Christian BDS (Presbyterian Church USA)


An anodyne statement with a bombshell stuck inside, the recent motion by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) to divest from 3 companies with ties to the Israeli military (you can read it here) highlights fundamental confusions that are basic to the combination of religion and politics in contemporary American life. On one hand, the PCUSA votes to divest from three companies (Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar, and Hewlett Packard) while rejecting BDS and supporting a 2 state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The end result is that PCUSA will have tied itself up into moral, political, and religious knots. The more neutral content supporting peace and interfaith cooperation will do little to deflect attention to what is outstanding about this statement. What looks like a desperate attempt to claim a middle position at the PCUSA assembly in Detroit, and to envelop that bombshell in the rhetoric of Christian love and fellowship, provokes at least three critical questions about the intersection of (Christian) religion and (Middle East) politics that remain at the core of the vote promoting BDS.

[1] That much of the rhetoric surrounding the vote is meant to align Christian religion with social-justice politics opens a Pandora’s box. What other companies with ties to what other countries with massive human rights violations is in the Church financial portfolio?  In the secular world, critics of BDS often claim that BDS unfairly holds the State of Israel to a double standard. Outside the church, the counter-argument is that the political decision to act in some cases but not others is always selective, and ad hoc. While this may be true in the purely political sphere, the position by the PCUSA is framed as religious and moral. Unlike a more purely political organization, a church based group cannot afford selective morality. The vote promoting BDS calls for greater scrutiny of the financial holdings at the PCUSA. When a religious organization engages in selective political morality, it has to find a religious cover or justification, such as the one offered by Bill Ward, Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, based in Spokane, Washington, who argued that the vote “is motivated by stewardship integrity, not partisan political advocacy. It is not anti-Israel nor is it pro-Palestinian beyond the matter of human rights.” Statements like these only work to submerge the political-symbolic substance of the debate.

[2] Consider one way in which religious rhetoric acts to cover the ramifications of a political act. The vote was amended several times in the interest of maintaining a spirit of interfaith cooperation. The measure passed insists that the vote not “be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”It is hard to see, however, how divestment from these three companies does not count as support for BDS, or how it will not impact relations between Presbyterians and U.S. Jews, at the national, if not local level. Clearly, both supporters and critics of the vote see in it a powerful mainstream Christian voice of support for BDS. After the vote, Heath Rada who led the proceedings, was widely quoted, insisting that “[i]n no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”About this not particularly apt statement, one can imagine critics of the vote asking what would, in fact, reflect a “lack of love” for “[their] Jewish sisters and brothers”? What will be taken in many American Jewish circles, especially interfaith ones, as a political stick in the eye, the divestment vote appear to have very little to do with love, peace, and trust.

[3] Christian denominations boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning a Jewish majority state and society will be subjected to the scrutiny of critics alert to anti-Semitic dog whistling. It will be difficult, indeed, to divest the complicated relation between Christian doctrine and Judaism from this decision, as hard as some supporters of the measure will try to have it. Presbyterians and members of other Christian denominations are going to have to decide for themselves how to invest their faith into politics and their politics into faith as both relate to the conflict in Israel-Palestine, and to be careful with theological stock figures. It stands to reason that interfaith relations with the Jewish community might now come to be shadowed by the more radical members of the community as represented by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network and the recently published “Zionism Unsettled,” a teaching resource which among other things calls Zionism a “false theology.” The Church leadership has disavowed this document, but interested observers will want now to pay close attention to particular doctrinal and narrative theological frame used to support this or that expression of Christian BDS.

I’m willing to bet that for most members inside the PCUSA that the vote supporting BDS represents less overall hostility to the State of Israel or to the Jewish people writ large than a symptom of distress regarding the current Israel-Palestine impasse and the intensification of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. If so, cooler heads opposed to the vote might treat this as a tactical loss, not a strategic disaster or turning point. To turn this vote into a pyrrhic victory for BDS would involve committing resources to strengthening Jewish-Presbyterian ties with a heightened focus on supporting Israel and Palestine together, by promoting candid discussions about the conflict and the occupation in particular, by advancing a solution to the conflict based on the principles of mutual recognition and two states for two people, by dampening down politics based upon religious dissension rather than reconciliation, as well as by increased vigilance to anti-Semitism when it appears in relation to Israel-Palestine politics both outside and inside the Church and its doctrinal structures.

