Category Archives: PCUSA

church related posts

When history and facts don’t seem to matter: The Presbyterian Church, BDS, and the ‘largely non-violent First Intifada’

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a mainline protestant denomination that has been tied up in the politics of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel for more than a decade, culminating in a narrow four-vote majority in its 2014 General Assembly (GA) to divest church funds from HP, Motorola, and Caterpillar because of those company’s products being used to violent ends by Israel in the Palestinian territories. The GA tried to claim that its vote to divest was not about joining the BDS movement, but was a statement on socially responsible investment. This was wishful thinking as within 30 minutes of the GA’s vote, the New York Times immediately reported that the Church had been tied to the BDS Movement.

Two years later, the Presbyterian Church nears another General Assembly. This time, the BDS agenda is a bit more nuanced. A task force was commissioned in 2014 to examine the continued viability of the Church’s commitment to a Two State solution. Responsibility for this study fell on the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which recently issued a report titled Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Justice Peace, that it is seeking to have endorsed by the GA this summer in Portland, Oregon, when it meets in mid-June. It should surprise no one that the report that was written mimics many of the BDS arguments that have been used again and again.

It does not take even the casual reader long to realize that this report is fundamentally flawed and dishonest at its core. On the very first page, the report provides a brief history of the conflict, in which the First Intifada is described as a “largely non-violent movement that led to the Oslo Accords.” Let that sit in for a minute. The First Intifada was a non-violent movement?  What the authors of the report apparently are trying to do is to equate the Palestinian resistance, then led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO as being on the same moral level as the American civil rights movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience to effect change.   King led bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches to over-come legal segregation and accomplish voting rights for Black Americans in the American south.

Yet, the First Intifada included far more than boycotts of Israelis by Palestinians. Arafat’s uprising consisted of widespread throwing of stones, Molotov Cocktails, and assaults on Israeli citizens. It is estimated that over 1100 Palestinians and 200 Israelis were killed between 1987 and 1991. Yes, the First Intifada was far less violent than the Second, which began in September 2000, and was characterized by suicide bombings, and on going acts of terrorism, but in no way was the First Intifada a non-violent movement.   For a report by the Presbyterian Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to even use such language not only questions the intellectual integrity and honesty of the committee itself, but also calls into question the entire report that follows.   The Report treats the conflict between Israel and Palestine as entirely one sided, with Palestinians always the victim, seeking justice, and Israel as always the aggressor.

The ACSWP Report’s duplicity goes beyond this however. The report’s authors make blatant historical errors and distortions of facts that serves to push the Church to pursue an extremely narrow BDS agenda. The Church’s BDS supporters realize that their affiliation with BDS is one that most Presbyterians have little desire to be associated with, so it is not surprising that the report itself never uses the words BDS. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to avoid mention of the movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. While the words BDS never appear, the message is clear. The historic commitment to a Two State Solution is called into question, and the Report seeks to open the door to consideration of a One State Solution; a solution in which all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would gain Israeli citizenship. What they never say, of course, is that simple math would mean that Israel’s Jewish citizens would immediately become a minority in a Palestinian state. In some ways it is a confidence game, in which ACSWP and its allies seek to push the Church into opening the door for a One State Solution by approving a report that delegitimizes the State of Israel, without ever acknowledging it.

The reality is the conflict is far more complex, and both sides have acted in ways that have perpetuated it over time.   The description of the First Intifada is just one of many problems with the Report, but it illustrates the intellectual dishonesty that the Church’s BDS proponents are willing to engage in. Such a blatant effort to tie violent resistance to the American  civil rights movement is an insult to the faithful members of the Church who are truly interested in pursuing the difficult job of peacemaking.   Hopefully Presbyterian commissioners in Portland will see beyond the smoke and mirrors offered by the Church’s BDS advocates.

