You know how that condescending line goes: “Some of my best friends are … .” Well, some of MY best friends support the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement, and some of my best friends oppose the BDS movement. In all due respect to them, I’m inclined to say, “A pox on both your houses.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) involvement with the BDS movement began 10 years ago with a Florida congregation. The movement urges groups to use economic pressure to leverage Israel to abandon its occupation of Palestinian lands and to repeal other unjust, discriminatory policies.
The BDS movement has grown but sputtered as well, given the ambivalence felt by many persons of good faith — including us Presbyterians, as evidenced by razor-thin votes on related matters in every GA since 2004.
As commissioners and delegates to the 2014 GA prepare to do earnest and diligent work, I would suggest a few questions they need to ask themselves.
Will we be manipulated by the race hatred shame game? Reality: We all are guilty of avoiding, misjudging and mistreating “the other” — Jews and Palestinians/Arabs included. However, the impetus driving both the pro-BDS and anti-BDS efforts is a deep Presbyterian conviction: our rejection of class and wealth privilege. Ours is the branch of Christianity that jettisoned the royals-commoners caste system by eliminating the clergy-laity divide. Our ordination of ruling elders alongside teaching elders in a parity governance system informs our relationships with humanity in general. Accordingly, the major driver for and against BDS is to advocate for persons threatened by and/or suffering from injustice. You cannot atone for generations of sins against either Jews or Palestinians. You may be able to help the real sufferings and fears of both people-groups.
Will we confuse symbol with substance? You will hear that the Palestinians say the BDS movement is helping them. But have the Israeli government’s policies improved over the past decade? Whenever outside organizations stand in solidarity with the Palestinians via BDS declarations, their isolation feels a little less like solitary confinement. But if that’s all that results, then what you have is mere symbolism, not substance.
If not BDS, then what? The 2012 GA directed our entities to do positive investment into the Palestinian economy. It’s getting done. But commissioners do well to ask BDS opponents what they suggest doing that might change Israeli policies. When the Pew Forum last year asked American Jews if they think the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement, 48 percent said “no,” and only 38 percent said “yes.” If the American Jewish community is not able to influence Israeli policies, and BDS opponents see divestment as counterproductive, then what else can we do — other than wash our hands?
Will we shun the folks back home? At a time when our home churches are being torn apart by the adoption of policies on the denominational level, will you withdraw so far into your GA hothouse that you’ll just pretend that their concerns don’t matter? Or, before voting, will you ask yourself how any action you take will impact those conflicted congregations?
Will we allow either group to dominate advocacy at the GA? In the 2012 meetings of the Middle East Peacemaking Committee, the BDS advocates enjoyed the privilege of the floor for hours and the BDS opponents were given minutes. The recent sacking of Al Butzer from serving as the 2014 of the Committee on Middle East Issues (CMEI) moderator for having toured Israel with Jewish sponsorship, coupled with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s sponsorship of a recent Palestinian-oriented tour of the Holy Land for 120 Presbyterians, suggests that equal advocacy opportunities are not in the cards. The CMEI’s members have the right to change the docket format to ensure fairness. Will you?
I love my friends. So, I’m not really saying “A pox on both your houses.” But I do appeal to them and to the commissioners: don’t cast a pox upon the church by failing to ask and answer the critical questions.