(From the opposite political perspective of the one here, Marc Ellis makes very similar points over at Mondoweiss, that the vote could actually strengthen support for Israel and marginalize BDS. They are worth reading here in their entirety.)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Christian BDS (Presbyterian Church USA)

  1. Fred says:

    I’ll try to quickly respond to some of your points:
    1. “Unlike a more purely political organization, a church based group cannot afford selective morality.” I think that, as a religious body, that they would welcome the opportunity to divest from other investments if some are pointed out as problematic. I don’t see why they have to stop trying to act ethically, just because they aren’t yet perfectly ethical. More significantly, the anti-BDS line of critique that argues that Israel is unfairly singled out seems disingenuous to me. Israel is already singled out for favorable treatment in all sorts of ways. Finally, I don’t know what couldn’t be critiqued by this logic. Was the Jim Crow South the worse place in the world? Were northern white liberals or even blacks who fought against Jim Crow the most ethical people in the world in all other respects? Were there no extremist among them? Was apartheid in S. Africa the worst thing in the world? Again, were the people fighting it pure in all other respects? It’s a line of reasoning that primarily seeks to deflect attention from the actual issue. More damningly, it can be used to defend almost anything. Only one thing is the worse thing in the world, should nothing else be the object of ethical reflection. Probably none of us are perfect, should nobody try to be more ethical?

    2. Considering how many Jews (and even how many Jewish Israelis) are opposed to the occupation, I think it’s unfair to claim that an act which singles out three companies which aid in the occupation would necessarily negatively impact Jewish-Christian relations. It’s using the same old trick whereby any criticism of Israel is read as anti-Semitic. My question for you is, what could the state of Israel do that would warrant critique from Presbyterians, for example. What would the occupation have to be like for it to be something that Presbyterians could critique?

    3. Continuing point two, anybody who doesn’t fully and always support whatever the current administration of state of Israel does is subject to being accused of anti-Antisemitism. The effect starts to wear off after a while.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks for the critical pushback, Fred, to which I would like to respond first, by removing the anti-Semitism red-herring. No, not every criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism, which is not to say that anti-Semitism does not inform some forms of criticism. I tend to approach these things on an ad hoc basis. That too is the position consistently stated by Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, as well as mainstream groups more liberal than the ADL.

      The problem with the anti-Semitism card is that it gets played both ways. We know how the Jewish right does it. But so does the anti-Zionist left. Jews have every right to call attention to anti-semitism when it appears on the left, and, perhaps, to resent the automatic refusal of the left to own up to the phenomenon. They do so, I suspect, as a way to deflect criticism and to shut down debate.

      Maybe think about it this way. If “I” can’t argue with “you” because “you” are going to accuse “me” of calling “you” an anti-Semite, then I think we’ve pretty much killed the conversation.

      I think the occupation in its present form warrants Presbyterian critique, but I think Christian organizations need to be especially cautious when it comes to sanctions and boycotts and divesting. Because as the rationale for such an act on specifically Christian grounds (doctrinal, narrative, etc) slips into a very serious danger zone.

      It’s not for any want of listening, and it’s not for any want of opposition to the current status quo in Israel-Palestine, but I think liberal Jews have every right to expect more constructive criticism from their “brothers and sisters” in the Church than BDS, even if that form of BDS is as lukewarm as the vote actually casted. This has nothing to do with calling anyone an anti-Semite. It’s a purely political consideration in terms of how not to burn important bridges.

      I would think that you should be at least a little concerned that natural allies in the liberal Jewish community, if indeed you think of them as allies, are as spooked as they are by the vote. Much of the anger and anxiety has to do with genuine worry about the more intemperate members in the PCUSA who were instrumental in pushing this motion through –unless you really want to tell me that there’s no anti-Semitism in Christian anti-Zionism.

