Analysis: Middle East Arguments at Presbyterian GA

By Judith Michaelson

The time of reckoning had come.

After two days of heated debate last Thursday and Friday over no longer investing in or “divestment” from companies doing business with Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) set the stage this week for this crucial vote by 500 commissioners at the biennial 217th General Assembly in Birmingham.

Jews and Presbyterians, Israelis and Palestinians, are closely watching the outcome, seen by both sides as symbolic of mainline American churches toward the Middle East conflict, and as a guidepost for possible future actions by other Christian denominations. Among the companies the church invests in is Caterpillar, which is helping to build Israel’s security wall in the West Bank.

At its Pre-Assembly Educational Event, “Visions of Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine” June 15, the argument was essentially limited to speeches by designated representatives: Bishop Munib Younan, the Palestinian leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land; Salam Al-Marayati, executive director and co-founder in 1988 of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles; and Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa; and The Rev. Victor Makari, an Egyptian-American, coordinator for the Middle East for the Presbyterians, had prominent roles in the discussion.

Toward the end of the two-hour session, when a woman in the packed meeting room asked why no women were represented, Rev. Makari said he had tried to get some women to participate but was unable to. Moments earlier, Pelavin, one of the American Jewish community’s leading legislative strategists and lobbyist, had asked why there was “not an Israeli voice on the panel.”

Rev. Makari replied that the church did write to some Israelis to participate but were not able to get any. Then alluding to differences among Israelis over the conflict, he noted, “Which Israelis to invite?” Makari pointed out that was not the real reason Israelis were not included. He said “it would not have been practical” because of time constraints.

Representatives of various Jewish organizations as well as some allied Presbyterian clergy suggested that these preliminary events were “stacked.” From their point of view, it got worse on Friday.

With over 5,000 attendees, including students, laypersons, clergy and “observers,” anyone was free to speak, within the two-hour time frame, adhering to a 2-minute time limit. Speakers came up on a first-come, first-served basis. Pro-divestment forces appeared to have done a more effective job.

Such was the mood at Friday’s event that afterwards Cathy Friedman, co-vice chair of the Birmingham Jewish Community Relations Committee and a member of Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham’s Reform congregation, said: “It made me sick. I told (Emanu-El Rabbi) Jonathan Miller I felt like I should be wearing a yellow armband.”

Still there were powerful voices aligned against divestment, among them former CIA director James Woolsey, who served under President Clinton, while the newly-elected moderator or leader of PC (USA) and the first woman to hold the position, Rev. Joan S. Gray of Decatur, Ga., stayed neutral, reportedly declining to answer a questionnaire on the issue. Woolsey said that unless the church rejected divestment, “we are clearly on the side of theocratic, totalitarian, anti-Semitic, genocidal beliefs.”

Birmingham’s Jewish community, including its Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, were on hand and the Birmingham Jewish Federation had a booth where delegates could come and chat. The American Jewish Committee was also represented.

Nationally, the Jewish community’s laid-back approach was likely deliberate. As Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for 13 national and 125 local organizations, told Birmingham’s Jewish Community Relations Council on Wednesday, they decided against a “full-court press” with rallies and full-page ads leading up to the convention as this would play into some perceptions that the Israelis were all-powerful.

At an interfaith service at Emanu-El Friday night, Rabbi Miller, who had been among the 2-minute speakers at the afternoon session, along with his guest speaker Judea Pearl, told the congregation that he was tired of hearing words like “peace” and “justice” bandied about without at the same time hearing the word “terrorism.”

Dr. Pearl — father of slain Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded on videotape by Pakistani terrorists in October 2002 — movingly paid tribute to his son at Emanu-El and indicated how disgusted he had been at the time constraints.

At the close of the session Thursday, Pelavin said he felt “a bit of a trapdoor underneath me,” and suggested that it would be “helpful to the discussion within the American religious community in particular if we more often heard powerful voices focusing on the evil of terrorism. “It’s not that we don’t hear those statements. I think however it is fair to say that they are often the third, fourth or fifth paragraph in something that someone says.”

He also emphasized “the complexity of the situation. This is not a situation that lends itself to easy answers, in which there are always clear rights and clear wrongs, in which there are unabashedly good guys and unfailingly bad guys. And we need to wrestle with that complexity.”

