Pro-Palestinian Middle East report at PCUSA General Assembly undergoes ‘Major Surgery’ by review committee

“Breaking Down The Walls”, a heavily slanted, anti-Israel report drafted by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Middle East Study Committee, was gutted Wednesday by a General Assembly Commissioners’ Committee 14.

Supporters from the denomination’s establishment, including a plethora of staff resource persons, a lineup of 16 former General Assembly moderators, and a host of lobbyists bedecked with flowing ribbons and peace buttons initiated a full court press, calling for the report’s adoption.

Tear rending pro-Palestinian testimonies and multi-media “bulldozer” extravaganzas pummeled members of the Committee on Middle East Peacemaking Issues, the General Assembly sub-group whose review and recommendations precede General Assembly action.

The other side of the story
But the anti-Israel entourage may have overplayed its hand. While commissioners were visibly moved by accounts of Palestinian suffering, several said that they couldn’t help but believe that there was more to the story, a perspective that “Breaking Down the Walls” neglected. That side had to do with the suffering of Israeli women and children, blown to bits by Palestinian suicide bombers, and the dismemberment of civilians under rocket fire from Hamas. The report included, but minimized, the Israeli side of the equation.

During committee hearings, the Rev. William Harter, a Presbyterian minister leading a pro-fairness group called “Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, lamented the fact that walls and checkpoints restricted Palestinian travel and occupation-fractured Palestinian communities. But he said these things were made necessary as a matter of self defense, to protect the lives of Israeli citizens who are surrounded by states committed to Israel’s annihilation.

“Look what happened when Israel withdrew from Gaza,” he said. “They pulled out of that occupied territory, and Hamas used it to launch thousands of rockets into Israel’s communities. Israel must protect itself from these attacks, and it will do so.”

Opposition within and without
The study committee’s report so strongly promoted the Palestinian case that one of its members, the Rev. Byron Shafer, expressed outrage over the document. American Jews, including J Street, a prominent Jewish organization that has been working toward a two-state solution, expressed outrage over the report’s slant against Israel.

Confronted by withering criticism, the Rev. Susan Andrews, spokesman for the study committee, first denied the bias, and then admitted it. She told a pre-General Assembly commissioners gathering that her group felt it was necessary to emphasize the Palestinian point of view in order to balance the denomination’s longstanding pro-Israel policies. Palestinian voices “were paramount in our report,” she said.

Another study committee member, the Rev. John Huffman, appeared before Committee 14 in a last-minute attempt to pull the report out of the fire. Emphasizing his personal expertise based on the fact that he had made 31 trips to the Holy Land, beginning at age 12 (most of them were church tours that he led), Huffman sought to convince commissioners that he and his colleagues possessed special knowledge of the Middle East, in all of its complexities.

But commissioners were in no mood to buy Huffman’s argument. Shortly after he spoke, they began to consider a series of amendments placed on the table by commissioners Charles Hardwick from Great Rivers Presbytery and Kathy Sizer, from Los Ranchos Presbytery. Their proposals were designed to balance the study committee’s product.

After it became clear that the committee seemed more interested in even handedness than propaganda, Huffman told The Layman that although he had signed the document, he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it himself. Observing that his study group had been loaded with persons committed to Palestinian liberation, he said “We were unable to balance the report from the inside … so the General Assembly committee will have to do what we couldn’t do.”

Huffman did not explain why he voted for the report and publicly promoted its adoption, if he believed that the report was unbalanced.

Committee seeks balance
Committee 14 ordered significant revisions in each of the report’s three parts. Part One, titled “We bear Witness,” contained a cluster of proposed letters from the General Assembly to the denomination’s congregations, Christian churches in Palestine, other denominations, and the Jews. It also included a purported history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict and a section called “Biblical Theological Reflection” that discounted Old Testament passages related to God’s “land promise” to his people.

Rather than adopt Part One’s selective history and theology as the official position of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Committee #14 voted only “to receive it … as rationale for recommendations only, not as policy.” By receiving rather than adopting the section, the committee, in effect, disclaimed it and rendered it impotent with respect to denominational policy.

Regarding Part Two, the study committee’s recommendations, Committee 14 performed major surgery:

(1) The study committee had employed a weak affirmation of Israel’s statehood, using descriptive rather than affirmative language. Committee 14 re-wrote it, explicitly reaffirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders.”

(2) The study committee had asked that its members be continued as a “monitoring group” to ascertain that the denomination’s Israeli/Palestinian policy be carried out. Committee 14 replaced that recommendation with a directive that a new, seven-person monitoring group be appointed that includes “at least one but no more than two” members of the current study committee. This proved a major blow to the study committee, a tacit recognition of its unbalanced composition and ideological slant.

(3) The study committee asked that the General Assembly “endorse” a Palestinian document titled “Kairos” that accuses Israel of “apartheid” and calls for boycotts, divestment and other actions against Israel. Committee 14 voted instead to “commend” the document “for study,” making it clear that this was the “voice of Palestinian Christians” and not necessarily the voice of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

(4) The study committee asked that the General Assembly call on Israel unilaterally and unconditionally to lift its blockade of Gaza, calling it “a sin.” Committee 14 re-wrote that resolution, calling on Israel and Egypt to “limit their blockade to military equipment and devices and to guarantee adequate levels of food, medicine, building supplies and other humanitarian supplies” to flow into Gaza.

Regarding Part Three – a collection of “study materials” chosen by the study committee for distribution among Presbyterian churches (eight pages reflected Israel’s position and 77 pages reflected the Palestinian position) – Committee 14 deleted most of the recommended documents. In their place, the committee ordered that the newly created and ideologically balanced “monitoring group” create a new study document that includes “eight comparable narratives [four Israeli and four Palestinian] arising from ‘authentically’ Palestinian (Christian and Muslim) and Israeli perspectives, that are pro-justice and pro-peace.”

No more name calling
The Rev. Connie Lee, a commissioner from Atlanta who said that she had traveled in the Middle East and was incensed by Israeli “brutalization of the Palestinians,” called for Committee #14 to adopt an overture from San Francisco Presbytery that declares Israel guilty of “apartheid.”

But the committee declined to adopt that overture, adding its own comment: “while we are deeply concerned with the policies implemented by Israel in relation to the Palestinian territories and Palestinians under its jurisdiction, we believe that dialogue is hampered by words like ‘apartheid.’”

One anti-Israel overture did make it through Committee 14’s gauntlet. It asks the General Assembly to call on the U.S. government to restrict its military aid to Israel.

Committee 14’s recommendations will go before the General Assembly on Friday.