BDS in American churches

A common thread is the notion that Israelis are powerful oppressors who deserve pressure and Palestinians are victims whose leaders don’t require accountability.

WOMEN HOLD pins that advocate a boycott against Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
WOMEN HOLD pins that advocate a boycott against Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’ve spent the past three years witnessing and helping defeat Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns on campuses across North America, so I am rarely surprised by the depravity of anti-Israel activists.
But BDS doesn’t limit itself to campuses, so this year I’ve had the distinct misfortune of witnessing it in action at the national meetings of two Protestant churches – the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). Last June, PCUSA passed a resolution to boycott and divest from companies deemed “complicit” in Israel’s alleged misdeeds against Palestinians, and last week the UCC passed a similar measure.
I attended last year’s PCUSA Middle East Committee hearings and watched the UCC proceedings live online. In both cases, I was shocked to see people who should know better buy into BDS’s cheap propaganda about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, its blatant misrepresentations of its own agenda and its manipulative tactics.
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During the long PCUSA hearings, I listened to seemingly earnest Presbyterians viciously slander Israelis, accusing them of subjecting Palestinians to “biblical scale enslavement” and poisoning Palestinian livestock.
When pro-BDS speakers weren’t echoing classic anti-Semitism, they whitewashed the killing of Israeli children by racist terrorist groups like Hamas as “resistance.” In a bold display of dishonesty, they told the committee that their proposal was unconnected to global BDS and its goal of eliminating Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Of course, this didn’t stop them from bringing in Rifat Kassis, a “special guest” from the West Bank who works closely with the Palestinian BDS National Committee.
Kassis spoke constantly during the committee’s deliberations, and never disclosed his affiliations.
I and many of my fellow attendees were outraged and would have spoken out, but we weren’t allowed to: almost all of the speaking time was allotted to anti-Israel activists. BDS supporters had infiltrated the leadership of the PCUSA and rigged the debate.
The UCC proceedings were no better. Delegates fawned over keynote speaker Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian minister who has peddled racist theories about the origins of modern Jews. BDS activists pushed through a proposal to use the Kairos Palestine document as a resource for interfaith dialogue with Jews. A brave speaker who leads the UCC’s interfaith efforts in Massachusetts strongly objected, citing conversations with Jewish leaders in her community. Indeed, Kairos has been widely condemned for its anti-Israel bias, whitewashing of racist violence against Israelis, and use of an extremist theology which erases the Jewish people’s history in Israel and positions Palestinians as the “real” Jews (a theological view the UCC itself condemned in 1987). But this made little difference. BDS supporters insisted that Kairos is fair and balanced, and most delegates agreed. Likewise, when a dissenting speaker lamented that the UCC “did not allow” mainstream Jews and Israelis to have a voice at the table, few voters seemed to care. In a defining moment, UCC officials rejected an amendment calling on the church to listen to Israeli perspectives and encourage cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
A common thread was the notion that Israelis are powerful oppressors who deserve pressure and Palestinians are victims whose leaders don’t require accountability, even if some of their “resistance” methods might be disagreeable.
I recognize the hardships created by Israel’s military and security measures, and would have them end tomorrow if I thought this would lead to a just peace. But when BDS activists rail against companies involved in Israeli checkpoints, they don’t suggest any practical alternatives to protect Israelis from those who seek to harm them. When they condemn settlements and the blockade of Gaza, they don’t mention that BDS’s ultimate goal is not to change these policies but to pressure the Jewish state until it collapses. I expected that many of the highly educated UCC and PCUSA delegates would expose this utter lack of critical thinking, honesty and consideration for Israeli lives. I was wrong.
Israelis and American Jews do have incredible allies in these denominations, like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP), who spoke passionately against BDS. Unfortunately, they remain a distinct minority.
More commonly, UCC and PCUSA members paid lip service to Israeli fears, experiences and hopes, but conveniently discarded them when it came time to make real decisions.
Israel’s more self-serving critics tell Israelis to blame only themselves and their policies toward Palestinians for this state of affairs. In some cases Israeli words and actions do add fuel to BDS’s fire. In many more cases media outlets dehumanize Israelis and reinforce BDS’s message. Protestant churches also have deep, longstanding relationships with Palestinian Christians. But the main reason the UCC and PCUSA joined the chorus of condemnation is that BDS activists have waged a sophisticated propaganda campaign and hijacked the political agendas of these churches. Pro- BDS groups take church leaders to Israel and the West Bank and dictate the narrative, all but ensuring they will leave blaming Israel for all Palestinian suffering.
BDS activists have created theological justifications for their cause, making it easier for their international audiences to get emotional gratification from taking an anti-Israel stance. They worked for over a decade to gain leadership positions within these churches and control the debate, against the wishes of many church members.
Crucially, BDS activists have sanitized their bigotry by using a small group of Jewish supporters, represented by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), to invalidate the criticism of mainstream Jewry.
I witnessed too many church delegates invoke JVP’s support for divestment with satisfaction, thinking they could rest easy with their Jewish stamp of approval. Never mind the racism of using a tiny fraction of Jews to silence the protests of the vast majority, who naturally oppose movements that seek to deny their collective rights.
So is it all doom and gloom here in the States? No. Shortly after the UCC vote, the much larger Episcopal Church overwhelmingly rejected multiple BDS resolutions at its General Convention, and the Mennonite Church postponed consideration of similar measures until 2017. Some suggest that the UCC’s anti-Israelism is part of its last gasp for survival, because it has lost 20 percent of its membership since 2005. PCUSA’s membership has declined in recent years as well. Nonetheless, allies like PFMEP remain committed to turning the tide against anti-Israel extremists in their churches, and I have seen too many inspiring campaigns against BDS on campus to feel hopeless about defeating it in other arenas. Victory will not come quickly or easily, but now that Israel and its international supporters are taking BDS more seriously, it is possible.
If we put our differences aside and strengthen our movement we can overcome this threat, just as Israel and the Jewish people have done so many times before.
The author is a senior researcher at StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization.
You can follow him on Twitter at @MaxSamarov, and learn more about StandWithUs here.