When the Church distorts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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A recent study report  by the PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) demonstrates its one-sided, distortions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is exactly what I expected from ACSWP.  The report was commissioned by the 221st General Assembly to study the commitment to the Two State Solution.  I’ll say that the report is less inflammatory than I actually expected, and it treads lightly about being affiliated with the BDS Movement, but the reality is the report will provide commissioners to the General Assembly this summer with a very one-sided view of the conflict.  
A report was released today by NGO Monitor, by a Israeli watch-dog organization, and highlights the biases in the study, and illustrates how one-sided their focus was.
The almost-exclusive reliance on sources that are, in many cases, openly hostile to Israel and present highly distorted analyses resulted in a one-sided distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to promoting BDS, the document downplays the threat of terrorism directed against Israeli civilians, while blaming Israel for Palestinian terror attacks and the hostility of neighboring states. Moreover, it views the conflict solely through the prism of ostensible Israeli strength and Palestinian weakness. This narrative patronizes Palestinians by absolving them of responsibility for their own actions and presents a sympathetic view of Palestinian violence.
Look, I understand that everyone approaches this issue from a particular view point (and even NGO Monitor has its own lens and biases).   But my experience in the past several years of being focused on these issues is that when one puts on a narrow lens, and fails to even acknowledge the counter-narratives (there are more than two) in this complex area, then a huge dis-service is done.   This is even more problematic given the emphasis that social justice policy towards Israel and Palestine plays in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Our commissioners are generalists, not public policy experts, and they are asked to vote on hundreds of different issues over a week long assembly, setting the church’s agenda for the next two years or more.  When the advisory bodies of the denomination itself are co-opted and so biased in their views, then everyone loses.    The very naming of individuals to the study group was stacked to promote a specific viewpoint or narrative, and as a result, the  report did just what one would expect.
Just as the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” and its highly inflammatory “study guide” Zionism Unsettled is a front for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, this report should be viewed in the same light.  It presented a highly distorted view of exceedingly complex issues.  For Presbyterians, it is neither decent nor orderly.   These are issues that I take very seriously, and issues which I have dedicated a huge amount of time studying, exploring both sides of the issues.   Neither peace-making nor conflict resolution is served by such approaches.
Think of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a puzzle – like a Rubik’s Cube.  The puzzle can be solved, but it takes a lot of work, and effort.   The ACSWP/IPMN approach is to tear the stickers off the cube, and put them back again, and say “look I have the answer!”   In doing so, we all lose.

Zionism Unsettled is no longer sold on the PCUSA Web store

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Last week I celebrated a small victory in what for me was a challenging fight over divestment at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).   Since I first saw the publication of the “study guide” Zionism Unsettled, I have been disturbed by its one-sided nature, its inflammatory and demonization of Israel.   So I authored a Commissioner’s Resolution, seeking the General Assembly to declare that Zionism Unsettled did not represent the views of the PCUSA, and sought to have its distribution ended immediately.   I explained my reasoning for this in a tumblr post early last week. 

I succeeded in getting the resolution through the Middle East Committee (no small feat) but it was amended to allow its sale, but to require instead that a statement be attached – kind of like a Surgeon General’s Warning – that it did not represent the views of the Church.   At the time, I thought this was acceptable.   I knew with a vote of 55-8, it would make it to the consent agenda.   On Wednesday last week, it was summarily approved.  I wrote about this last week.

I was opposed to Zionism Unsettled because I saw it as terribly damaging to interfaith relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and I saw it as serving to delegitimize our peacemaking efforts as a denomination.   American Jews had criticized the document since it was first published, and I think fairly so.  

I debated removing the resolution, 04-10, from the consent agenda, to amend it back to its original wording, but decided to take that small victory. At the time I still thought the bigger issue of divestment would be defeated. But when divestment from three companies over their business with the Israeli Defense Forces and their product’s violent use in Palestine passed by a margin of 7 votes, a major uproar in the Jewish community ensued.

It soon became clear to me that the resolution we passed was not enough. The continued presence of Zionism Unsettled on the PCUSA website would continue to cause damage to interfaith relations.   I was not the only person to feel this way.  Our new moderator – the #ModeRada Heath Rada – was hit hard with the issue in a press interview on Sunday on CNN.   Zionism Unsettled has made international news.   

I reached out to the moderator, suggesting we needed to do more, and got a positive response — little knowing that the process was already in the works (I assume).  And today a press release was issued by the Church stating that “Effective Immediately, Zionism Unsettled is no longer sold on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website.”

The original intent of my resolution has been accomplished.   I am proud of my work, and thank Moderator Heath Rada, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, and Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director Linda Valentine, for making this happen.   

We still have much work to do to repair the damage to our relationships with our Jewish Brothers and Sisters.  I for one will be speaking with the congregation at the local synagogue later next Month.    But it is with a sense of appreciation that I know that this divisive document is no longer available from the Church.  

