John Wimberly

Were David, Mary and Jesus Colonialists?

In their latest publication, the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) makes an outrageous claim that Palestinians are the “indigenous” people in that region while the Israelis are “colonialists.” For a moment, just think about that assertion from a biblical perspective. If Israelis today are “colonialists,” have Israelis always been colonialists? Do we declare the major characters in the Old and New Testaments colonialists? Were Moses and Miriam colonialists because they sought to return to their homeland after being enslaved in Egypt for generations? Was David? Were Jesus and his family members colonialists because they lived in that region as Jews?

Of course, the colonialist argument comes directly from the secular Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, not from a group that thinks biblically or theologically about peacemaking. But for Presbyterians, the Bible matters. One cannot read the Bible and declare Israel to be a “colonial project.”

The Jewish presence in the region today called Israel-Palestine goes back thousands of years. There has never been a time when Jews did not live in the area we call Israel. In the middle of the 19th Century, Jerusalem was a majority-Jewish city. Even in 1936, a decade before the modern state of Israel was created, there were almost 400,000 Jews in Israel. The entire idea behind the creation of the modern Israel in its current location is rooted in the historical presence of Jews in the Israel-Palestine region. To claim that Israelis today are colonialists is, on one level, preposterous and, on another level, profoundly insulting to the Jewish experience.

The IPMN claim ignores the reasons many Jews were forced to leave their homelands throughout history. Shortly after Jesus’ death, Jews were driven from Israel by the Romans. In the Common Era, Jews didn’t migrate from one part of the world to the next because they wanted to leave. They were driven out by brute, lethal force in Europe and Russia. IPMN totally ignores the church’s primary role in driving the Jews out of Spain and elsewhere. Despite being forced out of their land, the Jewish people never stopped praying at the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.” They continued to dream of being able to return to their homeland.

The IPMN claim ignores that Jews were driven out of Middle Eastern countries in modern times. When the world community recognized the Jewish claim to their homeland in 1948, over 850,000 Mizrahi Jews were forced to leave Arab countries and Iran. Today, they represent approximately 50% of Israel’s population. Does that history transform these immigrants into colonialists when they arrived in Israel, the only nation that welcomed them? We think not. Indeed, the history affirms the need for a Jewish state to which Jews can go when oppressed elsewhere.

The secular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and its allies, who seek the elimination of the Jewish state, make wide use of the inflammatory “colonialist” terminology. Describing Israel as a “colonial project” is an overt attack on Israel’s right to exist; a right to exist that was reaffirmed by the PCUSA as recently as the last General Assembly. The Jewish people have the same roots and connection to the land as the Palestinian people, and this basic fact has been repeatedly recognized by PCUSA support of the “two states for two peoples” position.

The PCUSA will never be considered a responsible peacemaker as long as we make assertions which are irresponsible. The idea that today’s Israelis are colonialists is the definition of irresponsible. Such revisionist history does nothing to help us address the gross injustices many Palestinians experience today. It does nothing to embolden the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Instead, it deepens divisions with inflammatory assertions.

Hopefully, by the time we arrive in St. Louis in June, the conversation about Israel-Palestine will be rooted in terms that create common ground rather than patently ridiculous assertions about all Israelis being colonialists. The last General Assembly found that common ground when it rejected talk of a one-state solution in favor of commissioner amendments that reaffirmed the PCUSA’s strong commitment to two states.

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John Wimberly

Retribution or Reconciliation?

Yuval Roth had long been committed to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And then in 1993, one month after the Oslo Accord was signed, Roth’s brother was kidnapped and shot in the head by Hamas as he served along the Gaza-Israel border. Some in Gaza rejoiced at the murder. Some in Israel demanded retribution. How did Yuval respond to his brother’s death?

Yuval created an amazing non-profit, Road to Recovery, that provides transportation for Palestinians needing to go from the West Bank or Gaza border to Israeli hospitals. Employing Whatsapp technology, Roth has mobilized more than 1,200 Israelis who provide more than 10,000 trips annually from the border to hospitals. Volunteers in Gaza and the West Bank get patients to the border; volunteers in Israel get patients from the border to Israeli hospitals and back to the border.

One of the organizations using Roth’s services is Project Rozana that works with Palestinian children who need urgent care currently unavailable in Palestinian hospitals. Project Rozana works with Palestinian and Israeli doctors to get these children to Israeli hospitals. One such physician is Dr. Khadra Hasan Ali Salami, a mother of two working as a highly respected pediatric hematology oncology specialist at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. Teaming with Palestinian and Israeli medical colleagues as well as Project Rozana, she helps West Bank and Gaza children receive life-saving cancer treatments in Israeli medical facilities.

A large obstacle for Palestinians needing specialized medical help has been and is transportation. A child may need to receive chemo treatments in Israel twice a month. The roundtrip cost of taxis from the West Bank to the border to major hospitals in Israel can be as much as $300; well beyond the means of many Palestinians. Working with Project Rozana and others, Road to Recovery drivers help the kids and their family companion get back and forth for chemo and other medical appointments.

Roth is quite clear that the drivers, not just the ill children, benefit from Road to Recovery and Project Rozana’s efforts. “These encounters break down barriers,” Roth says. “Everything the Palestinians knew about us, and everything we knew about them, simply disintegrates.” Bonds of trust are built that even the harsh politics of the Middle East can’t destroy. Help someone’s child live and you have a friend for life.

