“I didn’t know church could be like this,” said Sam, a teenager who had come to an event in Fellowship Hall. That Sunday after worship, we had Anna Baltzer speaking about why, as a Jewish-American, she had come to be an outspoken critic of Israeli policies, part of her national speaking tour educating congregations about Israeli human rights abuses. That particular week, she had been a guest on The Daily Show, so our event was packed, not only with church members, but also with people from the community.
Sitting at the back of the room, I leaned over and told Sam I was really glad he stayed for the talk, and asked him what he meant. What was it that church was like that he didn’t expect? “I didn’t know we could talk about things that really mattered in church,” he said. Out of the mouths of babes, I thought, and sat back speechless. If that wasn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
As a member of one of the most financially comfortable churches of the presbytery, we were already involved in many mission efforts, but I realized listening to the teenager next to me that day that much more was needed to make our work relevant for the next generation.
You see, this exchange took place seven years ago. Today, Sam and his millennial generation are engaged in social justice work and unfortunately, our churches can’t take much credit. In fact, with all that the fence-sitting churches do, it’s quite the opposite.
Not taking a stand when it matters (particularly, not taking a position on issues that matter to millennials) has been one of our major shortcomings as mainline churches. With the exception of advances on LGBTQ rights, even progressive church leaders haven’t done enough for the new nexus of justice movements that demands “intersectionality.” That is to say, in the world of secular activism, a cross-movement solidarity has emerged that includes Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, workers’ rights, fossil fuel divestment, freedom for Palestine, and more. Activists are now connected through multiple channels to come out and support each other, making each movement stronger. 
So where is this intersectionality in the mainline churches? Why has it not materialized? In this article, I suggest that the moral challenge of Palestinian rights has had a major and disproportionate impact in the ecumenical faith communities that I’ve come to know in my advocacy work. My reading of the role of key leaders, publications, and interest groups suggests that institutional self-preservation has been a driving force, causing blindspots and widening divisions.
Perhaps most obviously, a good number of the prominent and well-known leaders who fought hard for LGBTQ rights in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have stood as the biggest obstacles in the struggle for Palestinian witness in the denomination. Many of the same people who fearlessly founded standout groups such as the Covenant Network to support LGBTQ ordination and then marriage equality have been primary players in efforts to get the denomination to distance itself from and renounce the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.  These leaders have taken out full page ads in The New York Times against the General Assembly’s 2014 vote to divest, and even stooped to likening those who support divestment to White Supremacist David Duke. 
Even “liberal” publications such as The Presbyterian Outlook and The Christian Century have been resistant to supporting Palestinian rights. They have been extremely selective in publishing anything critical of Israel, and if they have published such articles, they have “balanced” them with opposing opinions. Why, for example, did The Christian Century not publish an article about the Israel/Palestine conflict by a regular contributor, the renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann, based on his new book Chosen? ? Was it because Breuggemann has become a forthright critic of Israeli policies? The article, entitled “Reading the Bible amid the Israeli–Palestinian conflict”, appeared instead in a more academic publication, in the April 2016 issue of Theology Today.
In 2014 after the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA), when both marriage equality and divestment from three American companies profiting from the Israeli Occupation passed, I was told by one openly gay PC(USA) minister not to rock the boat by bringing my issue (Palestine) into his church now because we are trying to heal from all the divisions. A prominent Presbyterian seminary president has been front and center on leading interfaith dialogue, but when it comes to Palestine, the seminary seems to engage in what has become known as faithwashing; i.e. providing cover for the status quo in Israel/Palestine and normalizing the current injustices.  Independent Presbyterian astroturf groups with opaque funding sources have sponsored events at our General Assemblies attempting to derail Palestine solidarity.
The double standards and hypocrisy that have emerged in the progressive side of the church where Palestinian rights are concerned have been astonishing. The right wing of the church already doesn’t trust or support the national offices of the denomination. A former stated clerk once said in a meeting I attended that he was afraid the split over Palestine on the denomination’s left would end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. I could tell he was worried that we on the left were in a death match on Palestine. He was referring to what I later learned to identify as the “PEPs.”
PEPs is a label that I first heard in 2008 at the General Assembly in San Jose. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace was lamenting the many Jews who are PEPs. “PEPs? What are PEPs?” I asked. “They are the Jews who are ‘Progressive Except on Palestine.’” “Oh, interesting,” I said. “We have a lot of those too.”
