Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bureaucracy, Presbyterians, and Israel (Revised)

Professor David Bernstein in cited this article in The Jewish Week, concerning proposals among mainline religions to divest stocks in companies working in Israel. From the article:
"But many analysts have been baffled by the timing of the Presbyterian action that opened the divestment floodgates, and which Jewish leaders fear will give new impetus to divestment drives on college campuses and in several cities known for liberal activism.The Presbyterians began their divestment move just as Israel and the Palestinians were moving toward a renewed peace effort and as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accelerated his plan for withdrawal from Gaza....
The Presbyterians began their divestment move just as Israel and the Palestinians were moving toward a renewed peace effort and as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accelerated his plan for withdrawal from Gaza.
The article is unfair to Presbyterians on several counts (full disclosure, while a descendant of Presbyterian ministers and brother to a delegate to the 2004 Presbyterian General Assembly, I'm an atheist):

  1. First (given the theme of my blog) it ignores Presbyterian bureaucracy. (Ignorance of bureaucracy, of the nuts and bolts that make things happen, is often a problem when an outsider comments on an organization. ) The Presbyterians were one of the first federations in the new United States, with churches joined in presbyteries, presbyteries into synods, and synods into the church, all run democratically, meaning action takes time. The divestment resolution was put on the agenda for the June 2004 General Assembly by an "overture" from a Florida presbytery. It's worth noting that in May 2004 Gaza had exploded, the Israeli army was destroying many houses in Gaza, and the divestment idea was specifically aimed at Caterpillar. The bottom line is the writer's chronology is wrong. Not everyone marches to the same drummer.
  2. Second, Israel has bureaucracy, the PA does not. That is, Israel has an organized and democratic society. As such, it offers outsiders better pressure points as well as internal checks and balances. (Life is not fair. ) One of the failures of Clintonian Middle East policy was in not developing the PA bureaucracy (see Dennis Ross and "The Missing Peace") so there are few pressure points there. Thus outside groups and governments have more chance of success in pressuring Israel than the PA. It's only coincidence, but the same day the divestment resolution was passed, the Israeli Supreme Court said part of the route of the barrier/wall was illegal. Since then, the Israeli Army has decided that bulldozing Palestinian homes is ineffective as a deterrent to terrorism.
  3. Third, you might assume Presbyterians are Johnny-come-latelies to the Middle East, just sticking their long noses into other people's business. Not true. Their ties are intimate and long lasting. Oddly enough, the denomination was represented there before the Zionist movement was founded, notably founding the American University of Beirut. The 2002 General Assembly elected as moderator an Arab-American, who fled his village with his father and seven siblings in1948 (later returned). General assemblies have stuck their nose into the Israel-Palestine issue on several occasions. (Presbyterians are notable busybodies and vulnerable to taking "holier than thou" stances, IMO.) The Pentecostal denominations do not have this history.
  4. Fourth, while each denomination differs in its policies and approach, for Presbyterians the divestment was mostly directed at Caterpillar, which supplies the bulldozers the Israeli Army used to destroy Palestinian houses, both in retaliation for terror by a family member, and to clear "unauthorized" buildings and safe areas along borders. (Whatever the merits of the policy, "destroying homes" is not good PR.) Presbyterians have already divested any interests in companies supplying military equipment such as Boeing and Lockheed (targets of campus divestment campaigns). Is this because of their involvement with the Israeli military? No, the U.S. military.
  5. Fifth, the article is unbalanced in that the writer never quotes any Presbyterian, nor anyone else who is on the divestment side of the story. His named sources (he uses several unnamed sources) are two political scientists, a rabbi who's expert on Christian Zionism, and the inter-religious affairs director for the ADL, plus a member of the United Church of Christ who's opposing their move towards divestment. He does not report the conferences after the General Assembly resolution between Presbyterians and representatives of American Judaism.
  6. Finally, the article says/implies that "cultural war" between Presbyterians (and other mainline denominations) and Christian Zionists is the real issue, and Presbyterian perceptions of the actions of the Israeli government simply a pretext. Presbyterians do have a long history of dispute with the premillenial dispensationalists (both for good theological reasons, and ignoble social reasons, like disdain for less educated clergy). The writer sees this as the true motive because otherwise there's the mystery of why the pressure for divestment just when peace is in the air. As I explained in 1, the chronology is wrong, so there's no mystery to be explained. The truth is that people tend to take positions issue by issue. Presbyterians and organizations like the ADL will agree on some issues, disagree on others. The same goes for the Christian Zionists. (See here for Foxman's attack on one of them and here for the reasons the ADL ascribes for the divestment campaign.) We should resist the temptation to ascribe ignoble motives to opponents. *(Call it Harshaw Rule No. 2) added Apr. 20*
I would compare the article to a hypothetical left wing article arguing that Bush invaded Iraq because of the administration's ties to Halliburton and oil. It's an easy way to simplify and mischaracterize a complex situation. It's also very deeply wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The article is not mostly about the Presbyterians per se, but about "mainline" Christian denominations more generally.