Commentary Magazine


Topic: Presbyterian Church USA

Jews Who Aid the War on Israel

Both Jonathan Marks and Pete Wehner admirably summarized some of the main issues surrounding last Friday’s vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest itself from companies that do business with Israel. But in assessing this distressing development it’s important for the Jewish community to focus on those elements from within its ranks who played a crucial role in this result.

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Both Jonathan Marks and Pete Wehner admirably summarized some of the main issues surrounding last Friday’s vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest itself from companies that do business with Israel. But in assessing this distressing development it’s important for the Jewish community to focus on those elements from within its ranks who played a crucial role in this result.

As both Jonathan and Pete wrote, in voting for what is, in effect, a declaration of economic war on the Jewish state, the largest Presbyterian denomination has not only allied itself with haters like David Duke. In acting in this manner it has also alerted its shrinking membership to the fact that radicals tainted by anti-Semitism have hijacked its leadership.

Presbyterians claimed that their vote was one signifying criticism of Israel’s policies rather than an attack on the Jewish people. But as I wrote earlier this year, the Presbyterians’ publication of a new book Zionism Unsettled that criticized Jewish faith and attacked Israel’s existence, as well as much of the rhetoric surrounding the vote, made it clear that this move was motivated by intolerance and hate. In acting in this manner, the PCUSA has shown that dialogue with such groups or even cooperation on unrelated issues isn’t just pointless. To carry on business as usual with a group that has declared war on the Jewish state and the Jewish people in this manner would be to tolerate that which is intolerable.

But how then should Jewish communities regard those Jews—specifically the group calling itself Jewish Voices for Peace—who actively aided and abetted this effort?

The answer is clear. They deserve to be cut off from the organized Jewish world and treated like the pariahs they have chosen to be.

The role of JVP in the Presbyterian vote was amply illustrated in this sympathetic piece published last weekend in the New York Times. This anti-Zionist group served as the perfect foil for the radical Israel haters inside the PCUSA. Instead of being forced to own up to the fundamentally anti-Semitic spirit of the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement targeting Israel, the Presbyterians were able to produce left-wing Jews who shared their views as cover for this campaign of hate that masquerades as “socially responsible” investing.

JVP assists those groups, like the Presbyterians who think it is moral to single out the one Jewish and democratic state in the world for discrimination while ignoring genuine human-rights violations going on elsewhere. But even while assisting anti-Zionist campaigns that are thinly veiled anti-Semitism, the organization claims to represent Jewish values.

As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former leader of the Reform movement aptly stated this week in Haaretz, JVP cloaks their own extremist principles in ambiguous language in order to try and represent themselves as just one more liberal Jewish group. Indeed, its position is even more radical than the final resolutions passed by the Presbyterians since it wholeheartedly backs BDS on all of Israel, not just a few American companies and neither supports a two-state solution nor the Jewish state’s right to exist.

By assisting the BDS movement in this manner, JVP gains press attention from papers like the New York Times and faux respectability from left-wing Christians who embrace it as a “partner” that somehow represents Jews. But the point about the farce that played out at the Presbyterian GA in Detroit is, as Yoffie rightly points out, that this group represents very few Jews and takes positions that are anathema to the entire spectrum of the organized Jewish world.

Just as Presbyterians should know they are making a crucial mistake in embracing JVP, so, too, do Jewish communities and Hillel groups on campuses err in allowing this group to join community relations councils or to be represented in campus councils.

While there are strong disagreements between mainstream Jewish groups and left-wing groups like J Street who often play a destructive role in many communities and undermine support for Israel, there is a clear difference between those that are critical of Israel, like J Street, and those that are at war with it and Zionism, as is the case with Jewish Voices for Peace. One may be tolerated, albeit reluctantly, within the community because of its support for Zionism; the other puts itself on the other side of a line that should never be crossed.

Jewish Voices for Peace has every right to do or say as they like even if their policies are deceptive and aimed at aiding those attacking Jews. But they should never be allowed to do so under the banner of the Jewish community. Like ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists or Jews for Jesus, JVP is an unfortunate yet noxious fact of life that cannot be denied but must also never be treated as a legitimate partner in any Jewish community or on any college campus.

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BDS Cares Nothing for Your Wounded Feelings

Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

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Over the weekend the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that provide services to Israel’s security forces. That vote came in spite of significant and laudable efforts on the part of Jewish communal leaders who engaged with the Presbyterians in an effort to dissuade them from this anti-Israel act. Why did they fail? Perhaps that’s an unfair question. After all, the vote was extremely close with the assembly of the Church’s elders splitting 310 in favor of the divestment to 303 voting against. Maybe efforts from the Jewish community helped convince many not to divest. But in the end they weren’t able to convince enough. Where did their strategy go wrong?

A pretty strong indication became apparent during the course of a CNN interview following the Presbyterian vote. Speaking in defense of the move was Presbyterian moderator Heath Rada. One couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. He admitted that he had not cast a vote on the issue and as the grilling by CNN anchors unfolded it became more and more apparent that Rada didn’t really believe in the divestment he was now being obliged to defend. Over and over again Rada kept repeating that this was not intended as an attack on “our Jewish brothers and sisters” but quite quickly the familial insinuation became distastefully patronizing. I wonder just how many American Jews reciprocate the suggestion of such kinship with the Presbyterian Church right now.

Next up was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. By all accounts Jacobs had been present at the vote and had done much to try and talk the church elders around. Although, given how the vote went in the end, it seems he didn’t get much in return for his trouble. Still, speaking on CNN he was as eloquent a spokesperson as anyone could wish for. He unequivocally slammed the grotesque anti-Jewish publication Zionism Unsettled (which is still on sale at the Presbyterian Church’s website), and rightly pointed out that this vote is an affirmation of global BDS–boycott, divestment, sanctions.

