Why Palestine Matters, Anti-BDS laws, and the Free Exchange of Ideas

The 223rd GA supported free speech on the Middle East.

Author Rob Trawick

When the final item of business from Committee 12 was put to a vote, and the business of the committee was concluded late Friday night, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson remarked that the church had just witnessed something unprecedented: “Thirty-five minutes to deal with the Middle East.”

It was indeed a shift from previous assemblies. The amount of business before the committee seemed lighter, and consensus was far easier to find. The majority of the items from the Middle East Committee passed by unanimous consent, while the remaining five items of business passed in the plenary session by an average margin of almost 400 votes.

But, for all the relative lack of heat around Middle East issues, the committee did address matters of substance. A particular theme ran through much of the deliberation: this General Assembly rejected numerous attempts to frame the narrative in ways that minimized both the suffering of Palestinians and the complicity of the current Israeli government in that suffering. The Assembly also rejected similar attempts to stifle or control discourse on Israel/Palestine.

In matters that will resonate outside the church community, perhaps the most significant overture passed was 12-01, “On Opposition to Congressional and State anti-BDS legislation.” This policy does not endorse the BDS movement, but it does direct the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to “oppose specific U.S. legislation to suppress measures of economic witness…such as ‘The Israel Anti-Boycott Act.’” The action further instructs the church to join in legislation opposing state anti-BDS laws through the filing of amicus curiae briefs, in coalition with other religious and human rights groups.

Some two-dozen laws have been passed in Congress and states across the country that are designed to suppress boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns in protest of Israel’s abuses of Palestinian human rights.

The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have condemned these laws as un-Constitutional and an infringement on the First Amendment right to free speech. Earlier this year, in the first decision of its kind, a Kansas judge blocked an anti-BDS law in that state, deeming it un-Constitutional.

The Middle East Committee was clearly concerned about free exchange of ideas and open discussion of the issues in Israel / Palestine. Alongside overture 12-01, which was supported largely on free speech grounds, the committee also dealt with items of business that would have restricted PC(USA) employees and agencies from characterizing the ongoing illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “colonialism,” and that would have instructed the church to avoid describing certain types of engagement as “normalization.” In both of these cases, the intent was to minimize both the realities of the occupation and the role of Israel in perpetuating it. Neither proscription was adopted.

The assembly also declined to restrict the sales of Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism. This recent publication of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PC (USA) clearly states that it does not represent the policy of the Presbyterian Church. Similar to actions taken in 2014, the 223rd General Assembly seemed to conclude that suppressing the sale and distribution of this text amounted to censorship. Again, concern for thoughtful inquiry, including discussion, dissension, and debate, won out over directives controlling and limiting the process.

The church also spoke decisively on the recent actions by the Israeli Defense Force directed against protestors during the Great March of Return. To date, over 100 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli forces in violence along the border area between Israel and Gaza. Item 12-10 (on Gaza violence) expresses “profound grief and sorrow for the families of all Palestinians killed in the Great March of Return protests” and deplores “the killing of more than twenty clearly marked Palestinian medics serving the wounded.” A list of the names of all the confirmed dead was appended to the resolution.

The church continued its support for actions of economic witness directed towards companies who profit from the illegal occupation. Item 12-07 (On Urging RE/MAX to Stop Facilitating the Sale of Property in Israeli Settlement Colonies) calls for RE/MAX to do everything in its legal power to stop facilitating the sale and rental of settlement properties in the occupied West Bank. This builds upon the actions of previous assemblies, which included selective divestment from and boycott of companies whose business practices contributed to the ongoing human rights abuses in the occupied territories.

Taken as a body, the actions of the 223rd General Assembly, while not as dramatic as the divestment vote in Detroit in 2014, nonetheless significantly deepened the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to peace with justice for Israelis and Palestinians. There seems to be a growing recognition within the church of the need to recognize the imbalance of power in the region, to acknowledge the complicity of the United States and Israel in the continuing oppression of Palestinians, and to use the means at our disposal as faithful Christians to challenge the situation as it currently exists. In the words of Israel / Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace, adopted by the 222nd General Assembly (2016):

“In whatever actions the PCUSA undertakes, we need to maintain an attitude of humility and awareness that Palestinians and Israelis are making their decisions under highly stressful situations. Our nation, the U.S.A., by its actions and inactions has contributed to the difficulty of their situation, so we have no claim to moral superiority. Nonetheless, we must recognize the unpleasant facts of the situation and make our own determination of what we can do, resulting in the least harm and the most good. If some discussions result in awkward situations with our friends here and abroad, we may remember that some of the truth-telling in Jesus’ ministry also pushed people out of their comfort zone.”

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Editor’s Note: The Middle East Issues committee also passed business relating to Iran and Syria. Each issue was seen as clean-cut enough that the related resolution passed unanimously in committee and was voted through via the full assembly’s “consent agenda.” The assembly opposed the current administration’s disengagement from Iran and instead supported the JCPOA (12-13); it also called for a ceasefire in Syria (12-09). Both resolutions conformed to the PC(USA)’s longstanding support of diplomacy and peacemaking efforts.


Author Bio: Robert Trawick is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery, Rob currently serves the denomination as a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and is a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN). 

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