Symbolism Counts. Perception Matters: Different lenses underlying divestment and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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In the days following the 221st General Assembly’s vote to divest from three corporations – Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP, over the Israeli government’s use of their products to violent ends in the Palestinian conflict,  I still am trying to make sense of this. I have never seen an issue that divides people who are usually on the same side of every political issue, but instead polarizes and separates allies.  It does not break down in predictable ways. I am on the anti-divestment side.  I simply do not believe that divesting of 17 million dollars of PCUSA pension funds will have any meaningful impact to help Palestinians, and I do not think that it will do anything to promote a two state solution. I view the issue as one which has much risk and potential to damage our role as legitimate peacemakers.  Many of my friends are on the other side. I view the issue through this lens.  It shapes how I perceive the issue.  Others see it in a different way.  Perception matters. 
Not only does perception matter, frames the entire discussion.   Some of the proponents of divestment see the issue as entirely being driven by keeping our investments compatible with the Church’s ethics policies.  We cannot profit from violence.   Through that lens, Caterpillar appears culpable.  Its bulldozers are used by Israeli’s to destroy Palestinian homes in the West Bank.  It does not matter that the “weaponizing” of these bulldozers is done by an Israeli company; nor does it matter that CAT has a dealership on the West Bank.  Through the lens of Palestinian suffering, CAT is culpable.   They believe this wholeheartedly, and truly care about improving the fate of Palestinians. 

But there are other perspectives that are blurred through that lens.  One of which is the damage and pain that ten years of seeking divestment from Caterpillar has caused to the Presbytery of Great Rivers in Central Illinois, and the churches in the communities where thousands of people are gainfully employed by CAT, and view it as a company that does much good.  When a F-4 Tornado struck Washington, IL on November 17, 2013,  Caterpillar came through providing support, funds, and even gave the mayor of Washington, a CAT employee, a paid leave of absence to take care of his town.  This is the same company that sells bulldozers to Israel, and all over the world.  Bulldozers and cranes — not mortar rounds, not heavy armament, but bulldozers. Perception matters.   
The feelings of those who are faithful members of Presbyterian churches in Peoria, Washington, Morton, and other communities throughout Central Illinois are also lost by the divestment lens.  “Our church is saying that we work for a company that is morally wrong?”  Over the years, at least one congregation has left over the continued threat of divestment.   With the actual vote, it is possible that others might leave.  I pray that does not happen.  But the local perspective is not seen through the divestment lens.  This became crystal clear to me when I was sitting in the Detroit airport waiting for a flight to Peoria on Saturday, and I saw a family coming back from a vacation, and the man was wearing a CAT hat.   We talked.  He asked what happened. I told him.  He shrugged saying “I respect what your church feels compelled to do, but we really don’t have a horse in that race.”   Later, the first thing I saw when arriving in Peoria, was a display with an old CAT bulldozer.   Peoria is proud to call Caterpillar home.  Perception matters.  

There is another lens – that of interfaith relations – that also loses focus when viewed through that of divestment.  To the vast majority of American Jews, the call for divestment from these companies is viewed as alignment with the global BDS – Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement — which challenges a Two State solution, and questions Israel’s very right to exist.  Proponents of divestment amended the resolution to include a statement that the church was not divesting from Israel, and was not joining BDS, but within minutes of the vote, the New York Times reported that “Presbyterians, Debating Israeli Occupation, Vote to Divest Holdings,” and in the second paragraph of the story, tied it to the BDS movement.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

To the vast majority of American Jewish organizations, this action was seen as an attack on them.   While many American Jews are unhappy with the actions of Israel in the conflict (as are many Christians, myself included), they see a vote to divest as the same thing as siding with the BDS, and as challenging Israel’s very right to exist.  As reported in the Presbyterian Outlook, “A statement from the American Jewish Committee quotes Rabbi Noam Marans, director of inter-religious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, as saying the PC(USA) “is facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”  It was later reported on that AJC fully viewed the action as tying PCUSA to BDS.  “It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the U.S. align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

It does not matter that the vote was not to divest from Israel, but to divest from 3 companies that do business with Israel.  It does not matter that the resolution explicitly says “we are not joining BDS.”  Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

