Israel is very much on the agenda at this year’s General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), currently meeting in Detroit. All fourteen resolutions, or overtures, being considered by the Middle East Committee concern the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as does one before the Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee. The PCUSA, which has had a presence in the Middle East since the early 1800’s, has taken up divestment at each biennial meeting since 2004. In 2012, the divestment resolution was narrowly defeated. This year, it is once again on the agenda, as are overtures to boycott Hewlett-Packard (HP), to label Israel an “apartheid state,” and to study whether the Church should maintain its commitment to a two-state solution. ADL, represented at the GA by its Interfaith Director, Rabbi David Sandmel, opposes these measures as unfair to Israel and contrary to the goal of achieving a two-state solution.
There are also overtures being considered that oppose divestment and suggest a “third way” of engaging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through supporting peace-makers, travel to the region and encouraging studying a broad range of views through local relations.
During the first few days of the GA, committees receive overtures proposed by local governing bodies, hear testimony, debate amendments, and eventually decide what actions to recommend the GA take regarding the overtures they received. While the committees have a great deal of influence on what finally ends up before the entire polity, it is the GA that makes the final decision, which is scheduled for Friday, June 20.
Powerful groups within the Church, such as the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which produced the anti-Semitic “Zionism Unsettled document,” support divestment. Due to the GA’s structure, these groups have a disproportionate voice in the Committee, and are supported by the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace, whose prominent visibility at the GA has confused some participants into thinking they represent the mainstream Jewish community. More moderate voices within the Church, such as Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, have been working closely with the ADL and a broad coalition of other major Jewish organizations and religious leaders to bring a fairer perspective to the deliberations.
Though the Middle East Committee did vote on June 17 in favor of divestment from HP, Caterpillar and Motorola, it also explicitly stated “the action does not mean alignment with the overall strategy of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).” The overture that recommends divestment also reaffirms Israel’s right to exist within secure and internationally recognized borders.
There is also the large majority of Presbyterians who support the state of Israel while also sympathizing with the suffering of the Palestinians. They feel torn between their commitment to positive Jewish-Christian relations and desire to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some have expressed feeling overwhelmed with input from all sides. While the barrage of anti-Israel rhetoric from certain sectors has been challenging to hear, the shrillness of their message may be producing a backlash, especially when compared to the more measured presentation from the moderates and recognized mainstream Jewish organizations.
It is clear that the Church is divided on how best to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as demonstrated by the conflicting recommendations of the Middle East Committee. The process in the committees is different than that of the GA where the debate is much more balanced. While in the past the GA has rejected recommendations of the Committee, what will happen this year cannot be predicted, and, as the vote draws near, there will likely be intense lobbying of the voting representatives from all sides.