Yet as Rabbi Jacobs laid out his argument it became quite clear why he and other liberal Jews failed to prevent that BDS vote and why they will continue to fail to do so in the future. Jacobs’s argument hinged on one point: votes like this hurt Jewish feelings. But that’s a pretty weak argument. If one really believes that Israel is oppressing and tormenting Palestinians, then the hurt feelings of American Jewry are all very regretful, but in the face of injustice, what right do American Jews have to say it upsets them to see Israel’s military activities boycotted? If Israel’s misdemeanors in the West Bank are so very wrong then instead of complaining about their feelings, shouldn’t good liberal Jews support such moves?

And Rabbi Jacobs reiterated the legitimacy of these notions even during the few minutes he was speaking on CNN, so one can only imagine what he might have said in his much lengthier comments to the church elders. As an alternative to boycotts Jacobs suggested that he and the Presbyterians should go meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and protest settlements. But by suggesting that settlements are what needs protesting Jacobs strengthens the notion that settlements are the underlying problem. If that’s true—and if Israelis refuse to accept this—then why not boycott them just like you might place sanctions on any other state that’s gone rogue?

There is however a much stronger moral argument against the latest Presbyterian divestment. The first point is that the companies they are divesting from provide security services against terrorism that help stop their “Jewish brothers and sisters” from being murdered. Motorola is being divested from for the apparent outrage of providing surveillance technology that protects civilian communities in the West Bank while HP is responsible for the terrible crime of providing materials used for preventing weapons from being smuggled into Gaza by sea. BDS calls these the apparatus of occupation, but are the Presbyterians really telling us that they oppose measures to prevent terrorism targeting civilians? Never mind Jewish feelings, what about defending Jewish lives?

The second point to be stressed here is that those speaking to groups like the Presbyterians have to stop repeating this false narrative that says that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through settlements. It must be reiterated constantly that Israel has legitimate rights in the West Bank that are, yes, necessitated by the present security situation and Palestinian rejectionism but more importantly that are upheld by historical and legal right. There is a strong international law case that people like Rabbi Jacobs refuse to make because they have staked everything on a two-state agreement that may never come.

American Jews can complain about how hurtful boycotts of Israel are, but once they have bought into the idea that Israel is perpetuating the conflict through an illegal occupation on Palestinian land they have already lost the argument. And as for those driving the BDS campaign itself, they don’t care about Jewish feelings; attacking Jews is what BDS is all about.

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David Duke and the Presbyterian Church (USA) Join In Common Cause Against Israel

On Friday the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its general convention (310-303) to divest from three companies it says supply Israel with equipment used to oppress Palestinians. Despite the PCUSA’s insistence to the contrary, this is part of a long-term effort to de-legitimize and morally stigmatize Israel. It is evidence not simply of moral confusion but of a disturbing moral inversion.

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On Friday the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its general convention (310-303) to divest from three companies it says supply Israel with equipment used to oppress Palestinians. Despite the PCUSA’s insistence to the contrary, this is part of a long-term effort to de-legitimize and morally stigmatize Israel. It is evidence not simply of moral confusion but of a disturbing moral inversion.

I say that because anyone who has followed this debate knows that the PCUSA have shown a transparent anti-Israeli zeal. (Jonathan Marks’s fine post is worth reading in this regard.) The tactics vary, but the goal is the same: to isolate the Jewish state and turn it into a pariah. (I should add here that I have my own experience in this regard. In the 2000s my wife and I ended up leaving a church we attended for years after we discovered a clear anti-Israel bias that existed among some influential figures within the church.)

In some respects, the action by the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not surprising. It’s one of the mainline denominations that has become increasingly radicalized, politically no less than theologically, and has been losing members in large numbers for years. So it’s been on the road to irrelevance for some time now. That tends to happen to churches that subordinate their spiritual mission to a political one, and in this case to a fairly radical and progressive one.

Still, there is something particularly noxious in last week’s decision by the PCUSA. In a region plagued by genocide, terrorist organizations, terror-sponsoring states, ruthless dictators, and unimaginable oppression, the Presbyterian Church (USA) decides to aim its outrage at Israel, one of America’s closest allies, a nation that is a beacon of freedom and whose moral achievements are more than impressive; they are staggering.

Those who support what happened last week will undoubtedly argue that this was an example of them acting in a way that manifests their faith and their concern for social justice. In fact, it’s evidence of a hollowing out of their faith and required them to disfigure the real meaning of justice. It is hardly an accident that one of those who praised the PCUSA for its actions was none other than David Duke.

In a statement posted on his website, Duke said, “Israel is based not only on ethnic supremacism, but on massive terrorism and ethnic cleansing. … Their racist power over the media and government is why Israel can get away with it all. But people can stand up. Bravo to the Presbyterian Church for standing up to Jewish racism and supremacism!”

Well done, Presbyterian Church (USA). David Duke has found in your organization a moral voice and a moral home.

You can have him.

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The Presbyterians Divest

By now, COMMENTARY readers may have heard that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted, narrowly, 310 to 303, to divest from three companies, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, that allegedly help Israelis oppress Palestinians. I provide some background here.

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By now, COMMENTARY readers may have heard that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted, narrowly, 310 to 303, to divest from three companies, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola, that allegedly help Israelis oppress Palestinians. I provide some background here.

Yair Rosenberg observes that “given how many Presbyterians and their leaders at the Assembly voted against the measure … and how many rank-and-file members of the 1.8 million-strong church had little say in this vote, individual and local ties will no doubt persist, even as institutional ones become strained.