This was exacerbated by the publication of a “study guide” in January, by the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” – an advocacy group aimed at promoting justice for Palestinians.  Zionism Unsettled presented a one-sided view of the conflict, demonized Israel, and referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.  The book was part of a larger book forthcoming by BDS advocates.   The 78 page document and accompanying DVD received a lot of criticism, and I am proud that I was able to successfully bring a commissioner’s resolution to the General Assembly that declared that “Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the PC(USA).”  Zionism Unsettled revealed the underlying motives of some but certainly not all proponents of divestment.  Many supporters simply saw the issue through the lens of Palestinian suffering.  Some saw it through the lens of ethics.   BUT the American Jewish community views it through a different lens as being deeply hurtful.   I experienced that firsthand, when I encountered a Jewish Friend  who was at GA, trying to provide support in the fight against divestment.  I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the pro-divestment proponents.   He saw it through a different lens. Symbolism counts.  Perception matters. 

 The perception of many commissioners may have been impacted by the presence of a group of Jewish people representing a group outside of the Jewish Mainstream, who wore shirts saying “Another Jew for Divestment.”  All week long, Commissioners saw these shirts.   To many of them, this said “Oh, American Jews support divestment? This can’t be too bad.”  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream Jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

For me, this issue is far from over.  We need to start examining the other lenses.  We need to put major effort into repairing relationships with our Jewish neighbors.  We need to extend an olive branch.   We need to figure out how to have leverage on peacemaking issues, since we will lose the ability to influence CAT, HP, and Motorola.  We need provide the same amount of care and concern for our own members in many parts of the country, hurt by their perception of what we have done. We need to examine the internal processes by which we discern these matters.     Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

Michael Gizzi
Ruling Elder Commissioner
Presbytery of Great Rivers

Now that General Assembly is Over…

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I sit in the Detroit airport, waiting for a flight that is still several hours away.  I should sleep, but I am still a bit wound up, and thinking about what to make about this most remarkable of weeks. 

General Assembly was long.  I arrived here on 6/13, it is now the 21st.   I am sick of sleeping in hotel rooms, of eating fast food breakfasts, of having no more than six hours of sleep in a night.  I am tired of banquet hall chicken dinners, and crappy hotel coffee. I am tired of sitting for hours on end, and work sessions starting at 8:30am and going until 10, 11, or even midnight (last night, we ended at 11:59pm, and they literally turned the lights out before we got out of the room!), and then I had a silly committee meeting to approve the final per capita figures and the budget at 12:15am.   

General Assembly is without a doubt, the legislative body of the entire church.  We did a lot of work.  We approved probably 200 items of business; including some big things.  We issued an authoritative interpretation of the Church Constitution declaring that presbyterian pastors could perform same sex marriages in states where it was legal, without fear of reprisal from church disciplinary commissions, and sent an amendment back to the regional presbyteries to redefine marriage as being “between two people.”   This was probably the single biggest thing done, but ironically, not the biggest thing in the news.

On Friday, the General Assembly completed a contentious debate, and agreed to divest from three corporations who do business with Israel, and whose products are used for non-violent purposes by Israeli’s in the Palestinian conflict.  This was an issue that demonstrated more than anything else, the role of interest groups; the influence that staff predisposition on one side of an issue can have, and the power of both persistence, and symbolism.   Persistence, in that there have been overtures to divest from Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola, dating back more than a decade.  And only this year, did the measure pass, by a mere 7 votes.   Symbolism in that while the Church claimed that the decision was to divest against these three corporations, and not from Israel itself, the reality is the news has very clearly suggested – and Jewish groups have interpreted it – as the opposite.   Four minutes after the vote, the New York Times had breaking news declaring that Presbyterians vote to divest from Israel, and within 2 paragraphs, linked the move to the radical secular BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that questions Israel’s very right to exist.     There was more symbolism in the presence of a small, but vocal (yet still respectful) group of Jewish students (all from California, and pretty much representing a group of Jews far from the mainstream)  wearing shirts that said “Another Jew for Divestment,”  to many commissioners, this said “oh, American jews support divestment?” This can’t be too bad.  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.    Symbolism matters and influences votes.  This isn’t rocket science.

But hard as it is to believe, there was much more to General Assembly than gay marriage and Israel-Palestine.  The Assembly voted to rearrange the Church’s mid-councils, or synods, calling for a reduction from 16 to 10 to 12 regional synods in two years.    The Assembly voted to permit prior commissioners to serve as committee moderators in future assemblies without being elected as commissioners. We established ethics standards for commissioners, we took action on climate change, on gun violence, on other global peace issues (although Israel dominated international issues).   We sent the Belhar Confession back to a vote in the presbyteries to decide whether to include it in our Book of Confessions. We established a new drug policy task force to look at issues surrounding the war on drugs.  The list goes on and on.