This was news to him, and we educated each other on the PEPs in our ranks. I told him about one Presbyterian minister I’d come across who was the president of his local ACLU but cannot see his way to support divestment against Israeli human rights violations — and, in fact, was doing everything he could to stop the denomination from divesting. He told me about PEPs in the left-wing Jewish community who speak out on justice issues related to immigration, even working with the sanctuary movement on the U.S. border, but who cannot see their way to support the human rights of Palestinians whose houses are being demolished by Israel. Others support “two states” in theory, but when an actual Palestinian bid for recognition comes to the UN— they stand with a US veto that prevents statehood for Palestine.
And so a new category of activist came on my radar. Ones who are informed and cognizant of human rights violations and the need to turn the tables and stop the injustice, but who check those values at the door when it comes to holding Israel accountable. Personally, I hold this group of activists and advocates to a higher standard because they know the score. They know that justice is integral to the mission of God’s people, and they know what it takes to fight systemic oppression. Jewish PEPs likely have their own reasons for their blindspot, and it is not my purpose to address that here. Protestant PEPs, in contrast, have emerged out of “the ecumenical deal”, which, in theologian Marc Ellis’s words, is “the desire for better Jewish-Christian relations [but] has morphed into Jews holding up Israel as a post-Holocaust trophy and Christians’ endless repentance for their sin of historic anti-Semitism demanding silence on Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.” It is an unspoken, maybe even subconscious agreement to remain silent on Israeli transgressions in atonement for the general silence on the Nazi Holocaust.
In an abundance of caution, PEPs insist on “balance” when it comes to events in churches. They can be the senior minister or bishop or executive presbyter who throw their bodies in the way of holding any event that might be critical of Israel. This demand for balance has developed into a coded language for “no criticism of Israel allowed.” It is like a dog-whistle calling out their forces to stop any event that might present a justice-centered single narrative on the facts on the ground.
Imagine a church group wanting to host a talk in the 1980s about the human rights violations of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Did the progressive leaders in the church insist on “balance”? Did The Christian Century publish the White Supremacist view alongside articles critical of the regime in South Africa – in order to be “fair”? Maybe it’s not exactly parallel, but today, even criticism by UN or Israeli human rights groups cannot be presented or quoted without an opposing view for “balance.” Where else do you see Human Rights Watch information needing rebuttal?
Organized PEPs come to General Assemblies and do all the right things to boost their progressive credentials. But when it comes time to talk about Israel and Palestine, they are mute – or worse, obdurate and defiant. Rarely does anyone hold them accountable and call them out for having double standards. Some of them appear to work outside our polity through backroom deals and top-down strategies (such as expensive glossy mass mailings with opaque funding) and they agitate against real grassroots efforts.
They were at it again at the 2016 General Assembly in Portland doing what they could to stop overtures on Palestinian rights. In my view, they used more and more convoluted language to justify unsupportable positions as they spoke in committee against “Advocating for the Safety and Well-being of Children of Palestine and Israel,” and against “Prayerfully Studying the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS),” and against “Affirming Nonviolent Means of Resistance Against Human Oppression.”
Yes, they really did speak against all of the above, invoking balance or fairness, but revealing their support for “Israel, right or wrong.” They have resorted to inflating Palestinian abuses and even conflating economic actions (BDS) with violence. And there was the misleading charge that BDS, whether focused on the Occupied Territories or on Israel proper seeks to “destroy” Israel rather than support equal rights for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Ironically, the Gandhi Peace Award for 2017, is being co-awarded to Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS Movement. How will these so-called Progressives square that circle? Will they disparage the Gandhi award now, or just pretend it’s not happening?
The good news is, as of June 2016, we Presbyterians have added the Confession of Belhar, an anti-racism confession from the South African struggle against apartheid, to our Book of Confessions, and we have prayed for the courage to live into it. The spirit of Belhar was undoubtedly present throughout the Assembly. And it made me start to think that maybe, just maybe, these old-timer PEPs are becoming a relic of the past.
The addition of this new confession came out of a decade-plus effort pressing us to join hands with our brothers and sisters in the global south and confess our sins of racism through a confession that came out of their experience. Ironically, just as it was with LGBTQ rights, the very same prominent PEPs who spoke in committees over the years against Palestinian rights, came out gung-ho in support of Belharand for confessing our sins of racism. In fact, many of these Presbyterian PEPs attended the Ecumenical Breakfast on Wednesday morning to hear Allan Boesak, South African pastor and theologian and one of the original drafters of the Confession of Belhar, speak about the “inescapability of unity, the foundationality of reconciliation, and the indivisibility of justice.”
