PORTLAND, Ore. – The General Assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee may be gearing up for another factional fight over the best next step for the church to take in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Two years ago in Detroit, the 221st General Assembly made the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the first mainline Protestant denomination to divest from companies based on their business practices in Israel-Palestine. It was a breathtakingly close call in 2012, when the assembly rejected sanctions by two votes, and it was nearly as close in 2014, when the assembly approved sanctions by a vote of 310-303.
In both those years, it was the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee that pushed for the sanctions. MRTI found that Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions had refused, despite years of prodding by the church, to stop Israel from using their products in ways that violated Palestinians’ human rights. The divestment vote required phased withdrawal of $16.5 million invested in the three companies.
This year, the likely bone of contention comes from a different source – the church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). Titled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” ACSWP’s lengthy set of recommendations (08-06) says the PC(USA) should reevaluate its longstanding commitment to separate states for Palestinians and Israelis, since facts on the ground may make it impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.
“Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation is deeply troubling,” ACSWP’s proposal says. “Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.”
The ACSWP proposal calls for the church to support a two-state solution if Israelis and Palestinians decide that’s what they want, but it also recommends several other measures that appear intended to punish Israel. They include calls for congressional hearings on Israeli use of U.S.-made military and police equipment, possible denial of tax benefits for organizations or individuals that invest in Israeli settlements and a U.S. commitment to avoid using its Security Council veto to block full membership for Palestine in the United Nations. ACSWP also calls on the government to lower trade barriers for imported goods made by Palestinians in the West Bank, and conversely to label products made in Israeli settlements – which, presumably, would enable consumers to boycott those goods.
Signs of pushback against the ACSWP recommendations have emerged recently in the form of two commissioners’ resolutions. As of noon June 19, neither of those resolutions had been referred to a committee, and none of their sponsors are members of the Middle East Committee.
One of them (CR-005), proposed by commissioners Jill Schaeffer of the Presbytery of New York City and Mark Boyd of Beaver-Butler Presbytery, asks for churchwide use of a report by the advocacy group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace as “an informational resource.” That report, “Two States for Two Peoples,” spells out a case for continuing the church’s commitment to a two-state solution, which it calls ”the best and most viable path towards ending the conflict and establishing sustainable peace.”
The other commissioners’ recommendation (CR-006), offered by Michael Gizzi of the Great Rivers Presbytery and Bryan Franzen of the Presbytery of San Jose, calls for a churchwide refusal to support or affiliate with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which it calls “an umbrella organization” of groups supporting a so-called BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) strategy. The commissioners’ measure says BDS undermines prospects for peace in Israel-Palestine.
Both commissioners’ resolutions reflect the stance of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, which has likened the ACSWP plan to a report that roiled the church in 2014. In a written response to the ACSWP proposal, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace labels it “a continuation of failed research, faulty theology and political agendas” reminiscent of that earlier report, “Zionism Unsettled.”
Issued by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network, “Zionism Unsettled” drew such heated criticism from Jewish groups and from some Presbyterians that the 2014 General Assembly disavowed it. One of its co-authors said the document dissected the fusion of religious ideology with political power, but its critics said it distorted Zionist and Israeli history.
Three other proposals assigned to the Middle East Issues Committee would also apply economic pressure on Israel or companies that do business there.
An overture from the Ohio-based Synod of the Covenant (08-01) calls for all branches of the church to boycott products made by Hewlett-Packard and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise until the companies cease non-peaceful activities in Israel and Palestine. The Advisory Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) recommends approving the measure, but ACSWP warns against it, noting that it would take the church into dubious territory, since the Hewlett-Packard products needed by churches would not be the kinds used to violate human rights or contribute to non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.
An overture from the Redwoods Presbytery (08-04) calls for the Denver-based RE/MAX real estate company to stop selling property in Israeli settlements. The proposal says RE/MAX has offices in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and is involved in housing sales restricted to Jewish purchasers. Both ACREC and ACSWP recommend approval.
Both those advisory groups also recommend approval of an overture (08-07) from New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina calling for a study of calls from Palestinian organizations for the deployment of BDS sanctions aimed at Israel. When the 221st General Assembly approved divestment in three companies, it explicitly said it did not intend to align itself with groups that support a broad BDS strategy.
The Synod of the Covenant also sponsored a measure (08-02) calling for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, through the Office of Public Witness, to press for Israel to comply with international law in observing the human rights of children in Israel and Palestine. The New York City Presbytery sponsored an overture (08-03) calling for the church to strengthen its ties with Christians and churches in the Middle East. Both those measures have advisory committee support.
An overture from the Flint River Presbytery in Georgia (08-05) failed for lack of a concurrence by another presbytery or synod. The presbytery urged the General Assembly to “remove the divestment mandate” approved two years ago, and it argued that the three companies affected — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — “cannot be responsible for how purchasers use their products.”