The 223rd General Assembly (GA) of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) wrapped up yesterday on June 23rd with voting commissioners approving a number of overtures (resolutions) which “featured one-sided condemnations of Israel” while “almost no effort” was made to hold Palestinian governments accountable for stymying peace or “harming Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

In addition to the passage of nearly a dozen overtures that were biased against Israel, after testifying against the overtures during the deliberations of the PCUSA’s Middle East Committee, Jerusalem-based Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid reportedly was threatened by an individual who allegedly had come to the GA at the behest of the Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), a sub-group that has a long history of anti-Israel, and in some instances anti-Jewish, rhetoric in its so-called peacemaking activism in the PCUSA.

According to numerous accounts (see here and here) and media coverage of the incident involving the ugly harassment of Eid, the PCUSA leadership “took no meaningful action.” The person who made the alleged threat wasn’t even barred from the remainder of the GA proceedings and was instead allowed to come in and out as he pleased, reportedly leaving many attendees feeling intimidated and silenced.

Below we provide an update to our prior post which anticipated that there would be virulently anti-Israel extremism on display at the PCUSA GA in St. Louis, More Israel Demonizing Likely at Upcoming Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly.

As we expected, anti-Israel activists in the church and their outside allies made significant gains at this GA.

But it wasn’t an across-the-board victory largely on account of the pushback by a group of Presbyterian lay and minister volunteers—Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP)—who have been working for over a decade to oppose anti-Israel extremism at the GAs.

In a statement released on Friday by StandWithUs (SWU), which partnered with the Israel Action Network (IAN) and the Philos Project to support PFMEP on the ground in St. Louis, its efforts were applauded. The statement noted that PFMEP’s work ensured that “the most destructive positions promoted by anti-Israel extremists were not adopted by the church.”

[PCUSA General Assembly | Credit: You Tube]

Anti-Israel Resolutions at the 223rd PCUSA GA in St. Louis 

In our prior post we highlighted the obsessive anti-Israel prejudice and delegitimization that has become a common feature at the PCUSA’s biennial meetings (a short version of the post was also published in The Algemeiner).

The problem largely stems from the PCUSA’s organizational structure and the way in which decisions are made at the national level at the GAs, which take place every even-numbered year:

The structure for decision-making at the GA virtually ensures that a few presbyteries and synods—along with a small group of virulently anti-Israel activists, working through the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN)—are able to dominate the Middle East-related agenda there. At the GA, they collude to field proposals targeting Israel for condemnation and advance the goals of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.”

This institutional dysfunction helps to explain why at the 223rd GA in St. Louis, the committee charged with issues related to the Middle East wound up deliberating over a dozen overtures concerning Israel.

Only one resolution up for consideration (overture 12-09 submitted by the Presbytery of the Cascades) covered the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has cost over 500,000 lives and has driven millions into exile.

Some of the resolutions up for consideration called on the PCUSA to (for the complete list see here):

  • affirm the right to boycott by opposing federal and state anti-BDS legislation (overture 12-01 from the Synod of the Covenant);
  • advocate equality for all citizens of Israel, including “48 Palestinians”—or Arab citizens of Israel—presumed denied citizenship rights (overture 12-02 from the Synod of the Covenant)
  • respond to a letter—penned by a group of vehemently anti-Israel Palestinian NGOs—that defines Israel as an apartheid state, deems the Balfour Declaration “unjust and unlawful” and calls for “defending and intensifying” BDS campaigns against Israel (overtures 12-03 and 12-04 from the Presbytery of Grace); and
  • urge the real estate company RE/MAX LLC to stop “selling Jewish-only housing” in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, referring to Jewish neighborhoods there are “colonies” (overture 12-07 from the Presbytery of Redwoods).

IPMN’s Anti-Israel Activism in St. Louis: Various Extremists Offer Support and Testimony

At the GA, activists affiliated with the IPMN spent much of their time trying to convince the Middle East Committee, and the voting commissioners in the full plenary, to adopt their recommended anti-Israel slate.

Toward this end, the IPMN manned a booth throughout the GA and provided delegates with printer-friendly “voter guides”:

It also organized talks and meetings on, and provided free copies of, its latest publication, Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism, a collection of chapters most of which are authored by people who aren’t Presbyterians.

As we noted in our prior post, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and professor of English at the University of Illinois Cary Nelson describes this new IPMN study guide as “Church-sponsored demonization of the Jewish state that is propelled by insinuation more than responsible argument.”