  2. Fred says:

    “I think the occupation in its present form warrants Presbyterian critique, but I think Christian organizations need to be especially cautious when it comes to sanctions and boycotts and divesting. Because as the rationale for such an act on specifically Christian grounds (doctrinal, narrative, etc) slips into a very serious danger zone.”

    I guess I think you’re putting them in a double bind. You claim that the occupation could be critiqued by Presbyterians, but then criticize them not so much for the actual action that they took, but because you think it’s too much like another action. In other words, from my perspective any substantial critique or action on their part could be accused of being too substantial of critique or action. I just don’t know how they could actual try to act ethically here without being accused either of (1) not being perfect already (2) offering a critique/action that could be associated with critiques more extreme than you think appropriate. What action would you have them take?

    I also don’t understand why their at fault for confusing religion and politics (as I think you claim). That’s just the most bizarre accusation to lob when it comes to speaking about the state of Israel. I also don’t understand what seems to me to be an accusation that they are using Christian reasoning. I think that’s probably the type of reasoning they should be employing (and, again, this is an especially rich accusation in this context).

    “I would think that you should be at least a little concerned that natural allies in the liberal Jewish community, if indeed you think of them as allies, are as spooked as they are by the vote.” This accusation might carry some weight if it wasn’t so fully enmeshed in such a solipsistic discourse. Palestinians and their concerns aren’t mentioned here at all (Has the lack of action for decades offended them? Does the effort to bend over backwards not to offend Israel-supporters offend them?) Should the Presbyterians be concerned with what Muslim leaders think? Or with what leaders of the eastern Churches to which Palestinians belong think? It’s really striking how much your conversation about the occupation is just about Israel and Jews/Judaism. It’s understandable, but it really warps the conversation, and actually repeats the discursive conditions under which Palestinian life is erased. It’s just like when I was at Hebrew U. When they handed out a map of Jerusalem to the students, East Jerusalem just wasn’t on the map. Nothing to see here. Palestinians just don’t exist.

    • zjb says:

      Sorry, but I think given the history of Christian anti-Semitism, liberal Christian denominations are in a double bind when it comes to I/P, between commitments to human rights for Palestinians and support for the Jewish people. I also think liberal Jews are in a not dissimilar double bind –between commitments to social justice and human rights and group solidarity.

      Regarding not wanting to confuse religion and politics, it’s not at all a contradiction for me to want to keep them separate. I tend to think about Jewish culture through a more secular lens, not a strictly religion one. I also tend not to look at Zionism as a religious movement. I am very suspicious and critical of religious Zionism, at least most forms of it. Like the late Isaiah Leibowitz, I would like to see more separation of state and synagogue in Israel.

      I understand and agree with your point about the erasure of Palestinians in Israeli society. Elsewhere at the blog I’ve written about Palestine and the Nakba and the place of Israel in the larger Middle East and vis-a-vis Islam. I would hate to see the discussion, about I/P in general or the one between us, turn into a zero-sum conflict. I would like to think that institutions act as honest brokers, not blind supporters for either party to the dispute.

      You’re probably right that for me the occupation is very much about Israel, Judaism, and Jewish history. That’s where I stand. But I also see how these three things, the things that, yes, I probably care most about, are now inextricably implicated in human rights, social justice, and the question of Palestine.

      In the meantime, I’m trying to figure you out. The thorough thoughtfulness of your pushback suggests frustration with what you call this double bind, but words like “bizarre” and “solipsistic” suggest hostility. For my part, I have no problem explaining my own take on things in ways that meet your frustration at least half way, if not to your complete satisfaction..

  3. Fred says:

    First, I am happy to say that you are more than fair and kind in your responses. You’re a model of how to respond on these types of fora, and I’ll shamefully admit that you are much more generous in your responses than I am.

    A couple of quick responses, and then I’ll leave you alone.

