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July 05, 2010

Committee Calls for Caterpillar to be "Denounced"

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Gustav Niebuhr after testifying against the MESC report at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Minneapolis. (Dexter Van Zile)

The Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly has started to make its recommendations regarding a number of overtures that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

After spending all of the morning and some of the afternoon listening to testimony about the overtures before it, the committee voted to recommend that the General Assembly approve (14-03) which calls on the denomination to "denounce" the company. (July 6, 2010 NOTE: The original version of this entry incorrectly reported that "the committee approved the overture with an amendment that opens the door for divestment in a year if the company does not change its policies." A review of the resolution on the denomination's website indicates that this overture was approved without amendment.)

In subsequent proceedings, the committee then voted 34-17-1 that overture 14-03 "answers" the issues raised by two other resolutions, (14-01 and 14-02), that call on the church to divest outright from Caterpillar. In other words, the committee chose to denounce Caterpillar and not divest from the company. It will be up to the General Assembly to decide whether or not to accept the committtee's recommendations.

The vote indicates that there is a significant minority on the committee willing to take an extreme anti-Israel position and that this minority is offset by a less extreme majority that still views Israel with suspicion.

There are numerous other Israel-related overtures before the committee.

Overture 14-04 asks the General Assembly to declare Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid (as activists did at the UN "anti-racism" conference in Durban in 2001 which devolved into an anti-Semitic horror show). And overture 14-05 calls on the church to lift up the Kairos Document.

Another overture (14-09) deals with American military aid to the Middle East (with a particular emphasis on Israel), and yet another (14-10) calls on Israel and Hamas (yes, Hamas) to investigate their actions during Operation Cast Lead.

One overture (14-06) calls on the church to refrain from making expressions of unilateral support for one side or the other of the conflict, which in the context of the PC(USA), is an apparent attempt to constrain the efforts of the denomination’s peace activists who target Israel with one-sided statements such as the Middle East Study Committee's report.

Israel's Defenders at a Disadvantage

In theory, this overture would also constrain Israel’s defenders as well, but the reality is that Israel’s defenders within the PC(USA) understand that they are defending a nation-state which, like all other nation-states, needs to be viewed with a critical eye. Under Christian theology, nation-states are not a positive good, but a necessary evil -- a response to the nature of the fallen world in which we live. Any attempts to portray Israel, or any other nation state, in overly idealistic terms is a form of idolatry. [NOTE: Please see Rev. John Wimberly's response below in the comments section.]

Consequently, Israel’s supporters inside the PC(USA) haven’t put forth one-sided resolutions that portray Israel as completely innocent while leveling ritualistic charges at the Palestinians.

The so-called peace activists, on the other hand, regard themselves as fighting a positive evil on behalf of a wholly innocent victim -- the Palestinians -- and their resolutions show it.

Under these conditions, people intent on defending Israel from unreasonable and obsessive accusations are at a strategic disadvantage, because in group setting such as a General Assembly, the momentum often goes to the angrier and more energetic side.

It also helps that Israel’s defenders must protect themselves from charges of being too close to the to the Jewish community in the U.S., or worse, being agents of a foreign power.

Pro-Palestinian activists, on the other hand, find affiliating with Palestinians, some of whom are members of the PC(USA), a great source of comfort and credibility. This solidarity is almost equivalent to baptism itself in its sanctifying power. But in order for this solidarity with the Palestinians to keep its sanctifying, justifying power, Palestinians must be portrayed as holy innocents whose wrong actions can be explained by the circumstances they live under.

Of course, the right to have one’s behavior judged in the context of relevant circumstances is one denied to Israel, a reality clearly demonstrated by the text of the Middle East Study Committee’s report. In the narrative offered in this report, the human condition is split in two, with the shadow side projected onto Israel and its transcendent, pure bright side projected onto the Palestinians. The Palestinians, who symbolize the children of light are embraced while Israel is cast off as a representation of the children of darkness.

