A Moral Quandary: an Open Letter to Commissioners

Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on June 7, 2010 Edit This

Commissioners to the PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly, you face a moral quandary.  Unfortunately you also face a practical nightmare.  The amount of business on Israeli and Palestinian issues you will have to consider is daunting.  In writing over the last couple of weeks, I have spent considerable time examining that business.  It reaches a point where one’s instinctive reaction is to tune it out and look for a bottom line.

You may feel a lot of pressure to complete this business amicably; the climate of General Assemblies insures that you will automatically feel pressure to affirm reports from committees.  It is a simple fact that the GA system is weighted toward approval of committee recommendations.  Failure to do so might indicate a lack of appreciation for all the committee members’ hard work.  Additionally, you may feel a pressure to try to please everyone – knowing that whatever you do, someone will be unhappy and critical.  This combination of pressures tends to result in one of two outcomes:  affirmation of committee work and recommendations or an attempt to split the difference.

I wish I could offer you a simple evaluation of the issues before you.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  There is a great difference between the actions you are being asked to take and their purpose and symbolic significance.  Each occurs within a larger context that is distinct from what you see on paper.  Your task is to discern both properties.

Of each action, you must ask – will it help the situation?  Will it cause harm?  Is it part of a larger, more sinister rhetoric?  Is it fair?  Does it take into account all sides?  Or is it weighted in one direction only?  How will it be understood by Presbyterians, by Palestinians, by Israelis, by Muslims, by Jews, by other Christians, by Americans generally, or by people in other parts of the world?  Will this action tie the PC(USA) to a particular agenda?  If so, how is that justified?

Though this is probably a gross oversimplification, these are the actions you are being asked to take by committees of the national PC(USA) or by presbyteries:

* divest from Caterpillar

* strongly denounce Caterpillar

* charge Israel with the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people

* endorse the Kairos document, ‘A Moment of Truth: A Word of Faith and Hope from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering,’  [This is problematic because of the attitudes of the document rejecting the existence of a Jewish State and casting Palestinian violence solely as a response to the occupation.]

* cut off military aid to Israel – or tie such aid to Israeli compliance with certain demands

* call on Israel and Gaza to consent to independent evaluations of their actions in the recent conflict

* approve a human rights update that alone, out of all the world, finds Israeli Jewish violations of religious freedom worthy of Presbyterian attention, and alone, out of all the world, finds Palestinian Christians and Muslims to be the only victims of religious discrimination worthy of comment

* endorse the concept of “universal jurisdiction” (currently used as the basis for politically motivated trials of Israeli officials in various European courts)

* endorse right of return (for Palestinians – though no mention is made of  the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people also displaced and dispossessed in 1948)

* make the Middle East Study Committee a permanent monitoring group of PC(USA) policy

* support the establishment of an international council for Jerusalem

* approve a paper on Christians and Jews – unique in that it cautions against continuing Christian antisemitism

* refer the paper on Christians and Jews for a re-write because of complaints from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network 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.

* approve the paper on Christian Muslim Relations

*acknowledge the inherent complexity of the conflict and defer from taking positions that appear to favor either side in the conflict

* defer from taking actions or making statements that align the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with unilateral support for any of the specific parties involved in the struggle.

* approve part of the MESC report, and receive another portion of it.

The action items that you must consider are weighted in one direction.  All of us can agree that the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is bad.  Most of us can agree that Palestinians have legitimate aspirations and legitimate complaints against Israel.  They were promised a state in 1948 and 60 years later it has not materialized.  Most of us can agree that Israel has legitimate security interests and legitimate complaints against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah, and some neighboring states.  Most of us can agree that Palestinians have experienced some human rights abuses.  Most of us can agree that Israel has, at times, taken unhelpful and unfair actions.

When I was in the West Bank, I understood clearly that if I had to put up with what many Palestinians do, I would hate it.  In Sderot, I understood that if I had to put up with a constant barrage of rockets lobbed indiscriminately, I’m not sure what I would do.   The bottom line is that something does need to be done.

Yet at that point, I part company with the advocates of most items you will consider.  They are either about placing blame on one side only, or they assume blame and seek to punish one side.  I do not believe this is a reasonable interpretation of the facts.  Instead it seems to warp the facts into a cartoon with inhuman villains on the Jewish Israeli side, and mostly virtuous and much aggrieved victims among the Palestinians.  Of course, exceptions are made for Jewish and Israeli supporters of this narrative – the Middle East Study Committee lifts up Jewish Voice for Peace, J-Street, and B’Tselem for particular commendation.