I think Rosenberg is right about the rank and file members. And the Assembly did some good things this session, such as distancing itself, though not as decisively as it should have, from the noxious “study guide” sold by the Church, Zionism Unsettled, which revives the old “Zionism is racism” attack. Nonetheless, the actions of the Church’s General Assembly are worse than the divestment vote indicates.

In particular, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 482-88, to reviewGeneral Assembly Policy Regarding the Two-State Solution in Israel Palestine” and to put the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) in charge of the review. Since the ACSWP provided advice and counsel on this and other matters before the Assembly, it is not hard to guess what this review might say. Concerning the resolution to reconsider the Church’s commitment to a two-state solution, the ACSWP thinks it important to remind us that the breakdown of peace negotiations is entirely Israel’s fault. Here is a sample:

Secretary of State John Kerry has testified that Israel’s refusal to curtail settlements and finally to release a fourth group of only twenty-five Palestinian prisoners led to a “poof” that ended the process. … There were no significant achievements during the 9 months, and in fact a growing number of “price tag” desecrations of Christian and Muslim sites, increased number of shootings of nonviolent Palestinian protesters and farmers trying to harvest alongside “security zones,” and numbers of Palestinians denied identity cards in Jerusalem.

In commenting on other resolutions, ACSWP indicated its support for the boycott movement. For example, although the Assembly rejected a resolution to boycott “all Hewlett Packard products,” ACSWP was for it because boycott strategy remains an effective and very participatory way to support greater justice for the Palestinians, and seems to be regarded by the Israeli government and its supporters as a danger to their control. ACSWP also complained, in a different context, about the demonization of Hamas.

So the Assembly voted, not narrowly but overwhelmingly, to entrust a committee that has shown itself to be consistently and deeply anti-Israel with making recommendations about where the Church should stand on a two-state solution.

It is hard to believe that the people who voted for this resolution, the vast majority of the Assembly, were unaware of what the ACSWP does, for it has a track record. But even if they somehow managed to be ignorant of what their vote implied, they are, at best, frivolous about serious matters.

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Will the Presbyterian Church USA Vote for Divestment (and Irrelevance)?

Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

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Irrelevance breeds irrelevance. When an organization allows itself to be influenced by radicals who are out of touch with the membership, the members begin to depart or tune out. As the numbers of thoughtful and attentive members dwindles, the organization becomes more susceptible to the influence of radicals. More members depart and tune out, the radicals become a significant part of the base leaders think they need to listen to, and the organization is in danger of being taken over. Such was the case of the small, barely relevant American Studies Association, which has become a playground for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, and such is the case with the much larger, but also barely relevant Presbyterian Church (USA).

The church, like other mainline churches, has been hemorrhaging members for some time. In 2013, PCUSA counted 1,760,200 members. That was down from 2,525,330 in 2000, a decline of about thirty percent.

Maybe Anti-Semitism will help.

Jonathan Tobin has reported on Zionism Unsettled, a “teaching guide” developed by the Israel-Palestine Network of the Church. Zionism Unsettled calls Zionism, or support for a Jewish state, “Jewish supremacism” on the order of support for Jim Crow, or the Nazis. David Duke tells us that this term was his idea, but he does not seem to mind that the authors borrowed it without attribution. Among friends, after all, one does not stand on ceremony. The church did just barely distance itself from Zionism Unsettled without, however, disavowing it. The Israel-Palestine Mission Network “speaks to the Church and not for the Church.” Never mind that the organization has the mandate and support of PCUSA, or that the book is for sale at the Church store.

The Israel-Palestine Mission Network was formed by the PCUSA General Assembly in 2004, the same year in which it passed a resolution calling for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” While the Assembly was at it, it claimed that the “occupation” was “at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict” and lectured Israelis on the importance of making peace with the Palestinians. Formed at the behest of anti-Israel activists, the network has had a problem with anti-Semitism ever since. In 2006, under intense pressure, the Assembly voted to remove the selective disinvestment language. The Assembly also professed to be “grieved by the pain that [the 2004 resolution caused,” to “accept responsibility for the flaws [in the process leading up to that resolution], and to hope for “a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

The activists have been trying to rescind this dangerous embrace of mutual understanding and dialogue, and to pass disinvestment, ever since. In 2012, they almost persuaded the Assembly to disinvest from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola for “profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.” They lost 333 to 331. Encouraged, they are back at it again at this year’s General Assembly, which is meeting this week. The good news is that the Mideast Committee failed, albeit very narrowly, to pass on to the General Assembly a resolution describing Israel as an apartheid state. It also succeeded, albeit hypocritically, in advancing a resolution distancing PCUSA from the now radioactive Zionism Unsettled. The bad news is that the same committee voted to recommend divestment from, once again, Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola.

Those members of the General Assembly who are merely foolish, rather than hostile to Jews, may vote for the resolution, which is admittedly much narrower than the one passed in 2004, thinking it relatively benign. That is the BDS strategy. Get what you can get, then publicly marvel at your momentum, even if what you got is less than what you were able to get ten years ago. But, as Yair Rosenberg reveals, boycott supporters like Reverend Larry Grimm hope for a lot more than disinvestment in a few companies: Grimm let the “everyone would be better off if there were no Israel” cat out of the bag on his Facebook page: “America is the Promised Land. We all know this. Come to the land of opportunity. Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends. Stop it. Come home to America!”

The Mideast Committee also passed a resolution urging reconsideration of the Church’s support for a two-state solution, a position which certainly follows from Grimm’s view that there should be no Jewish state.

