Sharp reporting exposes anti-Israel PCUSA study

I once made a Presbyterian leader sputter. Didn’t mean to. I just asked a question about the Middle East that he didn’t like. Things like that happen.

He was a Palestinian-American activist who was addressing the Religion Newswriters Association several years ago. His topic was the need to divest stocks of companies that did business with Israel until that bad ol' country stops oppressing Palestinians.

During a Q&A period, I asked if companies should apply similar pressure on the Palestinian side. That's when he sputtered: "Do you realize how poor Palestinians are? Were you born on the moon?" Etc., etc., etc.

I let him run his bolt before pointing out: "Many companies do business with nations that support Palestinian guerrillas. So there is a corollary." He finally conceded that he opposed violence on all sides.

How diplomatic. But the exclusive focus of his speech was on Israel.

Why the trip down memory lane? It was occasioned by a new story on "Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Guide." Issued by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the study doesn't appear to move much from the viewpoint of my friend years ago.

I'm heartened to see that my skepticism is shared by the likes of the new religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith's robust and many-sided article says the new guide "includes depictions of Zionism as a heresy at the root of the Middle East crisis."

Smith reports also that a "major governing body" -- which he identifies later as the Presbyterian Mission Agency -- recommends dumping investments in three corporations that deal with Israel. As his story notes, this is the measure voted by the Presbyterian General Assembly a decade ago, then reversed at subsequent assemblies.

He says the two events have "combined to roil already-tense relations between Presbyterians and Jews," giving local examples in the Pittsburgh area. And he quotes both sides:

The study guide, "Zionism Unsettled," while not an official church declaration, represents the work of a group created by the denomination 10 years ago. The illustrated 72-page guide, produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decries what it calls years of fruitless talk over a two-state solution, saying Israel has effectively been creating a single state with apartheid-style oppression of Palestinians. It decried Israel for "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians from hundreds of communities in 1948 and said the state resulted from a "toxic relationship between theology and politics."

Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he realizes the study guide "isn't something that is emanating from the grassroots." But he called it "a crash course to advocate for an end of the Jewish state."

He said it reads "as if there were no wars waged against Israel, no campaign of terror by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah and ... ignores the reality that Israelis and the American Jewish community support a two-state solution."

The reporter says the PCUSA leadership has "distanced itself from the publication, emphasizing the decentralized nature of the denomination" -- an odd claim in a church body that has long stressed its connectional nature. Smith quotes the executive director of the Mission Agency that the report is a "statement to the church rather than on its behalf."

Having faithfully quoted the brass, he digs into the study itself and concludes that it attacks the very ideological roots of the Jewish state:

In fact, the study guide challenges the legitimacy of the Zionist project itself, saying it's rooted in the belief in "exceptionalism" -- that one's own religious group is more important than anyone else's.

"The theological and ethical exceptionalism of Jewish and Christian Zionism ... have been sheltered from open debate despite the intolerable human rights abuses rooted in their core beliefs," it says. "The challenge of interfaith relations is to find a way to respect theological differences and the historical experiences that gave rise to them while preventing them from becoming excuses for injustice."

A section written by the Rev. Naim Ateek -- an Anglican minister and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center, an influential Palestinian Christian advocacy group in East Jerusalem -- added: "Zionism is the problem." He calls it a heresy that "commits theological injustice by its appeal to God, history and race."

Other publications had similar content, though not as in-depth. The Kansas City Star's story, by Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service, bluntly says the PCUSA study "rejects the existence of Israel as a Jewish state." Markoe also logs Jewish objections.

“This publication is not an attack on particular Israeli policies but on the very idea of a Jewish return to Zion,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The church, he added, “has deployed the nuclear option against the vast majority of Jews, calling us inherently racist and abusive."

She also looks ahead to the next national Presbyterian gathering, with some savvy background added:

Its publication also comes as the 2.4 million members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) anticipate a June meeting of the General Assembly, which is expected to take up a resolution to divest church funds from companies, that, in the view of the resolutions’ proponents, further the Israeli occupation.

The “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement against Israel has an active base of support within the denomination, and a divestment resolution have failed by a slim margin at the last meeting of the General Assembly. It also strained Jewish-Presbyterian relations.

Among the few unbalanced reports I saw was one shocker: Medill Reports at Northwestern University -- one of the most respected American journalism schools -- produced an article that missed the barbs in the study and painted it as an effort at "constructive debate."

Seeking to adopt a conciliatory yet nuanced stance, the statement speaks to the church's condemnation of anti-Semitism, "including the refusal to acknowledge the legal existence of the state of Israel." But, it clearly states when it speaks ill of Israel's violation of Palestinian human rights, such criticism "does not constitute anti-Semitism."

Perhaps the older reporters can teach the Northwestern graduates something. Kudos to Peter Smith etal for showing that some people do remember standards in religion writing.

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