Caterpillar Testimony

This splitting process, and the accusations used to further it, was also evident at this morning’s testimony, particularly when spoke about divestment from Caterpillar. Proponents of divestment spoke about how the equipment is used demolish homes, uproot olive trees and build the security barrier. They argued the church should have nothing to do with a company that allows its equipment to do these things. Caterpillar became the link between the PC(USA) and an exterior evil that can be removed as simply as washing one's hands.

“Caterpillar symbolizes the immoral occupation of Palestine,” one delegate said. “It’s a powerful symbol. We are given an opportunity to say as a church that we do not want to endorse the occupation of Palestine. We do not want to endorse in any way the destruction of a people.

This is an oblique accusation of genocide leveled at Israel, which given any honest interpretation of the facts, is insupportable and as such is not an attempt to educate, inform, or persuade, but an attempt to inflame apocalyptic passions.

Presbyterians from Illinois argued against divestment because it would, in effect, put Presbyterians who work for Caterpillar outside the beloved community of the Presbyterian church. They didn’t say it in those words, but it was clear enough. They wanted the perimeter of the beloved community to include them. It remains to be seen how Presbyterians who work for Caterpillar will respond to a resolution denouncing, as opposed to divesting from, the company they work for.

It's not likely to be pretty.

One Presbyterian staff member from Peoria, Illinois made it perfectly clear that if the resolution were passed, some congregations would in effect divest from the denomination. “When they decide how to use the money they earned from Caterpillar, they will be quite upset if you tell them that the money is tainted and should not be given to the congregation.”

Overall, the testimony underscored an important aspect of the divestment campaign in mainline churches and in other institutions where it has taken root.

As a strategy, divestment is perfectly suited to efforts to focus attention on Israel’s misdeeds, real or imagined, and giving people reason not to pay any heed to the actions of its adversaries. There is no real way to divest from companies that do business with Hamas or Hezbollah and as a result, the proponents of divestment can avoid speaking about the misdeeds of Israel’s adversaries. Divestment structures the argument in such a manner that the conversation is exclusively focused on Israel.

Halper Supports Apartheid Charge

Of course, no mainline discussion of Israel’s sins would be complete without the testimony of Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (a group for which the PC(USA) collects donations). Halper, a native of Minnesota and a regular critic of Israel, spoke in favor of the overture convicting Israel of the crime of apartheid.

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Jeff Halper testifying in favor of an overture convicting Israel of apartheid at the PC(USA)'s 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis. (Dexter Van Zile)

The whole world got on board with the fight to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 80s, he said. “Why was apartheid such a big deal that we all mobilized? How did that affect us?” he asked. “If you have a state based on racism that’s in our international community, it sullies all of us … it’s the same in the case of Israel.”

The problems with this comparison are manifold, the most obvious being that the black South Africans were not led by leaders who called for the destruction of the whites in the country.

MESC Report

Fortunately, there are signs that mainline intellectuals are starting to realize that extremist anti-Israel rhetoric does more harm than good. This became apparent when Gustav Niebuhr testified against the Middle East Study Committee’s report. Niebuhr, the grandson of H. Richard Niebuhr and an influential writer in his own right, said the MESC report, if passed “will obscure in a major way” the role the Presbyterian Church (USA) and its historical antecedents have played in American society.

“Reputations are hard to win and they are easy to lose,” he said.

"The short narrative" on the MESC report is that it is anti-Israel, and there is “no bright line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism in the minds of most Americans,” Niebuhr stated.

Niebuhr called on the committee to reject the report which he described as “terribly imbalanced,” stating “it will do a terrible disservice to the church at large.”

Another prominent figure in mainline Protestantism has also called for the report to be rejected: Rev. Dr. John Buchanan, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Buchanan, who is known to most people as editor and publisher of Christian Century has signed a letter (along with many other pastors) stating the report is historically inaccurate, intellectually flawed and imbalanced.

The letter laments, among other things, that there “is no call to neighboring nations to recognize the legitimate right of Israel to exist as a state and no affirmation of the right of Israeli citizens to defend themselves against aggression and to live in peace without the threat of terrorism.”

The letter also criticizes the Kairos Document because it “represents a troubling and weighted perspective which should not be commended because of its particularly one-sided views.”

