Tag Archives: BDS

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.

A Discussion with Palestinian Human Rights Activist Bassem Eid

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One of my first meetings in Israel was with the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator Bassem Eid. He began his career working with the watchdog group B’Tselem, and  worked as a researcher documenting violations by the Israeli army in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  In 1996, he created a Palestinian human rights organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  Eid was once arrested for his activism by Yasser Arafat, and was released after 25 hours, when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, intervened.  Today he is a vocal critic of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, a political commentator, and a harsh critic of the BDS or “Boycott Divest and Sanction” movement.

Bassem EidOur conversation began with a discussion of the current wave of violence that started with stabbings by young Palestinians in October. He was disturbed not only by the violence, but by the self-destruction it was causing to Palestinians themselves. “I just heard some statistics about how the Palestinian economy  has been affected since the first of October.  Billions of dollars. Imagine that the Palestinians have lost billions of dollars in the past  four months.   Take for example, Christmas. On Christmas, Bethlehem was totally empty. Not one room was booked. Imagine how much money you are losing, as a nation, as an authority, as a country on its way to being established.”  Tensions in Bethlehem had resulted in tourists avoiding the city recognized as where Jesus was born, and all this did was hurt the Palestinian economy.

This turned to the broader concern over what these attacks accomplish.  “Sometimes I get very nervous, what we are going to achieve if we stab another 1000 Jews, what are we going to achieve if another 2,000 Palestinians are going to be killed?  We know exactly what happened during the summer war in 2014 in Gaza.  What did we achieve in that?”  Since the first of October, 173 Palestinians are dead, and another 31 Jews.

I asked is this a third intifada? Bassem insisted that it wasn’t. It wasn’t organized, but was almost spontaneous, or emergent behavior of your people who appear to be motivated by their own economic despair rather than by organized political resistance.   He spoke about a lawyer’s interviews with some of the accused girls who are imprisoned in the Nizhan prison in Ramla for some of the attacks.  “When she talked to them about the motivation of their actions.  Not one of them mentioned Israeli aggression or oppression.”  Instead, the girl’s actions appeared to be motivated by family disputes.  “In one case, their family wanted them to get married to someone they didn’t like, the other fell in love with a guy, whothe family rejected..”

In another case, where two girls stabbed a 70 year old man on the street, Bassem asked,

What was the motivation?  The teenagers used to have a joint school breakfast, and in that morning when she asked her mom for 20 shekels to participate in the joint breakfast, the mother said she only had 2 shekels.  When the girl left her home, she found her friend, and it looks like the the friend had the same problem.  They felt so ashamed to go to the class without having money to participate in the joint breakfast, then they decided to come to Jerusalem,  I don’t know how they came to Jerusalem.  But they took the light rail and got out at Davidka station and stabbed a man with a pair of scissors. The guy they stabbed was a Palestinian.  They thought he was a Jew.

The telling thing here is the explicit lack of a political motivation, but instead economic despair that drove the girls to violence.  Yet, Bassem also pointed out that when his lawyer friend reported the interview on Palestinian tv, she told a very different story, claiming that they acted not because of personal reasons, but instead “the motivation was Israeli aggression.This is how things are working now.   She knew that the girls were motivated by personal reasons, but when she went public she said it was motivated by Israeli aggression.”


Criticizing the Palestinian Authority

I asked why would she change her story?  We spoke about how difficult it is to criticize the Palestinian Authority, and the risks that democratic advocates face.  Bassem spoke about a Palestinian professor who was arrested in Nablus the prior week for criticizing the government.

 I don’t like the professor’s ideology and his politics.  He became so extremist, that he tried to criticize without trying to present any kind of solution, but in the meantime, I said this is very healthy.  We need people like that to criticize us, to criticize the Israelis, to criticize the international community. Of course we need it.  I remember this professor from 1997 when someone from the security force shot him in his knees in the street.  He suffered a lot.  But arresting him doesn’t solve the problem.  Just as by stabbing Jews,  we are not going to solve the problem, just as shooting anther rocket from Gaza will not solve the problem,  What’s really going on?  In my opinion, the major tragedy of the Palestinian people is their own leadership, rather than the occupation.  The real problem is a lack of leadership.

On Mahmoud Abbas

Bassem had harsh words for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.   “He is the kind of president who is just waiting for his people to die and be declared as martyrs. I haven’t seen,  in the last four months, even one statement where Abbas has tried to calm the situation, or tried to advise his people that you are leading us to nowhere.  By stabbing Jews, that will never liberate the Palestinians; by stabbing Jews that will never create the Palestinian state. By stabbing Jews, that will never give us any liberty or independence.”   Abbas’ failure to call for non-violence has the opposite result.

“By not discouraging the stabbings,  he is encouraging it.  He is paying money to these people.  He is meeting with them.   He is paying money for what he calls ‘the martyrs,’to their families. He is paying money to the families. Why are the families are running to Ramallah, to meet with him? To get the checks.  This is how he succeeds in buying his popularity.  He is buying it by money rather than by any other political strategy.  And that is exactly what he learned from Arafat. Arafat did the same, but Arafat gave more money than Abbas, because there was more money coming to the PLO.”  \

Abbas’ failure to speak out against violence has created distrust among Israelis that the Palestinians want to find a peaceful solution.He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject just a few months ago.


