Israel lobby group gears up early to counter church divestment initiatives in 2014

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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.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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8 Responses

  1. Betsy
    March 1, 2013, 2:10 pm

    it would be interesting to do some investigative reporting on why Auburn Seminary, under it’s leader Katherine Henderson, has taken on such a major role in pushing a Zionist agenda in the Presbyterian Church. I note that Auburn does not seem to be a typical Presbyterian seminary. When I think of a Presbyterian seminary, I think of one that prepares ministers & gives theological & other degrees. It’s a bit confusing, but Auburn does not seem to give actual degrees. It’s really a hodge-podge of ‘continuing education’ programs. It does not appear to have normal democratic academic governance structures — e.g., the ‘faculty’ do not seem to have the usual autonomy or rights of self-governance. In other words, the top administration seems to run things, without checks & balances. I could be wrong — as I said the website is confusing. It looks to me like they might be pretty insecure financially — and dependent on special funding. The Presbyterian church usually tries strongly to cultivate democratic self-governance, bottom-up decision-making & financial self-reliance & autonomy. I can’t help but wonder whether the outsize role that Rev Henderson & Auburn are playing in anti-BDS, anti-Palestinian rights movements — might have to do with an unPresbyterian fundraising & leadership style. Could it be that she’s on-the-take — as suggested by the reports on Mondoweiss several years ago re/ what she said at the New Orleans Jewish Federation conference? It seems that she was the development officer for years at Auburn, before she took over — in other words, she’s not taking the usual scholarly route to leading a seminary. She’s certainly going against the currents in her church…and one doesn’t see respected Presby scholars or other seminary leaders standing with her…I don’t have the background to research her role — but I wish someone would. She stands out…I could be wrong — I don’t have requisite knowledge — but it sure looks fishy…

  2. American
    March 1, 2013, 2:44 pm

    Good coverage.
    It might be a long fight but my money is on the zionist and Israel going down in that bonfire they’re bulding in the end….crashing straight into that self fulfilling prophecy wall, like bats with no radar.

    Meanwhile here’s to ya zios…

    Every breath you take
    And every move you make
    Every bond you break, every step you take
    We ‘ll be watching you
    Every single day
    And every word you say
    Every game you play, every night you stay
    We’ll be watching you ♫


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      March 1, 2013, 4:29 pm

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  3. DICKERSON3870
    March 1, 2013, 4:17 pm

    RE: “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’.” ~ Alex Kane

    MY COMMENT: The notion of using “positive investment” (as an alternative to using BDS against Israeli apartheid policies) is quite similar to the 1980s notion of using “constructive engagement” (as an alternative to using BDS against South African apartheid policies) ! ! !

    * FROM WIKIPEDIA [Constructive engagement]:

    [EXCERPT] Constructive engagement was the name given to the policy of the Reagan Administration towards the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1980s. It was promoted as an alternative to the economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa demanded by the UN General Assembly and the international anti-apartheid movement.[1]
    The Reagan Administration vetoed legislation from the United States Congress and blocked attempts by the United Nations to impose sanctions and to isolate South Africa.[2] Instead, advocates of constructive engagement sought to use incentives as a means of encouraging South Africa gradually to move away from apartheid.[3] The policy, echoed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, came under criticism as South African government repression of the black population and anti-apartheid activism intensified. . .

    SOURCE –

    * FROM “South Africa: Why Constructive Engagement Failed”, By Sanford J. Ungar and Peter Vale, Winter 1985/86

    Article Summary

    Ronald Reagan’s imposition of limited economic sanctions against the South African regime in September was a tacit admission that his policy of “constructive engagement”–encouraging change in the apartheid system through a quiet dialogue with that country’s white minority leaders–had failed. Having been offered many carrots by the United States over a period of four-and-a-half years as incentives to institute meaningful reforms, the South African authorities had simply made a carrot stew and eaten it. Under the combined pressures of the seemingly cataclysmic events in South Africa since September 1984 and the dramatic surge of anti-apartheid protest and political activism in the United States, the Reagan Administration was finally embarrassed into brandishing some small sticks as an element of American policy.
    [We’re sorry, but Foreign Affairs does not have the copyright to display this article online.]

