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:
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.