Sunday, July 4, 2010

PC(USA) Moment of Truth

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is meeting presently in Minneapolis, among other things, to decide what to do with the Middle East Study Committee's report.
James Wall, a former editor of the Christian Century, has been following the ISraeli/Palestinian conflict closely for years. Here is his assessment of the stakes the descendants of John Calvin are facing this week. (JRK)

July 4, 2010...3:04 pm
219th Presbyterian Assembly Faces Its Moment of Truth

by James M. Wall

Presbyterian General Assembly delegates are in Minneapolis this week for their national gathering–held every two years–discussing, praying, arguing, and finally voting, on a wide variety of issues that will determine how the heirs of John Calvin will face the future.

This 219th General Assembly runs from July 3 through July 10.

In a nice bit of timing, John Calvin’s 500th birthday is celebrated on the final day of this year’s Assembly.

At some point during this week, the delegates (commissioners) will vote to approve or disapprove–parts or all–a report from their own Middle East Study Committee (MESC), a report two years in the making. written by a cross-section of church members, officials and clergy.

The MESC vote will be a moment of truth for the 219th Presbyterian General Assembly. Decisions made in Minneapolis will tell the world where the Presbyterian Church, USA, stands on Israel’s military occupation of 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

The question before the PCUSA delegates will be simple:

Do we place our moral stamp of approval on the status quo, and call for more dialogue with our American Jewish friends, or do we say to the world that the status quo is immoral, unsustainable and a blatant rejection of the finest traditions of the Jewish faith.

What brought the PCUSA to this moment of truth?

If you want to be ready to fully understand this background and what will be happening in Minneapolis this week, it helps to have a crib sheet.

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network provides the crib sheet on its website, complete with daily updates during the Assembly.

Noushin Framke is writing a daily blog on the IPMN page. Here is a sample from the first day of the Asembly:

Just got back from the moderator election – went so late cuz there were 6 candidates and then we had a hanging chad/diebold issue – voting machines were not working and it took a while to fix the issue – it is not 11 pm and they just adjourned.

Cindy Bolbach from Arlington, VA elected as new moderator – an elder [laity], not clergy – she sure has a keen sense of timing and humor – I like her; she gets it – reminds me of Bea Arthur! and to the question of what about civil unions, she said i am for it but this church is not! Yup – well said.

Jeff Halper [Jewish activist who runs the anti-house demolition NGO in Palestine] did a great talk today on “Is it really apartheid?” He just gets better and better. I recorded the audio – i will see if I can post it on the site soon. [Italics added]

These Assembly meetings can be invigorating and tense. At its previous national meeting in 2008, the General Assembly ran into strong opposition from supporters of Israel inside and outside the denomination who forced the creation of a Middle East Study Committee (MESC). At the time, this was seen as a delaying tactic described as a victory for supporters of Israel.

Two years later the delay is over and the 219th Assembly is in session. The MESC has done its work and is ready with its report.

Members of the Committee were appointed by the three most recent PC (USA) moderators.

The Middle East Study Group spent the past two years in meetings and study sessions, supplemented by trips to Israel/Palestine, where committee members met with both Israeli and Palestinian religious and secular leaders.

The MESC Report will bring eight recommendations to the Minneapolis meeting

A special GA committee, “Committee 14″, will assume legislative control of the MESC report, formally presenting it to the entire Assembly, where it will either be adopted, modified, or rejected.

Delegates who arrived in Minneapolis determined to support the CMES proposals have the additional backing of almost all of the living moderators, both lay and clergy of the PCUSA who presided over the denomination from 1976 through 2010.

These previous moderators sent a “Support Letter for the Middle East Study Committee”, signed by 17 previous moderators, endorsing the findings of the MESC Report and asking delegates to support the recommendations.

This Assembly arrives for its work after the United Kingdom’s National Methodist Conference held its meeting June 24 to July 1 in Portsmouth, England. Delegates to that Conference approved eleven resolutions in a report entitled “Justice for Palestine and Israel”.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, congratulated the Methodists for adopting “important and forward looking resolutions” and for action by the delegates that

called on the Methodist people “to support and engage with [the] boycott of Israeli goods” emanating from illegal settlements as their response to a call of the WCC in 2009, supported by Palestinian Christians in the “Kairos document” and a growing number of Jewish organizations, both inside Israel and worldwide.

