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

Israel/Palestine
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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)

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