The Presbyterians and I – By Shaye J.D. Cohen

Opinion: Shaye J.D. Cohen on the PCUSA divestment decision

On June 20 of this year the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from three American companies that (allegedly) aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I, a liberal traditional Jew (is there really such a thing?), condemn the Presbyterian vote — all the while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank also pains me.

My business relationship with the PCUSA goes back to the 1980s. Wayne Meeks, a distinguished professor of early Christian studies at Yale, invited me to contribute a volume to a series under his editorship, The Library of Early Christianity, published by Westminster Press. (Westminster Press subsequently merged with John Knox Press and changed its name to Westminster John Knox Press, or WJK.) At the time I was a young and relatively unknown professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Wayne wanted a “Jewish background to the New Testament” sort of book, but I wound up writing a “Jewish foreground to the New Testament” sort of book. Entitled From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, it was published by Westminster Press in 1987 and has remained in print ever since. A second edition was published in 2006, and a third edition is scheduled to appear this autumn. In 1987 I knew that Westminster Press was a Christian publisher but I did not pay much attention to its precise pedigree. It turns out that it was and is the publishing arm of the PCUSA. (PCUSA is a mainline liberal Protestant Christian denomination; its overwhelmingly white membership has declined in recent years and now numbers about 1.75 million. It should not be confused with other Presbyterian denominations, including the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA. )

When I revised From the Maccabees to the Mishnah for its second edition in 2006, I appended the following paragraph to the preface:

The first edition of this book was published by the Westminster Press in 1987 in the Library of Early Christianity series, edited by Wayne Meeks. I was delighted then to be associated with a Presbyterian publishing house. It is one of the blessings of America that a Presbyterian publisher would commission a Jew to write a book on early Judaism for a series oriented to students of the New Testament. This never happened in the old country. Eighteen years later I am grateful to Westminster John Knox Press for publishing this second edition and remain grateful to the press for its courtesies to me over the years. I am no longer happy, however, to be associated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the parent body of WJK, because I am deeply pained by the recent anti-Israel turn in its policies. The fact that WJK is editorially and fiscally independent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affords small consolation; by publishing this book with WJK, I am associating myself perforce with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an organization whose anti-Israel policies I condemn and distrust.

What made me so angry? At its general meeting in 2003 the PCUSA passed a long resolution calling upon Israel to “end the occupation now.” The resolution made some half-hearted attempts to show balance and even-handedness, but the overall tone was unmistakably anti-Israel. The statement presented Zionism as part and parcel of European colonialism in the near east and denounced Israeli intransigence and expansionism. It either omitted or downplayed the sins of the Arabs (e.g., the invasion of the state of Israel in 1948) and the Palestinians (e.g., repeated attacks against Israeli civilians). The PCUSA depicted Israel as the source of the problem and demanded that Israel be the source of the solution. That is the gist of the resolution of 2003.

The vote of 2014 builds on that 2003 resolution but puts teeth into it by having the Church divest from three companies that (allegedly) enable Israel to maintain its occupation of the West Bank. The new resolution softens the blow by incorporating into its language some of the text of a pro-Israel resolution that had been brought to the floor, namely that the Church supports Israel’s right to exist within internationally recognized borders, that the Church supports a two-state solution, that the Church calls upon all parties to desist from violence, that the Church loves the Jews, etc. Softened or not, this resolution was no less anti-Israel than was the previous one. In response, the preface to the third edition of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, scheduled for publication in autumn of this year, will contain the following paragraph:

When I wrote the codicil to the preface of the second edition, I earnestly hoped that I would not need to do so for the third. But alas, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues on its anti-Israel course. It has now (20 June 2014) voted to divest from three American companies that it claims are aiding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. What makes the vote so disturbing is its obsession with Israel and Israel’s sins. It is one thing to say that Israel has not treated the Palestinians compassionately or wisely. This is obviously true. But it is quite another to condemn Israel alone when there is so much malfeasance and evil behavior all around the Near East. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) threatens only Israel with divestment, ignoring the wrongs committed by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, wrongs committed against their own people as well as against Israelis. The Middle East is ablaze with war, civil war, rebellion, and oppression; human rights are abused aplenty in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, just to mention four egregious examples; in fact the concept of “human rights” is all but unknown in the region. Israel is in a legal state of war with many of its neighbors; many of its Palestinian subjects support Hamas and Hezbollah, which have each declared, publicly and unambiguously, that they intend to see Israel destroyed. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), oblivious to all this, criticizes Israel alone for its faults. Protestations of fairness and justice ring hollow when Israel is held to a standard that no other country in the region is held to, and when so much evil and suffering in the region are ignored. With this vote the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has chosen to align itself with Israel’s enemies. I have no complaint against WJK Press. My complaint is directed solely against WJK’s parent body, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose anti-Israel policies I condemn.

I’ll give WJK credit for one thing — neither last time nor this has anyone from the staff tried to convince me to remove or tone down my critique of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Detail of Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishna, 2nd ed., Westminster John Knox, 2006.