I hope the General Assembly, which will take up these resolutions later this week, will again, by however small a margin, reject them. But if they don’t, BDS won’t get much momentum out of it. The more likely result, momentum-wise, is even more departures from the church. In spite of the implosion of mainline Protestantism, the press is still in the old habit of attending to the pronouncements of  mainline Protestant groups. So if the Assembly votes to embrace the anti-Israel lunatic fringe, even more rank and file Presbyterians may notice that they have leaders, and that these leaders are, increasingly, radicals and fools. Even devoted churchgoers can’t be blamed for leaving a church when it starts to smell this bad.

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Presbyterians’ Tent of Nations Propaganda

Later this month, the Presbyterian Church USA will hold its biennial General Assembly at which delegates will decide whether one of the country’s mainstream Protestant denominations will fully embrace an economic war on Israel and the Jewish people. But the battle over resolutions that endorse divestment from companies that do business with Israel is not confined to the debates at that gathering. Presbyterian activists have been working hard over the last two years when similar proposals narrowly failed at the last PCUSA biennial to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Jewish state and its supporters. Earlier this year, a church-affiliated group published an outrageous book and companion CD titled Zionism Unsettled that crossed all boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and open hostility toward both Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Much of that effort smacked of traditional anti-Semitism, but press arms of the church are also fueling the fires of hate with misleading charges against Israel that are intended to boost the divestment campaign.

One such example, involving the so-called Tent of Nations, a pro-Palestinian rallying point in the West Bank claimed that Israeli forces not only oppress Palestinians but also sought to wage war on their trees. The PCUSA News Service wrote that the Israeli military wantonly destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 trees planted at the site on property owned by a Palestinian farmer. In this version of the episode, parroted by other left-wing Protestant sites, Israel was seeking to seize Palestinian land and ignoring its own courts. But the truth, as this report from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, is that much of this tale is pure propaganda built on an edifice of falsehoods.

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Later this month, the Presbyterian Church USA will hold its biennial General Assembly at which delegates will decide whether one of the country’s mainstream Protestant denominations will fully embrace an economic war on Israel and the Jewish people. But the battle over resolutions that endorse divestment from companies that do business with Israel is not confined to the debates at that gathering. Presbyterian activists have been working hard over the last two years when similar proposals narrowly failed at the last PCUSA biennial to create an atmosphere of hatred against the Jewish state and its supporters. Earlier this year, a church-affiliated group published an outrageous book and companion CD titled Zionism Unsettled that crossed all boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and open hostility toward both Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Much of that effort smacked of traditional anti-Semitism, but press arms of the church are also fueling the fires of hate with misleading charges against Israel that are intended to boost the divestment campaign.

One such example, involving the so-called Tent of Nations, a pro-Palestinian rallying point in the West Bank claimed that Israeli forces not only oppress Palestinians but also sought to wage war on their trees. The PCUSA News Service wrote that the Israeli military wantonly destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 trees planted at the site on property owned by a Palestinian farmer. In this version of the episode, parroted by other left-wing Protestant sites, Israel was seeking to seize Palestinian land and ignoring its own courts. But the truth, as this report from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, is that much of this tale is pure propaganda built on an edifice of falsehoods.

As CAMERA notes, the first thing that is wrong with this story is that the Israel Defense Forces did not violate court orders when it uprooted the trees at the Tent of Nations site. While the Palestinian family was able to prove they owned an adjacent hilltop, they have consistently failed in the courts to prove their assertions that they also own the valley where the trees were planted. The family lost the case in Israel’s independent courts. Though they argue that it has been theirs for a century, there is no evidence that it was ever cultivated or in any way occupied by them until just a few years ago when, in an effort to demonstrate ownership, they planted some trees. It is also worth pointing out, as aerial photos taken by the Israelis proved, there were no more than 300 recently planted trees there, not the thousands that the Palestinians and their Presbyterian friends claimed. The entire point of the tree planting was not agriculture but politics and an effort to goad the Israeli government into taking action that can be portrayed as oppression but which is actually upholding the rule of law.

This story proves that in order to libel Israel, these Presbyterian activists will do just about anything, including making vast exaggerations and distortions in order to whip up anger at the Jewish state. But what else can we expect from a church that produced a book like Zionism Unsettled which seeks to portray all of Israel and not just the West Bank settlements as a crime against humanity. In seeking to brand all Israel supporters as co-conspirators in the plot against the Palestinians, the pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) crowd is burning even its bridges with left-wing Israelis and American Jews like J Street. Even the left-wing lobby understands that what is at stake in this battle with church activists is not merely a symbolic resolution but an effort to delegitimize the Jewish people.

It bears repeating that most American Presbyterians have no interest in backing a campaign of hate against Israel and Jews. To the contrary, most mainline Protestants, including those affiliated with PCUSA churches or who serve as their pastors, are not comfortable with the fact that a small group of radical activists have hijacked their church. But given the nature of the incitement produced by official church groups, PCUSA congregants can no longer claim ignorance or indifference about what is being done in their name. If their representatives vote to join those waging war on Israel later this month, the church will have ended any hope of future relations with either Jews or Christians of conscience.

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Obama’s Favorite v. BDS Presbyterians

I wrote on Tuesday about one of the first shots fired by those seeking to boycott Israel in advance of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Two years ago at the last such gathering, the Presbyterians came within two votes of adopting a pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) proposal against Israel and the powerful anti-Zionist faction in their ranks are taking no chances about this year’s debate. They forced a Virginia pastor to resign as moderator of their Middle East committee because he had taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups even though he had been on pro-Palestinian junkets in the past. But the focus of much of the discussion among Presbyterians will be the book and companion DVD published earlier this year titled Zionism Unsettled. As I noted in February it is an anti-Zionist screed with heavy overtones of anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize not only the Jewish state but also its American supporters.

