Caterpillar. [Although stopping short of divestment, as symbolic gestures go, I’m not sure Israel-based denunciation is any better.]
4. They approved the rest of the recommendations of the MESC report. [See here for a more detailed listing of problematic items contained in the modified report.]
5. They approved the Belhar Confession [which is being used by anti-Israel activists as a (false) justification for church condemnations of Israel.]
6. They rejected the proposal to amend the process for forming PC(USA) social witness policy [which would at least have broadened Presbyterian participation in decision making.]
A great many people will try to put the best face on this set of outcomes. Yet I cannot call the 219th General Assembly’s actions good. The PC(USA) is in a worse position than it was two weeks ago. It is more anti-Israel; it has taken steps to affirm biased, anti-Israel, and even anti-Jewish statements on the part of its staff, its networks, and partners; it has once again taken the lead position among anti-Israel U.S. denominations. Yes, there are glimmers of hope: it was not as bad as it threatened to be; the moderators may do a fairer job at selecting Middle East monitoring group members; influential Presbyterians may have started to see that there are limits to how far the PC(USA) should actually go.
Is the glass nine-tenths empty or ten percent full? I guess it depends on your perspective.
What I do know is this:
The situation of Israelis and Palestinians is very complicated. It is not, as it is often cast, solely a justice issue with Israeli perpetrators and Palestinian victims. There are injustices certainly – and these need to be corrected. But this cannot be done by unjustly hearing only the concerns of one side.
It is possible to be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel. It is difficult, but it is a worthwhile effort – especially for church organizations. This requires a greater degree of creativity and work than that exhibited thus far within the PC(USA). Yet it is a failing shared among the pro-Palestinian advocacy community and those Presbyterians committed to fairness and accuracy.
Antisemitic and anti-Judaic themes are NEVER OK. They are ugly, dangerous, and unworthy of followers of Jesus Christ. [Given the history of Christian antisemitism, this is an area about which Christians should be vigilant.]
Holding Israel to a standard different than that to which you hold all other nations is bias, it is prejudiced, it is unjustifiable – and it is being done here.
Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. Antisemitism is antisemitism. Criticism of Israel can be biased – in which case the critic is guilty of anti-Israel bias. Some critics of Israel also happen to dabble in antisemitic themes. Bias is a problem, but it is the antisemitism that is THE problem – not the criticism of Israel.
The PC(USA) (like many groups involved in Middle East advocacy) has a systemic problem of anti-Israel bias, the employment of anti-Judaic themes, and the occasional use of classical antisemitic arguments. This problem remains unaddressed by the 219th General Assembly – not so much by silence but by actual choice on the part of commissioners to reject anything that might limit it.
The penultimate Presbyterian fiction is this: that Presbyterians in the pews are not accountable for the actions of the national organization. It is easy to regard this as the product of eight days in Minneapolis, an event of which many Presbyterians took little notice and which has little effect on them. But six years have passed since the PC(USA) emerged into the public consciousness with its divestment initiative. Three General Assemblies have come and gone. Much press coverage has been lavished on the PC(USA). By this point, the policies of the national organization on Israel and Palestine are the property of ordinary Presbyterians – whether they agree with them or not.
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Tagged 2010 PCUSA General Assembly, 219th General Assembly, ACSWP, anti-Israel bias, anti-Judaic themes, antisemitism, IPMN, Israel, Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA), Israeli, MESC, Middle East Study Committee Report PC(USA), middle-east, MRTI, Palestine, Palestinian, PC(USA), PC(USA) ACSWP, PC(USA) IPMN, PC(USA) MRTI, politics, Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church (USA), religion
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 10, 2010 Edit This
None of the actions will be final until the assembly concludes. Anything can still be “reconsidered”. At this point, however, all of the business items related to Israelis and Palestinians have been addressed.
* The paper, “Christians and Jews: People of God” has been referred for a rewrite.
* Divestment has been declined.
* The GA has denounced Caterpillar.
* The GA has declined to find Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid. It added this comment:
While we are deeply concerned with the policies implemented by Israel in relation to the Palestine territories and Palestinians under its jurisdiction, we believe that dialogue is hampered by words like “apartheid.”
* The GA approved a modestly less bad version of the MESC report.
* The GA expressed “its extreme disappointment with the U.S. government that … the State of Israel … continues to be the recipient of U.S. military aid.”
