Presbyterians and anti-Semitism

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has made itself a stalking horse for the BDS campaign

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has made itself a stalking horse for the BDS campaign (photo credit: HARRISON MCCLARY / REUTERS)
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has made itself a stalking horse for the BDS campaign
The June 20 decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) – PCUSA – to divest from three US companies it claims “further the Israeli occupation of Palestine” was the culmination of a decade-long lobby on behalf of the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). It was a collaborative effort by Presbyterian activist groups like the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship along with like-minded NGOs pushing the divestment agenda.
In taking the decision to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions, the church’s General Assembly claimed to be acting on “prophetic” moral motives. Hidden from the discourse, however, was a subterranean stream of anti- Semitism flowing mainly from the IPMN.
This is a weighty charge, to be sure, with serious ramifications for the church and its relationship with the Jewish community.
But the facts cannot be denied. In a report released just days after the vote, the Jerusalem- based NGO Monitor exposed definitive evidence of vicious anti-Semitism by members of IPMN, one of PCUSA’s 38 official mission networks.
In 2012, a storm erupted over a cluster of anti-Semitic posts on IPMN’s Facebook page. Presbyterian and Jewish groups alike condemned IPMN for allowing these comments.
IPMN’s public reaction was to accuse the organized Jewish community of a “smear campaign,” while declaring that IPMN “is not an anti-Semitic organization.”
Nonetheless, under pressure, IPMN closed down the open Facebook page explaining that it “has been staffed by volunteers (IPMN has no paid staff at all), which makes it difficult to monitor all the comments that are posted here.” About six months later IPMN opened a new “closed but not secret” Facebook page with administrators who approved each member. Monitoring posted comments for a much smaller online community should have been straightforward. It should have been a simple matter to remove anti-Semitic comments. That didn’t happen.
IPMN’s leadership apparently had no intention of monitoring their page, at least not to prevent the dissemination of anti- Semitism. Believing it to be closed, they went on with business as usual. The page’s members, PCUSA senior staff, theologians, clergy and laity, also gave tacit consent through their silence in the face of continued hate speech.
Over the following two years, members of IPMN’s new page uploaded numerous anti-Jewish postings, with all too familiar tropes. A “Zionist controlled America [has a] desperate lust” for war with Iran; “Jewish interests” are “corrupting” the US government; the media is “owned” and “operated” by these same “Jewish interests”; Ashkenazi Jews are not racially “Semitic;” they are actually “Khazars” and therefore should not be in the Middle East. One IPMN member even declared that “the Ashkenazis are looking more fraudulent than ever in claiming a Jewish Homeland for the Jewish (White Race) only.”
As with the first Facebook page, IPMN members also posted links to extremist sites such as “,” which has promoted “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Holocaust denial and “The Ugly Truth,” whose slogan is “Zionism, Jewish extremism and a few other nasty items making our world uninhabitable today.”
Iranian state-owned Press TV was also touted by some members. One post professed “Lots of love for Press TV” and another announced, “Iran! Thank God for them! The only Zionist-free land left on earth.”
All this serves as a backdrop to “Zionism Unsettled,” IPMN’s anti-Zionist manifesto passed off as a “congregational study guide,” strategically released just months before the PCUSA General Assembly. “Zionism Unsettled” supports BDS, praising a “new interfaith covenant” that challenges “the American Jewish establishment’s Constantinian hegemony on Israel.” This covenant or alliance includes a group similar to IPMN within the United Methodist Church and the fringe Jewish Voice for Peace, which praised “Zionism Unsettled” as “smart and gutsy” and was hyperactive lobbying delegates to the GA for divestment.
In the months leading up to the PCUSA vote, “Zionism Unsettled” was sold on the church’s online store. This represented a major coup for BDS activists, who had been attempting to capture the church’s moral voice to promote their extremist agenda. As noted on the BDS Movement’s website, “religious institutions are seen in many communities as embodying important moral and ethical principles” and “divestment campaigns that target companies such as Caterpillar have been initiated in a number of major Christian churches. Not only will successful divestment campaigns financially weaken the Occupation, but [they] will raise both the public profile and legitimacy of the BDS campaign.”
However, “weakening the Occupation” is hardly their objective. BDS’s goal is to end Israel’s existence. “Definitely, most definitely do we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No rational, not-sell-out Palestinian will ever accept a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,” BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti declared last November. Pro- BDS author John Spritzler wrote, “I think the BDS movement will gain strength from forthrightly explaining why Israel has no right to exist.” Numerous other BDS leaders take the same line.
Not surprisingly, BDS activists claimed victory in the PCUSA divestment vote.
Barghouti praised it as a “sweet victory for human rights,” arguing that Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights had introduced divestment into the US mainstream.
Under pressurer, the Presbyterian leadership attempted to distance the church from BDS. Following intensive criticism from the Jewish community, as well as anti-divestment Presbyterians, the GA passed a resolution declaring “that ‘Zionism Unsettled’ does not represent the views” of the church. And one week after the final divestment vote, “Zionism Unsettled” was removed from the PCUSA online store. Jewish Voice for Peace also pulled its endorsement of “Zionism Unsettled” from its website.
IPMN went into damage control mode.
After NGO Monitor’s exposé of IPMN’s anti-Semitic Facebook page, the page’s administrators changed the status from “closed” to “secret” and, for the first time, posted a disclaimer: “The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of IPMN, its members, or the Presbyterian Church (USA).” It then warned IPMN’s membership: “Anything you post could be read and reposted by unfriendly outsiders.”
Jewish communal leaders, many of whom have been involved in interfaith dialogue for decades, highlighted the profound pain the PCUSA decision caused the Jewish people.
They pointed out that the Presbyterians made themselves – wittingly or not – a stalking horse for the BDS campaign.
Immediately after the divestment vote, the denomination’s moderator Heath Rada declared from the rostrum, “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” But words alone will not heal the yawning chasm that has opened between the Jewish community and the PCUSA. At this point, what is needed is concrete action to begin rebuilding the burnt bridges. Removing “Zionism Unsettled” from the church’s online store is a welcome first step. But many more measures are needed.
The proverbial ball remains in the Presbyterian court. American Jews and Israelis are asking if the church will fully dissociate itself from IPMN and remove its tax exempt protection from a group that has become an anti-Semitic haven. Will the church reverse course, as it did following a pro-divestment vote in 2004, and fully repudiate the BDS agenda? Nothing less than the church’s moral credibility is on the line. Failure to take these necessary steps would only demonstrate the PCUSA’s tolerance for gutter anti-Semitism and render its moral claims on the Middle East, and many other issues, null and void.
Yitzhak Santis is Chief Programs Officer at the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and director of its “BDS in the Pews” Project