Like at past GAs, the IPMN turned the St. Louis meeting into a forum for a Palestinian solidarity politics that involved dissemination of anti-Zionist propaganda and which ended up presenting a convoluted perspective on the conflict’s history and current contours.

To take one example, IPMN brought a representative of the virulently anti-Israel NGO Adalah to speak about the alleged discrimination faced by Arab Israelis, who are supposedly subjected to 50 prejudicial laws.

The reality is that Adalah is notorious for fabricating claims of racism in order to demonize Israel. The so-called discriminatory laws include a law mandating that the Star of David should appear on stamps and the Israeli flag; a law defining the Sabbath as an official day of rest; and a law requiring that the Hebrew date be used in government correspondence. It’s absurd to call these discriminatory to Israeli Arabs, but the “50 racist laws” meme has long been an effective tool to delegitimize Israel.

The IPMN also reached out to national and local groups to help them make their case to the delegates.

Joining the IPMN as their guests for the Middle East Committee’s deliberations were representatives from a number of anti-Israel extremist groups including the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which was recently exposed for having financial ties to Palestinian terror organizations, and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which helps promote and fund Students for Justice for Palestine on U.S. campuses and has a “long record of racism.”

Neveen Ayesh, the AMP representative who testified before the Middle East Committee, is notorious for her virulently anti-Israel and even antisemitic social media posts, as documented by StandWithUs in its statement released on Friday:

Activists affiliated with Sabeel/Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) also came to support IPMN during the week-long GA. In a prior post we highlighted how FOSNA offers a perverse “theological” justification for denying the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination and the 2,000-year Jewish presence in the land of Israel, Sabeel – The anti-Israel Christian activists you never heard of.

We also documented how Sabeel’s founder Rev. Naim Ateek employs rhetoric that goes beyond any principled criticism of Israeli policy by invoking centuries-old antisemitic tropes, such as describing Israel as “crucifying” Palestinians under occupation.

That Sabeel representatives were on the ground at the GA in St. Louis should have been particularly troubling given that the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh publicly announced only a few weeks ago that it was cutting ties with the PCUSA-affiliated Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on account of its decision to host Sabeel’s Rev. Ateek.

Also participating at IPMN’s invitation were members of the St. Louis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

JVP attended prior Presbyterian GAs, where their presence was enormously helpful in getting anti-Israel resolutions passed.

Many churches are reluctant to adopt BDS-related resolutions because they worry that doing so will compromise their longstanding and important relationship with the Jewish community. So JVP serves a useful function for anti-Israel activists in the churches. It helps to convince hesitant congregations that standing against Israel won’t drive a wedge between the church and the American Jewish community or harm interfaith relations.

Last week in St. Louis, it appears that IPMN relied on JVP to provide “Jewish cover” for its positions on the issues and overtures.

Bottom line: As noted by StandWithUs in its June 22nd statement, among the key problems at the GA and evidence of “systematic prejudice” was the fact that a host of anti-Israel activists were allowed to serve as “official resource people” and were considered reliable sources of information by the Middle East Committee and the voting commissioners.

PFMEP’s Pushback to IPMN’s Anti-Israel Agenda

On Saturday June 23rd, USCPR announced “10 big wins” and “sweet victories” for the agenda endorsed by IPMN in St. Louis:

In a post and in a jubilant email to USCPR supporters, its Director of Organizing and Advocacy Anna Baltzer, who attended the GA in St. Louis, claims that “the tide is turning” at the church with its now “overwhelming” support for “challenging all aspects of Israeli colonialism” and advocating for Palestinians “fighting for their right to return home.”

How accurate is Baltzer’s version of the outcome at the 223rd GA?

On the one hand, she’s not completely wrong.

It’s important not to minimize the anti-Israel hostility at the GA and the bias reflected in many of the resolutions that passed, along with the sheer number of them fielded by the Middle East Committee and passed by the plenary body.

In addition, the single resolution (overture 12-06 from the Presbytery of Philadelphia) that actually condemned Palestinian governments for militarizing and inciting children to violence didn’t even make it to the plenary—it was voted down in committee.

But Baltzer is overselling the gains made by the anti-Israel camp within the church.