* The GA approved the Belhar Confession.
* The GA rejected the overture from the Presbytery of Grand Canyon on Amending the Process for Forming Social Witness Policy.
The good news: No divestment, no Israel = apartheid, and the modifications to the MESC.
The bad news: Everything else.
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 10, 2010 Edit This
Whatever may happen with the rest of the items on the PC(USA) 219th General Assembly Middle East agenda, it has taken definitive action on one thing. Presbyterians now own it.
The General Assembly has approved the overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco, “On Referring ‘Christians and Jews: People of God’ and ‘Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations’”. Well, more precisely, it decided to ONLY refer “Christians and Jews: People of God” for a re-write.
According to its rationale, this overture is based on a communication from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network. This communication is fraught with problems.
This action of the 219th General Assembly cannot be divorced from the rationale or from the IPMN communication that sparked it.
Among its many problems, it contains three elements that stand out.
1. The IPMN displays a strong animosity toward the existence of a Jewish State. The IPMN letter states it in this way:
“What the report fails to recognize is that expansionist forms of political and religious Zionism have been major ideological forces behind the confiscation of Palestinian land and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by every Israeli administration since 1948. The literature on this subject is vast and the reality undeniable. The push by the current government of Netanyahu for recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is one example of this ideology.”
2. the IPMN clearly places blame on Judaism rather than Israel or “Zionists” only.
“By neglecting the reality on the ground, this report would “make nice” with certain American Jewish organizations to avoid unwarranted charges of anti-Semitism. These are the organizations that have provided financial and political support for the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands since 1948, and used threat and intimidation to censor debate about Israel within and without the Jewish community.1 A report that confesses Christian guilt for the past and calls for changes in our theology and practice but neglects to mention the CONTRIBUTION OF AMERICAN SYNAGOGUES to the oppression of Palestinians over the past six decades appears to us as inauthentic interfaith dialogue.”
In their footnote, the IPMN says (in offensive and patently false terms):
The package (a bomb?) sent to 100 Witherspoon St in 2004, the fire in a Rochester church, the picketing of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship event at GA when Professor Norman Finkelstein was a featured speaker, and the many visits of teams of Jewish neighbors to local Presbyterian churches are examples of these tactics.
3. In the same letter, the IPMN says:
This “anti-Jewish rhetoric” [referred to in the paper] does not arise out of a vacuum, or some inchoate reservoir of anti-Semitism. In fact, the case can be made that it is a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel. And that this is related to the American Middle East wars, which, combined with the U.S. defense of Israel internationally, fuels anti-Jewish stereotypes and some classic anti-Semitic beliefs.
When considered in conjunction with the substance of the original paper (with its clear rejection of Christian antisemitism) and with the false footnote, two elements of this are unavoidably antisemitic. Whatever may happen with the MESC, with divestment, with denunciation, with the apartheid label – the General Assembly of the PC(USA) has already embraced antisemitism. That is now the official policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 8, 2010 Edit This
At a PC(USA) General Assembly, committees offer recommendations to the entire GA; these recommendations are usually – but not always – accepted.
* Committee 8 rejected the report on Christians and Jews. They accepted the recommendation from the Presbytery of San Francisco that contained (in an appended letter from the IPMN) blatant lies about the actions of American Jewish organizations. They refer the report for revision to the Office of Interfaith Relations and the Office of Theology and Worship – to rewrite after “broader consultation to include the National Middle East Presbyterian Caucus, PC(USA) partner churches and agencies in the Middle East, relevant mission networks of the PC(USA), the ACREC, and the ACSWP.
In short, Committee 8 insists that anything positive in this report – namely a move by the PC(USA) away from anti-Judaic and antisemitic discourse – be completely gutted.
* Committee 11 has approved the ACSWP Human Rights Report 2010 that takes an inexplicably bigoted stance in uniquely singling out Israel for criticism for religious discrimination and violations of religious freedom.
* Committee 14 has decided:
a. to denounce Caterpillar (and not to divest from Caterpillar). This is a distinction without a difference, but divestment might be regarded as having slightly more symbolic weight.
b. to approve the overture from Chicago expressing extreme disappointment with the U.S. government that the State of Israel continues to be a recipient of U.S. military aid.
c. to reject the overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco finding Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid.
d. to approve a “perfected” MESC report. This report has undergone several changes. Some are purely cosmetic. One looks like an improvement but is actually worse. A couple are clearly changes for the better. One of these is quite significant.
