Three days at the biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in San Jose reminded me of the classic line about mixed emotions, which is watching your new Jaguar go over the side of a cliff with the tax assessor strapped to his seat. The very good results of the convention mingled freely with the very bad.
The gathering of the mainline Protestant denominations are refined and decorous. Nothing like an average Knesset session. They insist on transparency, and therefore welcome outsiders. My presence - which comes with a white beard and large black kippah- could have been especially jarring. I did get some icy looks, and some participants averted eye contact. But for every one of those, there were four who sized me up and gave me a warm smile.
The many overtures concerning Israel and Palestine were all referred to Committee 11 (Peacemaking and International Issues), which began deliberations on Tuesday, three days before the full floor vote. Perhaps there is a Jewish gene out of synch with Protestant protocol, but I will never be able to understand the process through which a group of some seventy ordinary citizens, chosen at random from the participants, make recommendations to the full Assembly of equally inadequate background about issues that people in the "real world" need multiple advanced degrees to comprehend.
Assembly committees call for open testimony. A sign-up sheet for Committee 11, posted two days before, quickly drew so many names that the committee simply chose (apparently from the names and organizations they were better acquainted with) who could speak for both sides, assigning names to particular overtures. Each witness was limited to ninety seconds, and there was no cross-examination. Essentially, some of the most complex issues in world politics were debated by the highly emotional in front of the mostly unknowledgeable in ninety-second ping-pong volleys. The only "help" committees get comes from the cadre of implacable foes of Israel within the church hierarchy, who often use their influence to make eleventh-hour changes (and sometimes thirteenth hour, by post-convention spinmeisters) when some development looks good for Israel.
I would not want to stand trial in such a court.
The most destructive voices to our cause were those of Jews passionately taking the Palestinian side in the name of Judaism. More than one committee member pointed out that the Palestinian witnesses were all of one mind, while the Jews were split. We could - and did - assert the truth: that the vast majority of the American Jewish community stands in solidarity with Israel. But assertion can be matched by assertion, especially when you only have ninety seconds. The other side simply claimed that they were much more important than they really are.
Speaking in favor of Overture 11-06, which called upon the church to be "nonpartisan advocates for peace," I drew on my teaching Jewish Law at Loyola Law School. In Talmudic debate, if you cannot convincingly argue both sides in a Talmudic debate, you understand neither. I told them, "If you cannot offer some counter-argument to every argument you have heard from both sides, then you do not understand the Middle East. If you do not understand its complexity, you can't take sides without the risk of doing more harm than good. An overture calling for neutrality is a Godsend!"
A passionate and articulate pastor from Chattanooga rose later in committee debate. "During the civil rights struggle in the '60's, I asked my father why he didn't preach more strongly to help embattled black people. He would tell me that the situation was very complex. Now I tell you that complexity is no excuse to shirk our Christian witness responsibility. We have to speak out against injustice, regardless of complexity, regardless of consequences. We cannot stay neutral!"
The moral confusion in this comparison remains the most difficult - and depressing - part of my experience at San Jose. Racism is a moral flaw. There are good explanations as to why Israel has to maintain tight security control around Gaza, even if it means hardship for Palestinians. There are reasons why Palestinians do not have the state they could have had in 1947 and again at Camp David, and they are not of Israel's making. Segregating drinking fountains is morally wrong, and cannot have an explanation. Is it equivalently clear that Israel should "tear down the wall," even if it means the resumption of suicide bombings that kill and maim hundreds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims?
How can thinking people see the two situations as equivalent?
The answer I keep hearing from many people in the mainline Protestant denominations (but very far from a majority) is that they do not care about context or assigning blame or about history. If a powerless people suffers at the hand of the powerful, their duty as Christians is to side with the powerless.
The implications of this position are enormous for those of us who advocate for Israel. No upgrading of hasbara will convince people who have no need to listen. Experience has shown that one thing will. People who close their ears often cannot close their eyes. Well-planned tours of Israel have turned foes into friends like nothing else. Supporting more of them ought to be one of our priorities.
PCUSA remains an enigma to me. I knew that within their national and key committee leadership there are more firmly entrenched implacable opponents of Israel than in any other mainline church. I also knew that no other church had as many devoted and well organized friends of Israel, many of whom put in scores of hours each week in support of Israel at great personal cost, simply because it is a just cause. I now know that there are substantial numbers who understand almost nothing of the conflict, and have swallowed simplistic and counter-factual narratives because they see a Christian duty to support a supposed underdog, regardless of the moral issues or consequences.
A pleasant surprise came from a speaker brought to the Assembly to be a high-profile advocate for the Palestinians. Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of the Galillee is a Palestinian who urged his people to look to the future, rather than the past. On three occasions he spoke against divestment, and for investment in projects that can improve the lives of Palestinians, and bring Jews and Palestinians closer. He thanked the church for its support of Palestinians, but said that if becoming a friend of the Palestinians meant that a person would then hate Jews, he would forgo the friendship. I cannot embrace all he has written in the past, but he brought a warm and helpful message to San Jose. The internal fault lines within the church played themselves out by accepting conflicting overtures. The Assembly, acting on Committee Eleven's recommendation voted in Overture 11-06, which called for neutrality. In the days that followed, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, one of the most hostile groups within the church, issued a release of its own of unvarnished lies. It ignored 11-06, and stated that the IPMN would not remain neutral, and continue in its previous ways. It will take constant vigilance by our Presbyterian friends to ensure that pockets of the church do not act as autonomous fiefdoms, aloof from the will of the people.
The Assembly, however, also accepted Overture 11-01 which accepted the "Amman Call," prepared by the World Council of Churches, whose enmity towards Israel knows no bounds. Beginning with the false premise that the occupation is illegal, if calls its end, dismantling of settlements, and razing of the security fence. Most disturbingly, it requires the unqualified "right of return" of Palestinians. This would mean that the "two-state solution" would quickly produce one state (Palestine) entirely free of Jews, and a second in which Jews would be a minority. There would be no Jewish State. Jews must be prepared to combat the latest weapon of those who believe they can destroy Israel in the court of world opinion. When we hear people calling for two states, we need to look for language that specifies that one of those is a Jewish state. Without that, they might as well call for driving the Jews into the sea.
Jews walk away from these gatherings with a heightened sense of the positive contributions of faith, in the company of people who for the most part are good, decent folks who care about God and care about their communities. Unfortunately, they also become critically aware of the machinations of our foes. The Amman Call is a Trojan horse that will produce two states, one immediately judenrein, the other that will quickly have Jews flee Israel as quickly as whites bolted from Zimbabwe. The reality of this looms so large that it requires no faith at all to see.
Rabbi Adlerstein is the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
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Posted on Jul. 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm