Battle within the Presbyterian church over stance on US aid to Israel

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The Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) logo

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has issued an unprecedented press release condemning the mischaracterization of Presbyterian Church (USA) policies on Israel/Palestine by the unofficial group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP).

The unusual quality of this press release is that it questions the motives of PFMEP and accuses it of functioning as part of a hasbara campaign.

PFMEP has functioned as part of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) campaign by uncritically supporting Israeli policy. It has done so in a manner consistent with other organizations that came into existence as part of that same hasbara campaign in the United States, designed to silence criticism of Israeli policies. Because PFMEP does not reveal either their funding sources or their membership, legitimate questions can be raised about how and why they come to support the positions they hold.

Last month in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency report Protestant churches’ letter on Israel straining ties with Jews, JTA quoted Rev. John Wimberly, a ‘co-moderator’ of the unofficial group PFMEP. Wimberly claimed there was  “a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished.” Church denominations have stood strong in the face of the Jewish establishment’s uproar over the letter to Congress, which urges “an investigation into possible human rights and weapon violations by the government of Israel.” Wimberly’s claim implied Rev. Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA) and signatory of the letter  did not represent the majority membership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) nor fulfill the mandate of PCUSA’s General assembly, which is simply untrue.

Rev. John Wimberly further claimed, and JTA reported, “70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

IPMN’s press release points to the PC(USA)’s long history of statements about Israel/Palestine and should put the issue to rest as to whom best represents the mandate of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

It may behoove the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to fact check the claims of those representing unofficial fringe groups in their future coverage of this important developing story.

Press Release

New York – November 9, 2012 – The Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stands by the fifteen Christian religious leaders’ strong witness on military aid to Israel. In an effort to create and stir controversy in the PC(USA), the para-church organization known as “Presbyterians for Middle East Peace” (PFMEP)  has issued a statement mischaracterizing policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PC(USA)] on Israel/Palestine.  The organization has misrepresented and unfairly criticized actions of the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Rev. Gradye Parsons, which fulfill the mandate of the General Assembly (GA) calling for:

“…the allocation of U.S. military aid funds to be contingent on compliance with the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which prohibits giving assistance to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations; the U.S. Arms Export Control Act of 1976 which prohibits using U.S. weapons against civilians and civilian infrastructure; and U.S. Foreign Policy insofar as it pertains to recommendations for steps toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

PFMEP too often ignores actions such as these and chooses to highlight only those General Assembly statements about justice and fairness with which everyone already agrees.  Much to the church’s credit, however, the PC(USA) has consistently acknowledged and condemned the ongoing oppression of Israel’s occupation in Palestine.  The letter to Congress that Rev. Parsons has signed calls for all future military aid to Israel to be subject to the same human rights criteria applied to other foreign aid. This position is a culmination of General Assembly statements that go as far back as 1983. 

PFMEP fails to acknowledge this history, along with the church’s recent calls for both sanctions and boycotts (by overwhelming votes), choosing to accuse church leadership of holding a double standard in regard to Israel. PFMEP should refrain from cherry-picking church policies it agrees with and acknowledge and condemn the daily injustices of the Israeli Occupation, as the PC(USA) has done in no uncertain terms. PFMEP’s failure to fully address the 45-year military occupation of Palestine displays a glaring double standard itself.

Statements from PFMEP attempt to change the subject from the Israeli Occupation to Palestinian violence, by citing such things as the largely ineffectual but still dangerous rockets from extremist groups in Gaza. These instances should not obscure the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are nonviolent and have been denied democracy and human rights for over 45 years, while the chances for a two-state solution have been steadily strangled by strategic settlement expansion. The PC(USA) clearly supports nonviolent change; continued denial of an apartheid-like reality does a disservice to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish moral perception in service of a cruel status quo.

Under the pretext of security, Israel has built massive walls that surround Gaza and dig deeply into the West Bank, effectively annexing about 10% of Palestinian land to Israel. These walls separate Palestinians from their natural resources, their businesses and their crops, and even from each other. Israeli restrictions on movement deny Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, the ability to exercise their right to worship freely, most notably at holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem, as cited in State Department International Religious Freedom Reports.

By not acknowledging these realities, effectively, PFMEP has functioned as part of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) campaign by uncritically supporting Israeli policy. It has done so in a manner consistent with other organizations that came into existence as part of that same hasbara campaign in the United States, designed to silence criticism of Israeli policies. Because PFMEP does not reveal either their funding sources or their membership, legitimate questions can be raised about how and why they come to support the positions they hold.

IPMN honors the increasing number of Jewish groups and individuals who are deeply concerned by the reflexive efforts of Jewish and Christian organizations such as PFMEP to blame the messenger rather than address the unjustifiable. What remains beyond question is that the actions of the Stated Clerk have been entirely consistent with PC(USA) positions on peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. The reckless statements coming from PFMEP do not meet that standard or the great tradition of the denomination’s witness for justice.

(Hat tip Mondoweiss commenter Rusty Pipes)

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani
Posted in Israel/Palestine | Tagged , ,

{ 21 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Les says:

    If only there weren’t Presbyterian Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Israel.

  2. Annie and Rusty Pipes, Thanks for bring this to our/my attention.

    It’s an important example of the changing climate in the US towards the I/P issue. The IPMN shared their facts, feelings and concerns publicly; risking charges they were wrong to take a “church problem” to the public forum.

    They are deserving of praise.

  3. mcohen says:

    「By not acknowledging these realities, effectively, PFMEP has functioned as part of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) campaign by uncritically supporting Israeli policy.」

    So Pfmep is acknowledging the suicide bombing campaign while at the same time working to engage israel in easing restrictions on west bank arabs.
    Thats the way it works instead of forcing people to take sides which then leads to 1% ters from both sides becoming terrorists

  4. Just a little snippet from one of the videos on the PFMEP site (from the Rev. Dave Berge, Youth Pastor, Ojai):

    “I come at this from the perspective of someone who had almost no experience at all. … But you know, being elected a commissioner in the General Assembly has its perks, in that people want you to be educated and informed. And so in February I had the opportunity to take my first trip to Israel. And so I spent a whirlwind ten days going all over the country, … etc., etc., etc.”
    link to pfmep.org

    • I visited the Contact Us page at PFMEP’s web page. Consequently, I’ve contacted them:

      Dear Mr. Green,

      I am interested in finding out more about PFMEP. Perhaps you or someone else in your organization may be of assistance.

      Your web site’s “Who We Are” page describes your organization as “We are clergy, elders, deacons and members of the Presbyterian community.”

      It goes on to state”Presbyterians for Middle East Peace is led by a steering committee consisting of the following Presbyterians: Rev. Dr. Bill Harter, Rev. Dr. John Wimberly, Elder Gary J. Green, James Roberts, and Elder George Douglas.”

      Does your organization receive funding from Presbyterian sources solely?

      Is PFMEP a non-profit corporation? If so, what kind?

      What is your annual budget?

      Do you regularly or periodically communicate with other Christian organizations? If so, which ones?

      Do you regularly communicate with non Presbyterian religious or interfaith organizations? If so, which ones?

      Warmest regards, in our mutual hope for Middle East peace,

      Philip Munger

    • Scott says:

      Annie,
      I’m not sure of the PCUSA-PCA split, but Wimberly is not marginal to the liberal church scene in DC. . I’ve attended his church before. He’s very much a progressive, except, of course on Palestine. Not sure the reason why, though others have speculated.

      • Wimberly is not marginal to the liberal church….He’s very much a progressive, except, of course on Palestine.

        scott, i rechecked my source and think i could have been mistaken wrt pca and pcusa. either way, the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ wrt the church have to do with scriptural interpretations as opposed to political affiliations per se. and i didn’t mean wimberely was marginal or his church, i meant his group, PFMEP was.

        however, i edited out my comment as it may have been factually incorrect wrt religious affiliations (i did research it yesterday but could not find the reference on the church site today) and since i am not an authority i’ll recommend commenters betsy and rusty on alex’s early thread:

        link to mondoweiss.net

        • Betsy says:

          @Annie — great post. Thanks!

          I just checked out the folks on the Steering Committee for PFMEP. They are all with the mainline ‘liberal’ PC(USA) — but most seem to be from the more conservative wings.

          for instance, George Douglas, Elder, (of Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church & Presbyterians Concerned for Christian Jewish Relations) has a remarkable Facebook post re/ how he got involved on the issue (which leapt at him after reading an op-ed by Alan Dershowitz in Wall St Journal) — at which point he realized that it *must* be coming from those problematic Presbys who were

          “actively promoting “liberation theology”, a strange blend of Christianity and Marxism. They had somehow missed the fact that Communism had collapsed, and that Marxism had failed miserably as an economic system. The same groups were condemning “Neo-Liberal Globalization” (international trade) as being “against the will of God”. This was during a period in which international commerce has been the single most important force in improving the welfare of millions of impoverished people in the developing world. Unfortunately, a weak understanding of the Middle East seemed to fit an established pattern.

          The rest of the post makes clear how important the joint Jewish / Christian trips to Israel are — in forming the pro-Israel interfaith networks
          link to facebook.com

          There is one other lay person in the Steering Committee, who is a lawyer in San Diego. The others are in fact PC(USA) ministers. Dr. William Harter is a retired Pennsylvania PCUSA minister who seems to have been long active in Jewish / Christian networks thro’ the “National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel” link to nclci.org (which was founded in 1978 by Franklin Littell, Methodist minister & scholar link to nytimes.com). He was awarded the “Isaiah Award, recognizing extraordinary achievement in interreligious affairs” by the American Jewish Committee in 2006 link to ajc.org

          Both he & Rev John Wimberly (Western PCUSA Church, DC) are on the board of the “Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish, Christian & Muslim Relations” link to pcjcr.org which includes some Presby philanthropists & ministers — which was started in the 1950s’ as an ‘informal group’ of PCUSA but most of the links to PC(USA) official website are not functional & I could get very little evidence of strong connections now within the established church. They say they are working to build interfaith networks w/ Muslim communities, but there is no evidence of that on the website. The other people on this board are notable — e.g.,
          Katharine Henderson, Auburn Theological Seminary, New York (who was discussed on Mondoweiss for problematic statements at the 2010 Jewish Federation General Assembly link to mondoweiss.net)

          @ Scott: Wimberly might be a progressive in some ways — but he has a stunningly cold-blooded theological explanation (re/ I/P). In a critique of the important PC(USA) “Tearing down the Walls” report he argues for a “Christian Realism” based on what I consider to be a profound distortion of Neibuhr’s theology — it’s a heartless neo-Calvinism that is not even fair to Calvin link to pcjcr.org . I cannot begin to express my contempt & dismay — at what seems a gross distortion of PC(USA) teachings on love & justice & peace

    • W.Jones says:

      This is an important point you make. It shows PFMEP is actually from a different church than the one it is criticizing.

  5. Kathleen says:

    “wants to see Israel punished” Nope just abide by UN resolutions and get back to the 67 border. Nothing to do with punishment.

    Annie thanks for this. Last night on the Boulder Colorado Mall struck up a great conversation with four young men who were studying at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden Colorado. Asked them where they were from and then we played a bit of a game. Turns out the one young man who I was talking with the most was a young Israeli. The other fellas were from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Quite the conversation. With a smile on my face I said to the Israeli young man “your country needs to stop building illegal settlements” He smiled. Then the other young men chimed in “yeah” and the conversation was off and running. They were all wonderful young people we had a dynamic conversation about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Islamophobia and what they think about the U.S. Mentioned Mondoweiss over and over again. Hopefully they come to read. All were very open minded and proud that 3 Muslims and an Israeli Jew were becoming good friends.

