Discussion within the U.S. Presbyterian Church

Dexter Van Zile has written an excellent overview of a recent Presbyterian (U.S.A) Church assembly to discuss and revise their views on the Arab-Israel conflict.  Their views which previously had been slanted in an anti-Israel direction have been somewhat evened up.

The article is here

One section I found particularly interesting was – who are they,  and what’s in it for them.

“What Are We Dealing With?

 

The anti-Zionist coalition inside the PC(USA) is comprised of three groups.

 

The first part is a small but vocal number Arab Christians within the PC(USA) who have worked to use the denomination to attack Israel in the United States. Their main strategy is to point to the suffering of the Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, blame Israel for this suffering, and then insist that the only way the PC(USA) can acknowledge the plight of their Christian brethren in the Middle East is to condemn Israel while ignoring the deeds of its adversaries. This group is represented inside the PC(USA) by the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus. Given the personal histories of the people in this community, it’s unreasonable to expect them to be pro-Israel, but at the same time, it is irresponsible for the PC(USA) to accept, without challenge, the narrative they offer about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 

The second part of the anti-Zionist machine inside the PC(USA) is so-called peace activists who regard Palestinian Christians as the symbol of Christian martyrdom in the modern world. This group views Palestinians as beleaguered victims of colonialism and Israel as the distillation of everything that is wrong about Western civilization. This group is made up of laity, pastors and current and former missionaries to the Middle East.

 

As I have written elsewhere, Israel is, for these self-flagellants, the ram in the thicket, a convenient scapegoat. People who enjoy the material benefits of Western civilization’s bloody history can recover their innocence and evade punishment by charging Israel with the crimes their own ancestors committed in the distant, and not-so distant-past.  This group is represented inside the PC(USA) by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

These first two groups are the foot-soldiers, so to speak, for anti-Zionist activism in the PC(USA). People affiliated with these groups write most of the resolutions and submit them to local Presbyteries, and lobby to get them passed and put onto the agenda of the General Assembly. They form alliances with other anti-Israel activists outside the church, bring in anti-Israel speakers to local churches at events and prepare the materials to be distributed to the commissioners at the General Assembly.

 

They do this work with the financial and institutional assistance and political cover provided by a third group in the coalition. This group is made up of sympathetic pastors and church officials who grant these first two groups access to church resources and package the attacks they make on Israel’s legitimacy – such as the passage of the 2004 divestment overture – as “peacemaking.” These people are the stage managers and publicists for the two groups described above.

 

Denominational staffers and officials who work out of (or are affiliated with) the denomination’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky comprise the backbone of this group. This group is also comprised of former moderators, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee (which submitted the resolution calling for Caterpillar to be denounced and committees from the General Assembly Mission Council such as the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) which gives its blessing to anti-Israel resolutions submitted to the General Assembly and seeks to protect Israel’s adversaries from criticism.

 

What’s in it for them?

 

This final group is motivated by two impulses. Like the Arab Presbyterians and the larger circle of peace activists in the PC(USA), ideology surely plays a motivating role. There is, however, an instrumental aspect to their willingness to support and run interference for attacks on Israel in the church they lead. As I described in a previous essay for New English Review, attacks on Israel and its Jewish supporters in the U.S. generate controversy and, in turn, publicity for the PC(USA), which like other mainline denominations is shrinking and losing its ability to influence public discourse in the U.S. “Jews are news, and by extension so are the people who attack them.”

 

There is something else in it for them as well. By indulging, and in some instances, assisting in attacks on Israel – and its Jewish supporters in the U.S. – leaders of the PC(USA) and other mainline churches have used anti-Jewish rhetoric as a tool to maintain their niche in the religious marketplace in the U.S. and protect their dwindling influence on the American scene.

 

By attacking Israel and its supporters in the U.S., the mainline churches seek to portray their rivals – evangelical Christians – as supporting policies that contribute to Palestinian suffering and as threats to world peace. In other words, the leaders of these churches tolerate and in some instances assist in the demonization of Israel to assail evangelicals in the U.S., who by any measure are much more numerous and influential than the mainline community has been for years. And in their attacks on Israel, the so-called peace activists in the mainline community find it useful and necessary to attack Israel’s Jewish supporters in the U.S. as well because of their alliance with these evangelicals.

 

This is not a new strategy. In his book Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, Benjamin Ginsberg details how at various times in history, groups within American society have attacked Jews in an effort to assail, de-legitimize or supplant political and economic movements.

 

For example, white property owners in post Civil War South used anti-Semitism as a method of regional defense against industrial capitalism.  Anti-Semitism was also a mainstay of the backlash against liberalism, progressive reform and the labor movement during the Red Scare of 1919-1920.

 

The patrician class in the Northeast used anti-Semitism to reassert their dominance in the face of a changing economy in the 1800s. They barred Jews from social clubs they themselves had helped found and limited their admission to colleges and medical schools not only out of contempt for Jews, but to protect their status and reestablish their dominance in American society.  Ginsberg writes that “by assailing Jews, [New England Brahmins] attacked the industrialists, financiers, and railroad barons who were displacing them in the nation’s political and economic life. This fear was expressed in a stream of anti-Semitic writers and speeches on the part of New England’s leading public figures and intellectuals during the late nineteenth century.”

 

And in the 1960s, young black nationalists used anti-Semitism to assail the leaders of the civil rights movement who relied on Jewish financial support and activism for the success of their campaigns. By intimidating Jewish voting rights activists in SNCC field offices, these nationalists were not only targeting Jews, but their black coworkers as well.  Black activists also used anti-Semitic intimidation to drive white teachers and administrators (most of whom were Jewish) out of their jobs in the New York City school system. They did this with the acquiescence of non-Jewish white politicians who realized they could mollify the black activists by allowing the intimidation to proceed and to give these jobs to African Americans and Hispanics.

 

In all these instances, there was an instrumental as well as an emotive component to anti-Semitism.

 

The same can be said about mainline anti-Zionism and the community’s tolerance for and use of anti-Jewish rhetoric that goes along with it. It is a way for church administrators and denominational officials to assert their relevance even as their churches continue to decline in numbers. Applying Ginsberg’s analysis to current circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that by assailing Israel and its Jewish supporters in the U.S., mainline churches, the colonial mainline especially, are also attacking the conservative evangelical Christians who have displaced them in the nation’s religious life and political discourse.”

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