Pre-conference panel

Thursday’s session offered a certain civility and sophistication in presentation, though between the lines points of view were unmistakable.

Stork presented an overview of the Middle East, talking about the necessity of a state, clearly Israel, in conducting itself according to laws, such as the Geneva Convention, and humanity, as “Do unto others as they do unto you.”

While he sounded even-handed in both content and tone — “whether it’s the [Palestinian] Liberation or the [Israeli] Occupation, what we have here is a wholesale disregard that there are limits to what parties to a conflict can do” — he appeared to put the weight of blame on Israel. He said that in the past five years 900-1,000 Israelis have lost their lives compared with 3,400 Palestinians, most of whom “nothing to do with the conflict.”

Stork also noted that he participated in a Human Rights Watch study on the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers and that they “constitute war crimes.” While they may occasionally be renegade acts, “on the whole they constitute crimes against humanity.”

Citing the killing of Palestinians on that beach in Gaza two weeks ago, he said Human Rights Watch wants an independent investigation of whose shell was responsible. While the Israeli Army said it was not theirs, “our own investigators on the ground found evidence to the contrary.”

Under the “category of collective punishment,” he criticized Israel for wholesale shutdown of movement” of people and goods such as food and medicines prior to and since the evacuation from Gaza. He added that “parties to a conflict must respect [human rights] no matter what the conduct of the other side.”

He said the U.S. needs to address human rights violations “carried out by both sides, including… Israel, to which it is closely allied. And this is what we’ve seen lacking in the road map, the Oslo agreements.” He said some sort of “international monitoring mechanism of human rights violations is crucial,” and urged the U.S. to “monitor and report on Israeli abuse of U.S. military equipment.”

Stork said “The Wall” — which Israel says it is constructing as security against terrorist attack — is being “built to bring in illegal settlements…a clear violation of international, humanitarian law.”

Rick Ufford-Chase, winding down his term as moderator of the 216th General Assembly, suggested that there might be “a great deal of common ground” even as there is “a great deal of passion across our church [and] among our peer-faith partners.” It was at the 216th Assembly in 2004 in Richmond that the General Assembly brought the issue to a head by voting to study the issue and bring up “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.”

Bishop Younan, who was born of refugee parents in 1950, and whose church has pastorates in Ramallah, Biet Jala and Jerusalem, opened, “I don’t want to sound argumentative, but it’s my everyday life when my pastors cannot see me in Jerusalem because of the war. It is not only my church but all the [Arab Christian] churches in Jerusalem.”

He said his church condemns all kinds of violence, terrorism as well as occupation, and anti-Semitism. “For us occupation is a sin against God and humanity. I want to liberate Palestinians and Israelis alike from the evils of occupation.”

Even if the question of East Jerusalem is taken off the table of the peace process, he said the coalition of six Reform Protestant churches who are in alignment embrace “a vision of a two-state solution,” living side by side according to the pre-1967 borders.

“Jerusalem,” the bishop added, his voice rising, “should be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, Israeli. Any missing of these elements, there will be no peace in the Middle East… Just peace in the Middle East does not start with Iraq or Teheran or Damascus, but just peace starts from Jerusalem.”

He said the vision includes “a modern, secular democratic Palestinian society” where there is freedom of religion and speech and rights for women. “Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,” he concluded, a phrase he would use like a drumbeat over the two days, “will I and my children live in justice and peace? Will my children and Israeli children live together and learn together?… I call on the Israelis to see God in the face of the Palestinians and I call on the Palestinians to see God in the face of the Israelis and recognize each other’s humanity… Only then will the Holy Land become the promised land of milk and honey for both Palestinians and Israelis alike.”

Al Marayati, who has appeared regularly on cable news channels and PBS for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is more than a century old, and quoted former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, “who later turned against Israeli military occupation… He said that ‘this is a conflict of two rights’.”

Al-Marayati endorsed the two-state solution “with the full right to exist for both Israel and Palestine.” At the same time, he said the failure of the peace process can be blamed on “the failure of the U.S. to take an even-handed approach and put its weight behind legality, morality and a permanent peace based on justice.” The U.S. does “not act as an honest broker in the negotiations as Israel’s largest donor of foreign aid, weaponry, investment, political support including vetoes in the United Nations.”

