Appeal to Presbyterians on Israel: “First, Do No Harm”

By David J. MichaelsDirector, United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs B’nai B’rith International On July 3, the biannual General Assembly of … Continued

By David J. Michaels
Director, United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs
B’nai B’rith International

On July 3, the biannual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes in Minneapolis. This is an open letter to its delegates:

Dear Commissioners:

I write in a spirit of earnest friendship.

American Jews do not regularly weigh in on deliberations of the Presbyterian Church (USA). However, a diverse spectrum of your mainstream partners has expressed hope that the church’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict will embody nuance and sensitivity.

Disagreements on weighty issues are legitimate and natural. Israelis themselves engage in vigorous debate and recognize that their country, experiencing difficult circumstances, is imperfect, as all nations are. Israel is not immune to shortcoming, or to fair criticism.

I have been saddened, however, to find that several of the reports and proposals before you fail to meet a critical threshold of fairness. As one committed to peace – while praying that Middle East tensions not be imported here – I appeal to Presbyterians considering new steps on the conflict: “First, do no harm!”

Among the materials before you is a Middle East Study Committee report – which embraces, without stated caveats, Kairos, a Palestinian document demonizing Israel. The report itself reflects a strikingly incomplete and unbalanced, and thus unhelpful, narrative of the history and reality in the Middle East. It minimizes the roots of the Jewish people in Israel, as well as Israelis’ painful sacrifices for peace, while magnifying Palestinians’ suffering, but not their responsibilities and perpetuation of violence. What emerges is a caricature whereby Israel does no right, but its adversaries are seen as doing little wrong.

I know that Presbyterians’ connection to the Holy Land is real – manifested not only in the Christian saga, but in a living Christian presence. I share your deep desire to hasten peace.

But I know that peace cannot be accomplished by accentuating divisions, and by offending the core sensitivities of one side of a complex conflict. Yet the report before you cites fringe activists who reject Zionism – simply Jews’ right to peaceful self-determination in their ancestral homeland – and who liken Israel to a “Nazi state.” Voices in the report condemn faith-based support for Israel – while endorsing Palestinian nationalism in religious terms, holding Israel alone to biblical standards, and describing Israeli positions as “evil” or a “sin against God.” The report sanitizes terrorism as “resistance” to occupation, when the practitioners of terror label Israel’s very existence as “occupation” to be destroyed.

Peace cannot be accomplished by aiming boycotts or divestment, as Kairos does, at businesses engaged with Israel – without regard to the memories that such punitive actions conjure up for Israelis and Jews – and not those operating in the most oppressive regimes around the globe. Peacemaking cannot be accomplished by comparing Israel’s attempts to protect its civilians with the pure racism of South African apartheid. Peace certainly cannot be accomplished by suggesting that the world’s only Jewish state – but not dozens of countries whose symbols are associated with majority religions such as Christianity or Islam – is inherently racist on account of this unique identity.

The Middle East Study Committee report fails to help readers understand that Israel remains the region’s only democracy, the sole Middle Eastern country whose Christian population has grown, and the country whose successive leaders have accepted a two-state solution and taken extraordinary humanitarian steps despite acute friction.

In the report, even celebrated Israeli peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin are mentioned only for opprobrium, while Iran’s president, a Holocaust-denier who pursues nuclear capacities while pledging a “world without Zionism,” is not mentioned once; neither is Hamas’s Khaled Meshal or Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah. Evocative terms like “ethnic cleansing,” “human shields,” “humiliation,” and “collective punishment” are used only against Israel. Occupation is mentioned not fewer than 266 times. Suicide bombings are mentioned 16 times, but the defensive barrier that has virtually stopped such carnage is mentioned, critically, 73 times. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is referenced six times in the context of its spiritual importance for Muslims, but never as the very heart of Jewish faith, history and civilization. Two out of three times, democratic processes are identified not with Israel but with the ascent of armed fundamentalists. Gaza is mentioned some 205 times – but the town most targeted with years of Palestinian rocket attacks, Sderot, is mentioned only once, as is Israel’s very withdrawal from Gaza.

Where the report does include one extended Israeli contribution, that segment is eight pages long – offset by an Arab account totaling at 77 pages, accompanied by photos and artwork.