[Yet even J-Street – which was praised by the Middle East Study Committee – was “troubled by ‘Breaking Down The Walls'”, and has “serious disagreements with the Committee’s recommendations”. They found “the study document [to] consistently downplay Israel’s very real security concerns, appear to shrug off any Palestinian responsibility for resolving the ongoing conflict, and underplay the Israeli narrative throughout”.]

Unfortunately, J-Street has a point.  Many of the items presented for your consideration by the Middle East Study Committee, by the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, and by the presbyteries of San Francisco, Newark, San Jose, and Chicago embrace and rely upon one narrative only.  In every case where facts are disputed, the presumption of honesty is given to the pro-Palestinian side only.

Among other things, the Middle East Study Committee describes, “the 1948 invasion of Palestine by Israeli soldiers”, laments the formation of Israel in which “the Palestinians were deemed expendable for the purpose of assuaging the guilt of Western Christianity”, favorably quotes an activist who describes Israel as “a spoiled child” and “a Nazi state”, bemoans “how viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Jewish community”, and regrets that “the clock cannot be turned all the way back to 1948″.

The Middle East Study Committee does well to lift up particular stories of Palestinian loss – stories like those of Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek and (committee member) Dr. Nahida Gordon that reflect the experience of many Palestinians.  The MESC does well to lift up difficulties and injustices often faced by Palestinians today.  It is important and right that Presbyterians hear these voices – voices that demand your compassion and empathy. That is an integral part of understanding the conflict and being able to respond appropriately to it.

But there are other voices I am not hearing in this report. Absent are the testimonies of the families of victims and the survivors of terrorist attacks.  Missing are voices like that of Yossi Mendelevich – whose thirteen year old son, Yuval, was murdered in a bus bombing in Haifa on his way home from school; voices like that of vascular surgeon, Dr. Shmuel Yurfost – who was blinded in an explosion at a mall; voices like that of Philip Litel – whose daughter Abigail was killed by Mahmoud Hamdan Kwasma on the same bus as Yuval.  Kwasma’s mother reportedly said she was proud of his deed.

These voices too demand your compassion and empathy.  But they are missing, sidelined, minimized.  Instead you are told (with something approach cold indifference), “a relatively small minority [of Palestinians] has resorted to violence as a means of resisting the occupation.”

Also missing from the MESC report are the voices of a significant number of Palestinian Christians not represented by our partners in the region. Also missing are the voices of converts to Christianity who have often been kidnapped, jailed, or tortured by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.  Also missing are the voices of Jewish people displaced and dispossessed from neighboring countries in the 1948 and later.  Yes, their existence is mentioned in the MESC report – but only in the context of bolstering calls for Palestinian right of return.  Under no circumstances are Presbyterians being asked to advocate FOR the right of return or negotiated compensation for Jewish displaced persons.  And at no point are we hearing their voices.

The problem is:  hearing one side only can never result in justice.  It can never be a wise act.  It can never be a moral act.

You can choose to adopt the narrative offered to you.   But understand – to do so is to choose to favor one side and to treat Israel and the Jewish people in a manner distinct from your treatment of all other nations and groups under heaven.  You can choose to embrace a double standard; you can give that choice whatever rationalization appeals to you.  Or you can insist on fairness.

You can choose to accept the history offered to you by the MESC even though many of its proffered ‘facts’ are seriously disputed.  But by doing so, by believing one side in every case you will be demonstrating the assumption that, where there are competing claims, the government of Israel – the only Jewish state – always lies, and the Palestinians always tell the truth.  Or you may choose to reject bias and require accuracy.

You can choose, along with the Presbytery of San Francisco, to embrace the letter from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.  But if you do, you will be saying that lobbing unsupported accusations of violence and criminal behavior at American Jewish organizations is OK with you; you will be indicating that you believe it is reasonable to argue that the uptick in antisemitism is caused by Israeli actions; you will be saying that rejection of the concept of a Jewish state is fine; and you will be saying that American synagogues contribute to the “oppression of Palestinians over the last six decades”.  You may choose this option, or you can decide that some statements really are out of bounds.

You can choose to reduce a tragic, longstanding, complex, and seemingly intractable conflict into a cartoon or morality play in which one side is made up of victims and heroes and the other side is energized and motivated by supernatural evil.  You can choose this even though it is manifestly false.  You may choose it even though it will in no way bring peace or justice to anyone.  Or you can choose to be responsible, ethical, and moral.

Will Spotts

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