Among the targets of Zionism Unsettled is an unlikely figure: the distinguished Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is, as is well known, President Obama’s favorite philosopher. According to the new Presbyterian guide to the Middle East, Niebuhr and other liberal figures that supported the establishment of a Jewish state are guilty of “moral blindness” for embracing Zionism. But his daughter and his grandnephew have now come forward both to defend Niebuhr and to place Zionism Unsettled in the proper context of the war on Israel. Writing in the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Sifton and Gustav Niebuhr state clearly that by trashing the great theologian in this manner, the BDS crowd is not only distorting the record but also placing the Presbyterians on the wrong side of history.

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I wrote on Tuesday about one of the first shots fired by those seeking to boycott Israel in advance of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Two years ago at the last such gathering, the Presbyterians came within two votes of adopting a pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) proposal against Israel and the powerful anti-Zionist faction in their ranks are taking no chances about this year’s debate. They forced a Virginia pastor to resign as moderator of their Middle East committee because he had taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups even though he had been on pro-Palestinian junkets in the past. But the focus of much of the discussion among Presbyterians will be the book and companion DVD published earlier this year titled Zionism Unsettled. As I noted in February it is an anti-Zionist screed with heavy overtones of anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize not only the Jewish state but also its American supporters.

Among the targets of Zionism Unsettled is an unlikely figure: the distinguished Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is, as is well known, President Obama’s favorite philosopher. According to the new Presbyterian guide to the Middle East, Niebuhr and other liberal figures that supported the establishment of a Jewish state are guilty of “moral blindness” for embracing Zionism. But his daughter and his grandnephew have now come forward both to defend Niebuhr and to place Zionism Unsettled in the proper context of the war on Israel. Writing in the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Sifton and Gustav Niebuhr state clearly that by trashing the great theologian in this manner, the BDS crowd is not only distorting the record but also placing the Presbyterians on the wrong side of history.

Sifton and Niebuhr note the significance of the Presbyterian General Assembly taking place in Detroit this year:

Detroit [is] ironically, the city where Niebuhr first served as a pastor (and where, almost 90 years ago, he first argued publicly that Christian efforts to convert Jews should cease, given that Jews — but not only Jews — considered such efforts anti-Semitic). If the motion is carried this time, Presbyterians — congregations, seminaries and individuals — will have to explain how their church’s endorsement of the scathing critique of Israel in Zionism Unsettled shouldn’t be regarded as profoundly anti-Israel.

But what really bothers the pair is the way contemporary Presbyterians are ready to ignore history in order to advance their anti-Zionist agenda.

Passages in Zionism Unsettled besmirching these “liberal pro-Zionists” disregard chronology and common sense to make illiberal, inaccurate accusations. Ludicrously, Niebuhr and Tillich are lumped together with other “intellectuals with roots in Germany” (some of them Jews) in an alleged “moral support group” in the 1930s that became a “political think tank” for Zionism doing its best to drag the United States into the war. These Christians’ admirable solidarity with Jews — at a time when fanatical anti-Semites were denouncing, threatening and killing pro- and anti-Zionist Jews along with uncommitted ones — is now counted against them. 

For Presbyterians to indulge in such clumsy calumny against formative modern Protestant teachers might prompt one to mere head-shaking pity. But we are concerned that the booklet does not foster actual study within Christian institutions and instead effectively shuts down discussion. It seems to brand any understanding of Zionism past or present as ipso facto hostility to Palestinians. Nor does it advance the real cause worth striving for: agreement on a workable basis for political, religious and cultural peace between Israel and the Arab nations.

Niebuhr’s stand against anti-Semitism demands our admiration today, but it was particularly courageous in the context of the era in which he made it. Though not uncritical of Zionist leaders whom he rightly chided for being too optimistic for thinking the Arabs would not fight the creation of a Jewish state because it was clearly in their interests to share the land and cooperate toward the goal of economic development, Niebuhr nevertheless understood that the effort to create a state in their historic homeland was a just cause. The problem with the BDSers is not merely that they don’t tell the truth about Israel’s measures of self-defense or its right or even the reality of Palestinian violence and rejectionism. It is that they reject Niebuhr’s belief that Jewish aspirations for a state were entirely “legitimate.” As such they seek to deny to the Jews alone what no one would think of refusing to any other people. Niebuhr understood the thin veil that separated anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, as did many other decent thinkers on both the left and the right in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

By turning their back on this great man with the publication of Zionism Unsettled and by flirting with BDS, Presbyterians are doing more than venting their spleen against Israel. They are turning their back on a tradition of Christian decency that Niebuhr embodied.

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Presbyterians Escalate War on Jews

In February of this year I wrote about the latest instance of the Presbyterian Church USA engaging in hostile behavior toward both Israel and the Jewish people. A new study guide and companion CD about the Middle East published by an official Presbyterian group sought to delegitimize Israel and whitewash those who wage war and terrorism against it. Even worse, it compared Zionism to anti-Semitism and said that American Jews who supported Israel were not faithful to their religion. On top of the denomination’s past flirtations with the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on Israel, the study guide demonstrated just how deep the hatred for Jews had become among some church officials. But an even more recent incident illustrates that these episodes are not aberrations but reflect a clear desire on the part of church cadres to treat any normal contact with Jews as beyond the pale.