But now, if truth be told, the handwringing begins. I deplore the Presbyterians’ monomaniacal focus on Israel and its sins, but I confess that I agree with them — in part. Israel has given the Palestinians precious little incentive to want to accept the Jewish state. I am fully aware that the Palestinians too have given the Israelis precious little incentive to want to accept a Palestinian state. Yet every Arab house destroyed by the IDF, every olive tree uprooted, every village divided in two by the separation barrier or cut off from its neighbors by road blocks — each of these is for me as a Jew a source of angst and embarrassment. These acts are wrong morally and they are foolish politically — they do not aid Israel’s cause in the world. Every time Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his minions announces the construction or expansion of a Jewish settlement on the West Bank or in east Jerusalem, I cringe in disbelief. He just doesn’t get it. He does not realize what a public relations disaster he is committing: he is showing the world, voluntarily, without compulsion or necessity, that the Palestinians are right when they accuse Israel of boundless expansionism. This is also a moral disaster: is Israel prepared to allow the Palestinians to live normal lives? Is it, or is it not, prepared to recognize that the Palestinians too — I emphasize, too — have the right to live in that land? Israel says it does, but its actions belie her words. The Presbyterians do have a point … Israel has sinned.

I can condemn specific Israeli actions but I cannot condemn Israel as a country because as a Jew Israel is mine even though I do not live there. I visit there regularly, I have many friends there, I know the bus routes of Jerusalem far better than I know the bus routes of Boston (where I live), but my life is not their life. Israel is surrounded by enemies. Terrorism is not the paranoid fantasy of right-wingers: in Israel it is real. The stakes are so high, the potential consequences of miscalculation so catastrophic that I understand the mindset of many Israelis. Block out the Palestinians from view and live. Every day that Israelis live something approximating a normal life is a victory. What will be tomorrow, ten years from now, fifty years from now, who knows?

I oppose divestment, even the modest divestment promoted by the PCUSA. Those who crafted the Presbyterian Church resolution — having been tutored by activists from the Jewish Voice for Peace — carefully state that they do not advocate divestment from Israel tout court: “This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.” It would be uncharitable of me to question the sincerity of either of these fine organizations but, charitable or no, I can lament their naiveté. They think that a distinction can be drawn between divestment from companies that aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and divestment from companies that aid (or simply work in) Israel in general. I disagree; this is a distinction without a difference. Certainly the media are incapable of making this distinction, and as soon as people hear the words “divestment” and “occupation” joined together they assume that Israel is the target, plain and simple. Israel’s enemies make no distinction between one kind of divestment and another. They applaud equally any and all boycotts of, divestments from, and sanctions of Israel. Any condemnation of Israel is fine with them. For Israel’s enemies the occupied territories include not just east Jerusalem, Jenin, and Ramallah, but also west Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Ra’anana, so presumably any company doing any business anywhere with Israel is, or will be, a target for divestment.

Indeed, the logic of the Presbyterian resolution leads inexorably to total divestment from Israel, because it leads inexorably to the delegitimation of Israel itself. According to the resolutions of both 2003 and 2014, Israel is primarily to blame for the ongoing crisis. This thesis is spelled out in detail in a pamphlet “Zionism Unsettled” produced under the aegis of the PCUSA and offered for sale on its website until a few days ago when it was removed. (The text of the pamphlet can be readily found online.) This pamphlet resurrects the “Zionism is racism” canard, depicts Zionism as a branch of European colonialism, and understands Zionism to be the implementation of “Old Testament” theology (which, from a Christian perspective, is obviously a bad thing.) True, the Presbyterian Church did say, while “Zionism Unsettled” was still on its website, that the pamphlet does not represent the view of the PCUSA; the website explained that “Zionism Unsettled” was a report to the Church, but was not of or by the Church. Once again, a very fine distinction. When the Presbyterian Church realized that this distinction could not be maintained it pulled the pamphlet. It is easy to predict that in two years’ time at its next convention, unless there is dramatic progress towards peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the PCUSA will condemn Israel again, broaden divestment from Israel, and perhaps even endorse a one-state solution. The rhetorical justification for these moves is already in place.

So I harshly condemn the PCUSA for its targeting of Israel, for its anti-Israel rhetoric, and for adopting a course that, barring the unforeseen, will culminate in an out and out delegitimation of Israel and divestment from it. But I also acknowledge — I who am a liberal traditional Jew, a lover and supporter of Israel, a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue in which we pray every week for the welfare of the State of Israel and its soldiers — that Israel has behaved foolishly and brutally in its treatment of the Palestinians of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. (And of course I recognize that the Palestinians have behaved poorly in their not very neighborly relations with Israel.)  I condemn the vote of the PCUSA. I will not agree with anyone who delegitimates Israel or questions its right to exist, but I confess that the actions of Israel that arouse the ire of the PCUSA cause me dismay and anguish.

I write these words in the aftermath of several gruesome murders in Israel. It is hard to say which is more horrible — the murder of three innocent Israeli yeshiva students by (one assumes) Palestinian extremists or the murder of an innocent Arab teenager by Israeli extremists. The extremists on both sides seem to be on the ascendant. Hamas is shooting rockets into Israel and Israel is conducting air strikes on Gaza and has begun a major ground assault.  In this environment, the actions of the PCUSA in June 2014 pale in significance: who cares about divestment from three American companies when Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other? Let us all hope that this spate of violence will blow over sooner rather than later. At some point it will stop — and then what? We will be back where we were a few weeks ago before the murders. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will continue as before, if not become worse. Exactly how will that help Israel get to what should be her goal: finding a modus vivendi with the Palestinians?   I denounce the PCUSA for unfairly condeming Israel, but I am not blind to Israel’s failings.  I desperately hope that Israeli leaders will begin to act in a way that demonstrates that they are prepared to accept the inevitable: the Palestinians, no less than the Israelis, are there to stay.

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