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Liberal Protestants Shut the Door on BDS

After eight years of study and hours of entrenched debate, the Presbyterian Church of America has voted not to divest in certain companies that supply equipment to Israel that is used in its occupation of the West Bank. Yesterday’s decision by the church’s general assembly makes the Presybterians the third major American church to just say no to the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Delegates argued deep into the night at a convention in Pittsburgh. The vote was very close, and the struggle was bitter. The New York Times reports:

By a vote of 333 to 331, with two abstentions, the church’s General Assembly voted at its biennial meeting in Pittsburgh to toss out the divestment measure and replace it with a resolution to encourage “positive investment” in the occupied territories. The results were so close that, when posted electronically in front of the convention, they evoked a collective gasp.

From the standpoint of American Christians, support for and solidarity with Israel is often weighed against the sufferings of the Palestinian people—of which there is a small but significant Christian element. The arguments from either side underlined these dual considerations:

Arthur Shippee, a delegate from southern New England, said: “What divestment will achieve is this: We will add a whisper soon lost in the storm, but we will further the divisions in our church when we have our own serious problems to address, and we will precipitate divisions with the synagogues within our communities whom we work with frequently on a variety of issues.

Speaking in favor of divestment and against the pro-investment resolution, Tim Simpson, a delegate from the Presbytery of St. Augustine in Jacksonville, Fla., said: “The Palestinians aren’t asking us for a check, sisters and brothers. The Palestinians are asking us for justice. They’re asking us for dignity. How can you write a check to a people who don’t control their own water?”

The intersection of Christian faith and ideas about Israel is a complicated one in the United States. The Presbyterians, who have a long history of involvement in the Middle East, are one of the denominations where sympathy for Arabs and Palestinians is particularly strong. This is not only because mainline, relatively liberal denominations like the Presbyterians discount the apocalyptic narratives that stir some American Christians; there are strong ties going back to 19th century mission work in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon that have made many distinguished missionary and clerical families in these churches strong advocates for the Arab nationalist cause. (The sons of missionaries were an important source of human capital for the “Arabists” in the State Department who wanted the US to prioritize good relations with the Arab world ahead of support for Israel during the Cold War.)

This decision marks the second blow dealt to the BDS campaign from America’s liberal faith communities this year; in May, the United Methodists also voted not to divest. (The Evangelical Lutheran church also voted against divestment in 2007 and 2011.) The high profile double failure suggests that BDS has received an important check. If anything, liberal American denominations have been trending farther to the left in recent years. If in this climate leading mainline Protestant groups reject the BDS agenda, the movement is unlikely to gain serious momentum across the US.

The groups rejecting BDS are by no means sending a message of uncritical support to Israel. The mainline denominations will continue to monitor what happens on the ground, especially in the West Bank where the bulk of the remaining Palestinian Christians outside Israel live. Their opposition to settlements and their concern about various aspects of Israeli occupation policy should not be dismissed.

But the BDS movement went too far for the members of these denominations. American Christians, both liberal and conservative, and of all races, continue to support Israel’s existence and to be concerned for its security. Sympathy for Palestinians and a desire to see the establishment of a Palestinian state remain widespread among mainline Protestants, but those feelings coexist beside a deep and abiding concern for the welfare of the Jewish state.

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  • Dan

    As a point of clarification, that was the Presbyterian Church (USA), not the Presbyterian Church of America which is a different (smaller, not mainline) denomination.

  • alex scipio

    If people REALLY wanted the Palestinians not to suffer (as opposed to just re-igniting a 1930s anti-Semitism and hollering against the freedoms and liberty of the West….), they’d start asking why, after 63 YEARS, Palestinians remain in refugee camps in Arab lands rather than having been long-ago integrated into those Arab lands in housing, schools, mosques, the economy, etc. There aren’t 3 generations of refugees because of the UN’s creation of Israel; there are 3 generations of refugees because of the contempt in which Arabs hold their co-religionists, the squalor in which they have been left by those who encouraged them to flee in 1948, and a world intent on blaming the wrong parties in the dispute. I have not yet seen the Left blowing-up the UN for creating Israel, for example; why not?

  • Richard S

    My understanding, from conversations with a colleague who spent time working with some activists, is that the purpose of BDS is not so much to have a direct impact on Israel, but rather to make individuals outside of Israel feel invested in the Palestinian cause.

  • Stan

    PCUSA is the Presbyterian wing of the Democratic Party. Every General Assembly seems to end up as a battle to push the Church farther and farther to the left over political issues. As antisemitism continues to become more and more fashionable in left-wing circles, it is sad to see left-wing Presbyterians join in.

  • Luke Lea

    Such a simple minded analysis they make, those Presybterians. They think it is a choice between A and B when really it is a choice between A, B, and C, C being Europe. After all C pushed A into B, causing the fight in the first place. C is responsible.

  • Luke Lea

    Boycott Europe.

  • Ellen B

    Stan said: “PCUSA is the Presbyterian wing of the Democratic Party.”

    Please don’t generalize. Many PCUSA churches are filled with Bible-believing Christians who love and want to renew our church. Walking away from the denomination is often the coward’s way.

  • Kris

    “a desire to see the establishment of a Palestinian state remain widespread among mainline Protestants”

    So do they want a Palestinian state or do they want to support Palestinian Arab Christians?

    Surely they don’t believe the two are compatible!

  • Tom

    “Walking away from the denomination is often the coward’s way.”

    At some point, though, remaining within the denomination signals compliance.

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