The problem is, the perfected MESC is still highly biased, its recommendations are remarkably weighted against Israel – and these give every indication of having been painstakingly chosen to do the most possible damage to Israel. While the perfected MESC is clearly different than the original, it is a matter of choosing between a very bad report and a somewhat less very bad report. The MESC coming out of committee 14 still poses insurmountable problems for people concerned with basic fairness and accuracy in Presbyterian policy statements.
* Committee 16 has approved the Belhar Confession.
The General Assembly has already acted on the recommendation of Committee 16 and chosen to add the Belhar Confession to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. Because it involves a change to the Book of Confessions, this action must be ratified by the presbyteries.
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 6, 2010 Edit This
Committee 14 has approved the overture from the Presbytery of Chicago calling on the 219th General Assembly to
“express its support for the U.S. government policy of carefully vetting the funds distributed to foreign countries in ways that ensure peaceful development and are consistent with international law, human rights protections, and U.S. foreign policy,” and to “Express its extreme disappointment with the U.S. government that while the State of Israel has been found not to comply with the above statutes, it continues to be the recipient of U.S. military aid.”
Committee 14 has approved the overture from the Presbytery of Baltimore.
“Call upon the government of Israel to establish an independent commission, whose findings it could accept, to investigate the allegations of inappropriate behavior contained in the Goldstone Report regarding actions of the Israeli Defense Force in Operation Cast Lead, and to report its findings to the government of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas authorities in Gaza, and the secretary general of the United Nations.” To, “Call upon the Hamas authorities in Gaza to work together to establish an independent commission, whose findings it could accept, to investigate the allegations of inappropriate behavior contained in the Goldstone Report regarding actions of Hamas and its military, and to report its findings to the Hamas authorities in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, the government of Israel, and the secretary general of the United Nations.” To, “Call on the United States government, its president and Congress, to actively engage with all authorities involved in the Gaza conflict to initiate and sustain the proposed independent investigations.” And to, “Urge the U.S. government to continue to work actively through the presence of its special envoy to further peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas authorities in Gaza, and the government of Israel.”
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 6, 2010 Edit This
Committee 8 has recommended disapproval of the paper, “Christians and Jews: People of God”. It has not yet revealed its rationale.
It will be remembered that this paper has received complaints that originated from the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA) contained in a letter that among other things, publicly accused (without offer of proof) American Jewish organizations of bomb threats against Presbyterians and of arson at a Presbyterian church, and that cast the increase in antisemitism as a reaction to Israel’s actions. The IPMN farther insisted that it be a partner in any future rewrites of this paper – apparently to make sure it enshrined the IPMN’s bigoted perspective into Presbyterian theology.
It might also be remember that this paper:
1. Necessarily recasts “the relationship of the Christian church to the people Israel” from one “of a replacement” to one “of “a wild olive shoot” grafted into “the rich root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17).” This is a clear rejection of the replacement theology that has often appeared in much of the anti-Israel literature.
2. To some degree this report acknowledges the necessity of historic Judaism to Christianity and acknowledges that the historic Christian heresy of Marcionsism continues to be felt in the church today.
3. This paper acknowledges the continuation of Christian antisemitism and explicitly rejects this on behalf of the PC(USA).
4. This report explores the antisemitic and anti-Judaic elements in the activisms of Presbyterians and their partners. These include historic Christian anti-Judaism and its stereotypes and prejudices; replacement theology; Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Christ; false characterizations of Zionism that distort that movement and demonize Jews – such as claims that it is solely an extension of European colonialism and a result of anti-Semitism, or that the problems and suffering of the Palestinians are due solely to Zionism.
This report cautions that critique of Israel by Christians must never come close in tone or content to a denunciation of Judaism or the Jewish people. It rejects polemic that identifies Israeli officials with Jewish authorities in the time of Jesus. It insists that responsible theological critique of state policies should not characterize a whole people as oppressors or “Christ-killers.”
Rejecting these modest premises does not bode well for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I know commissioners might have legitimate reasons for rejecting the report, but it appears (with considerable justification) to observers as if Presbyterians then approve of the several hateful items this report cautions against.