Living under a coma… and “lovers of death instead of life”

Eid then used the metaphor of “living under a coma” to describe the state of mind in Palestine today.  It is as if “no one is trying to wake up and even see what is really going on around them.  What has really happened here?  Why are people so blind to their own situation?  This gives  me a very very bad feeling about our political future.  If you are looking today to what is surrounding us, I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the safest place in the Middle East today.   ISIS is in Syria, even in Jordan, even in Gaza.  This is what makes Abbas so popular right now.  He appears to be a moderate, even though he refuses to speak out against acts of terror.”

But the failure to speak out against the violence ponts to an even bigger problem. Somehow in the past several months, the Palestinians have become “lovers of death rather than life. I don’t ever remember, since 1967, how we the Palestinians, have come to love death rather than life. It  reminds me of an Israeli advertisement when they put out a boy, shouting “I am dying to life!  I am dying for life!” We the Palestinians today, are shouting, we are dying for death!    That makes me sad.  How have we shifted from life-lovers to death lovers?”

Bassem’s explanation turned philosophical.

What is really happening here?  I don’t think that for any kind of aggression or oppression, I have to kill myself.  To come and stab.  This is a suicide.  It is very clear in Islam, not to commit suicide.  It is very clear.  God said it.  So, with the such kind of the extremists who are saying that the suicide is a part of jihadism, that  this is what  God is commanding us to do.  Which God are you talking about?  Which God said it?  The God of Hamas? or The God of Hezbollah? The God of the Shia?  or the Sunni? It looks like we have several Gods here.  The God in Saudi is different than the God in Jordan, different from the God in Syria, different from the God in Libya.  So, that’s in my opinion, one of the major problems, you know, sometimes they said, that if the Israeli occupation will end, all of the problems of the world would be solved.  Who told you that?  That is rubbish.  I don’t believe that…   I used to say all the time, that in my opinion, and talking with the people in Refugee camps, in the cities in the West Bank, in my opinion, the majority of Palestinians these days are people looking for dignity rather than identity.  I have no problem wherever I am going saying “I am a Palestinian.  People recognize me. They know where I am from.

Dignity comes from economic prosperity, which he sees as the primary goal of the majority of the Palestinian people.  They are “a people seeking a better economic future.  And this is why I am always trying to encourage the Israeli government, that you should increase the number of working permits inside Israel.”  If there is more cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, economic prosperity can only improve. “But the opposite, today’s politics, is keeping us far away from each other.  In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the international community is that they invest more in politics rather than in the economy.  We are at a time when we need to start building a strong economic prosperity for both sides.”


BDS and Economic Prosperity
Our conversation ended with a discussion of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. Will a boycott of Israel help the cause of economic prosperity in Palestine?  Bassem strongly believes that an actual boycott of Israel would devastate the Palestinian economy.   He spoke first about the issue of the expansion of settlements.

When the international community talks about the settlements as the obstacle of peace, I think they forget how important the existing settlements are to the Palestinian economy.  Right now, we have 25,000 Palestinian workers who are entering into the settlements to go to work every day, plus another 92,000 workers who are entering to work inside Israel.”  What would happen if those workers were unable to work in the settlements, or to work within Israel?  If that were to happen, “what will happen to us?  We will starve tomorrow morning.  And no one will pay attention to us.

Recounting some of the recent terror attacks, Bassem described Israeli discussions about preventing Palestinian workers from entering the settlements.  The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actually went to the government and said  “you couldn’t stop letting Palestinians work in the settlements. That will only escalate the situation.”

Compare this to the recent events in Ramallah, when three men stabbed a border police woman. “When the workers of Kabatia went to go to the check point to go to work, , all of their work permits were taken away.   Imagine the scandal that will create inside Kabatia, For 3 terrorists, we will punish 10,000 workers? Imagine that. And of course, the Palestinian Authority can’t produce one job right now.”  This plays right into his argument against the BDS movement.

“The BDS is calling for a boycott of Israel.  But they never provide any alternatives to improve the lives of Palestinians.  To continue obtaining medical insurance for our children.   I am so happy that haven’t seen any effect, for the BDS, except with what happened with Sodastream.  I think that the Palestinians are aware that a boycott will be counter-productive.  I haven’t seen the Palestinian leadership say ‘Boycott Israel,’ because that will really dismantle the Palestinian authority. BDS is symbolism.  What we need is investment and economic prosperity.  That can’t come from BDS.”

My time with Bassem Eid was extremely enlightening, and covered much more than I have written here.  The issues are complex.  His focus wasn’t on abuses by Israel, but on the problems within Palestine itself, and  how those problems serve as a stumbling block towards advancing a two state solution.  This is not to excuse Israel for its responsibilities.  Indeed, the relationship between Israel and Palestine is one in which the Israelis hold all the political power, it is not a level playing field. But for things to move forward, it is essential to find both new leadership in Palestine, and take steps to improve the economic situation of the average Palestinian.  The conditions have to be present for a Palestinian democracy if a two solution can ever succeed.  For Bassem Eid, economic prosperity and growth is the essential first step.


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