General Assembly is long.  I said that.  Its meetings are intense; governed by strict parliamentary procedure; its committees grapple with lots of business.  But through it all, most of us were able to remain “decent and orderly.”   It also provides a voice to the youth, with 172 “Young Adult Advisory Delegates” – affectionally known as “YAADs.”  These young people have full floor access, can speak, can vote in committee, can speak in plenary, and cast advisory votes.  

Now many of our commissioners return to their homes and churches, and have to explain what we did.  Many people will rejoice; some will be upset.  In some communities, actions will cause people to question whether to stay in the denomination;  for others, GA will be a brief blip on the news, and have little impact on their daily lives.    I am pretty sure it will be with me for a long time.  I have made new friends, rekindled other friendships, and have taken my responsibilities seriously.  Some issues – like divestment – divided people who are usually on the same side.   Yet, through it all, we remained gracious.  After I spoke before the Middle East Committee to advocate for my resolution critical of the Israel Palestine Mission Network’s publication Zionism Unsettled, two members of the IPMN came up to me and told me that they agreed with my resolution, and were not offended by what I had proposed.  We truly were decent and orderly.  

I still have one more post in me, trying to dissect how the divestment vote happened, but that is still, 20 hours later, both too raw, and demands more time to process, but I walk away from the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already thinking, how can I get back to the 222nd GA in two years, processing some overtures about process that I want to submit to presbytery for approval and consideration before the next GA.   Yet, I am happy to return home, to my family, to focus on my book, and to get life back to Normal.  

Highs & Lows of General Assembly

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It is  now 11:40 pm on Friday night, the last night of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  We are still in plenary session.   Tomorrow by noon the assembly will be done. This has been a week unlike any other. It has been a remarkable experience, both in the prayerful discernment process of the church, the work we have done, and the very democratic nature of a church polity.  Something I have dreamed of my entire adult life.

In thinking of this week’s experience I will say there have been the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Yesterday, June 19, 2014, was one of my very best days.  The action Thursday to authoritatively interpret the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to permit pastors to perform same sex marriages in states where it is legal, and to face no disciplinary actions; and the amendment sent to the presbyteries to redefine marriage as being between two people was one of my proudest moments.  Our church has declared that all are welcome, all are equal, and as I saw yesterday on twitter,  #loveWins. This was incredibly special, it was an issue dear to my heart.   And I will forever know I was a part of that process.  

It is only today that I fully understood the pain that those on the other side of the issue felt, and how important our prayerful discernment is.  As I have written before, I have been dedicated, wholeheartedly to the opposition of divestment from three corporations (Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola) due to their use by the Israeli government in the Palestinian conflict.  My focus initially was on what I saw as a divisive, one-sided, and biased “study guide” called Zionism Unsettled.   I authored a commissioner’s resolution, to which five other commissioner’s joined, declaring that it does not represent the views of the church.  That resolution was approved by the Middle East Committee 55-8, and approved on the consent agenda on Wednesday.  This was another incredible high.   But I was equally committed to approving a resolution calling for continued positive investment in Palestine, and against divestment.

I was fully aware of the impact the decade long effort to divest has had on my presbytery, the pain it has caused, the churches which have left – since Caterpillar is headquartered in Peoria and smack-dab in the middle of the presbytery.   I aligned myself with a group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  We worked in solidarity, we strategized, we developed speaking points, messages,  we raised objections, and engaged in what is certainly a political process, but one that was both thoughtful, prayerful, and conscientious.     

Today, after a 3 1/2 hour debate, we lost.   By a margin of 7 votes, the Assembly decided to divest from these three companies.   I spoke early about the damage this would do to our interfaith relations, and how hurtful it would be viewed to American jews. I spoke about the symbolic way this would be viewed by the outside world, as affiliating ourselves with the BDS – or Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement (even though that isn’t officially true).  One of my colleagues spoke passionately about his community of Washington, IL, and how this decision would be viewed.  We fought the good-fight.  It was even harder to lose by such a close margin.    7 votes.  I saw the pain in the eyes of my fellow commissioners and the concern of how our local churches would react.  I saw calls for prayer.   Not everyone in our presbytery – or even in my congregation – is opposed to divestment – but many are.  Five of us opted to sign an official dissent from the vote, so our names will appear n the minutes of the meeting.      