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 6, 2010 Edit This
Actions are not “official” actions of the General Assembly (and therefore not “official” PC(USA) policy) until they are voted on during plenary sessions later in the week. Nonetheless, work done in committees can give an indication of the direction things are taking.
Reading the entrails of committee work is not always easy and can defeat even the most experienced augurers. Two factors certainly affect this: advisory delegates have vote in committees but not in the plenary session, so that can affect the outcome; and the commissioners most familiar with a given topic are usually the ones serving on the committee that first considers it. Often – but not always – the plenary will simply rubber stamp the actions of committees.
So far, committees have acted on some business that pertains to Israelis and Palestinians.
Committee 11 (whose chief concern is “the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World) has finished its consideration of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s “Human Rights Report 2010″. In this report, the ACSWP declined to act on an instruction from GA218:
Identify Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly.
Instead, it decided to only mention one nation by name – singling it out for special criticism for violations of religious freedom. That nation, of course, was Israel.
Committee 11 apparently saw nothing unusual or problematic (or self-evidently bigoted and inaccurate) in this. Its members voted unanimously to approve the report.
Committee 14 has voted to approve the MRTI report including its recommendation to denounce Caterpillar. The committee has answered the overtures calling for divestment from Caterpillar with that action.
Committee members may or may not realize that the effect of denunciation is indistinguishable from that of divestment. Both are rhetorical actions; both are a form of theater; both are a part of a wider boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement designed to delegitimize Israel. And, frankly, neither are the product of the work necessary to render them moral decisions. The research is simply lacking; no account has been given of how CAT was selected from among all current and potential PC(USA) investments; no account has been given of how all other current and potential PC(USA) investments in corporations that do business with Israel are able to pass the PC(USA)’s ethical muster. It is not based on the actions of Caterpillar, but on the association of Caterpillar with Israel.
While the picture is in no way comprehensive, and these actions are not yet final, they give observers an idea of the direction the 219th General Assembly seems to want to take.
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on July 4, 2010 Edit This
“I’m not sure that ‘do no harm’ is a Biblical value.”
– Rev. Susan Andrews, former GA Moderator and MESC member
“The way the U.S. government supports Israel is a form of terrorism. You are using government helicopters and F-16s. This is the worst kind of terror!”
– Dr. Nahida Gordon, MESC member
Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on June 30, 2010 Edit This
Antisemitism no longer exists; it is a problem of the past that affects Israelis and Jews as a “psycho-trauma”, but it poses no serious threat today.
I first really became aware of the PC(USA)’s Israel problem when the General Assembly voted for divestment in 2004. I took it as harmless bandwagonism – a misguided attempt to seem relevant by copying fashionable, college campus activism. But I was startled enough to actually look into it – to read the GA minutes, to see what the ACSWP (in its now defunct Church and Society Magazine and in its history provided to the GA), the Washington Office, and the Presbyterian News Service had to say about Israel.
I detected bias – both in terms of a remarkable singularity of negative focus on Israel (about 20 times that spent on China, Iran, or North Korea), and in terms of presentation of facts (that either omitted relevant details, oversimplified events, or presented outright falsehoods). But, to be honest, I was not that concerned with anti-Israel bias. I regarded it in the same way I regard most political bias.
But something else in the Presbyterian literature (and in the literature or Presbyterian partners and sources) did concern me. I encountered significantly anti-Judaic themes (by which I mean hostility to Judaism as a religion); some anti-Jewish themes (by which I mean generalizations of negative character traits to the Jewish people); and several blatant examples of historic antisemitic themes (language of contempt, the use of crucifixion and other explicitly Christian imagery to demonize Israeli Jews, notions of Jewish control of the US and other governments, assertions of Jewish control of media, the use of the Khazar meme).
This problem was so pervasive that it needed (and still needs) to be confronted; the anti-Jewish themes, aside from being loathsome, are also dangerous. Yet every time the issue is raised it is brushed aside. The people who push these anti-Judaic, anti-Jewish, and antisemitic themes immediately protest: “criticism of Israel is not antisemitic.” They sometimes go farther (as in the case of the MESC Report):
I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Jewish community that are quick to attach the label “anti-Semitic” to anyone who even suggests that there are serious ethical and legal issues at stake.
