By Sean Savage
In addition to anti-Israel resolutions, this year’s main gathering featured a verbal attack on a Palestinian human-rights activist who condemned the one-sided resolutions being considered against the Jewish state.
At its biennial General Assembly last week in St. Louis, the Presbyterian Church USA, one of the largest mainline churches in American Protestantism, continued to express support for the anti-Israel BDS movement by passing a number of resolutions condemning Israel.
This comes as the Presbyterians, like other mainline protestants churches, have faced rapidly declining memberships and an identity crisis that has allowed the more radical elements within the church to hijack the movement, observers say.
In addition to the anti-Israel resolutions, this year’s General Assembly featured a verbal attack on Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human-rights activist who came out to condemn the one-sided resolutions being considered against the Jewish state.
In response to Eid’s speech during the Middle East Committee’s deliberations, Bassem Masri, who was also invited to the GA by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network followed Eid, verbally attack him.
Dexter Van Zile, a Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in American (CAMERA), told JNS, “Masri harassed Palestinian reformer Bassem Eid in the convention center and on the street outside the General Assembly, calling him a ‘spy’ and a ‘collaborator.’ And the denomination’s leaders couldn’t be bothered to bar Masri from the proceedings, even after Masri himself posted video of him calling Eid these things.”
Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, whose group was on the ground in St. Louis to act against the anti-Israel resolutions, also condemned the attack on Eid.
“Unfortunately, institutional bias continues to undermine PCUSA’s credibility as an agent of peacemaking and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians,” she said. “Most disturbingly, the PCUSA leadership did almost nothing in response to a reported death threat made by an anti-Israel activist at the GA.”
Battling against anti-Israel overtures
At the 2018 General Assembly, the Presbyterians considered several anti-Israel resolutions. Among those that passed included resolutions opposing the federal and state anti-BDS laws, one calling for more debate on Israel “illegal” military occupation of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and another expressing “profound grief and sorrow” for Palestinians killed during the clashes along the Gaza border.
Additionally, the GA also urged the real estate company RE/MAXX, LLC to end the sale or rental of Jewish properties in Israeli settlements.
The passage of a number of anti-Israel resolutions continues a long trend for the Presbyterian Church in the last decade.
In 2014, the Presbyterian Church narrowly approved an Israel divestment measure. The anti-Israel measures continued at the 2016 General Assembly, where the leadership passed several resolutions aimed to pressure Israel to leave the disputed territories.
Much of the anti-Israel effort within the Presbyterian Church has been driven by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.
Founded in 2004, the IPMN describes itself as committed to “advocate for Palestinian human rights and to deepen the involvement of Presbyterians with their struggle … and change the conditions that erode the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians … .”
Van Zile said that the IPMN “has a long, sordid history of promoting hostility towards Israeli and American Jews who support Israel, but now they’ve graduated to facilitating the harassment of people who seek to reform Palestinian society.”
However, other groups within the Presbyterian Church—namely, the Presbyterians for Peace in the Middle East—did succeed in amending some of the strongest anti-Israel overtures. These include removing a call to end all economic and military aid to Israel, the rejection of an overture to respond positively to an anti-Israel letter and removing a call for the Presbyterians to cut off dialogue with Jews who are insufficiently critical of Israel.
“The folks from Presbyterians for Peace in the Middle East who tried to stop this train wreck had an impossible task: arouse the conscience of a dying church that has been hijacked by people who are simply obsessed with Israel,” said Van Zile.
The anti-Israel behavior within the Presbyterian Church has even driven away some American Jewish organizations that normally try to build relations with Christian denominations.
Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs and intergroup relations who previously announced this week that he would not be attending the biennial due to the Presbyterians “obsessive and relentless anti-Israel demonization,” expressed dismay at the latest round of support for BDS.
“The church remains obsessively critical of Israel in its national utterances,” he said. “For many years and in myriad ways, the PCUSA has gone beyond legitimate criticism of Israel and embraced demonization of the Jewish state.”
However, Marans did express hope that there could be a change in behavior from the Presbyterians through the actions of the Presbyterians for Peace in the Middle East. As he stated, “there was a glimmer of hope for future Presbyterian-Jewish relations at this GA that could represent a tentative first step toward the church heading in a better direction.”
A dying church and movement
The continued push for anti-Israel measures comes at a time when mainline Protestantism, and especially the Presbyterian Church, has been losing members rapidly. In 1993, the Presbyterians counted 3.1 million members; in 2017, that number has dropped to 1.415 million members.
“As offensive as it is, it’s probably not a good idea to get too worked up about the church’s anti-Semitic tendencies, which have been taking root since the 1980s or 90s,” Van Zile said of the declining numbers and influence.
According to the Pew Research Center, much of the decline in membership on mainline churches can be attributed to generational change—older Americans belonged to these churches more than younger generations, who are either becoming more secular or are attracted to evangelical Christianity, which remains solidly pro-Israel.
At the same time, mainline Protestants have one of the lowest retention rates with many young adults unlikely to stay with the church in which they were raised, noted Pew.
As such, as membership has declined, it has opened up an opportunity for more radical voices in the church to promote specific agendas, such as anti-Israel activists like the Presbyterians Israel/Palestine Mission Network.
“The United Church of Christ and the PCUSA seem to have the biggest problem with Israel, while other mainline churches have backed away from BDS and anti-Zionism because they’ve seen what it’s done to the UCC and the PCUSA,” said Van Zile.
Last year, the United Church of Christ—one of the larger mainline Protestant churches in America with 915,000 members—overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Israel for its alleged treatment of Palestinian children.
In 2015, the UCC also overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s “occupation” or control in the disputed territories, as well as a boycott of products from Israeli settlements.
Nevertheless, Van Zile said that other mainline churches have toned down the anti-Israel rhetoric in recent years.
“The mainline churches embraced the notion that if somebody appears to be weak, they must be innocent, and that if someone has power, they must be evil,” explained Van Zile. “They use that lens to interpret the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In recent years, however, that lens hasn’t worked so well. Some mainliners got the message, but not the UCC and the PCUSA.”