On the matter of resistance he said: “we denounce terrorism and any violence against civilians including suicide bombers. We recognize along with the Geneva Convention the right of an occupied people to resist occupation.”

But there should be limitations to this sort of resistance. “We therefore have taken a stand against the targeting of innocent civilians and non-combatants. In particular we have consistently opposed suicide bombings” because innocents are killed and because it is against the Islamic religion. “Non-violent resistance is the best instrument for change.”

On occupation, Al-Marayati, citing United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, said the UN should call upon Israel to withdraw from territories acquired during the ‘67 war, “including the West Bank, Gaza Strip [cq], East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights completely and without condition.”

On settlements, he said the 4th Geneva Convention forbids any occupying state from transferring its civilian population into occupied territories. He called them “illegal and the single largest obstacle to peace. There must be immediate dismantling of the settlements and return of the land to its rightful owners.

“While settlements have been dismantled in the Gaza Strip, the perception of the Palestinian people is that it was merely a political ploy,” he continued “Israel’s wall has now cut into Palestinian lands in the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian towns from each other and in effect creating Palestinian ghettos similar to those in Europe in the past, such as the Warsaw Ghetto.”

The pretext for the wall may have been security, Al-Marayati added, but “terrorist acts have originated from Tel Aviv” and are “the major obstacle” to security.

He decried the idea of a “strong rightwing agenda of creating a Greater Israel based on an interpretation of the Torah which promised the Holy Land to the seeds of Abraham. We believe that Muslims and Christians are included among the seeds of Abraham.”

He, too, mentioned “collective punishment” of Palestinians by “starvation and subjugation” and Israeli government’s withholding of Palestinian tax revenue. “Ironically there is an outcry against those who want to divest from companies who do business with Israel, thereby punishing Palestinians.

He said “Jewish terrorists in this country” had plotted to destroy his offices, that plot “foiled by the FBI” but at the same time praised Jewish-Muslim efforts in this country to dialogue and gain more understanding.

“Finally, there must be an end to the silencing and tactics that tarnish the image of Americans who are critical of the policies” of Israel, Al-Marayati said. “It is time to end the defamation of dissidents for the current status-quo policies of Middle East,” by calling these voices “anti-Semitic.”

Pelavin, whose turn came after a huge round of applause for al-Marayati, quickly noted Reform Judaism’s connection to social justice and civil rights causes, and emphasized that he was presenting “an American Jewish view of the vision of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“ I mention ‘a view’ because the American-Jewish community is a diverse one. I can no more tell you what any Jew thinks than you can tell me what Presbyterians, let alone Christians think about an issue.”

Pelavin captured the audience with humor. “Any of you who have more than one Jewish friend will not be surprised.” He said he could “share my view of both the consensus within the American Jewish community and the denomination which I represent. In doing so let me make 37 quick points.”

He spoke of common ground. “The vision we share we all hold in common. The challenge is how to get from here to there.” It’s the vision of President Bush’s “two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, a vision laid out so powerfully by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, when he called for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict… Palestinians will always be our neighbors,” he said. “We respect them with no aspirations to rule over them.”

He said Presbyterians themselves have called for “peace and security for all who visit the land that is holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike,” adding that the important measuring stick for examining any question that comes up is, will it advance the cause of peace? “First and foremost is terrorism and the daily threat that Israelis live under is terrorist attacks.”

Pelavin said he was mindful that fellow panelists raised Israeli occupation as the first obstacle just as he was of one of the Presbyterians’ Overture or resolutions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict that the church adopted two years ago which said “the Occupation is at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people.”

“There is to be sure a denunciation of terrorism in the Overture,” he noted, “but if the blowing up of Israeli children on a Tel Aviv bus or in a café is not an evil act, then what is it? Terrorism is the evil haunting the Middle East [and the] threat under which Israelis live daily. The occupation, I believe, is the result of the need to provide security for Israeli citizens.”

“Unfortunately, sadly, tragically,” he added, “the vision of peace does not speak to Hamas, the current leadership of the Palestinian legislature. The goals of Hamas are clear. As they say in their Covenant, they ‘strive to raise the banner of Hamas over every inch of Palestine…There is no solution to the Palestinian question except through jihad’.”