These protesters view accurate observations of antisemitism as a diversion from the real topic – their political agenda. Others, who are not really that interested in the politics of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel advocacy, either are mystified by or ridicule Presbyterians and others who raise concerns over anti-Jewish elements in the dialogue. Still others – who oppose the anti-Israel bias – regard confronting the anti-Judaism / antisemitism issue as profoundly unhelpful – and would be happy just to have a more politically balanced approach.
The bottom line is that it is the anti-Judaism and antisemitism that form the heart of the problem with much of the advocacy in the PC(USA). These are not side-items, irrelevant to the “real” issue of activist politics. Instead they are a central moral and ethical question that must be decided by commissioners.
Yet they are devoutly ignored by many Presbyterians.
The reason for this is an assumption – a fiction – that is sometimes stated in the advocacy literature of Presbyterians and others – but is rarely fully articulated. The idea is that anti-Judaism and antisemitism don’t really matter because these have become non-issues in the world. In plain terms, antisemitism is no longer dangerous.
The basic thrust of the argument is not a denial of the historic existence of antisemitism or a claim that the incidence of historic antisemitism has been significantly exaggerated. Instead it assumes a change has occurred: antisemitism is no longer oppressive because oppression requires both prejudice and institutional power. As a population (the argument goes) Jews are now empowered – therefore, while anti-Jewish prejudice may still exist, it cannot today exclude Jewish people from positions of power and influence.
The premise, that antisemitism has somehow become obsolete – a tragic relic of history – is one that a great many people very strongly want to believe. An argument can be made; people want to be persuaded; sizable advocacy groups have little problem finding a podium. As a consequence, this idea, no matter how dangerously flawed, has the potential to penetrate widely into the public consciousness.
This argument hinges on an actual change – for it to be valid, a preliminary condition is necessary: antisemitism must once have posed a problem, and now no longer does. So we are obliged to ask: has there been a reduction in antisemitism? Have barriers to Jewish integration and success been functionally eliminated?
The available evidence suggests that the answers to these questions are somewhat complex. In many ways, at least in the United States, there have been significant improvements. A type of glass ceiling seems to have been removed; significant barriers in many industries are no longer the norm. To be sure, there remain pockets of segregation, but these are far less widespread than they were only a few decades ago.
Also significantly, surveys commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League have shown reductions in the numbers of people who will agree with many classically antisemitic statements. [Examples include, “Jews have too much power in the US today”; “Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want”; and “Jews have a lot of irritating faults”. Between 1964 and 1998, there were dramatic reductions in the numbers of respondents who agreed with almost all of the statements – with the exception of “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America;” and “Jews stick together more than other Americans.”] Since 1998, however, that trend has begun noticeably to reverse. Statistics about antisemitic incidents in the United States present another mixed picture. Acts of vandalism have fairly consistently increased over the last five years, while reports of harassment seem to have peaked in 2004. Campus related incidents have generally increased since 1999. The number of incidents involving high schools and middle schools adds a troubling dimension.
In England, the Community Security Trust reports a trend of rising antisemitic incidents since 1997. In 2006 the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism stated, “Until recently the prevailing opinion both within the Jewish community and beyond was that antisemitism had receded to the point that it existed only on the margins of society. However, the evidence we received indicates that there has been a reversal of this progress since the year 2000.” The inquiry committee concluded that the belief that levels of antisemitism in Britain are rising is justified. It cited antisemitic discourse as a contributing factor in creating an “atmosphere where Jews have become more anxious and more vulnerable to abuse and attack than at any other time for a generation or longer.”
Statistics of antisemitic incidents reported in Europe do not show a clear trend. This is partly a function of disparate methods of compilation between nations. For instance, Germany and Austria appear only to record incidents that occur within a “right-wing political context.” A number of other European nations do not report antisemitic incidents. The Pew Global Attitudes Project has recorded a dramatic increase in unfavorable views of both Jews and Muslims since 2004. One eye-opening finding of their 2008 survey was the number of countries in which more than half of respondents reported an unfavorable opinion of Jews. These included Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon with a greater than 95% negative view; respondents in Turkey and Pakistan had a greater than 75% negative view; and Indonesia, China, and Brazil each reported at least a 50% negative view. Majorities of respondents in only three nations held negative views of Christians. Majorities of respondents in seven nations reported unfavorable views of Muslims; of these, Japan indicated the highest percentage of negative views at 61%. Attitude surveys commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League portray a fairly steady increase in the number of European respondents who agree to classically antisemitic statements over the last several years. Worldwide, the US State Department describes an increase in frequency and severity of antisemitic incidents in the 21st Century: “In recent years, incidents have been more targeted in nature with perpetrators appearing to have the specific intent to attack Jews and Judaism.”