    SOURCE –

  4. Rusty Pipes
    March 1, 2013, 8:51 pm

    From the IPMN link (the JCPA has been working with groups like PMEP and leaders like Auburn’s Henderson for years):

    One of the chief players at General Assemblies since 2006 has been the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). This organization has not only been physically present at every assembly, it is active behind the scenes between General Assembly years. Presbyterians for Middle East Peace continually strategizes with the JCPA on the subject of defeating divestment, and they allow the JCPA to do the heavy lifting when attacks step outside the realm of the Presbyterian practice of doing all things transparently, decently and in good order. And so, it is from one of JCPA’s 220th General Assembly wrap-up pieces that we get a statement like this: “Think of the most intense anti-Israel delegitimizers you’ve ever seen, heard or read. They run the show at the PCUSA.” Or, this: “The divestment debate is really about anti-Semitism… the silencing of Israel’s legitimate security stance isn’t just about choosing sides but about something much deeper.”

    The JCPA, the American Jewish Committee, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Anti-Defamation League, and even J Street and Americans for Peace Now cover their ears and loudly sing, La, La, La… every time they are told that opposing Israeli government policy which violates international law is not anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. The reason for this is because they have come up with their own definition that defies logic: anything in opposition to Israeli policy that seeks to reduce Palestinians to second-class citizenry or cleanse the Occupied Territories of the Palestinian presence is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. These groups all know that the settlements are the problem and that they are not built to provide security, but they will not speak out against them or call the government of Israel to task when it keeps building them at break-neck pace.

    These Jewish groups find themselves in the untenable position of dismissing the voices of some of the very people they say they represent. They are a powerful and loud voice but they do not represent all Jews. What do they say about Jewish organizations who are working against the occupation, like Jewish Voice for Peace, End the Occupation, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and even B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group in the Occupied Territories? They say they are “Self-hating Jews.” You definitely have to come up with a new lexicon when those within your ranks begin to dissent. Take for example, the testimony of Hedy Epstein at the 220th GA. It is quite instructive to watch a Jewish Voice for Peace Holocaust survivor humbly tell a General Assembly Middle East Peacemaking committee that enough is enough, while rabbis, JCPA officials and “pro-Israel” Presbyterians look at her like she is from another planet. In one sense, she is; Hedy is from the planet that remembers what their brand of rhetoric and lockstep loyalty to oppressors becomes in its most nightmarish version.

  5. Icarusverum
    March 1, 2013, 11:00 pm

    It’s very simple – support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction of Israel movement and we will see Israel feeling international pressure to find peace.

    Israeli settlements are the biggest blockade to true long lasting peace right now. Israel wants to take all the land for themselves perhaps leaving a few reservations scattered throughout Israel. It’s driven by religious fundamentalists and the notion that somehow boycotting Israel is consistent with the memory of Nazi era boycotts based on antisemitism is just plain ridiculous.

    The world doesn’t think Israel is the 4th least liked nation in the world beating only North Korea, Iran and Pakistan because Israel is primarily made of Jews; the world simply finds the actions of the self described “Jewish state” as simply inconsistent with the stated values and beliefs of said state. They’re hypocrites but that hypocrisy involves theft, murder and other war crimes.

  6. Annie Robbins
    March 2, 2013, 12:10 am

    excellent must read article. thanks alex.

  7. seafoid
    March 2, 2013, 5:25 pm

    They can run conferences in camera but they have nothing to say . Calling those who stand for human rights antisemitic is an insult to the dead of the shoah. It equates judaism with tyranny . So what if the torturer is jewish . He is still a bastard .

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