Threats and Bias at Presbyterian USA General Assembly Highlight the Importance of Jewish-Christian Coalitions

June 25, 2018

4 min read

In the context of multiple anti-Israel resolutions and threats made during the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly (PCUSA GA) in St. Louis Missouri from June 16-23, a Palestinian-Muslim human rights pioneer and a coalition of pro-Israel activists from StandWithUs, JFNA/JCPA, Israel Action Network (IAN), the Philos Project and Presbyterians for Middle East Peace stood up against the institutional bias and threats within the 223rd General Assembly.

Nearly all of the 13 resolutions considered by the Middle East committee were anti-Israel in nature and none held the Palestinian Authority accountable for harming Israelis and Palestinians alike. In the same vein, a resolution condemning the Hamas terrorist group for inciting children to violence was turned down.

A grassroots group of Presbyterian lay and clergy volunteers, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace – a group committed to a two state solution that opposes the BDS movement and is steered by Rev. Dr. Bill Harter, Rev. Dr. John Wimberly and Ruling Elder George Douglas – pushed back against anti-Israel extremists within the General Assembly.

Their efforts resulted in a call to local congregations to support grassroots reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as multiple anti-Israel resolutions being significantly amended, including resolutions that called to end all economic and military aid to Israel and a call for Presbyterians to cut off dialogue with Jews who are insufficiently critical of Israel.

“American Jews can’t ensure future support for Israel and a just peace in the Middle East on their own,” Max Samarov, executive director of research and campus strategy for StandWithUs, told Breaking Israel News.

“We need allies of all faiths and backgrounds to educate their communities about why this is an important issue. PFMEP does just that, supporting reconciliation and opposing extremism under often difficult circumstances within their church.”

Samarov attended the PCUSA GA along with other representatives from StandWithUs and in partnership with JFNA/JCPA, Israel Action Network (IAN) and the Philos Project.

Other Israel supporters at the GA stood up against the bias, including the guest of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, a Jerusalem-based political analyst and expert on Arab and Palestinian affairs.

Eid gave testimony on June 18 opposing an anti-Israel resolution and following his presentation, a Palestinian Arab living in St. Louis who was at the GA with the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) and the Israel-Palestine Mission Network – a pro-BDS group – threatened him in Arabic and accused him of being a “Zionist collaborator.” But instead of reprimanding the individual who threatened Eid, PCUSA leadership took no meaningful action.

Dr. Michael Gizzi, an elder in the Presbyterian Church and member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, spoke out against the death threat and victim blaming by the Church, which he called “not only inadequate, but disgusting.”

For him, interfaith work and exposing the “deeply biased and flawed approaches of the BDS movement in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” are deeply personal.

“I believe that seeing beyond ‘the other’ is profoundly important. It is in the face of the other, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us, in his book The Dignity of Difference, that we see “a human trace of the divine other.”

Members of the Presbyterian General Assembly seen wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” (Credit: YouTube screenshot)

Gizzi first got involved in interfaith work when he was studying the historical Jesus and he wanted to learn more about what and how Jesus, as a Jew, would have experienced God.

“Through attending a Passover seder, I began what has been a rewarding journey, developing close ties with the Jewish community – and understanding not only how Jews experience God differently (yet, in many ways the same as many Christians), but was able to grow in appreciation for different faith traditions,” he said, adding “as someone who grew up Roman Catholic and then became a protestant (Presbyterian), I was already sensitive to “intra-faith” differences. Seeking to understand Judaism, and Islam too, was a natural extension.”

Through building strong relationships with Jewish friends, Gizzi became passionate about exposing BDS and authored a resolution seeking to distance the Presbyterian Church from a hateful anti-Israel booklet called Zionism Unsettled in 2014 and found himself in the BDS battles.  

“After that experience I learned of a co-existence program that brought teens, Jewish and Arab, to my community, and I immediately realized how much more effective an approach this was than divestment,” he maintained.

Gizzi, who returned home from his most recent trip just two weeks ago, said, “That led to my first study trip to Israel in 2015. Since then I have returned four times, developing a research agenda on shared society efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. I have spent more than two months in Israel, and in the West Bank, meeting people, and learning.”

He continued, “I believe deeply in the idea of two states for two peoples, and am convinced that the bulk of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are capable of getting along, and living in peace. I strongly support the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and to their homeland — while I also support the same right of Palestinians to self-determination.”

Gizzi lamented, “Each trip to Israel further convinces me of how misguided the PCUSA activists are in their approaches and biases.”

“The PCUSA General Assembly is always a frustrating experience, as the strong anti-Israel and anti-Zionist positions of powerful voices in the church dominate a process that is fundamentally unbalanced, and is intentionally structured by the denomination’s leadership to reach a desired result.”

But even amidst the many anti-Israel resolutions and threats, Gizzi noted in a Times of Israel article, there may be a shift happening in the Presbyterian church towards calling for “co-existence” before “co-resistance,” which has not been their approach until now.

“This unexpected shift towards reconciliation was not only a #BDSFail, it was a change in tenor of the entire proceeding,” he wrote, adding “the anti-Israel advocates within the Church still had victories, but this resolution alone demonstrated that the commissioners representing churches across the nation were not willing to go along with the extremism that IPMN and its supporters actively encouraged and promoted.”

“The Presbyterian Church has plenty of issues when it comes to Israel, and there are a dedicated group of anti-Israel activists who will continue to cause great harm to Presbyterian-Jewish relationships, but this unexpected shift towards reconciliation alone offers a glimmer of hope.”

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