Coming from Rev. Dr. Buchanan, who runs the magazine James M. Wall used to use to atack Israel on a regular basis, this is a pretty big deal. At one point during this morning’s proceedings, Buchanan’s name was called to give him an opportunity to testify against the MESC report. (He was not in the room at the time, reportedly because he was testifying on another resolution).

The willingness of Buchanan and Nieburh and other "heavy hitters" (such as Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson) to come forward in opposition to the report indicates that the MESC crossed a line and that the actions of the PC(USA)'s General Assembly regarding Israel will be subject to increasing debate and scrutiny after the proceedings are over.

In other words, it won't be over even after it's over.

Posted by dvz at July 5, 2010 04:30 PM

Comments

"The problem with this comparison are manifold, the most obvious being that the black South Africans were not led by leaders who called for the destruction of the whites in the country."

I'd say the most obvious problem with the comparison is that Israel is a Western-style democracy, one which since its inception has been governed with the same one-person-one-vote system that anti-apartheid activists sought to bring to South Africa. Another obvious problem is that Halper, and apparently a number of Presbyterians, don't seem bothered by true racist states in the neighborhood, ones in which meaningful voting doesn't exist, ones that systematically oppress minorities, ones in which the majority is ruled by a dictatorship from a minority, ones that impose crushing regulations on women, and so on...

Anti-apartheid activists were fighting bigotry. Jeff Halper, with his implicit call to dissolve Israel, is practicing bigotry.

Posted by: g at July 5, 2010 10:09 PM

Why was Jeff Halper speaking at the PC assembly? Was he brought in as an expert, and if so why was he chosen without a credible expert to explain how such extremist views are regarded by historians or other experts?

Obviously the argument associating Israel with Apartheid rests on specious reasoning and selective outrage, but the vast majority is not likely to see that if the Presbyterian leaders are selectively and uncritically repeating the Arab narrative.


DVZ Responds: He was brought in as a "resource" person. Who made that decision, I do not know. In response to your second question, the short answer is that to the PC(USA), Jeff Halper is a credible commentator.

Posted by: awatters at July 6, 2010 04:47 AM

The key to understanding that Israel is not an apartheid state is that several of the dozen or so Arab members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, go abroad to freely denounce it as such.

Can anyone identify even one black person who served in the South African parliament under apartheid?

If not, then certainly the credibility of those who assert that Israel practices apartheid should be brought into question.

Posted by: Marty at July 6, 2010 08:50 AM

You write: "Under Christian theology, nation-states are not a positive good, but a necessary evil" While this may be true for some theological traditions, it is not true of Calvinism. Calvin stated that the single most important person in a community was not the pastor or ruling elder but the civil magistrate. The civil government creates the civil order necessary for folks to pursue a relationship with God. When they are fighting each other over bread or whatever, it is hard to be faithful! So Calvinists have always had a very view of government's possibilities as a tool for God's creation of the justice and peace on earth. This explains, in part, why Calvinists have always had a disproportionate influence on government here in the US and elsewhere.

Posted by: john wimberly at July 6, 2010 09:03 AM

How many of these people who are so full of condemnation have visited Israel? If they did they would see Israeli's, yes, citizens of Israel of just about all races. If Israeli's were so "racist" they would not have allowed so many Ethiopians, Indians, Philippine people, etc., into this country. In Israel you see people of all races interacting.

But what Israeli's don't like, and I guess that is called "racism" is having rockets and bomb lobed over their heads killing their citizens of all ages. How many remember the direct and intentional bombing of schools and school busses and people shopping for groceries in the big open markets? How many remember the bomb shelters built underground and the bomb security rooms that had to be built with each apartment? How many remember the history of the people trying to farm below the Golan Heights having to hide their children from the frequent shootings from the Heights?

Israelis have made mistakes as have Americans; no country is perfect. But to call out Israel as a racist country shows absolutely no understanding of this very tiny nation.

Who is keeping the Palestinians sequestered? Check the current history of Egypt, Jordan, and Gaza. Review Yasser Arafat's policies and you will learn who really kept their people down.

Posted by: Shirley at July 9, 2010 06:38 PM

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