But in the end, I realize that this is what happens in a democracy.  In a representative polity.  We make hard decisions, not everyone is happy, but we have spoken.   I will have more to say, when my brain is less cloudy.  But  in the end, more than fifteen hours after starting today, I think I am out of ideas, and might revisit this entire post tomorrow afternoon at the airport.  

A Very Good Day at GA

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Today was the fourth day of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It was the day we finished our work in committees, in preparation for the return to plenary session on Wednesday afternoon. It was also the day I knew I would present my overture on Zionism Unsettled before the Committee on Middle East Issues.

I had prepared what I thought was a 3 minute presentation, but before heading over to the COBO Center I tested it out.  I was 40 seconds too long.  I spent the next 30 minutes cutting it down, and getting it to a 2:52 second talk.  After testing it multiple times, I decided it was good.   

Committees met, and we heard recommendations from the Biennial Assembly Committee Recommendations.  Oh, how very presbyterian.   This was ok, though because we were led by Carol McDonald and she helped guide us through the issues.   I was pleased that a fellow commissioner moved, at 11:30am for us to vote on the entire package of 16 recommendations as an omnibus package, and just pull out the items we wanted to discuss separately.  This saved a huge amount of time.

After lunch, things started to bog down, as multiple people began proposing amendments, and amendments to amendments.   It tested my patience, and the skills of the moderator.  I found a solution.  Voting down the original amendment, I then called for us to suspend the rules, and work as a committee of the whole, for 3 or 4 minutes, to talk out what amendments we wanted to make, and then make ONE motion.  That seemed to work.   Roberts Rules can be messy, but if you work it, it can be efficient too.

About that time, I got a text from a colleague on the Middle East Committee saying “Come now!”   I grabbed my iPad, and headed to the other end of COBO.   Alas, it was clear that they had more business to do.  I came back, grabbed my bag, and laptop, and headed back to ME Issues to wait.   I knew I could do the presentation, I watched the tenor of the committee — it was not as contentious as I expected, but they were worn down.   There were about 250 people in the room.  65 commissioners, and 200 observers.    Around 4:10 it was my time.  

I gave my talk, and it seemed to be well received. Given the time constraints I could not engage my audience, but merely stuck to my script.  I knew they would cut me off if I went over. So, I made sure I told a story, explaining why I was opposing Zionism Unsettled; and felt like it was effective.  There were no questions, so I sat back and waited to watch the debate.  To my surprise there was much support. My statement that as a political scientist, I understood the use of political propaganda, seemed to resonate with one commissioner.  Others did feel that calling for its removal from the  web store was censoring it (which wasn’t really my intent), and a motion was made to strike everything involving ceasing distribution of the document.  In that case, it would have read:  

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

I was actually ok with that.  But committee members thought it didn’t go far enough, and the end result was to further amend it to say 

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A. and directs all Presbyterian Church (USA) entities to express this statement in all future catalogs, print or online resources. 

The resolution then passed by a vote of 54-8.   I was ecstatic.  Hell, I was doing a happy dance.  In many ways I was shocked.  This was as good as I could have hoped.  The Middle East Committee was willing to overwhelmingly support a resolution that I considered a long-shot.   Commissioner’s Resolutions in general are considered last. 

Technically, a vote of 54-8 qualifies for the consent agenda, with 88% of the committee approving it, but as of now, no Middle East issues resolutions appear on the consent agenda, so I am unsure if it will have to get full approval on the floor.  We’ll see tomorrow.  

In the end, I felt that I had accomplished what I had come to do at General Assembly.   I was really bothered when I saw this document, and felt like it was not just offensive to my Jewish Friends, but really hurtful.   I experienced that an hour later, when I encountered a Jewish Friend who is here working on other Middle East Issues with my friends from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  He was disappointed we did not fully succeed in removing the document.  And I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the Pro BDS / Pro Palestinian proponents.  We are not done with these issues, not by a long shot, but I knew, with the Zionism Unsettled resolution, I had done the right thing.  

I’ll end this by including the comments I gave before the committee today.