    With regards to Presbyterians being stuck between a commitment to human rights and a commitment to the Jewish people, I think it’s a bit tricky. First, it’s tempting to say that this is the same dog-whistle charge of anti-Semitism that haunts any critique of Israel (again, even boycotting three companies that directly support the occupation ends up being too close to anti-Antisemitism). In other words, I think it’s too easy for you and others to say that Presbyterians (or Europeans, or whatever) can critique Israel, only that they have to do it carefully, for the effect seems to be that they can’t make any real critique or take any significant action. It seems to be a strategy for defending the status quo. Secondly, I think it would be just as easy to say that “given the history of” Jewish support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (and the repeated denials concerning it), Jewish groups should “be very careful” when discussing the matter (i.e., two can play at this game). Finally, and what I think is actually most important, the history of European and Christian anti-Antisemitism is actually largely to blame for the attitude among so many of Israel’s supporters that Israel simply can’t be fault, because Jews are victims not oppressors. The victim identity is so strong (for obvious reasons), that many people just cannot fathom the possibility that a Jewish state is anything but victim. The structures and memories that in many ways constitute Jewishness today are built to withstand and survive anti-Antisemitism (and rightfully so). But those structures and memories now (also) prevent the possibility of thinking about what it means to be a military and political superpower, ruling ethnic and religious others (instead of being victimized by them). (It’s not that different than Americans whose memory of WWII makes them virtually incapable of criticizing the US war machine.) I think the responsibility, then, of Christian groups isn’t simply to give Israel a free pass to victimize others, but to take responsibility (as much as they can) for the effects of their centuries of anti-Antisemitism (not to mention their centuries of hostilities to Arab and Muslim others, especially those living in the Land).

    quick side point: you may want to keep religion and politics separate here, but, whether you’re right to do so or not, most supporters of Israel, and certainly the state of Israel, don’t keep them separate, and it seems unfair to single out Presbyterians for this, as if they’re the only ones who mix the two.

    You’re right, I am upset. I think you’re comments are well-dressed, but ultimately hollow critiques that could be used to support Jim Crow, apartheid in S. Africa, etc. Their main effect, in my mind, is to preserve the status quo, where one side has a military, nuclear weapons, unfettered support from the world’s only super power, while the other side is the detritus of anti-Antisemitism, having no “birthright,” no “legitimate” violence, no right to boycott, no right to do anything. Once they have no violence, no boycotts, no extreme rhetoric or supports, then, instead of being allowed a seat at the table with the adults, they will simply be forgotten and erased (perhaps by groups that you would disavow, but that erasure happens, nevertheless). Nitpick all you want, but this is where critiquing and scandalizing all efforts to oppose the occupation leads–at least from my perspective.

    • zjb says:

      Dear Fred.

      The only status quo I’m interested in preserving are the good relations between Jews and Presbyterians, not the status quo in Israel-Palestine. In general, I think criticism does have to be careful, as do expressions of solidarity, such as Jewish solidarity with Israel.

      I think, though, the data bears out that most American Jews are as critical of the current status quo as they are supportive of Israel’s basic “right to exist” as a democratic, Jewish majority country within secure borders based on the 1967 Green Line. About Israel and Israeli culture, including Israeli Jewish culture, I think on the whole it’s far more secular and not religious in ways that you may or may not understand. This I think is very basic to Judaism, or at least modern Judaism, in which the Jews are recognized more as a people or “nation” (Hebrew: am, goy, Israel) than as members of a confession defined by religion” (for which there is no good indigenous word in biblical or rabbinic Hebrew) (the closest word in post-biblical Hebrew for a religious confession would be “kahal”)

      Again, if so many Jews, including liberal Jews get spooked by BDS it’s because the major energy behind the movement is based on positions less temperate than your own. If I thought so-called sovereign Israel (inside the Green Line) was anything remotely like Jim Crow or South African apartheid, then I would have re-adjusted my own criticism of BDS a long time ago. ,

      The problem for liberals and progressive Zionists is that we get caught in the middle. There’s this other double bind, the one between the Zionist rightwing and the anti-Zionist left. The whipsaw effect is tremendous. Without it, you’d have found my own criticism less “hollow.” Truth is that there are many liberal Jews and Zionists, against the status quo, who would welcome support from church communities like the PCUSA. But I don’t think we or they are going to get that support from the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.