What has happened is that a Virginia Beach pastor who was slated to take a leadership role in a church forum at its annual General Assembly has been pressured to resign by Presbyterian Church USA officials. What was his offense? Taking part in two trips to Israel sponsored by a Jewish group. As Rev. Albert Butzer relates in a piece he wrote about his experience for The Presbyterian Outlook, he had looked forward to being the official moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues at the denomination’s General Assembly. But he was forced out when it came out that he had gone to Israel on trips organized by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia. Though he had previously been to the region on two trips organized by the Palestinians, the mere fact that he had been exposed to Israel’s side of the story in the conflict was enough to brand him as untrustworthy.

While the question of who sits on church committees may not strike many people as an earthshaking question, Butzer’s treatment is significant. His ouster signals a new turn in interfaith relations. Whereas in the past Israel’s foes in mainline Christian churches have sought to cloak their hostility to Zionism and to affirm that they did not wish to harm interfaith relations, it’s now clear that this is no longer the case. By saying that participation in any trip that allows Christians to hear Israel’s point of view even alongside the voices of Palestinians is beyond the pale, the Presbyterian Church USA is telling us that they are declaring war on American Jews as well as Israel.

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In February of this year I wrote about the latest instance of the Presbyterian Church USA engaging in hostile behavior toward both Israel and the Jewish people. A new study guide and companion CD about the Middle East published by an official Presbyterian group sought to delegitimize Israel and whitewash those who wage war and terrorism against it. Even worse, it compared Zionism to anti-Semitism and said that American Jews who supported Israel were not faithful to their religion. On top of the denomination’s past flirtations with the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on Israel, the study guide demonstrated just how deep the hatred for Jews had become among some church officials. But an even more recent incident illustrates that these episodes are not aberrations but reflect a clear desire on the part of church cadres to treat any normal contact with Jews as beyond the pale.

What has happened is that a Virginia Beach pastor who was slated to take a leadership role in a church forum at its annual General Assembly has been pressured to resign by Presbyterian Church USA officials. What was his offense? Taking part in two trips to Israel sponsored by a Jewish group. As Rev. Albert Butzer relates in a piece he wrote about his experience for The Presbyterian Outlook, he had looked forward to being the official moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues at the denomination’s General Assembly. But he was forced out when it came out that he had gone to Israel on trips organized by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia. Though he had previously been to the region on two trips organized by the Palestinians, the mere fact that he had been exposed to Israel’s side of the story in the conflict was enough to brand him as untrustworthy.

While the question of who sits on church committees may not strike many people as an earthshaking question, Butzer’s treatment is significant. His ouster signals a new turn in interfaith relations. Whereas in the past Israel’s foes in mainline Christian churches have sought to cloak their hostility to Zionism and to affirm that they did not wish to harm interfaith relations, it’s now clear that this is no longer the case. By saying that participation in any trip that allows Christians to hear Israel’s point of view even alongside the voices of Palestinians is beyond the pale, the Presbyterian Church USA is telling us that they are declaring war on American Jews as well as Israel.

What is also interesting about this tale is that Butzer should in no way be considered an ardent advocate for Israel. In his piece, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate his sensitivity and even sympathy for the Palestinian point of view. He is willing to view Israel in a negative light and seems not to challenge the Palestinian narrative. But he is willing to listen to the other side in the conflict and that is something that BDS supporters inside the church rightly consider to be dangerous to their cause.

Of course, the BDS crowd at the Presbyterian Church USA isn’t saying who is sponsoring the various pro-Palestinian dog and pony shows in the region (here and here) that it is schlepping its members to this year.

But the point here is that it is drawing a line in the sand and labeling anyone who makes common cause with mainstream American Jewish groups as beyond the pale. In return, Jews and all Christians and people of faith who truly care about peace should make it clear that so long as the Presbyterian Church USA is waging war on the Jews, they will treat it as a hate group masquerading as a community of faith.

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Presbyterians Declare War on the Jews

In the last decade, several mainstream American Protestant denominations have flirted with resolutions endorsing boycotts of companies doing business with Israel. Most of these efforts have been defeated, albeit narrowly, by strenuous efforts by Jewish groups determined to preserve good interfaith relations as well as by Christians who wanted no part of a movement dedicated to waging economic war on a democratic state. In most cases, these battles have involved a small cadre of left-wing activists involved in church leadership groups that had little support among ministers, and even less among rank-and-file church members. Thus, even the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a church that has a particularly virulent group of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists working in positions of influence, failed to pass a divestment resolution in 2012. But despite that defeat, those anti-Israel elements have now regrouped and launched a new initiative that threatens to escalate the battle within the church and to undermine any remnant of good will that still exists between this Presbyterian group (the PCUSA is just one among a number of groups that call themselves Presbyterians) and American Jews.

As the Times of Israel reports, the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network (IPMN) has issued a “study guide” about the Middle East conflict that will forever change the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. The 74-page illustrated booklet and companion DVD entitled Zionism Unsettled was published last month for use by the church’s 2.4 million members. Unlike other left-wing critiques of Israel, the Presbyterian pamphlet isn’t content to register disapproval of Israeli policies and West Bank settlements or to lament the plight of the Palestinians. The booklet is a full-blown attack against the very concept of Zionism and seeks to compare Zionism to the Christian anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and other historical atrocities. Its purpose is to brand Israel as an illegitimate entity and to treat its American Jewish supporters as having strayed from the values of their religion. Zionism Unsettled not only swallows the Palestinian narrative about Middle East history whole, it is nothing less than a declaration of war on Israel and American Jewry.