But Allan Boesak didn’t say “except in Palestine.” In fact, Boesak flat-out asked the gathering to support the BDS Movement, equating the plight of the Palestinians with struggles against apartheid in South Africa. This, while the PEPs tried – and failed – to insert language against the BDS Movement everywhere they could, both in the Committee on Middle East Issues and the plenary.
Boesak said of being in Palestine, “It was as if I saw ‘Belhar’ written on that wall.” Did the PEPs actually hear him? Did they not see the irony as they clapped for him? He was talking straight to their glaring blind-spot. I believe we were seeing Belhar begin to create the intersectionality that has been missing, and perhaps with it the truth and reconciliation approach pioneered in South Africa.
In the room next door in the Portland Convention Center, the speaker left no room for doubt. That room was the venue for the Peace Breakfast hosted by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. It was a sold-out crowd of proud Presbyterian Progressives, up for such an early breakfast that the speaker said “God isn’t even awake!” They woke up to hear the good words of the Rev. Osagyefu Sekou, there to speak on “Faith in the Age of Ferguson.” And Rev. Sekou didn’t pull any punches, starting by saying “It’s not about getting a seat at the table; it’s about burning the damn table down…” and they all clapped. And he didn’t say, “Unless it’s in Palestine.”
Rev. Sekou told the captivated audience that “Comprehension is not a prerequisite for compassion” for the profane conditions that created Ferguson and Orlando. He asked, “To be faithful in this moment, what are you willing to sacrifice? Are you willing to put you body on the line? It’s easy to talk about nonviolence and peace when they’re not shooting your babies down. It’s easy to talk about nonviolence when you can hold your partner’s hand in public and not fear reprisal.”
“If you wrestle with questions around Palestine and on investments in Fossil Fuels, you are the moral conscience of this denomination – called to be like Jesus… Are you willing to live your life like you were born to an unwed teenage mother, among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world, living under occupation? The way the Christian story goes, that Palestinian peasant defeated the empire. The empire did not have the last word. That Palestinian peasant put his body on the line for people who did not matter…”
What followed was either a brilliant boost for those in the room who have stood witness in Palestine — helped plant olive tree saplings, helped harvest the olives, stood in solidarity with Palestinians against aggressive Jewish settlers — or it was a clear condemnation of those who know better but don’t hold Israel accountable, those who know what the Gospel says about the least and the last, but make an exception on Palestine. 
Reading it is not the same as watching it, but here is some the text of the last moments of his speech, when Rev. Sekou brought the house down:
“If you’re willing to put your body on the line, if you’re willing to show up for gay kids, are you willing to open up your church so that queer kids can find a place of refuge? … Are you willing to give sanctuary to the undocumented and risk your non-profit status because you understand that our ultimate status is status among those who shall be called faithful? If you’re willing to do that, they’ll say of you that there stood a generation of Presbyterians who were willing to put their bodies on the line for those who did not matter. They’ll say of you that there were a group of Presbyterians who had the moral and ethical courage to stand up for LGBTQ folks, they’ll say of you that there were Presbyterians that were willing to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and against the vicious Israeli Occupation… they’ll say of you, well done! Well done! Well done!”
No exception on Palestine.
 Here is an example of intersectionality: a Palestinian rights group calling out its supporters for solidarity at racial justice events. See Adalah NY – Adalah means justice in Arabic.
 The BDS Movement – Boycott Divestment and Sanctions – grew out of the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society to pressure Israel through economic actions in order to end the five-decade-long military occupation and human rights violations.
 The convoluted logic goes like this: David Duke endorsed IPMN’s study guide, Zionism Unsettled. [IPMN is The Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA)]. IPMN supports divestment, hence, IPMN and other Presbyterians supporting divestment must be like David Duke. Never mind that Walter Brueggemann and Cliff Kirkpatrick also endorsed the study guide.
 A thorough examination of a recent faithwashing initiative can be found at The Islamic Monthlywebsite – An Interfaith Trojan Horse: Faithwashing Apartheid and Occupation.
 Jewish Voice for Peace page and hashtag for the double standard #UnlessPalestinian.
This piece first appeared on Unbound, an interactive journal of Christian social justice, on August 4.