My Speech to the Presbyterians

June 16th, 2014

By Rachel Lerner, Senior Vice President for Community Relations

Last Shabbat, I addressed Presbyterian clergy and laity at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Detroit, arguing against BDS at an event sponsored by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. My fellow panelists were Gaith Al Omari from American Task Force on Palestine, and Dr. Gustav Neihbur, the grand-nephew of American Christian theologian Reinhold Neihbur.

I urged Presbyterian commissioners to vote against proposed resolutions that support divesting church funds from companies doing business in the occupied territory and another calling for the Church to reconsider its support of a two-state solution. (Watch the entire event here).

Having spoken against similar resolutions at the 2010 and the 2012 Presbyterian GA, I had no plans to return again this year. J Street has been clear and vocal in our opposition to the BDS movement because it does not recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. J Street also believes that peace will be reached through diplomatic means and not by trying to isolate Israel, which onlystrengthens right-wing claims that the whole world is against them.

But after twice presenting our position at past Presbyterian assemblies, I felt my time was better spent on our day-to-day work within the Jewish community. (Plus, I had just returned from our fabulous National Summit and leadership retreat in San Francisco and had not yet caught up on sleep or laundry!)

What changed my mind and made me decide to attend after all was a disturbing study guide called ‘Zionism Unsettled,’ published last winter by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, a network within the Presbyterian Church. Rather than promote an understanding of Zionism, the document is an outright attack on the political movement for the establishment and support of a national home for the Jewish people within the land of Israel. It offensively intimates that Zionism is racist, pathological and the very root of the conflict. One has to question the IPMN's motives in publishing this "resource". Surely, they had no intention of encouraging thoughtful reflection on Zionism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Jewish perspectives on Israel. Instead, reductive and divisive thinking of this kind exacerbates polarization and intolerance, both of which are not in short supply in this conflict.

We’ve been criticized by some for actively opposing these resolutions because they purportedly only aim to target the occupation, not Israel itself. While we note the distinction between boycotts that target the occupation and boycotts that target Israel, we do not support targeted boycotts either for the reasons stated above. But more importantly in this case, it is impossible to read the proposed divestment resolutions outside of the context of ‘Zionism Unsettled.’ Those advocating for the divestment resolutions are the same people supporting and pushing that “study guide” and much of the same rhetoric used in the study guide is also used to support church divestment.

As leaders in the pro-Israel pro-peace movement, it was important to articulate to Presbyterian leadership that it’s possible to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian self-determination, pro-two-state solution and anti-occupation all at the same time, and that engaging both sides will be necessary to resolving this conflict. The self-determination of one people cannot be advanced by undermining the self-determination of another.

People have asked me why we would align ourselves with the organized Jewish community on this issue, when so many Jewish leaders continue to reject J Street as a legitimate pro-Israel, Jewish organization and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations recently rejected our membership bid.

To be clear, we also have a good deal of support in the organized Jewish community – one only need look at statements made by the Reform Movement, the JCPA, the ADL and others. But the main point is, we were at the Presbyterian conference to stand up for our own principles. We cannot sit by quietly while an entire denomination talks about Israel the way it does in ‘Zionism Unsettled.’

The Presbyterians vote on these BDS resolutions will come later this week and I will report back on the outcome.

Read Rachel's speech | Watch the video