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In the last decade, several mainstream American Protestant denominations have flirted with resolutions endorsing boycotts of companies doing business with Israel. Most of these efforts have been defeated, albeit narrowly, by strenuous efforts by Jewish groups determined to preserve good interfaith relations as well as by Christians who wanted no part of a movement dedicated to waging economic war on a democratic state. In most cases, these battles have involved a small cadre of left-wing activists involved in church leadership groups that had little support among ministers, and even less among rank-and-file church members. Thus, even the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a church that has a particularly virulent group of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists working in positions of influence, failed to pass a divestment resolution in 2012. But despite that defeat, those anti-Israel elements have now regrouped and launched a new initiative that threatens to escalate the battle within the church and to undermine any remnant of good will that still exists between this Presbyterian group (the PCUSA is just one among a number of groups that call themselves Presbyterians) and American Jews.

As the Times of Israel reports, the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network (IPMN) has issued a “study guide” about the Middle East conflict that will forever change the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. The 74-page illustrated booklet and companion DVD entitled Zionism Unsettled was published last month for use by the church’s 2.4 million members. Unlike other left-wing critiques of Israel, the Presbyterian pamphlet isn’t content to register disapproval of Israeli policies and West Bank settlements or to lament the plight of the Palestinians. The booklet is a full-blown attack against the very concept of Zionism and seeks to compare Zionism to the Christian anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and other historical atrocities. Its purpose is to brand Israel as an illegitimate entity and to treat its American Jewish supporters as having strayed from the values of their religion. Zionism Unsettled not only swallows the Palestinian narrative about Middle East history whole, it is nothing less than a declaration of war on Israel and American Jewry.

As a work of political science or history, Zionism Unsettled is unworthy of serious discussion. Its argument rests on the prejudiced assumption that the Jews are the one people on earth that are unworthy of self-determination or the same rights to a homeland as any other on the planet. It smears those who sought to create the Jewish homeland and whitewashes those who have waged war and engaged in terrorism to destroy it. Ignoring history and the reality of virulent anti-Jewish prejudice in the Arab and Muslim world, it claims Jewish life would thrive in the region if there were no Israel. If that absurd assertion were not enough to strip it of even a vestige of credibility, it goes so far as to claim that the tiny, intimidated remnant of Jewish life in an Iran ruled by a vicious anti-Semitic regime is a model of coexistence.

With regard to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it sees only black and white. In Zionism Unsettled, the Jews have no right to Israel and no right to defend themselves. On the other hand, it rationalizes and even justifies violence against Israel.

But the argument goes further than anti-Zionism. The pamphlet actually criticizes the Catholic Church for its historic efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people, saying the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate that rejected the Deicide myth against the Jews “raises as many questions as it answers.”

Unlike past controversies in which Jewish groups sought to bridge the divide between the two communities, the distribution of a publication that is driven by sheer hatred and a determination to see Israel destroyed requires a more forthright response. The response to this screed should be unequivocal. Any Presbyterian Church USA that chooses to distribute it is not merely offending supporters of Israel. It is endorsing hate speech and seeking to spread a doctrine that seeks Israel’s destruction and views Jews who do not reject Zionism as guilty of complicity in the “crimes” of the Jewish state. With this publication, the PCUSA has crossed a line that divides people of good will from those who promote racism or anti-Semitism. The many decent members of congregations affiliated with the PCUSA can no longer stand by mutely while the good name of their church is sullied in this manner. They must either actively reject this ugly publication or forever be tainted by association with the vile hatred to which their leadership has committed them. 

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Attack on Israel Must End Interfaith Sham

For mainstream American Jewish groups, it has long been an article of faith that strong alliances with liberal Protestant denominations with whom they shared a common agenda on domestic issues is integral to the safeguarding of the security and the rights of the Jewish community. That has been tested in recent years, as some of their liberal Christian partners debated supporting efforts to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel. But the latest instance of liberal Christians attacking Israel ought to cut the cord completely.

As the Times of Israel and JTA report, the leaders of several of the leading American Protestant denominations and one small Catholic group have signed a letter calling for a congressional investigation whose purpose would be to end U.S. aid to Israel. The letter alleges that Israel is involved in crimes that violate U.S. law that should prevent the sending of aid or arms to the Jewish state. These charges are a tissue of deceptions, distortions and outright lies that are the product of Palestinian propaganda. (Though some of it is supported by radical leftist Jewish groups like B’Tselem, whose leaders own ambivalence toward Zionism has been documented in COMMENTARY.) The main focus of the letter is to delegitimize Israeli self-defense and to ignore the reality of Palestinian intransigence and opposition to peace. However, the reaction of Jewish groups to this latest development should not be ambivalent. To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League has said it will withdraw from a national Jewish-Christian dialogue event. They should not be the only Jewish group to do so.

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For mainstream American Jewish groups, it has long been an article of faith that strong alliances with liberal Protestant denominations with whom they shared a common agenda on domestic issues is integral to the safeguarding of the security and the rights of the Jewish community. That has been tested in recent years, as some of their liberal Christian partners debated supporting efforts to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel. But the latest instance of liberal Christians attacking Israel ought to cut the cord completely.

As the Times of Israel and JTA report, the leaders of several of the leading American Protestant denominations and one small Catholic group have signed a letter calling for a congressional investigation whose purpose would be to end U.S. aid to Israel. The letter alleges that Israel is involved in crimes that violate U.S. law that should prevent the sending of aid or arms to the Jewish state. These charges are a tissue of deceptions, distortions and outright lies that are the product of Palestinian propaganda. (Though some of it is supported by radical leftist Jewish groups like B’Tselem, whose leaders own ambivalence toward Zionism has been documented in COMMENTARY.) The main focus of the letter is to delegitimize Israeli self-defense and to ignore the reality of Palestinian intransigence and opposition to peace. However, the reaction of Jewish groups to this latest development should not be ambivalent. To its credit, the Anti-Defamation League has said it will withdraw from a national Jewish-Christian dialogue event. They should not be the only Jewish group to do so.