She doesn’t call attention to a Commissioners’ resolution (overture 12-11) which narrowly passed out of committee in a 29 to 25 vote, but then passed with an overwhelming majority (458 to 10) in the General Assembly. It calls for local congregations to join in “reconciliation programs in Israel-Palestine” and is a clear rejection of the anti-normalization stance of BDS that her organization and IPMN endorse.

According to PFMEP, which championed this overture:

The committee had a healthy conversation about this topic and in the end sought to approve the work of reconciliation as building bridges on the ground. We believe that on-the-ground efforts to build understanding between Palestinians and Israelis is absolutely essential to any possible future solution to the conflict.”

Via its daily newsletters for voting commissioners and its testimony during the deliberations of the Middle East Committee, PFMEP “stood up to anti-Israel extremists” so that the most repugnant overtures were revised, something which USCPR’s Anna Baltzer also ignores.

As noted by StandWithUs in its recent statement, these “Presbyterians of conscience” were responsible for ensuring that:

  • A call to end all economic and military aid to Israel was removed.
  • An overture to respond positively to a viciously anti-Israel letter was amended to simply acknowledge receipt of the letter and continue to act in line with PCUSA policy (which supports Israel’s right to exist).
  • A call for Presbyterians to cut off dialogue with Jews who are insufficiently critical of Israel was removed and strongly criticized by committee members.

Palestinian Human Rights Activist Bassem Eid Harassed

Applauding PFMEP for its resistance, StandWithUs notes that

as a result of their work, many voting delegates heard a genuinely pro-peace perspective and rejected the most egregious policies promoted by anti-Israel activists.”

For example, on the GA’s opening day, PFMEP hosted a breakfast where guest speakers told voting commissioners that “blaming and stereotyping won’t help.”

The breakfast meeting featured progressive Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, who reportedly encouraged the audience to reflect on their “implicit biases” and noted that “bridging deep divides requires both love for the stranger and deep self-knowledge.”

Talve was a good choice to address the issues of anti-Zionist bigotry. An influential activist in St. Louis with a national reputation, a few years ago she was vilified and smeared by a local group of anti-Israel activists on account of the fact that she refused to renounce her attachment to the Jewish state and once visited Israel on an AIPAC-sponsored trip, Anti-Israel activists attack progressive St. Louis Rabbi who supports #BlackLivesMatter.

Also speaking was Bassem Eid, 60, a well-known Palestinian human rights activist who has lived in east Jerusalem and the West Bank all his life. We’ve posted before about Eid, including attempts by anti-Israel activists to intimidate him into silence and shut down his talks at various venues:

In St. Louis, Eid told the delegates that Presbyterians were “adding oil to the flames” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by only blaming Israel and for portraying the Palestinians as weak and oppressed. He reportedly also suggested that most Palestinians aren’t focused on the “quest for a separate state.”

Later, on June 18th during deliberations of the Middle East Committee at the GA, Eid was invited back by PFMEP to speak about why he was opposed to the numerous anti-Israel overtures being fielded. Eid reportedly spoke critically of the Palestinian leadership as preventing peace and denying freedoms. He also reportedly spoke “in favor of a measure condemning both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for hatred.”

During a break, Eid was reportedly harassed by a man named Bassem Masri, who was attending the proceedings at the invitation of the IPMN.

Masri is a St. Louis-based journalist of Palestinian descent. By his own claim, he’s also running for office as a state representative, and reportedly has only lived in Jerusalem for a couple of years while he was a teenager. According to Eid, Masri threatened to kill him on account of what he said to the Committee.

In October 2014 we wrote about how anti-Israel activists attempted to co-opt and hijack the Ferguson protests and riots and turn the anger towards Israel, Intifada Missouri – Anti-Israel activists may push Ferguson over the edge. The activists gathered under the “Palestine2Ferguson” banner and Twitter hashtag.

One of the key anti-Israel activists engaged in these protests was Bassem Masri, who attempted to instigate confrontations between police and protesters, as he livestreamed the protests. In the videos, Masri actually appears to be directly fomenting violence in the middle of the crowds. In our post, we included video of Masri confronting police officers with abuse—very in-your-face and unprovoked tactics that carried the risk of escalation.

It’s important to know this background about Masri as it provides an important context for understanding the nature of his continued harassment of Bassem Eid.

When Eid completed his testimony and was leaving the St. Louis convention center, Masri followed him through the building and down the streets all the way to his hotel, berating him as he recorded it on his cell phone, and accusing him of being a “collaborator”, “snitch”, “traitor”, “spy”, and an “Arab Zionist.”

