I lead and teach Adult Christian Education classes at First Presbyterian Church of Normal. In January, I asked a my friend Rabbi Lynn to come teach a four week class for our congregation, titled “A Taste of Judaism.” I had met the rabbi after I had become the advisor for Hillel at Illinois State University. A student asked if I would serve as the faculty advisor for Hillel, the Jewish Student Union. I was reluctant at first, since, I am not Jewish, and I knew I had Jewish colleagues who might be more suited to advise these students. But ultimately I agreed, and the experience has been a very positive for one. I have learned a lot about my Jewish students, their beliefs, their faith, their culture. I realized our congregation would value from having the rabbi lead a class.
The rabbi’s class was incredibly well received. Over 70 people attended each week (in a church of 450 members!). I saw it as going a long way towards developing stronger ties between our church and our Jewish friends and neighbors. About the time this class ended, I became aware of a new congregational study guide issued by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), called Zionism Unsettled. It was supposed to be used by congregations to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I found it on the PCUSA Website, and was initially frustrated — but now thankful — that I could not download it, but had to buy it for $10. But I bought it. And started reading.
I quickly realized that this was in no way a study guide. It was instead a piece of political propaganda. It was a one-sided polemic that used inflammatory language, demonizes Israel, and comes close to questioning the very notion of a Jewish homeland. As I read, I saw language that described Israel as being “towards a single Jewish, Apartheid state.” The “study guide” was a one-sided view of the Palestinian conflict, adapted from a forthcoming book put forward by a radical secular movement called “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (or BDS) calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel. The document includes deceptive graphics, presents a one-sided view of the conflict and is not a study guide, but instead, a polemic that distorts issues rather than educates. As such, it is in direct opposition to established General Assembly policy calling for the legitimate rights of both Palestinians and Israelis to be recognized. The study guide reveals a desire by some in our denomination to deny the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel.
The more I looked, the more I realized that this publication of a mission network, which was for sale on the web site of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was being viewed by the outside world as speaking for the Presbyterian Church. While the IPMN says it is not a report, the reality is the very use of the words “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on it results in the document appearing to represent the church. The Press did not distinguish the Mission Network from the Church itself. The document did not and does not have the approval of the General Assembly.
Had the document been issued three months earlier, I would have sought an overture in my presbytery to call for its removal, and for the General Assembly to state that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the church. But it was too late for that, so I opted to write a commissioner’s resolution – the privilege of any commissioner to the General Assembly. Over the past few months I worked with several friends to develop a resolution that calls for the General Assembly to declare that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Church, and directs the staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to stop distributing it, and to remove it from the church web store.
Ultimately five other commissioners, from 4 presbyteries across the country signed the resolution. I submitted that resolution to the ”tracking office” of the General Assembly yesterday. The resolution was referred to the Bills and Overtures Committee, and was referred to the Committee on Middle East Issues as Commissioner’s Resolution 04-10. I will be called to be a overture advocate for the resolution on Tuesday.
I am embarrassed by Zionism Unsettled. It damages our relationships with our Jewish friends. It is biased, and one-sided. As a political scientist, I understand political propaganda. I understand why propaganda is used. This is a tool to promote the BDS Movement. As a Christian Educator, I know what a study guide is. I know that a study guide should provide participants the opportunity to consider multiple viewpoints. Zionism Unsettled does not do that. As Christians we are to seek justice. The Palestinians have legitimate claims, but this document is destructive, and not only goes against stated General Assembly policy, it damages legitimate efforts as peacemaking. It questions Israel’s very right to exist. Do we really mean that?
We need to step back from the brink. Making it clear that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is an important first step.