The point here is that the letter, as well as the divestment activities of some of these churches, is nothing less than a declaration of war on the Jewish state. So long as these religious groups dedicate themselves to promoting libels against Israel, denouncing the security fence that has saved countless lives from Palestinian terrorism and seeks to isolate Israel and cut it off from its only ally and source of military aid, business as usual between them and American Jewry must end.

Some Jews see such dialogue efforts as an end in itself, but this is a fallacy. Any interfaith program must be based on mutual respect and any church group that aligns itself with Israel’s enemies lacks respect for Jewish life. Dialogue on those terms is a sham.

That these church groups couch their letter in language that seeks to portray their efforts as those of “peacemakers” is all the more offensive. Far from promoting peace, these anti-Zionist clerics are actually fomenting violence by undermining Israeli defensive measures and thereby encouraging Palestinians to think they can succeed in isolating Israel.

The letter, signed by, among others, the leaders of the National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., the American Friends Service Committee, and other groups, including the Catholic Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, is also particularly vile since it seeks to extend the BDS movement from church investments to the instruments of American foreign policy. It is nothing less than a manifesto seeking to sever the U.S.-Israel alliance and therefore cast the still-besieged Jewish state adrift in a hostile region bent on its destruction.

That the groups should have sent the letter only days after Iran repeated its latest slanders and threats is ironic but no coincidence. Despite their protestations of a desire for peace and non-violence, these churches have been remarkably silent about the religious persecution going on in Iran. It is only little, democratic Israel that is beset by enemies seeking its destruction that attracts their passionate opposition.

It should be specified that in most cases, these positions are largely the work of a small group of left-wing activists that dominate the public affairs policy work of their churches. Most rank-and-file members of Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist churches are, like most Americans, strong supporters of Israel and have little idea that this assault on Israel is being done in their name. But it is incumbent on them as well as other decent church leaders to denounce this letter and other BDS activities. Until they do, no American Jewish group should have any dealings with the signatories or the groups involved in this letter.

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Narrow BDS Defeat Nothing to Celebrate

By the narrowest of margins, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA defeated a resolution calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel’s security forces. The 333-331 vote was the closest the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement has come to getting a major American Christian denomination to endorse such a measure. The close vote is a victory of sorts for the Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) that lobbied hard to defeat the motion. But the narrow margin is a virtual guarantee that divestment advocates will be back next year with expectations of victory at the Presbyterian conclave as well as at other gatherings of mainline Protestant groups.

Though there is little support for Israel divestment among the rank and file members of Presbyterian congregations, there is no denying the growing appeal among church activists for BDS proposals. The defeat of BDS this week may show that a narrow majority of Presbyterian delegates still understands that a vote for such a resolution involves the church in what amounts to an economic war against the Jewish state and a potential break in relations with American Jews. But the close call may indicate that support for anti-Zionism among liberal Protestant groups such as the Presbyterians is on the rise and it may only be a matter of time before they prevail.

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By the narrowest of margins, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA defeated a resolution calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel’s security forces. The 333-331 vote was the closest the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement has come to getting a major American Christian denomination to endorse such a measure. The close vote is a victory of sorts for the Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) that lobbied hard to defeat the motion. But the narrow margin is a virtual guarantee that divestment advocates will be back next year with expectations of victory at the Presbyterian conclave as well as at other gatherings of mainline Protestant groups.

Though there is little support for Israel divestment among the rank and file members of Presbyterian congregations, there is no denying the growing appeal among church activists for BDS proposals. The defeat of BDS this week may show that a narrow majority of Presbyterian delegates still understands that a vote for such a resolution involves the church in what amounts to an economic war against the Jewish state and a potential break in relations with American Jews. But the close call may indicate that support for anti-Zionism among liberal Protestant groups such as the Presbyterians is on the rise and it may only be a matter of time before they prevail.

The three companies targeted for divestment in the vote were Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. Though church activists considered the resolution to be distinct from a broad BDS vote, even this proposal betrayed the malevolent nature of the anti-Israel movement. Motorola and Hewlett-Packard produce devices that help the Israel Defense Forces monitor security checkpoints for terrorist explosives and other dangers. Caterpillar vehicles help construct Israel’s defense barrier that keeps out suicide bombers as well as demolish illegal construction and structures that shield terrorist activities.

Thus, even this narrow divestment resolution amounts to a Presbyterian endorsement of the actions of Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank that Israeli security forces seek to prevent. Far from being a neutral sentiment aimed at conveying sympathy for oppressed Palestinians, such a divestment vote would have been a declaration that a major American church group thinks Israel doesn’t have the right to defend itself against terrorism.

That American Christians who profess to care about human rights would stand aloof from the dozens of other conflicts around the world where humanitarian catastrophes exist while concentrating their energy on trying to punish Israel is a shocking statement of their bias. Those who judge the Jewish state differently from other nations are engaging in a form of prejudice that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. Seen in that light, the BDS effort is no longer a well-meaning if misguided attempt to promote solidarity with the Palestinians but a vicious statement that reminds us of the link between anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred. The presence of far left Jews at the Presbyterian conclave such as the so-called Jewish Voices for Peace that actually lobbied for divestment illustrates just how misguided efforts to include such persons in the Jewish community can be.

While a Presbyterian vote in favor of divestment would have been a far greater disaster, this close call is nothing to celebrate. The vote is an ominous portent of the shift among liberal Protestants against Israel and in favor of an anti-Semitic war on the Jewish state. The fight against divestment is just beginning.

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