Calling Presbyterians anti-Semitic a tactic to silence Israel critics

Calling Presbyterians anti-Semitic a tactic to silence Israel critics

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End the occupation / Photo: Scott Montreal, Flickr Creative Commons license
End the occupation / Photo: ScottMontreal, Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2014 — In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to endorse divestment as a protest against Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestine. Almost immediately, it was accused of “anti-Semitism,” even involvement with a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

This is an interesting example of tactics which have been used for many years to silence criticism of Israel — tactics which no longer work to intimidate those who believe that the occupation is illegal, violates the human rights of Palestinians, and is an impediment to peace — all positions which reflect official U.S. policy on the subject.

The church’s General Assembly, meeting in Detroit, voted to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.

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Major American Jewish organizations lobbied the Presbyterians to defeat the divestment vote.  More than 1,700 rabbis signed an open letter opposing the resolution. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed the assembly and offered to broker a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the church’s two top leaders so they could convey the church’s concern about the occupation, on the condition that the divestment measure was defeated.

According to The New York Times, “That offer appears to have backfired, with some saying afterward that it felt both manipulative and ineffectual, given what they perceive as Mr. Netanyahu’s approval of more settlements in disputed areas and lack of enthusiasm for peace negotiations.”

The Times notes that, “Of more influence was the presence at the church’s convention all week of Jewish activists, many of them young, in black T-shirts with the slogan ‘Another Jew Supporting Divestment.’ Many of them were with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a small but growing organization that promotes divestment and works with Palestinian and Christian groups.”

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JVP director Rabbi Alissa Wise spent a week inside the convention center and spoke at a prayer service. She said that divestment can serve a constructive purpose. “To me this helps Palestinians build their power, so that Israel is convinced, not by force, but by the global consensus that something has to change.”

The American companies from which the Presbyterians divested play an important role in Israel’s occupation policies.

Caterpillar sells heavy equipment used by the Israeli government in military and police actions to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural lands. It also sells heavy equipment used in the occupied Palestinian territory for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements, roads solely used by Israeli settlers, and the separation wall extending across the 1967 “Green Line” into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The number of outstanding demolition orders in East Jerusalem alone has been estimated at up to 20,000.

Motorola Solutions provides an integrated communications system, known as “Mt. Rose,” which is used by the Israeli government for military communications. It also provides ruggedized cell phones to the Israeli army which it uses in the occupied territories.
Hewlett-Packard provides biometric equipment to monitor only non-Jews at several checkpoints in the West Bank. West Bank Palestinians, who number 2.4 million, are required to submit to lengthy waits as well as the mandatory biometric scanning, while Jewish Israelis and other passport holders transit without being subjected to scanning or comparable delays.

Shortly before the Presbyterian vote, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the church in an open letter: “The sustainability of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people has always been dependent on its ability to deliver justice to the Palestinians. I know firsthand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.”

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The response from the organized Jewish community to the Presbyterian vote was swift, and the rhetoric extreme. In a June 22 tweet, American Jewish Committee Global declared that, “All you need to know about Presbyterian divestment step against Israel — extremist David Duke endorses it.” Rob Jacobs of the right-wing Zionist group StandWithUs declared, “Incredible! The former head of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke endorsed and applauds Presbyterian divestiture.” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg went further and declared twice, without any substantiation whatever that Duke “claims credit for devising Presbyterian Church strategy.”

Duke, who had nothing whatever to do with the Presbyterian vote, must be pleased with the publicity Jewish groups have given him.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the divestment action “outrageous” and said it would have a “devastating impact” on relations between the national church and mainstream Jewish groups.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the Presbyterian vote “disgraceful.” Jane Eisner, editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, writing from Israel, declared, “how can I think this isn’t about the Jews? And that, my Presbyterian friends, is anti-Semitism.”

Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, accused the Presbyterians of allying themselves “with haters like David Duke” and declared that “radicals tainted by anti-Semitism have hijacked (the Presbyterian Church) leadership … this move was motivated by intolerance and hate.” In its official statement, the American Jewish Committee said the Presbyterian divestment action was “driven by hatred of Israel.”

While many in the organized American Jewish community continue to charge anyone who criticizes Israel with “anti-Semitism,” this trivialization of genuine bigotry is difficult to maintain in the face of an increasing number of Jewish voices to be heard defending the Presbyterian decision, and sometimes even lamenting that the church did not go further.

Writing in the Jewish journal Tikkun, Cantor Michael Davis, a member of the JVP Rabbinical Council, declares, “I, as an Israeli national who served three years in the IDF, and who has served the Jewish community of Chicago for over 20 years, support the right of our Presbyterian friends to freely explore their conscience on divesting from American companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank … Under international and American law, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is illegal. Any business involved in the occupation is therefore illegal too.”

M.J. Rosenberg, also writing in Tikkun, states that, “There are hundreds of thousands, maybe a few million good Israelis who are desperate for outside help to end the occupation. This (Presbyterian) resolution provides hope … The Presbyterian resolution targets only the occupation which is fair and right. I believe that being pro-Israel requires opposing the occupation. The resolution is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and, above all, pro-peace.”

After the Presbyterian vote, JVP declared that it “congratulates and celebrates … the vote … The church has a long history of ethical investment choices and it is a strong signal of its commitment to universal human rights that it chose to divest. This is a turning point.”

Two smaller U.S. religious groups have divested in protest of Israeli policies in the occupied territories: the Friends Fiduciary Corp., which manages assets for U.S. Quakers, and the Mennonite Central Committee. Earlier in June, the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the U.S., revealed plans to sell holdings in G4S, which provides security equipment and has contracts with Israel’s prison system.

The idea that American Jews are united in support of the Israeli government, whatever it may do, is one which mainstream Jewish groups have long promoted, along with the notion that challenging the Israeli government constitutes “anti-Semitism.” It has used this tactic to intimidate open discussion and debate. The Presbyterians, along with the Quakers, the Mennonites and many others have shown that they no longer fear such false attacks. More and more Jews are standing with them, making it clear that they disapprove of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

As JVP’s Cantor Davis wrote, “Christians, like Jews, have a special interest in what happens in the Holy Land and a special responsibility to its peoples. The Presbyterian Church should be free to debate the issues on their merits without fear of being branded anti-Semites, or any other harsh responses that have been circulating in the Jewish community. Let us show our Christian neighbors the same respect that we expect and enjoy from them.”

In the end, charges of “anti-Semitism” and association with neo-Nazis and the Klan tells us nothing whatever about the Presbyterian Church, but a great deal about those attempting to silence it.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.