“The U.S. and Europe recognizes that Hamas is a terrorist group itself. The Presbyterian Church has said as much. Yet none of the previous speakers mentioned that Hamas is itself a terrorist group and it gives the session an other-worldly quality.”

The very aim of the divestment issue, he concluded, is “to weaken Israel at exactly the time she must be stronger” and “to de-legitimize the very existence of the state of Israel.”

During questions, the moderator culled several involving Hamas into one: With Hamas’ election victory, what is the appropriate response of the U.S. and Israel?

Stork said Human Rights Watch had tried to get Hamas after its election in January to “extend and deepen the ceasefire and foreswear any attacks against civilians.” He got no response. “That’s not surprising. I’m more disappointed, putting it much too mildly, that when there was an attack in April on Tel Aviv by another group, Islamic Jihad, the soft-spoken people for the Hamas government not only declined to condemn it, but actually gave it sanction. They also spoke of the right of resistance and the usual palaver.”

Al-Mayarati said it was not the right of one side to say who represents the other side, citing actions by Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon. He said it was up to the Palestinians to reform their government. But discussions must go on, he said. “The Soviet Union was out for our destruction. That did not prevent our president from having a dialogue with the Evil Empire.”

Bishop Younan said Hamas came into power because of corruption within the Palestinian Authority, and “as a sign of the frustration of the Palestinian people. Is democracy a Western principle or a worldwide principle? Why don’t they accept democracy in the Middle East. For me as a Palestinian Christian, Hamas is part of the Palestinian Authority. We cannot take the position saying we boycott of our own government.”

Pelavin, however, dispensed cheer. At one point when Bishop Younan was waxing effusive about religious underpinnings of love, Pelavin quipped: “You got that from us.”

With the haphazard line of presenters at Friday’s session, and quick turnstile presentations, there was no time to digest thoughts, sift arguments, ask questions, determine accuracy. Reason blended with rhetoric, intelligence with idiocy.

Among the first five speakers, two were Jewish and from Jewish Voice for Peace of Seattle. Judith Kolokoff described herself as “a secular Jew” taught by Judaism to fight for “justice for the oppressed.” She grew up with friends who fought Spain’s Franco. “I have witnessed terrible abuse by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers… I’ve seen children in Gaza made terribly ill by the stuff that came out of their water taps, more salt and sand in their water, as Israeli settlers swam over in their private swimming pools in the hot summer sun.”

Though the next speaker spoke against divestment, it hardly seemed emotionally balanced. Doug Houke is senior pastor of Northridge Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Ill, which he noted is the world headquarters for Caterpillar. Thirty percent of his church are Caterpillar families, he noted, “folks who are embarrassed and even angered” by the divestment proposal.

“Divestment will permanently damage our relationship with the Jewish community,” he said, and “Northridge Presbyterian. We are a growing vibrant church with a $3 million expansion. If this goes through you might sacrifice a wonderful congregation.”

Noura Erakat, who comes from a small Arab village outside Jerusalem, said she used to see the Dome of the Rock from outside her window but she can’t because of the 26’ high concrete wall, built using Caterpillar bulldozers. Urging divestment, she said “it’s a war machine with machine gun turrets and bullet-proof windows and in 2003 her friend Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist, was murdered. You are following the legacy of nonviolent resistance and with morally responsible investment as was done with apartheid South Africa, totalitarian Burma, genocidal Darfur…Today the companies are Cat, ITT, United Technologies, Citigroup and Motorola…The companies are different, the struggle is the same.”

Dr. Judea Pearl rose next. He said he was speaking as president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named for his son. “I am here to represent a generation denied normalcy for 58 years” — since 1948, when Israel became a nation after the War of Independence. “I am here to represent Daniel’s cousin and friend in Israel, a generation not given representation in this debate. We urge you to rescind the divestment resolution because divestment is not an instrument of peace, it is an instrument of division and terrorization… You can see tomorrow — who will cheer that resolution? It will not be the peace camp. It will be Hamas and Hezbollah… and the people who killed my son…”

Pearl tried unsuccessfully to talk a few more seconds over the moderator’s halt.

