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Faced with tough choices, Middle East Committee tries to steer a middle course

PORTLAND, Ore. — Faced with conflicting calls to edge toward or away from a movement that applies economic pressure on Israel, the Middle East Issues committee instead chose to do neither.

On June 21, the 77-member panel sought a middle path as it handled proposals to boycott a technology company, call out a real estate company for property sales in occupied Palestine and shun a group accused of waging economic war on Israel.

Eric Flamm, left, and Ed Kraus — both of Portland and both members of the Jewish advocacy group J Street — were among the many non-Presbyterians who took keen interest in matters before the Middle East Issues Committee during its meeting June 20 and 21.
Eric Flamm, left, and Ed Kraus — both of Portland and both members of the Jewish advocacy group J Street — were among the many non-Presbyterians who took keen interest in matters before the Middle East Issues Committee during its meeting June 20 and 21.

Throughout two days of deliberations at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Mideast panel struggled to find ways to use the church’s moral and economic powers in the cause of justice without playing into the hands of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Critics of BDS claim its sole objective is to weaken, isolate and, if possible, destroy the state of Israel.

On June 21, committee 08 endorsed a plan for denomination-wide study of BDS, but it declined to launch a frontal assault on what has been called an umbrella group of BDS-aligned organizations.

By a 67-8 vote, the committee approved an overture (08-07) on the study plan after amending it to require that Presbyterians draw interfaith partners who oppose BDS into the discussion. The New Hope Presbytery offered the overture, and an advocate from that presbytery, J. Mark Davidson, told the committee that a two-year study period “creates space for clarity and understanding.”

Moving on to a commissioners’ resolution (08-08) that asked the church to follow the United Methodist Church’s lead by shunning an alleged umbrella organization of BDS groups, the Middle East Issues committee said, by a 60-15 vote, that the two-year study it had just approved made the commissioners’ request moot. In arguing that the church should stiff-arm the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, one of the commissioner sponsors, Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers Presbytery, argued that the group “tries to draw on well-meaning members to disguise its true intent,” which he said is to demonize and isolate Israel.

In a further sign of its effort to steer a middle-of-the-road course, the committee added a comment acknowledging that its refusal to distance itself from an accused front group for BDS “may constitute a source of concern for our interfaith partners and supporters of Israel,” and said its ultimate aim for the two-year study was “lasting justice and peace for people of Israel and Palestine.”

By a 51-25 vote, the committee turned down a proposal to step beyond a groundbreaking decision made by the 2014 General Assembly, which voted narrowly to divest from three U.S. companies, based on their complicity in human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine. The rejected overture from the Synod of the Covenant (08-01) called for a boycott of all products of one of those companies, Hewlett-Packard, and an affiliate, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, based on the use of those companies’ technology in Israeli naval blockade of Gaza and biometric scanning equipment in the West Bank.

By a vote of 71-5, the committee did approve an overture (08-04) that in its original form sharply criticized the RE/MAX real estate company for engaging in the sale and rental of Jewish-only housing in West Bank settlements.

However, after one of the measure’s advocates, Marita Mayer, said the company had responded positively to contacts urging it to shut down its business in the West Bank, the committee softened the measure to say the company should “do everything within its legal and moral power to stop facilitating the sale and rental of property” in Israeli settlements. The new language goes further by commending RE/MAX “for responding favorably to discussions of this matter” with representatives of the PC(USA).

 

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