If adopted, such material would associate the Presbyterian Church (USA) not with honest, constructive peacemaking, but political polemics. These materials certainly do not reflect consistent compassion and understanding.

I trust that most Presbyterians do not just want to act, but to make a positive impact.

Please choose against actions that make reconciliation more elusive. “First, do no harm.”

David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, the world’s oldest Jewish humanitarian, advocacy and social action organization.

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  • dancingcat

    Sorry, David Michaels, I’m Jewish and I think the Presbyterians are doing the right thing. I’ve read parts of their report and I support it. Because the American Jewish community leadership–and I include Bnai Brith in this—has abdicated leadership on the peace process, the Presbyterians, Methodists and others are doing what we Jews should have done–which is to say: enough is enough regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The occupation is immoral and wrong, yet all Bnai Brith can do is repeat tired old phrases, “Israel, right or wrong! Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East! blah, blah, blah…” Thank you, Presbyterians for standing up for international law and human rights rather than ethnic tribalism. Maybe someday the Jewish leadership will show similar courage.

  • Juststopthink2

    As a Presbyterian, I am appalled by this action.A small group of radical Leftists have taken hold in the ranks of the PC USA General Assembly and plan to pass the fullest agenda of issues against Isreal than have ever passed before.. We have a series of Overtures which are similar to a bill in Congress. These Overtures by the minority of these anti-Israel activists call for essentially the deligetimization of the State of Israel using the Kairos document which they want us to affirm. The Karios document in essence calls for the unlimited right of return of Palestinians to Isreal. This is code for the end of Isreal as a Jewish State because the number of Palestinians who are refugees or grandchildren of refugess is about six million and this would end the jewish state of Isreal and everyone who advocates this position knows this. They also advocate that Isreal cannot be a Jewish state but must be a secular state. In reality if you take that point of view, if you couple the right of return of all grandchildren and great grandchildren of original Palestinians and the call for Isreal to be a secular state, the practical reality would be that Isreal would become not a secular state but an Islamic state because this is the point of view of these Palestinians.The distructive impact of what this will do to our church is monumental.Send the message that the Middle East study group report which is NOT a fair and balance report and is very harmful to the future of our church because of the positions that it has taken. The General Assembly is being asked to endorse this report.1. They for example would like to divest any stocks from the heavy machine maker Catepillar which sells tractors to the Isreal Defense Forces.2. They want to cut off aid to Israel if it doesn’t go back to the 1967 borders which everyone knows is not a simple solution and in fact every negotiation that has taken place in the Middle East has suggested that there have to be swaps of land in different places to accomplish a two state solution. So this is not a simple answer. Just ask Bill Clinton.3. They attribute virtually every problem in Isreal and Palestine to the “occupation”. 4. They call for removal of the security barrier regardless of the fact that it has ended terrorism and saved thousands of lives and they have not conditioned that removal on an end to terrorism by Hamas.This assembly starts on Monday, July 5, 2010. It is very troubling to me to see the decline of our church embrace the radical left agenda by the leadership at PC USA which is out of touch with its members. I support Presbyterians for Middle East Peace!Jennifer in Southern California

  • bbsnews

    I could only read this screed halfway through.It is so full of Hasbara innuendo and half-truths, factual errors etc – what on Earth is this piece supposed to even be for?Just to make fun of?To claim that Israel is somehow caring of human rights is simply ludicrous.This was already self-evident, and the Goldstone Report of course reported to collective punishment of Gaza civilians no less than eighteen times.But last week the ICRC came out and said after repeated private warnings it came out in public and told the world that Israel’s closure is an international humanitarian law crime.It is no longer conjecture folks. The people who know the Geneva Conventions best, they say the Gaza closure is a collective punishment crime against civilians and that means crime against humanity.It is far past time to start recognizing reality.Israel is a rogue client state of the US and needs to be reigned in for its own good, before it’s too late for both of us.The basic fact is, the only real existential threat that Israel realistically faces is its illegal occupations.All else is just window dressing as a purposeful distraction from the continued construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian land.