      Yours in frustration,

  4. holdyerhorses says:

    Thank you both for this very insightful push and pull. I appreciate it.

    I have a question, for either of you or anyone else. Zak, you wrote originally:

    “The measure passed insists that the vote not “be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.” It is hard to see, however, how divestment from these three companies does not count as support for BDS, or how it will not impact relations between Presbyterians and U.S. Jews, at the national, if not local level. Clearly, both supporters and critics of the vote see in it a powerful mainstream Christian voice of support for BDS.”

    I clearly see how there has been an impact in relations between Presbyterians and US Jews.

    But my question is on the BDS assertion. Many Jewish friends are making this point, that the PC(USA) action, because it was a divestment action, is ipso facto part of the D in the BDS movement, claims to distance notwithstanding.

    But it seems to be that the intent of the BDS movement is destabilization of the Israeli economy, in whole or in part, and with it political change on the ground, and any call for boycotts, or divestment, or sanctions would need to have this aim to be part of the BDS movement.

    But the PC(USA) action didn’t have this aim. It was modest (21mil) from 3 American companies for the reasons you list above (ethical investment, its consistency or wisdom being left as an open question for the sake of my question) while affirming on multiple occasions other “positive” investment in Israel, and urging even more “positive” investment, ostensibly to further strengthen the Israeli economy. It was stated that the action would likely have no effect on the profit of the three companies themselves, and that’s probably true. It would appear that this action will have no appreciable impact on Israel or its ability to defend itself, or continue its activities in contested space.

    Why, then, are the assertions so vehement that this was clearly a BDS action (those supporters and opponents of BDS wanting to make it so notwithstanding), when the action and the intent (that is, destabilization towards political/social change) don’t seem to match? Or am I missing something?

    Thanks in advance,

    • zjb says:

      I think for a lot of people in the Jewish community the soft BDS at the PCUSA is seen as lending support to the larger, and more hard form of BDS, and that intentions, even good ones, are always slippery, and carry meanings and entail consequences beyond the control of the actors intending them. As for the negligible impact of the action at hand, what matters more is not so much this or that practical outcome. What matters more is the symbolism, especially when it comes to decisions reached by religious organizations, and especially when these have to do with symbolically fraught phenomenon of Christian-Jewish relations.

      • Chad says:

        Thanks. I understand the optics of the former part, but that is mainly due to Pro-BDS supporters claiming this as a victory on their side, is it not, and not through intent of the PCUSA (judging by its actions at GA, not by the various voices of particular groups or individuals, some of which might themselves be pro-BDS)? One frustration I’ve felt as part of this whole thing is the way that nothing that the presbyterians do in this arena is offered intellectual or volitional good will by many on both sides of the propaganda maelstrom. Given the actual action, and the actual statements by the General Assembly (perhaps 2004 excepted, and thankfully from my POV modified in 2006), seeing an action as amended as what was passed in Detroit as lending support to a more nefarious movement requires assumptions and leaps in logic, absent other action. (That is what Zionism Unsettled is filling, I think, even as it was soundly refuted by the assembly as well). I find that inability to be understood really unfortunate. As a Presbyterian, its hard to move in that space.

        I take the point about symbolism, and I grant the long history of troubled Christian-Jewish relations. I think the PCUSA has gone to great pains to state over and over again its support for Israel, and their desire for occupation to end, and further their wanting not to profit from it. Now many feel that one side wants to require us to profit from the occupation or we’re symbolically tied to those who want to destroy Israel, and the other rejoices (too strongly) that this move (incorrectly viewed) signals a decision “in favor of” the Palestinians. The tone and tenor of the debate on the floor wouldn’t suggest either, I think, but the either/or logic is strong. Its also a false dichotomy.

        Thank you for your writing.

      • zjb says:

        Dear Chad: Like liberal Zionists, Presbyterians find themselves caught in the unenviable position of sitting in the middle between two incalcitrant parties. From my own point of view, it’s a tricky spot to negotiate, almost impossible. You have my deepest sympathies and warmest wishes. Best, –Zak

      • zjb says:

        Thanks, Chad. Leaving you the last word, –Zak

Leave a Reply