- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mainline Protestant denominations have become known for their unremitting debates over homosexuality, but a new hot-button issue has emerged in the past few years: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Standing up for the suffering Palestinians is the one international cause that consistently rouses more liberal Christians’ passion for denouncing “Western imperialism.” Meanwhile, those criticisms of purported Western and imperialist Israel strike a nerve among more conservative Christians who believe the Bible requires them to hold a special concern for the Jewish people. Mainline churches, bringing together both liberals and conservatives, provide the forum where this disagreement is played out.

Nowhere has the issue been more hotly contested than in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2004, pro-Palestinian activists won a PCUSA General Assembly mandate for “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” That symbolic slap at Israel provoked a huge row with the Jewish community, and the 2006 assembly rescinded it.

The 2010 assembly, meeting last week in Minneapolis, seemed likely to produce another explosion, but confrontation was averted with a compromise that somehow satisfied all sides. The episode illustrates how far off-center a small cadre of activists can push a denomination, but how limited the activists’ power is when larger numbers of church members become aware and involved.

Pro-Palestinian activists number no more than a few hundred in the denomination of 2.9 million, but they have gained control of key positions in the PCUSA structure, including a special Middle East Study Committee. That committee sent a 172-page proposal to this year’s General Assembly. Jewish groups and their pro-Israel Presbyterian friends girded for battle. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) denounced the proposal as “a toxic mix of bad history, politically motivated distortions and offensive attacks on Judaism and Israel.”

The ADL had good reason to complain. The proposed Middle East Study Committee report singled out the Israeli presence in Palestinian territories as “a sin against God and other fellow human beings.” It compared Israel to “a spoiled child,” “a Nazi state,” the Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa.

The report condemned a long list of Israeli policies and urged the U.S. government to consider “the possible withholding of military aid as a means of bringing Israel to compliance.” The only request made of Palestinian political authorities was that they “set aside their differences, to pursue an ideology of non-violence.” There were no threats of withholding U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority or to any other named Arab government.

The report assured readers that only “a relatively small minority [of Palestinians] has resorted to violence as a means of resisting the occupation.” It blamed this violence on Israel: “If there were no occupation, there would be no Palestinian resistance.” Regarding the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza, the report asserted, “Hamas is a militant organization; however, over 90 percent of Hamas’ resources are spent on social services to the Palestinian refugees.”

As the assembly convened July 3, the Mideast rhetoric was quite sharp on both sides. But then a surprising thing happened. A group of commissioners in the assembly’s Middle East Peacemaking Committee got together and tried to find common ground. They talked with leaders on both sides of the issue, and they crafted a package of amendments that reconfigured the Middle East report in major ways.

The amendments inserted a strong “reaffirmation of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders.” They “commend[ed] for study” rather than endorsed a radical Palestinian Christian manifesto that rejected Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. They relegated to background status or deleted the sections of the report that contained the most offensive language against Israel.

Amazingly, this compromise was welcomed by leading representatives of both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups. It passed the committee unanimously and received a strong 82 percent vote in the full assembly on July 9.

Many Presbyterians breathed a sigh of relief that a bitter brawl had been avoided. But the debate over the Middle East in the denomination may be far from over. The pro-Palestinian activists are still in position to interpret and implement the new policy. And they are likely to emphasize the parts that still come down harder on Israel than on any other actor in the region.

Nevertheless, the results from Minneapolis remain impressive. When an issue gets wide attention and opposition is organized, the more moderate sensibilities of church members can be made to prevail over the activists with extreme agendas.

Alan F.H. Wisdom is vice president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

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