After two years of a raging controversy over a 2004 General Assembly policy and a blitz by the denomination's leaders trying to justify the action, the 217th General Assembly will be asked to "divest" the Presbyterian Church (USA) from its anti-Israel divestment policy.
That policy was shaped by a resolution adopted by the 216th General Assembly calling on the PCUSA's investment bodies to divest of their holdings in corporations doing business with Israel. While the divestment resolution condemns some actions by both Israelis and Palestinians, it clearly put the lion's share of the blame on Israel.
Four overtures have already been submitted to the 217th General Assembly that seek an even-handed policy that would not excoriate Israel alone. They range in tone from a strongly-worded overture from the Presbytery of Mississippi to a mildly phrased proposal from the Presbytery of Florida, which asked the commissioners "to be fair, evenhanded, and just in their language and actions in decisions regarding divestment and investment."
The overtures arise out of a debate that went far beyond the PCUSA. Leading Jewish organizations, as well as Christian groups, said the denomination's policy was both unfair and anti-Semitic.
Only two of the overtures - from the Presbytery of Mississippi and the Presbytery of the National Capital - have been posted on the General Assembly Web page for overtures . At least two others, from the Presbytery of Florida and the Presbytery of the James in Virginia - have been submitted to the Office of the General Assembly.
The Mississippi overture is numbered 01, which means it was the first overture posted on the site. It recommends that the 217th General Assembly rescind two key paragraphs in the 2004 resolution "because (a) the language is unnecessarily harsh and accusatory; (b) the tone and prescriptions are arrogant and condescending towards the parties involved; (c) the viewpoint expressed suggests bias in favor of the Palestinian cause and prejudice against Israel; and (d) advocacy of phased selective divestment is punitive rather than redemptive - particularly in light of the rapidly changing circumstances on the ground."
The two paragraphs at issue in the 2004 resolution are:
"5. Vigorously urges the U.S. government, the government of Israel, and the Palestinian leadership to move swiftly, and with resolve, to recognize that the only way out of this chronic and vicious impasse is to abandon all approaches that exacerbate further strife, lay aside arrogant political posturing, and get on with forging negotiated compromises that open a path to peace."
"7. Refers to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action."
Furthermore, the Mississippi overture would rescind another policy statement by the 217th General Assembly, which called for an end to the construction of a defensive wall to protect Israelis from suicide bombers hired by Palestinians and their allies to murder civilians.
The 2004 resolution, the Mississippi overture said, "is too broad in scope and does not further the cause of peace." Mississippi wants the 217th General Assembly to declare that it does "not believe that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should tell a sovereign nation whether or how it can protect its borders or handle matters of national defense. … To the extent that the security barrier encroaches upon Palestinian land that was not part of Israel prior to the 1967 war, the barrier should be dismantled and relocated unless both sides shall otherwise agree."
Mississippi overture also criticized a declaration titled "On Confronting Christian Zionism," also adopted by the General Assembly in 2004. It says the anti-Christian Zionism comments "are confusing, potentially misleading, and extremely harmful to our relationships with Jews. Blanket condemnation of the ideology technically defined as 'Christian Zionism,' in the present context, causes great confusion and harm."
The Mississippi overture referred the 217th General Assembly to what it described as more balanced treatment by the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, also known as The Mitchell Report . "This avoids the appearance of one-sidedness and places the responsibility squarely on both sides to work for peace," the overture says.
"n the future," the overture adds, "it would be better for the church to engage in discussion and dialogue before votes on significant theological or social positions are taken. The damage done to Presbyterian-Jewish relations could have been minimized had the church been encouraged to debate and discuss the overtures that, in their cumulative effect, have been construed as anti-Israel. Many churches first learned of these actions from Jewish friends. This is not good process and does not further the peace, unity, or purity of the church."
Accordingly, it asked the 217th General Assembly (2006) to direct "the Stated Clerk to refer all future overtures that might reasonably be expected to damage the relationship with Jews to the presbyteries for a period of study and reflection before voting to approve or reject such overtures."
The overture from the Presbytery of the National Capital sought to maintain "healthy relationships among Presbyterians, Jews and Muslims" in the United States. But, in the rationale for the overture, the presbytery added, "The efforts of the 216th General Assembly (2004) of the PC(USA) to address the Palestinian-Israeli crisis resulted in great consternation and a sense of betrayal among our Jewish partners, drawing attention to the importance of sustaining and deepening the dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews."
To that end, the overture calls for policies that would encouragement investments the Israels and the Palestinians that would foster peace.
In its rationale, the National Capital overture says, "Presbyterians have witnessed acts of aggression, terrorism, and threats of terrorism by Palestinians against innocent Israelis. At close range, Presbyterians have also witnessed the suffering of innocent Palestinians as the result of war, displacement, expansion of settlements by Israelis, and the recent introduction of a separation barrier onto Palestinian territory with far-reaching consequences for the future of the region. Presbyterians abhor and condemn terrorism and violence carried out by individuals, groups, and governing bodies on both sides of this conflict. Each incident inflicts injury upon a group with whom Presbyterians have special connection. Presbyterians also deplore expressions of anti-Semitism, both anti-Semitism directed against Jews and anti-Semitism directed against Arabs."
The rationale adds, "Presbyterians of the PCUSA cherish our long and faithful commitment to our Jewish partners. We acknowledge God's irrevocable covenant relationship with the people of Israel and affirm our unwavering support for the secure existence of a viable and prosperous state of Israel, a position that has been reiterated over the decades since 1948."
The overture from the Presbytery of the James declared that "some of the means for achieving peace advocated by the 216th General Assembly (2004) were not appropriate and, in light of changing circumstances, should not be implemented. They should be rescinded or, in some cases, significantly modified to advance more effectively and fairly the cause of peace."
Like the Mississippi overture, the Presbytery of the James asks the 217th General Assembly to repeal the statement about divestment. Noting the "enormous historical and political complexity" of relations between Israel and Palestine, the James overture asks the 217th General Assembly "to avoid advocating particular and specific solutions and instead advocates the rebuilding of trust and confidence on both sides."
The overture says the plan for divestment "fails to grapple fairly with the historical complexity, is overboard, produces pernicious side effects and unintended consequences and functions more punitively than redemptively … There are some cases where such economic sanctions can be justified. In the present situation, however, where there is justice and injustice on both sides, it is unjustified and inappropriate … To some rank and file members of the church, it appears arrogant, condescending, and punitive. Such actions, however well intentioned, do not make for peace."
The rationale added, "It is the belief of some of the congregations within the Presbytery of the James that peacemaking resolutions presented at General Assemblies should speak to the church, not speak on behalfof the church, and certainly not to take action on behalf of the church without first building consensus."
The Presbytery of Florida had a brief rationale with its one-sentence overture: "We affirm the spirit and sentiment of the 216th General Assembly regarding the Middle East; we believe the perception within the church and in the world is that the actions of the 216th General Assembly were biased against Israel; We believe the General Assembly should go out of its way to appear fair and even handed."