[credit: Twitter screenshot]

In this regard, it’s worth noting that separately from the alleged threats and heaping all sorts of verbal abuse on Eid, Masri’s specific charge that Eid is a puppet of the Israelis and a sell-out to the Jewish lobby carries considerable risk for someone who lives in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Hamas has used these accusations to justify executing Palestinians.

There are several accounts of the altercation (see here and here). There’s also a 2-minute video with audio of the incident which Masri himself posted on social media. It’s worth watching (to view, click here). In it, in addition to hounding Eid as he tries to maintain his composure and get away, Masri screams that Palestinians in Gaza are living in “concentration camps” and accuses Masri of not “giving a sh*t about it.”

After the incident was reported, the PCUSA leadership “did almost nothing in response” to this “shocking display of hostility.”

The Vice-Moderator of IPMN and Rev. Dr. Fahed AbuAkel, past moderator of the 214th General Assembly, have strongly disputed that Masri issued any death threats. They also insist that there was nothing in the video to “substantiate Mr. Eid’s claims” of harassment. AbuAkel also “defended Masri’s right to stay in the convention center.”

Then, the PCUSA Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson responded to the allegation of death threats and the abuse and insulting harassment by engaging in “victim blaming”. Specifically, he excused Masri’s “existential passion” and discounted Eid’s claims on account that Eid was “representing an advocacy group often seen as slow to criticize Israel.”

As noted in the StandWithUs statement of June 22nd, “Instead of ensuring that the individual who made the threat was barred from the GA, the PCUSA leadership attempted to blame the victim and took no meaningful action.” Masri was allowed to remain in the meeting rooms, where he reportedly sat with anti-Israel activists including those from the IPMN.

PFMEP released the following statement about this disgraceful incident on June 23rd, as part of its final newsletter wrapping-up the GA:

The death threat issued against our dear friend Bassem Eid because of his testimony before the Middle East Committee is something we take very personally and seriously. We can’t let the weak response of GA officials to that scary situation stand. Frankly, the incident is something that all Presbyterians should understand as a serious threat to speakers at future assemblies. Will we tolerate the presence of individuals who make death threats or bully speakers and/or commissioners? Or can we find, as have many organizations, a way to balance free speech with a safe place for free speech.”

Statement from the Philos Project’s Luke Moon

I reached out to Luke Moon who attended the GA in St. Louis for his impressions about how the meeting went.

Moon is the Deputy Director of the Philos Project, a New York City-based organization that is committed to advancing peace in the Middle East, supporting Christians in the region, and advancing a Christian perspective that pushes back against anti-Israel demonization (the group does enormously good work; I have a particular interest in its success as its founder and Executive Director is my former graduate student).

This is what Moon told me yesterday via DM on Twitter:

PFMEP was much more successful than I expected. I walked away from the GA with a sense that the anti-Israel momentum can be reversed. The anti-Israel group within the PCUSA overreached and the rest of the body is not particularly happy. It also did not help that one of their guests verbally assaulted and threatened one of our guests. There’s a great opportunity to take back the PCUSA at least when it comes to demonizing Israel.”

Conclusion

A few weeks before the PCUSA convened in St. Louis for its 223rd General Assembly, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) announced that it wouldn’t be sending any representatives to the meeting, as it had in the past.

Basically, the AJC stated that it was no longer willing to participate in the GA “farce” and “drama” whose best-case scenario is “exaggerated Jewish relief that anti-Israel resolutions are marginally toned down before passage.”

This is an apt way to view past GAs of this church, and the AJC’s decision to stay away is understandable although, as we noted in our prior post, also regrettable.

But based on the accounts of those who were there on the ground in St. Louis to support PFMEP, this time around there was substantial opposition to the anti-Zionist agenda and not an insignificant amount of impatience with IPMN. The GA also moved more so than it has done in the past to advance PFMEP’s core mission—grassroots reconciliation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. So the outcome wasn’t just a series of superficially amended resolutions.

Bottom line: the “overwhelming Israel-bashing” at the PCUSA’s General Assemblies is by no means over. PFMEP and other true supporters of the tradition of Christian peacemaking will still need to labor against difficult odds to counter anti-Israelism within their church. Still, what happened last week at the GA in St. Louis should serve as an important lesson: arenas that have long been hijacked and corrupted by horrible BDS hate campaigns can be turned around by people of good will. In time, they can even be reclaimed.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman