From June 16-23 the General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will meet in St. Louis where delegates will consider for passage at least eight Israel-related resolutions.

By contrast, in terms of its Middle East coverage, the GA is slated to consider only one overture “responding to the current Syrian crisis” and one responding to the devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

That the PCUSA will be allowing a “concentration of Israel-denunciatory time and energy” throughout its weeklong GA comes as no surprise. As we and others have documented, for nearly 15 years the church has engaged in this “biennial ritual” of obsessive anti-Israel delegitimization:

As we highlighted, the GA (which takes place every even-numbered year) has long been a “regular scene of controversy” over the denomination’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The problem has emerged on account of the PCUSA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), a small but well-organized and highly vocal group of virulently anti-Israel activists who have managed to dominate the Middle East-related agenda at the GA. There, they’ve repeatedly pushed proposals targeting Israel for condemnation and advancing the goals of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

The upcoming GA223 in St. Louis won’t be any different, except that IPMN isn’t likely to face as much pushback there as it did at GAs past, and so at least some of the anti-Israel overtures will probably pass.

[PCUSA General Assembly | Credit: You Tube]

Background: Anti-Israel Activism in America’s Mainline Churches

Anti-Israel organizations and activists in the U.S. have long sought to turn U.S. progressive Protestant churches against Israel, Anti-Israel church activist agenda unveiled at BDS conference – intersectionality and crowdsourcing.

As we’ve discussed in a number of prior posts, this ongoing campaign to hijack America’s mainline churches has been fairly successful. In particular, the anti-Israel movement has managed in score pro-BDS wins in those churches where vehemently anti-Israel Palestinian NGOs have been able to infiltrate decision-making bodies.

In these cases, the NGOs have been able to forge close partnerships with church-subgroups who then collude with fringe (non-Jewish) groups, like Jewish Voice for Peace. They provide the Jewish stamp-of-approval needed to pass anti-Israel resolutions by helping to delude church members into thinking that there’s significant support for BDS within the American Jewish community.

We’ve shown that various self-defined Christian Palestinian NGOs—groups like Kairos and Sabeel—work with allies in the U.S. churches to ensure that members are exposed to a relentless barrage of anti-Israel propaganda, Sabeel – The Anti-Israel Christian activists you never heard of.

They work to turn the churches into forum for a Palestinian solidarity politics which is actually anti-peace. The agenda demonizes Israel while also effectively crowding out other critical issues, like radical Islamist anti-Christian hostility, genocidal persecution and the suffering of Christians throughout the Middle East, or even harm to Palestinians meted out by their own governments in the West Bank and Gaza:

Basically, the anti-Israel groups operating in these mainline U.S. churches have “sucked all the oxygen out of the room” when it comes to talking about the real plight of Christians in the Middle East. Israel is promoted as a racist, oppressive state and the greatest source of suffering in the region, even though the Christian community in Israel is thriving.

For the most part, as we discussed, this anti-Israel demonization is being played out with very little opposition. But in some churches, there are members and groups that are courageously struggling to resist the biased and false narratives about Israel that have been gaining strength in their beloved faith communities. For at least one church that concerted effort seems to be working:

Anti-Israel Activism in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)

The PCUSA has discussed, debated, and passed multiple anti-Israel resolutions since the early 2000s.

As we discussed in prior posts, much of this activism is spearheaded by a minority of committed anti-Israel and (in some cases antisemitic) activists affiliated with the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN).

Founded in 2004 with a mandate from the 216th General Assembly, the IPMN describes itself as committed to

advocate for Palestinian human rights and to deepen the involvement of Presbyterians with their struggle…and change the conditions that erode the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians…”

As Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) Dexter Van Zile notes in a prior post, the IPMN is in fact

a church-sponsored group with a long history of broadcasting anti-Zionist and in some instances antisemitic propaganda. For example, the group’s leaders, PCUSA ‘peace’ activist and communications chair Noushin Framke [in a 2011 Facebook post] declared that Israeli soldiers ‘are not human beings’.”

Framke also reportedly also once posted that Hamas should keep Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit until “Palestinians are granted a right of return”.

But Framke isn’t the only anti-Semite connected to the IPMN.

Back in 2012, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) issued a press release condemning the IPMN for a Facebook post that included a cartoon of President Obama wearing Star of David earrings to suggest Jewish control of American leaders:

The IPMN has also reportedly posted articles that accuse Jews of controlling the “media and American politics” and has repeatedly stated its opposition to a two-state solution and to self-determination for the Jewish people. (Dozens of deeply offensive social media postings by IPMN are documented in this 2014 report compiled by the watchdog group NGO Monitor).

The IPMN presents various curriculum, online resources, and “congregational study guides” for PCUSA members and conducts highly biased tours to the West Bank which present a historically and theoretically convoluted perspective.

As we discussed in our prior post, several years ago it produced a widely discredited 72 page “education resource” and accompanying DVD, Zionism Unsettled: a Congregational Guide, which views Zionism as an “oppressive, imperious, and exploitative” ideology.

Its postscript is written by Palestinian Anglican priest Naim Ateek, founder of east Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.

In it, Ateek characterizes Zionism as a “false theology” and a “struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege.” In Ateek’s words, Zionism Unsettled is:

the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation that a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life”.

Zionism Unsettled casts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in “supercessionist terms.” Basically, it uses anti-Judaic tropes to portray Israel as a Christ-killing nation that blocks God’s purpose for humanity.

In our earlier post about Sabeel, and its close association with the IPMN, we noted that some PCUSA church leaders were becoming disillusioned and fatigued with IPMN and its so-called peace activism.

Yet based on a quick look at the IPMN website, the sub-group appears to still be going strong—producing new ‘books’ and congregational study guides and leading one-sided tours to the West Bank.

At the GA in St. Louis it’ll be conducting an aggressive lobbying campaign, hoping to shepherd through some new anti-Israel overtures.

The IPMN’s Agenda for the GA in St. Louis

IPMN has already posted a user-friendly item on its website designed for GA delegates to view at a quick glance the overtures related to Just Peace and IPMN’s recommendations for voting:

Based on this, it’s clear that IPMN will be ramping up its effort to turn the church against Israel by leveraging concerns about climate change and renewable energy, white supremacy and racism in the U.S., and policing problems and gun violence in the U.S.

For each of these progressive causes that will be addressed at the GA, the IPMN thinks its helpful and completely appropriate to consider how Israel is centrally implicated in them.

As we’ve noted in many posts, this ‘intersectionality’—which bizarrely seeks to link the “oppression” of the Palestinians to totally unrelated civil rights issues and struggles within the U.S.—has become a major feature of anti-Israel activism and a prime organizing tool for the BDS movement:

The IPMN also has a “voter guide” for the 223rd GA, which lists the eight Israel-related resolutions that will be discussed and voted on. The guide recommends voting “yes” to a resolution opposed to anti-BDS legislation at the federal and state level; urging RE/MAX to stop “selling Jewish-only housing” in communities in the West Bank; and tasking the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns to prepare reports on the status of Jerusalem.

Tellingly, the one Israel-related overture in the bunch that IPMN opposes calls for protecting both Israeli and Palestinian children:

IPMN is planning to be very visible throughout the GA, with scheduled events on each day:

Worth noting is that IPMN activists will once again work to get GA commissioners to fixate on the evils of Hewlett Packard. They’re planning a “talk-in” that will focus on how to engage congregations in boycott-HP initiatives. (It’s worth noting that Israel contracted with HP in order to provide biometric ID technology that speeds up the time Palestinians who work in Israel are required in spend at security checkpoints—so the HP contract helps rather than harms Palestinians).

Also on offer will be a ticketed lunch event with Golbarg Bashi, the author of the highly controversial children’s book “P is for Palestine.”

The IPMN will also be promoting (and giving out free copies) of its own new book, Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism. It’s a collection of chapters most of which are authored by people who aren’t Presbyterians.

Like Zionism Unsettled, the book is meant to serve as manual for anti-Israel organizing, this time focused on the notion of intersectional justice struggles.

The 110-page book aims to “contextualize the liberation of Palestinian people within other global justice struggles.”

But what it really does is develop nonsensical relationships between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the efforts of U.S. social justice movements to advance civil rights for blacks, LGBTQ, women, Native Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups. It also:

In his recent review of the book for Fathom, former President of The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign Cary Nelson describes it as

a Church-sponsored demonization of the Jewish state that is propelled by insinuation more than responsible argument.”

All in all, it’s clear that IPMN will be spending a lot of time and effort in St. Louis trying to further move the Presbyterian Church against Israel.

Pushback: Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP)

As at prior General Assemblies, IPMN will be opposed by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP), another sub-group within the church that’s long attempted to counter its anti-Israel and pro-BDS messaging.

PFMEP is a “moderate organization” that refuses to demonize either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supports a two-state-for-two-peoples solution.

Back in 2012, it actively worked with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) to successfully vote down a church divestment resolution.

But it’s been an uphill battle for the PFMEP ever since.

Several years ago, PFMEP published an anti-BDS pamphlet and resource guide aimed at countering the IPMN’s anti-Israel activity, stopping the church from abandoning support for a negotiated peace agreement, and advancing the Christian values of peace, empowerment and coexistence.

As we highlighted in our prior post, the 80-page volume is extraordinarily well-done. It’s both a history of the conflict and a blueprint for “Christian peacemakers”, complete with graphs and charts, 151 hyperlinked sources to peer-reviewed material, and a 10-page bibliography.

Various sections are devoted to documenting the Jews as indigenous to the Land of Israel, and to emphasizing the legitimacy of Zionism and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

Others detail Israel’s longstanding support for the “land for peace” formula and its multiple efforts to negotiate in good faith, only to be rebuffed by Palestinian leaders. Israel’s legitimate security needs are also taken up in a comprehensive fashion.  The role that Hamas and other radical Islamist organizations play in destroying the possibilities for peace features centrally throughout.

