Jewish & Christian advocates for peace and divestment from the Israeli occupation at the Methodist General Conference, April 24, 2012 (Photo: Jewish Voice for Peace)
The next church general assemblies won’t take place until 2014. But a key Israel lobby group has already begun to organize against any potential divestment resolutions related to Israel that may come up at church assemblies like the Presbyterians’ and the Methodists’.
From February 26-27, the Jewish Community Relations Council held an invitation-only anti-divestment conference in Burlingame, California. The first day of the conference was a rabbis-only event on countering divestment and boycotts in the church. The second day included anti-divestment Christians and Jews.
Titled “In Pursuit of Peace: A Jewish-Christian Summit on the Middle East,” the conference featured speakers from the Jewish Community Relations Council, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the anti-divestment Auburn Theological Seminary and more. The Auburn Theological Seminary has been a leading force in the Presbyterian Church against divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, and has instead pushed for so-called “positive investment.”
Topics at the conference included “the impact of divestment on peace in the Middle East and interfaith relations,” and featured speakers inveighing against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Palestinian civil society initiated non-violent movement that seeks to target Israeli human rights violations. A number of different religious groups--both Jewish and Christian--sponsored the event put on by the JCRC, including well-known institutions like the Episcopal Grace Cathedral Church and the Presbyterian San Francisco Theological Seminary.
While the conference was not publicly advertised, Mondoweiss has obtained e-mails detailing the summit that were sent from the Israel lobby group to church leaders. The e-mails obtained also include some of the responses the invitations to the summit garnered.
The conference comes seven months after both the Presbyterian and Methodist general assemblies failed to pass resolutions to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, though the Presbyterian vote was extremely close. But both assemblies voted overwhelmingly to boycott settlement products. The JCRC and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) the parent organization of all local JCRCs, were key players in lobbying against the divestment and boycott resolutions. Specifically, Ethan Felson, the vice president and general counsel of the JCPA, has been the main lobbyist working against church divestment, and he spoke at the conference in California. The JCRC event, coming so early compared to when the actual general assemblies will be, is an indication of how important countering the BDS movement is to Israel lobby groups.
The most forceful resolutions on Palestine in the past have originated at the local level in the Bay Area, and now the JCRC and JCPA have begun to focus some of their own local efforts in that area. The JCRC has worked with the Israeli-government linked think tank the Reut Institute which has been a leading strategizer on how to combat the BDS movement. The Reut Institute labeled San Francisco a “delegmitization hub” and it has become a focus in combatting BDS.
“We are reaching out to you with an exciting opportunity to strengthen interfaith relations in the Bay Area and spread our shared hope for peace in the Middle East,” wrote Rabbi Doug Kahn, the executive director of the JCRC, in an e-mail to a local reverend inviting him to the conference. “In this one-day regional conference, Bay Area faith leaders will deliberate on the role of the faith community in promoting peace and coexistence in the Middle East.”
But some members of the Presbyterian Church approached by the JCRC disagreed strongly with how the conference was planned and what it set out to do. Some church members were concerned about what they said was the “closed” nature of the conference. “The Presbyterian way is to discuss issues in the open, allowing a diversity of perspectives to be heard,” one e-mail from a concerned church member reads. “Closed meetings bring up images of smoke-filled back rooms where secret deals are made and there are things to hide.” Another e-mail responding to the JCRC invitation adds: “This ‘by invitation only’ event appears to be a new strategy to mobilize grass roots opposition to positions our denomination has taken over a 65-year period.”
Multiple e-mail requests for comment on this story to the JCRC went unanswered.
In an interview, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Sydney Levy said that the organizing against divestment resolutions set to be introduced in 2014 shows that the Jewish establishment is “scared...The ground is shifting dramatically. The churches are much less shy at this moment than they were a year ago.” Levy noted that 15 church leaders had sent an unprecedented letter to Congress last year requesting an investigation into whether U.S. aid to Israel violated the law, and that the leaders hadn’t retracted the letter in the face of strong pressure and threats.
John Anderson, a pastor at St. John's Presbyterian Church in California and who was a key player in supporting the boycott of settlements proposal that passed at the last Presbyterian general assembly, attended the conference. He said he went under the assumption that it was going to be a dialogue. Instead, he said in an interview, it turned into a “diatribe” against the BDS movement. “What I had hoped to be an encouragement of dialogue...a safe space for conversation, became an unsafe space because of the labeling, the paternalism, the delegitimizing of other opinions,” said Anderson. He added that the conference was very “JCRC dominated” and that some of the attitudes he heard were very “condescending.”
Anderson explained that speakers gave a variety of reasons to oppose the BDS movement. One reason given was that the movement invoked the Nazi-era boycotts of Jewish businesses and that the movement smacks of anti-Semitism. The BDS movement wants “the elimination of the State of Israel,” one JCRC publication handed out at the conference reads.
The conference in Burlingame, at one of the most prominent Presbyterian churches in the Bay Area, is part of a larger strategy employed by the JCPA. The JCPA helped start the Israel Action Network (IAN), a $6 million anti-BDS initiative formed at the urging of the Israeli government, and reaching out to local community leaders is a key part of IAN’s strategy, as Phan Nguyen recently noted in Mondoweiss. A recent IAN publication authored by Hindy Poupko and Noam Gilboord of the JCRC reads: “Like all community relations activities, the heart of the campaign was grassroots community organizing,” referring to the successful effort to defeat the Park Slope Food Co-op BDS resolution. But that strategy has been employed time and again by the IAN in a variety of contexts.
IAN’s “strategy has been to label anyone who criticizes Israeli policies and practices as anti-Semitic and to threaten to cut off interfaith relationships,” said Walt Davis, a leading member of the Presbyterian Church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network. “In spite of the $6 million budget, the program has backfired. Each day more and more international attention is focused on how Israel is delegitimizing itself by solidifying it's apartheid-like system of control over Palestinian lives and livelihood.”
Church advocates say that, despite the organizing by Israel lobby groups, divestment has a good chance to pass in 2014.