Commentary Magazine


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.

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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