  • PeacefulTomorrow

    I am stunned to read the letter by Mr. Michaels. Here are some blatant Israeli crimes he has missed in his article.Israel has built an apartheid wall outside the green line (4 times longer than the Berlin wall) that expropriates the most fertile land and aquifers in the West Bank, built permanent Jewish settlements, Jews only highways and other mechanisms that divide Palestinian Authority (the “moderate” faction of Palestinians) into three disconnected, non-viable, non-sovereign cantons – closely resembling the apartheid era “bantustans”. In other words, Israel has obliterated chances for Palestinians to have a state in the historic Palestine. Israel has also retained occupation of Gaza even after the so-called disengagement in 2005. Israel controls sea, air, land routes to Gaza, controls population registry and even taxation in Gaza (according to Israeli legal organization – Gisha). Israel has also admitted that Gaza blockade is imposed to impose economic warfare on the people of Gaza for electing Hamas, than to provide security to Israel. UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann has equated Israeli occupation policies to the South Africa’s apartheid policies. Israeli commentator Yitzhak Laor has described Israel’s apartheid as “worse than South Africa’s”. South African anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu has strongly condemned Israel’s apartheid policies and called for divestment of Israel in the same vein South African apartheid regime was divested world over. Tutu is a person who knows something about apartheid. I commend Presbyterian Church to consider divesting from Israeli occupation and join the rank of other churches and organizations around the world that have adopted this non-violent means to end Israeli occupation and apartheid policies.

  • sfeldman

    Having grown up in the Washington, DC, Jewish community, having attended the Hebrew Academy of Washington, and having internalized Jewish moral values, I fully support the work of the Presbyterian Middle East Committee and their report. In this blog, Michaels isn’t simply asking for “Jews’ right to peaceful self-determination in their ancestral homeland.” That wouldn’t bother anyone. What he is asking for is Jews’ right to peaceful self-determination at the expense of Christian and Muslim Palestinian families—hundreds of thousands of men, women and children— who were already living in Palestine.Michaels suggests that, “Peacemaking cannot be accomplished by comparing Israel’s attempts to protect its civilians with the pure racism of South African apartheid.” From his perspective, Israel’s apartheid-like system is not founded in racism by in Jews’ perceived need for protection. I’m sure White South Africans held the same view of their system. But from the vantage point of more objective outsiders, both South Africa and Israel discriminate against people on the basis of perceive race and both create the hatred and violence from which they hoped their apartheid system would protect them.Michaels goes on to claim that Israel deserves support because it “remains the region’s only democracy.” South Africa made similar claims. But a democracy that is only a democracy for some of its rightful citizens is no democracy. I thank the Presbyterian Church Middle East committee for crafting a report that includes much of the dark side of the creation of Israel that was left out of our Hebrew School education. I thank the Presbyterian Church for reminding us of our cherished Jewish principles that do not countenance the mistreatment of anyone, not Jews, not Christians, and not Muslims. I look forward to the day when we welcome the return of our Palestinian brothers and sisters to live in peace together.Steven Feldman

  • joann3733

    Dear Commissioners,

  • Secular

    The biggest problems to peace are the settlement problem and the next one is of course the Islamic bigotry, not necessarily in that order.The genesis of the current state is in the creation of Israel, by the evangelical Christians to facilitate the second coming and the Zionist capitulation to that deal, instead of sticking to their original notion of carving one in Europe itself. Back then in 1948, the Jews of Europe were as much from middle east as Romas of Europe were from India.The just thing to have done that time would have been to create two jewish states on efor the Ashkenazim in Europe, and one for Shepardim in middle east. This notion that the current state of Israel was a divine grant is is alot of unadulterated horse manure and there be no two opinions opinions about that. Given 62 years of history it is not possible to put the paste back into the tube. So the most pragmatic thing to do is. Abolish all the settlements beyond the 67 borders and let the Palestinians have the rest. The Palestinians better accept what is available and be glad,as they don’t have a prayer of getting anything better. It is as simple as that and is the best either party can expect.

  • good-bad-n-ugly

    ………. .