Overture Advocacy – CR 04-10

Mr. Moderator.  My name is Michael Gizzi, I am a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Great Rivers.  I am the advocate for CR04-10, on declaring that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the view of the PCUSA, and seeking it to be removed from the church web store.   Let me explain why I bring this.  For the last two years I coordinated adult christian education at First Church, in Normal, Illinois.  In my daily life, I am a university professor. In that latter role, I also serve as the advisor to Hillel, the Jewish Student Union.  I work hard to develop relationships with my Jewish neighbors. I have had a rabbi teach a class at First Pres on “a taste of judaism.” 

Zionism Unsettled is marketed as a congregational study guide on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issued by the IPMN. A study guide should examine multiple sides of issues; provide a fair and balanced approach, asking people to think, discern, and pray about issues in a meaningful way.   After reading Zionism Unsettled, it became very clear that it is not a study guide, but rather a one-sided piece of political propaganda — a polemic – that demonizes Israel, describes it as being  “towards a single Jewish, apartheid state.”  It presents a one-sided view of the conflict, distorts issues rather than educates.  I was horrified by what I read in its tone and content.

To the outside world, to the press, to anyone who reads this, Zionism Unsettled appears to speak for the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It does not matter if there is a FAQ on the website, saying it does not speak for the Church;  Symbolism is compelling.  And this document is more than symbolic.  It is being sold and distributed by the church.  And to our Jewish neighbors, across America, it is an attack on not only the political state of Israel, but an attack on them which threatens to polarize our community, betray our relationships, and undermines our role as peace-makers. 

As a political scientist, I understand political propaganda. I understand why it is used.   As a Christian Educator, 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.  My heart breaks over the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, but this document is destructive, and not only goes against stated General Assembly policy for a two state solution, but damages legitimate efforts at peacemaking.   

CR 04-10 calls for the GA to declare that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the PCUSA and to cease distribution of it. This action would go a long way to avoid creating further animus with our Jewish friends.  The Israel Palestine Mission Network is just that, a mission network, an advocacy group.  It does not speak for the GA, it does not speak for the church as a whole.   Zionism Unsettled has done damage to us already. We can and must do the right thing to say this piece of propaganda does NOT speak for us.  

Thank you for your time.

This was a good day.  

General Assembly from the Trenches

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It is 9:57pm, The GA Procedures Committee recessed for the evening at 9:30, current with its work, but 12 hours after first meeting.  The day was a whirlwind.  Committee sessions from 9:30 – 12:00,  1:30- 5:00pm, and 7:30 – 9:30.   We got through 15 items.  I also was able to get to know some of my fellow commissioners, having lunch and dinner with them.  It was good times in spite of the hours. 

The morning was kind of a rough start, the committee moderator was learning the ropes of moderation;  committee members felt compelled to speak on everything, and to repeat what other’s had said; the committee parliamentarian was also learning the ropes.   The afternoon and evening went much more smoothly.  We did some important business.  I was able to move the approval of new associate stated clerks, including my friend and former Executive Presbyter Sue Krummel.  I worked hard to kill a set of new proposed ethical standards for commissioners that I thought was fundamentally flawed, had biases in it, and needed much refinement.  

In something my Academic Senate friends would expect, I made a substitutionary motion to amend an amendment, and strike a whole part of the overture.  After much confusion in the committee, this ultimately failed.  But I then suggested we could strike the entire motion and refer it back to COGA — presby-speak for “Committee on the General Assembly” to refine and clean up several of the issues for the next GA in 2016.    Ultimately however, I realized that 1) I have only so much political capital in the committee, and were I to speak again, and propose ANOTHER substitutionary amendment, I might get physically hurt.  🙂   So, I opted to let the amended resolution pass, and I will issue THAT new motion from the floor of plenary, after pulling it from the consent agenda on Wednesday.   

We also debated giving Young Adult Advisory Delegates, short for YAADs, the right to vote as full commissioners.   This was interesting as a YAAD moved to disapprove the motion, and then another commissioner moved to disapprove with comments.  We went on with this for a long time.  But it passed 53-2, with all but 2 YAADs voting for the motion.   

We debated other issues tonight, but I am so brain dead, I can hardly remember what they were.   GA is hard work.   Oh yeah, I remember.  I moved to refer a commissioner’s resolution to provide child care at General Assembly to COGA, and thus let the NEXT GA Procedures committee deal with it!   Snark happens after 9pm. 