The Conference also called for a full arms embargo as an important step towards a just peace in the region.

In addition to this favorable action from the British Methodists and the WCC, the Presbyterians in Minneapolis, should they support the findings of their CMES resolutions, will find considerable support outside the churches for favorable action.

One recent example of an important media voice speaking out against the Israeli policies comes from New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who recently wrote from Gaza that Israel’s Occupation is “morally repugnant”.

In a second New York Times column, also written from Gaza, Kristof explored the tunnel system that has been getting around Israel’s blockade by trucking in supplies and materials through tunnels dug along the Egyptian/Gaza border.

After his visit to the tunnels, Kristof wrote that Israel should halt its blockade.

No amount of hasbara propaganda can resist the power of voices in the US, like an aroused church public and enlightened journalists like Kristof who have broken through the hasbara campaign barrier.

There is an encouraging parallel between a journalist of Kristof’s stature and the Presbyterian CMES members who made their own site visits to Palestine where they reached the conclusions that now appear in the CMES report to the General Assembly.

Hasbara as a tactic is losing some of its bite, yet another reminder of the wisdom in the phrase often used by Martin Luther King, Jr., “truth crushed to earth, will rise again”.

For those still unfamiliar with the term hasbara, Jane Adas provides a valuable description of the term in an essay she wrote for the November-December, 2009, issue of Link, a publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU):

Hasbara literally means “explanation” and is often translated as “public diplomacy,” but can perhaps best be thought of as problem solving through marketing techniques, like rebranding (Israel as the victim of Hamas’ aggression), product placement (hide the Goldstone Report in the darkest, least-frequented corner of the shop), and promotional lingo (“The side that seems to want peace more will win…” from The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary).

Having identified the problem to be solved concerning Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as Israel’s failure to explain its case, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, soon after assuming office in February 2008, formed a National Information Directorate within the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with planning the media campaign for the Gaza operation and headed by “hasbara czar” Yarden Vatikay.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a strong pro-Israeli NGO in California, headed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, has been a leading hasbara opponent of the MESC report.

Knowing the report was being developed, the Wiesenthal Center launched an all-out hasbara attack on the MESC report, long before the report was written.

The Wiesenthal Center sent out alerts to its own constituency and to members of the Presbyterian Church, especially delegates to the GA, urging them to send e-mails critical of the yet-to-be published report, to the Louisville headquarters of the denominations.

Members of the academic community are often recruited as hasbara “agents” for reasons future psychological studies will have to determine. No doubt “Friends of Israel” faculty colleagues, either from ethnic, academic or religious motivations, are helpful in making Israel’s case in long chats in the faculty lounge or at academic conferences. They may even have traveled together to visit Israel.

I earlier commented on the essay that appeared in the Christian Century before the start of this current General Assembly. The essay was written by Vanderbilt University Divinity School professors Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine.

If the delegates want to read a counter theological argument, supporting the CMES report, delivered without venom, I suggest they read a letter from my Jewish friend and colleague, Mark Braverman, which he has submitted to the Christian Century in response to the Smith-Levine essay.

Here is the opening portion of Mark’s letter:

The intent of the Presbyterian Middle East Study Group Report “Breaking Down the Walls” is clear: “To break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.”

But in their critique of the report published in your June 29 issue, Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, strike at the heart of this message. They ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.”

In a shocking distortion of the Study Group’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that “’Breaking down the walls’ in order to form ‘one new humanity in the place of two’ evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.”

“Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying anti-Semitism whenever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the State of Israel are questioned that we must urgently confront.

Before you vote in Minneapolis this week, you sons and daughters of John Calvin, read the entire text of Mark Braverman”s letter, which is posted here.

Years from now, when you remember this week, something tells me you will be grateful that Mark Braverman, a Jewish author, shared with us his timely reading of Ephesians 2:14.

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