Norman Finkelstein of Brooklyn followed. He said he was speaking on behalf of his parents, Holocaust survivors from Warsaw and Auschwitz. “Aside from my mother and father, every member of my family on both sides were exterminated during the war. Professionally I teach the Israel-Palestine conflict… This is not a referendum on Hamas or any loss of innocent life.
This a referendum on one issue and one issue alone, on truth and justice… The truth as documented by any number of organizations is that Israel has accumulated a horrendous record of human rights in the occupied territories. It’s about the torture of tens of thousands of Palestinian detainees… the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes… illegal curfews… the systematic destruction of peoples’ lives.”

Elizabeth Corrie said her cousin Rachel was run over March 16, 2003 by a Caterpillar G9 bulldozer operated by soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. “She was killed brutally, she was run over twice, and in the view of many eyewitnesses and forensic reports, she was killed intentionally.”

First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham held a Rachel Corrie event Sunday afternoon.

James Roberts, chairman of the Committee to End Divestment Now, said he has received over 500 e-mails opposing divestment and politicization of the church. He said an old man came up to him in the Palisades church in Texas, saying, “I left the church in 1968. It was the day my pastor told me to vote for Richard Nixon for president. And I didn’t come back for 20 years… I came here to praise Jesus… not to condemn any people.”

Dr. John H. Cushman, pastor of Church of the Roses in Santa Rosa, Calif., speaking against divestment, pointed to the “unnecessary polarization” among Presbyterians and between Presbyterians and Jews, and asked: “Will Israel pull out of the land it was granted in 1948 if divestment is passed? No. Will the two sides be brought closer together as a result of selling our stock in Caterpiller? No…”

Harry Green, an elder of Grand Canyon Church in the Greater Pheonix area, said divestment “caught almost all Presbyterians by surprise, even the commissioners that were here.” Green said he learned about the resolution in an E-mail from an Eastern Orthodox friend. “He asked me, what in the world is our church doing?” After studying for 2,000 hours and two trips to Israel and the West Bank, he said he concluded that divestment will “delay peace and end up with more people being killed.”

David Harb said he was a retired investment banker, mergers and acquisitions. “Divestiture is sound. Go back to the ANC apartheid issue. It freed a lot of people. Divestiture I hope will wake up this church and other churches around the world… Let’s get a caravan of about 24 747s and praise God… I wonder what kind of a Christian influence that would be there to show them that Jesus stands for peace and justice and love above all.”

Rabbi Miller greeted the audience, “Shalom” and spoke of the good relations between his church and South Highland Presbyterian across the street. He said economic boycotts, going back to the Middle Ages when Christians forbade Jews from owning land, resonate. “Divestment is painful not only to Israel but to your Jewish friends at home,” bringing “psychic and spiritual pain.” He said that on April 1, 1933, the Nazis carried out its first nationwide boycott against Jewish businesses and professionals. “The Star of David was painted in yellow and black across thousands of doors and windows… But you are our Christian friends. You are not these people. And economic boycotts are not becoming of you.”

Rabbi Yitzhok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a tall lanky man with a shock of gray-white hair topped by a black velvet yarmulke, mentioned his mother, a Holocaust survivor. “A whole generation of Jews and the one after and the one after live in the shadow of the Holocaust that Adolf Hitler himself said would occur because of the history of Christian anti-Semitism… It’s very difficult to explain to Jews how [divestment] could have taken place… There could have been divestment against China, against Burma, against Rwanda… as if Israel equals apartheid, equals a colonial imperial country… Kick down the security barrier and there will be no alternative other than for people to be blown up in their restaurants and buses.”

Cynthia Arnold, who said she had Lebanese roots, said she had lived in Bethlehem, “in this prison of despair… Jesus was born here. My roots are in the Middle East. It is time to do something… During this conference, I’ve heard people say, the commissioners are scared. Scared of what? Offending the Jewish community? Is that more important than dong God’s will? Imagine if Jesus were scared…”

Altogether more than 44 persons spoke, and then it was left to principals to sum up.
Pelavin wished everyone “Shabbat Shalom,” “As we gather here in late afternoon, it is already night in Jerusalem. The quiet of Shabbat has fallen on the Holy City. And this afternoon we wish each other Shabbat Shalom. Shalom means wholeness, completeness. We wish each other Shalom. We wish for something more than merely the absence of conflict… ”

He said that as the delegates go through the “important, difficult and messy work” of dealing with the divestment issue, “I hope you will be mindful of how much there is that unites us.”