  • shilotoren

    David Michaels, One has only to read parts of the report aready posted to know that the Leftist leadership of the Presbytarian Church has joined forces with self hating secular leftists jews who in their hearts despise their own religion and have no understanding of it. Their “friends” and allies are J Street and Peace Now, their outlook is biased against Israel and their terminolgy based on deceit and innuendo. The best course of action, should this heinous resolution be passed, would be to cut off all contact with the Presbytarian leadership and instead focus on Christian-Jewish dialouge on a local level only. Surely they are many Presbytarians who despair of this biased report: they are the ones to confront their leadership.

  • areyousaying

    An Israel-first columnist telling others “First do no harm” The irony of hypocrisy is beyond belief.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    shilotoren: Re: Your postI’m a member of neither J Street nor Americans for Peace Now; however, it may reassure you to know that this PC(USA) document has been condemned by both organizations. It is so vicious, racist, consumed with replacement ideology, etc., that it has engendered revulsion from Jews across the political spectrum. The criticism from Presbyterians and other Christians are also widespread. Speaking only, or mainly for myself, I appreciate the sentiments of nonracist Presbyterians; however, they are not enough. The fact that this vicious document ended up where it did speaks volumes, and requires unmistakable responses.J Street spokespersons have repeatedly expressed anger that the report implies that the organization was contacted, when it was not. Today, it categorically stated that should the resolution pass, J Street will have no alternative but to sever its connection with PC(USA), abandon its work with that entity on immigration, etc. J Street stipulated that individuals would be free to work with local Presbyterian Churches, but that that would be as far as it went. “Such a response is understandable, since much of the pressure for such campaigns comes from historically virulently anti-Israel sources that are often not interested in Israeli security concerns or Palestinian behavior. This in turn creates very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism and the perception that the campaigns are not truly (or only) about Israeli policies but rather reflect a deep-seated hatred for and rejection of Israel.”

  • good-bad-n-ugly


  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Nice, J.J. We, the people….

  • good-bad-n-ugly

    F A R N A Z_M A N S O U R I 2Gy-Schloooflin (Sleep). Happy Every Day Yo/a!

  • good-bad-n-ugly

    Lately There hath been Conspiracys against the Great SABRA-State (forget being a Jewish-State, any longer, in a SECULAR & Modern-Israel) in this post 1948 enviroment. My my; O’ how now the Global Community’s “EUCHARiST-ADDICTED” Drunk {[via Symbolic VAMIRISM who Drink Rabbi Yashua/Jesus/Jehova’s Blood in effigy & and Eat such as if cannabilism, Rabbi’ Jesus FLESH” Sinbolicaly in organized effigy]} METHODIST & PRESBYTERIAN Leaderships (contrary to Tax Exempt I.R.S. Code; Priviledges) hath boldy advocate’d & projected onto their flocks whom hath been guided astray, to “NOt-BUY” any ISRAELi SETTLERS Products (involving & indirectly prejudicing or impacting “None-Settler” Israeli product too). Unintended consequence? Yet Please see xrstians Bigotry @ LUKE 14:26 & 12:51 unrespctfully, i [WE] once thought that Uniting The METHODIST + MORMON Church’s was Do-able, Righteous or Rational; Yet Now WE [i] realize the “Freudian Slip Of Genuine Prophecy” behind such behavours and so,Change our HOPE; meaning i [WE] will have to come up w/another iNterestingly; President CLINTON & BUSH’s are both M-E-T-H-O-D-i-S-Ts.PS: Presbyterian, Methodists et al; They are both “NOT-MADE-in-AMERiCA” [Imported SYSTEMS] and so, Both ar man-made-Religion(s) anyways. Un-Amerik!AMAZiNG, NO GRACE!

  • good-bad-n-ugly

    Ooooppssa.WE [i] SABRA-ites, of S.pace-S.hip Earth, aka S.S. GAiA, S.S. GEOiD, S.S. TELLUSng something: Do Thank/Appreciate All Good-Humanity; includes those Xstians who helped the SABRA-Nation become it’s own miracle or birth awareness with None-Jewish, Jewish & Diest & Secular help & Helpers alike! THEREFORE: Thank You (None Jealous) Earthlings of the [THIS] World! PS: Hopefully NO NUKES will be dropped on Any BODY in the next 62 Years, aye!?