An observable reality would be necessary to support any assertion that antisemitism has essentially become a non-issue, but the available facts present a mixed picture at best. A person would have to go to great lengths to minimize or excuse the antisemitism in several Islamic nations, in parts of Europe, and elsewhere. And a person would have to believe that the readily observable prejudices in those places were not held by people in positions of power.
But even were the initial contention about a reduction in the effective threat posed by antisemitism true – which is clearly not he case – the resultant argument still suffers from several flaws.
First, any argument of this kind, framed in terms of power dynamics, falsely implies that oppression causes harm while prejudice does not. It raises both moral and practical questions. Are prejudices and violent acts based on prejudices only to be resisted when the actors are perceived to be members of empowered groups and when their victims are held to be unempowered? The rationale provided here offers a moral cover story for treating some victims as if they were more important than others. This is faulty even when such a double standard is intended to redress a perceived imbalance of power; when it comes to individual victims of violence and actions based on prejudice, that imbalance no longer exists.
A related and equally indefensible consequence of this perceived power dynamic rationale is the fact that persons are held to significantly different standards of conduct based on their theoretical group affiliations. A tepid argument can be made to support the application of such a double standard to positive action. For example, one might reasonably expect greater contributions from a person who has access to greater resources – solely based on ability to contribute. It is morally indefensible, however, to apply this rubric to justify negative conduct – say, excusing indiscriminate violence on the part of the person held to be unempowered. The factors that might apply to positive responsibilities have no bearing on negative or violent behaviors.
While the language of power relationships is ubiquitous among advocacy groups and tends to be uncritically accepted, it is, in its own right, flawed. It requires a person to assign respective power, and that is something of an arbitrary judgment. In individual human interactions there is often an imbalance of power – one party often holds more power than another. But it is not always as easy as one might think to discern who is empowered and who is not, and things are not always as they appear on the surface. The application of this to groups, to races, to large populations becomes very tricky. It is often assumed without justification that all or most of the members of a population have the same level of power and privilege that some individuals enjoy.
An assessment of universal or near universal Jewish power and privilege is certainly not borne out by the data. It greatly depends on the communities in which individuals live. One must ask, is the Jewish resident of Sderot in the same position of empowerment as the Jewish resident of New York City, as the Jewish resident of London, as the Jewish resident of Russia, as the Jewish resident of Iran? This is manifestly not the case.
Additionally, arguments based on perceived power dynamics frequently contain an appalling and insupportable leap: if Jews are not currently an oppressed group (at least in the West) then antisemitism is no longer dangerous. The first portion of this statement can be responsibly argued – though most arguments currently being advanced are spurious. The second tenet, on the other hand, cannot be made to follow from the first. It either neglects the question of how groups become marginalized in the first place, or it naively over-simplifies the phenomenon. For this to be true, one would have to assume that a minority that enjoyed a certain level of power and access in a given community could never become marginalized by that community.
Indeed, that is the implication of the whole framework: it is the unempowered who become marginalized because they are already unempowered. If that were true, then the notion that prejudice was not dangerous – that only systemic oppression mattered – might (at least in broad terms) be sustainable. However, here again, the data does not fit the assumption. It supports a more complex phenomenon – one that has been repeatedly seen in history: prejudice often leads directly to disempowerment. It is true that prejudice is sometimes used to justify a previously existing imbalance of power, and it is true that the power relationship often enables and reinforces the prejudiced attitude. However, it is equally evident in other cases that specific prejudices do not spring from power relationships; instead, those prejudices create and sustain the power relationships.
For example, it is readily apparent that the Nazis employed systemic power to foster and increase prejudice, but at the same time, the Nazis came to power on the back of existing prejudice. Those areas under the control of the Third Reich where genocidal programs were most successful were precisely those areas where anti-Jewish prejudices already flourished. This prejudice wasn’t oppression until it had systemic power behind it – yet that power relationship never would have been possible had the prejudice not been present and considered acceptable in the first place.
