Opinion: Time for Presbyterians to Say “Not in Our Name” to Anti-Semitism

Here we go again.

Long-time readers may remember our coverage of the Presbyterian Church (USA) biennial in Birmingham in June 2006. A small group of activists used the church’s passion for peace to attack Israel and make the conference a major battleground in the effort to boycott and isolate the Jewish state, for presumed oppression of the Palestinians.

The conference became a test case for the boycott movement, and naturally the Jewish community was intensely involved in advocacy from the other side.

Through grass-roots efforts in the church, started by the Presbyterians in Mississippi, a compromise was reached that had both sides declaring victory. The church said it wouldn’t single out Israel, but companies dealing with Israel would still be subject to the same standards used to judge church investments anywhere — namely, that such investments would not support companies involved in warfare or other objectionable activities.

Instead of boycotting such companies when it came to Israel, the 2006 compromise included pro-active investing in companies doing “peaceful pursuits” in the region, to benefit both Israel and the Palestinians.

Fast forward to 2012. Israel is being singled out.

A resolution approved by the church’s executive committee on Feb. 17 recommends that the church divest from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard because these companies supposedly enable Israel to occupy the West Bank. The resolution will likely be voted on at this year’s biennial, in Pittsburgh this June.

This came just days after the Jewish Council on Public Affairs felt it necessary to call out the church for activities of its Israel Palestine Mission Network, which it called “a wellspring of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel invective.”

Among the items cited was a minister at the IPMN annual conference stating “greed and injustice is a cancer at the very core of Zionism,” a letter sent by the IMPN to church delegates accusing the Jewish community of intimidating Presbyterians by sending a letter bomb to the church’s headquarters and setting fire to a church, and a tweet that stated “Jewish power + Jewish hubris = moral catastrophe of epic proportions.”

Items on the IPMN Facebook page (which apparently has since been shut down) allege Jewish control of the U.S. government, Hollywood and the media, among the most basic anti-Semitic canards.

It is possible to be critical of Israel and not be anti-Semitic. Rhetoric like this rushes headlong through the dividing line.

In 2006, the actions of a small group of Palestinian activists and peace-at-any-price idealists were countered by a groundswell from rank and file pro-Israel Presbyterians, alarmed at what this small group was trying to have the church do in their name.

Now it is time for a similar groundswell. Complaints from the Jewish community can be — and are — dismissed by the activists; a revolt from their own pews is much harder to ignore.

Presbyterians must be made aware of what is going on in their church; surely the idea that an arm of their church is engaged in vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric is appalling.

It’s time for constructive re-energizing of the coalition from six years ago, lest the boycott movement claim a huge — though thankfully infrequent — victory.