Palestinians are treated fairly and with compassion, in particular for Palestinian Christians continually abandoned by feckless Muslim-led Palestinian governments and abused by radical Islamist extremists.

All GA commissioners would benefit from reading this book. They should also reflect on PFMEP’s shorter sequel Two States 2018. This recently released document advances the common-sense position that

Peace requires commitment from both parties, not Israel alone, and pressuring one party without holding the other to their commitments will not advance the cause of peace.”

At the last GA in Portland, PFMEP activists were able to “soften the tone” of a “hostile report” promoted by IPMN which placed most of the blame of the conflict on Israel.

But its not clear how visible they’ll be in St. Louis.

PFMEP’s website doesn’t show any events or sessions that it’ll be hosting. Instead, the group’s homepage has outdated information from the last 2016 GA.

Still, the homepage does feature several excellent recent blog posts written by a senior Presbyterian pastor and a ruling elder (see here and here). They each challenge IMPN’s central claims. One notes that neither Jesus nor David or Mary were “colonialists” and states that

…for Presbyterians, the Bible matters. One cannot read the Bible and declare Israel to be a ‘colonial project’.”

The homepage also prominently features a misleading map that the IPMN has repeatedly cited and which has appeared in prior GA overtures. A helpful link explains why the map is a fraud (for more on this “map that lies” see our post, MSNBC uses anti-Israel propaganda map (Update: Admits error):

The PFMEP homepage features a recent video by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which condemns BDS as a bigoted movement that fails to advance peace, human rights, or social justice:

It also includes a powerful statement condemning the IPMN’s promotion of Israel as an illegitimate state. Here, the PFMEP directly asks:

Will the upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly this June have the wisdom and courage to reaffirm its commitment to the two-state solution, as the 2016 GA did? Will the 2018 GA have the prophetic voice to condemn the spread of a ‘colonial project’ theory within our denomination?”

These are good questions.

Will IPMN Steer the Presbyterian Church (USA) In a More Anti-Israel Direction?

IPMN has dug deep roots in the PCUSA, succeeding in convincing far too many that BDS is based on Christian values, ethics and faith in God. For years, church members have reportedly heard from this sub-group about Israel holding Palestinians under “biblical scale enslavement” and poisoning Palestinian livestock, among other alleged crimes.

So it’s by no means assured that the PFMEP’s view will prevail at this month’s GA.

A lot will depend on who’s there to support PFMEP activists, and especially on whether JVP activists turn up to lend IPMN a helping hand.

JVP attended prior Presbyterian GAs, where their presence was enormously helpful in getting anti-Israel resolutions passed. But so far, JVP hasn’t indicated via its social media or on its website whether it will be attending.

If JVP isn’t there, that could amplify PFMEP’s argument that passing more anti-Israel resolutions will further drive a wedge between the church and the American Jewish community, undermining interfaith cooperation and efforts to pursue peace.

As we noted in our prior post, 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.

In this regard, JVP serves a useful function for anti-Israel activists in the churches. It helps to convince hesitant congregations that standing against Israel won’t harm interfaith relations.

But even if JVP isn’t there, PFMEP could still benefit in St. Louis from the presence of Jewish allies. In this regard, perhaps more consequential than JVP not attending is the fact that the American Jewish Committee will be a no-show.

The AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations recently announced that it won’t be attending the GA in St. Louis on account of the repeated assaults on Jewish identity and the “relentless anti-Israel demonization” that happens at these national conventions. Instead, the AJC says it will “redouble” its effort to expand interfaith work at the local level through its 20+ regional offices across the U.S.

It’s understandable that the AJC is sick and tired with the “GA farce” and no longer wants to participate in a

GA drama whose best-case scenario is exaggerated Jewish relief that anti-Israel resolutions are marginally toned down before passage.”

Still, it’s a shame that AJC representatives won’t be there to offer moral support to PFMEP activists, who the AJC appreciates have “labored against difficult odds to counter anti-Israelism within their church.”

It seems to me that to effectively counter the “overwhelming Israel-bashing at the church’s GAs,” more pro-Israel organizations need to be present there—not less.

Conclusion

According to many observers, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a dying denomination. In 1993, the church reportedly had 3.1 million members but by 2016 it had less than 1.5 million.

You’d think that with the church experiencing this kind of decline, it would be wary of taking any actions that could further damage the denomination’s reputation. So why is its leadership catering to a group of unreasonable anti-Israel zealots whose views are completely out of sync with those of the vast majority of Presbyterians in the pews?

Bottom line: It’s tragic that national Presbyterian leaders convening in a few weeks in St. Louis are once again likely to make the delegitimization of Israel a “public witness of their church.” Given that the PCUSA can’t seem to recruit many new members or stop churches from “leaving the denomination in droves”, the GA’s capitulation to a group of “angry partisans” is an indication of deep-seated organizational dysfunction.

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