My day was also made exciting by attaining a level of #PresbyGeek status by being mentioned by name in two Presbyterian News sources.  The Presbyterian Outlook published a story mentioning my resolution opposing the so-called study guide Zionism Unsettled.   A longer story appeared both in the daily print Genera Assembly News, and in a press release on the PCUSA Website.   If, the Layman picks up the story tomorrow, I will have hit the Presby Trifecta, but this was still pretty cool.

Somehow during committee time, I also found time to write a 3 minute overture presentation for CR 04-10, which I will present to the Middle East Committee tomorrow at some point, hopefully during the day, and not late at night.  

So, today was a good day.   This commissioner is in recess until 9:30am tomorrow.   

“Zionism Unsettled” must go – A Commissioner’s Resolution

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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.  

General Assembly Day 1 Reflections

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Today was the first day of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The day started for me with a breakfast offered by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace at 6:45am. The breakfast was educational and enjoyable.  After that, I spent some time at the exhibit hall, got to meet a “virtual” friend from Instagram who I “met” after last year’s Big Tent Conference in Louisville.  It was cool to finally meet Staci, and her two twin teenagers.  

Opening worship was at 11, and it was very nice.   Perhaps not as contemporary as worship at Big Tent, but quite impressive.  After lunch I went to a strategy session for Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, the advocacy group of presbyterians who I have aligned with, to find ways to have the General Assembly pass resolutions supporting a two state solution and positive investment in Israel and Palestine.   This session, led by staff from a Presbyterian Theological Seminary was very valuable, and will play a role in an issue I am working on.  

After lunch I submitted to the Tracking Office what is known as “Commissioner Resolution -06” — a commissioner’s resolution is an overture, a resolution to be considered by the assembly.    Our business comes in three forms.  Overtures approved by regional presbyteries (with a concurrence from a second presbytery); business from Church committees, and resolutions from commissioners, signed by at least 2 commissioners from different presbyteries.  The resolution I submitted is one I started working on in March.  In January, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA issued what was called a “congregational study guide” called Zionism Unsettled.   This 78 page four-color book and DVD presents a one-sided look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   It uses inflammatory language, half-truths, refers to Israel as “towards a jewish Apartheid state,” and even seems to question Israel’s right to exist.   I read this “study guide” after a wonderful four week class taught in our congregation by the local Jewish rabbi.  And I was mortified by what I read; the polemic nature of it, and the fact that it appeared to speak for the Presbyterian Church.  As someone who teaches adult christian education, I knew this was in no way a study guide.  

I worked with several people, across the country, and refined the resolution, to call for the Presbyterian Mission Agency to cease distribution of the document and to remove it from the PCUSA web store immediately.    The resolution was signed by six commissioners from four presbyteries and is now before the Bill and Overtures Committee.  I expect to advocate for it on Tuesday.  In writing this, I have put myself on the side of a debate that some of my friends, both at home, and in the Presby-world disagree with, but I feel strongly about building strong relations between Christians and Jews.  Zionism Unsettled does much to harm that relationship.   I am excited about what is to come with this resolution, and will write separately about it later on. 

Since 2pm, I have been in plenary session (with a 90 minute break for a convention center dinner with bad coffee, but good desserts).   Eight hundred commissioners and advisory delegates each have ethernet cables at our desk.   We are supposed to use computers for our business, and to vote.   Well,  a simple rule is that if 800 people – plus probably another 1,000 on wi-fi, are trying to access stuff at the same time, you better have a BIG bandwidth pipe.  Yeah… well, that obviously did not happen.   We had computer voting problems, the website kept going down.  It was frustrating.   Needless to say, after dinner we switched to “clicker” keypads.  And guess what?   They took about six tries to work.  We think they are fixed.  Soon we will vote for moderator.   Yes, we are still in session.  It is 10pm.   

That leads me to the final task of the day.  We are listening to Q&A from three moderator candidates. They gave five minute speeches, and there has been 45 minutes of questions.  And then we vote.   And then we go home.   I am still hopeful that my favorite candidate will 

This has been a long day.  Rewarding in some ways, frustrating in others,  tiring, given that the 5:45am wakeup was really 4:45am, but I would no be anywhere else right now.  And am pretty darn happy to have the opportunity to be a ruling elder commissioner, and to be serving with my friends from Great Rivers Presbytery.  

Ok, time to vote for a moderator…   more tomorrow.  

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