It is obvious but apparently often overlooked that outbreaks of antisemitism that have resulted in horrific actions, have often been directed at people who regarded themselves as integrated and valued members of their societies. This self-perception of their own role and their own level of empowerment did nothing to protect them. It is also significant that the rhetoric employed to justify those historic outbreaks of antisemitism was often predicated on the assumption that the Jewish minority wielded disproportionate power. Here again, the perceptions of those outside the Jewish community of Jewish power offered no protection. In both cases – self-perceptions and external perceptions of empowerment and access seem to have increased (rather than mitigated) the harm caused by antisemitism.
Historically, this pattern of the public perception of Jewish people as being highly empowered leading directly to horrific actions against them has been too frequent and repetitive to ignore. In 1215, Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council enacted significant anti-Jewish legislation, including an order that Jews be visibly distinguishable from Christians. This was part of a program to limit the financial activities of the Jews – based on the assumption that they were acquiring too much economic power and influence. When Jews were expelled from France, England, Portugal, and Spain, in all four cases they had previously lived (at times) under good conditions, had legal rights (sometimes even privileges), held some offices, got along well with their neighbors. In all four cases, they were perceived has having too much economic power and influence; and all four expulsions were preceded by long term increases in popular antisemitic attitudes.
Of course, many factors affected the variable treatment of Jews in these countries; but their minority status always created a vulnerability to shifting popular opinions. They were perceived as being in positions of power and influence, and this perception, along with others, led directly to anti-Jewish prejudice – which in turn led directly to often horrific anti-Jewish action.
In 1543, Martin Luther penned one of the more extreme anti-Jewish polemics; his motives and rationale were varied. But one theme he clearly presents: “Thus [Jews] are our masters and we are their servants, with our property, our sweat, and our labor.” The entire argument of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (and its related documents) is a conspiracy theory, yes, but it hinges on perceptions of Jewish power. This power outlined in the Protocols is, of course, diabolical and super-human, but it would never resonate with the public if the public did not already have a general perception of Jewish empowerment.
The bottom line here is that both internal and external perceptions of Jewish empowerment, integration, security, or access have in no way rendered antisemitism non-dangerous. Whether or not one chooses to regard antisemitism as no longer a form of oppression in the West, one cannot reasonably conclude that increases in antisemitic attitudes are somehow a non-issue. It would be naïve at best for people of good will to harbor the idea that antisemitism has become OK, or a minor thing, and that it no longer needs to be strenuously opposed. To conclude that the situation today is somehow different enough that antisemitism can be permitted to run its course without incurring the horrific results that have accompanied it throughout history strikes me as the extremity of foolishness.
However flawed it may be, this assumption and its argument, this fiction, is being held with increasing regularity.
In this context it primarily serves two purposes:
First, the power dynamic line of reasoning automatically appeals to activists predisposed to view the world in terms of group power relationships. While that framework fails in analyzing antisemitism, it is, nonetheless, a firmly held conviction for many people. The portrayal of the empowered versus the unempowered also carries considerable weight with the uninitiated – who tend to have a natural affinity for the perceived underdog. For the pro-Palestinian activist community, portraying concern with antisemitism as fundamentally unreasonable – will go a long way toward casting Israelis as incomprehensible bullies and Palestinians as blameless underdogs. In fact, this perception is fast becoming the common one – to such a degree that activists are able to distort the many facts that don’t quite fit that model with impunity.
Second, the inescapable cloud of anti-Judaic bias that hangs over many segments of pro-Palestinian activism has caused considerable embarrassment to churches like the PC(USA), to civic organizations, to colleges, and to municipalities who are generally supportive of Palestinian aspirations, but who do not want to be affiliated with antisemitism. If, however, antisemitism can be transformed into a non-oppressive, essentially harmless, historic curiosity, then it’s really no big deal. Suddenly the patently antisemitic statements – like crucifixion and deicide imagery, allegations that Jews control the government, that disagreeable elements of the “Jewish character” are to blame for Jewish support for Israel, the application of a double standard to Israel, and the tolerance for verifiably false information – that are embraced in that activism are no longer repellant. How individuals and society in general respond to anti-Judaic statements and actions will depend, at least in part, on whether or not people buy into this concept. Not only will this render rational discussion of legitimate issues between Israelis and Palestinians an impossibility, but it also threatens to have an even more harmful effect. As more and more sinister antisemitic statements become accepted into the public discourse, given credibility by churches, civic organizations, colleges, and others, attitudes toward the Jewish people will inevitably degrade.