  6. W.Jones says:

    I talked with one Presbyterian who had been at the last Convention, who said that although he felt the Palestinians were being mistreated badly, and he doesn’t want to be profiting from the abuses of companies like Caterpillar. But he wasn’t sure about disinvestment, because he claimed PCUSA has just a small number of shares and he thinks they could be used to influence Caterpillar in a better direction and to get reports and inside information on the company.

    I am highly doubtful about his reservations, however. If the shares are small, they won’t really do much to affect the company policy, and PCUSA could probably get the same information about the company from other sources.

  7. Ellen says:

    this may be an interesting aside:

    over the weekend in Switzerland, to be seen in many shopping centers are sales stands for ag products from Palistine. There are often lines to purchase.

    link to olivenoel-palaestina.ch

    This group has the support of the Swiss Protestant Church Hilfswerk, the Catholic Bishofskonferenz, Caritas, Women’s Union (SKF) , and many other Church and civil organizations including Neva Shalom.

    link to nswas.org

    Here are the local churches in Switzerland selling Palestinian Ag products to support the campaign of survival and co existence:

    link to olivenoel-palaestina.ch

    will hasbara efforts go after all these groups and Churches?

  8. Citizen says:

    WE can’t abide these gay-loving, pro-choice, feminist presbies crying out Palestinian victimhood:link to weareforisrael.org

    • citizen, the site you linked to is run by 2 rabbis. i mistakenly interpreted your comment, thinking ‘these gay-loving, pro-choice, feminist presbies‘ referenced the site you were linking to.

      also, there is another rabbi in the comment section who references “Palestinian claims of victim-hood” which is curious framing. there is an oppressor and an oppressed in the land of palestine. he also said pcusa “reject Israel’s existence”, which is an untrue and unsupportable.

  9. piotr says:

    The vexing question if PFMEP are dupes or fraud seems resolved. This is classic astroturf. Some staffer working full time elsewhere wrote a smallish bunch of very short articles for the website created allegedly in April 2011, but the first sign of life is dated in August. Very instructive Blog page of their website link to pfmep.org
    was started on that April and attracted a grand total of zero bloggers. Zero! Several conservative pastors had a breakfast. That was something.

    There is a smallish number of short statements posted. The only arguments presented on the website are against the divestment, and for Caterpilar, and for IDF. Settlements are not mentioned, neither is the wall traversing West Bank with fantastic zigzags etc.

    PFMEP is a puppet used infrequently and I suspect that the actual pastors involved could not care less if Israel exists or not except that they do not like the “liberal” mainline of the Presbyterians. Who paid for the catering at that breakfast by the way?.

  10. Citizen says:

    Here’s Rev Wimbley, displaying his lack of irony logically, counting the ways the BDS advocates in his church are guilty of using double standards, anti-Israel cherry-picking, and being ineffective, impractical: link to vimeo.com

  11. jewishgoyim says:

    Now that does not prove anything but he does look a lot like John Bolton.

    (Not sure this will go down well with the new mondo uptight moderation standards. Oh well…)

  12. piotr says:

    As we know, American aid to Palestinian Authority is conditional, and American aid and contributions to international organization is always conditional and we seen it suspended etc. when our government does not like something, like admission of Palestinians. (Bad UNESCO! Bad!) Israel is the single recipient that does not have to fullfil any conditions, including some that are actually legal requirements.

    For example, we are not supposed to aid governments that have undeclared nuclear weapons. It would be simplicity itself to ask CIA for a report on the issue given allegations and admissions by top Israeli politicians. If the report would be inconclusive, an inspection should be requested, and aid suspended pending the resolution (I guess, even selling weapons should be suspended, I need to check.)

  13. ckg says:

    The PFMEP web site says “If you would like join us in our efforts, either financially through tax deductible contributions or through volunteer activity, please contact Gary J. Green,” I assume PFMEP must file IRS 990 forms to make these contributions tax deductible. These forms, which would list large sources of funding, are required by the IRS to be available upon request.