If all of this sounds like work in which the church should be involved, you are correct! But raising one’s voice for reconciliation and humanitarian projects in the PCUSA these days causes one to be accused of “normalizing the occupation” by some BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) advocates within the church. In other words, if you help Palestinian kids get through checkpoints to a hospital in Israel, you are accused of accepting and perpetuating the existence of the border checkpoints. Forget about the health of the kids. If you promote building the West Bank economy as a peacemaking strategy, you are told that you are just making the status quo more acceptable. Forget about the jobs created for Palestinians. Such is the ideological doublethink that is promoted within the PCUSA regarding Palestine-Israel.

Can the PCUSA not side with the reconcilers in the Middle East rather than those who seek retribution for past and present harm? Can we not realize that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, not because Jesus was “normalizing” the harm, but because it is the only way beyond harm? Short answer: Yes, we can! May the PCUSA become known for the kind of grace-filled work we witness in Project Rozana and Road to Recovery.

For more information:

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John Wimberly

A Moment to Give Thanks

The debates around Israel-Palestine at the 2016 General Assembly in Portland were among the most civil and productive that we have seen in many years.  As a result, they produced results that caused both sides to feel as though they had accomplished some of their goals.  If such an outcome reduces stress within the PCUSA around Israel-Palestine issues, it can only make us more effective peacemakers.  

From the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace perspective, we accomplished significant progress in a number of areas.  They include:

The stated goal of many BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) activists is to work toward the creation of one, Palestinian state.  The study paper from the Advisory Committee of Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) would have pushed the PCUSA in that direction had it gone un-amended.  But two amendments were offered to the report and approved by the General Assembly that are clear, unequivocal restatements of the PCUSA’s historic commitment to two states for two peoples.  The paper itself contains many flaws---partisan rhetoric, factual errors, misrepresentations of major figures such as Thomas Friedman, and a lack of theological and biblical grounding.  They were not corrected.  But the biggest flaw---the movement toward one state was rejected by a near consensus vote.

The attempt to initiate a boycott against HP because of the way its products are used in Israel was rejected in a landslide vote.

A paper which made outlandish charges against Israel regarding its treatment of children was approved.  However, for the first time, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were called to task for the way they have incited youth to attack Israelis and, in the process, lose their own youthful lives. 

An effort to have a denomination-wide study of the Palestinian BDS movement was altered to include anti-BDS materials and have congregations engage in study in partnership with their Jewish and Muslim community neighbors.  This will result in a true educational project rather than one which, in essence, would explain only the pro-BDS position.

The committee heard a presentation by a commissioner on the problems of the BDS movement in a way never before seen at a General Assembly.  While the committee ultimately rejected the commissioner’s resolution, it was an eye-opener for many to see the agenda of the BDS movement and the violent consequences of some of its adherents. 

This is a time to give thanks to God and the GA commissioners for the balanced way they approached the issues before them.  In God’s mysterious ways, perhaps it can be a time when long-time opponents on this issue can find common ground upon which we can build a truly effective peacemaking strategy in the years ahead.  To God goes the glory!

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John Wimberly

The Importance of Good Governance

John Calvin believed that government has not “come about by human perversity…but by divine providence.”  This led Calvin to what, for some today, would be a shocking conclusion: civil magistrates are the most important people in God’s plan for the world.  To quote Calvin again, “…civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal (humans).” 

When traveling in Israel and Palestine, a common complaint heard from Israelis and Palestinians is that their governments are not serving them well.  Many believe that rather than working toward peace, too often, their governments fuel the very divisive issues that keep the two peoples from making peace with one another.  As Calvinists, We Presbyterians believe that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to choose and empower leaders who will pursue peace and justice.

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John Wimberly

Methodists Reject BDS

The United Methodist Church's (UMC) General Conference met last week in Portland, Oregon in the same rooms where the PC(USA) General Assembly (GA) will soon meet. They made some very interesting decisions regarding Israel-Palestine peacemaking that will surely have a ripple effect within the PC(USA). Like the Episcopal Church, they again rejected divestment overtures seeking to declare Israel to be the singular obstacle to peace in the conflict. In addition, they issued a clear repudiation of UMC involvement in the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement.

By almost a two-thirds majority, the UMC delegates asked Methodist groups to sever involvement with the BDS umbrella group End the Occupation.

End the Occupation has been a driving force behind a ten-year divestment campaign which reached a climax with the PC(USA)’s narrow vote in 2014 to divest from three companies doing business with Israel’s defense forces.   Incredibly, Anna Baltzer, the National Organizer for End the Occupation and prominent leader of the BDS movement in the U.S., was a "Resource Person" to the last two General Assemblies representing a standing GA committee. She was allowed to speak in committee hearings when concerned Presbyterians attending the hearing were not. The appointment of an international leader and advocate of the BDS movement as a committee “Resource Person” showed flagrant disregard for the ethical standards called for in the committee process. This should not have happened in 2012 and 2014, and should not be permitted this summer in Portland.

Divestment proposals put before the UMC General Conference were very similar to those narrowly approved at the 2014 PCUSA GA. By strong majorities, the UMC committees rejected the divestment overtures on the basis that they declared Israel to be the sole obstacle to peace when it is clear to diplomats and other experts that Palestinian groups such as Hamas, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, are also major obstacles to peace. In their place, they chose an option rejected by the PC(USA) GA in 2014---to invest in peace.

Events at the UMC General Conference in Portland raise several interesting questions. Will Presbyterians wake up to the fact that PC(USA) policies regarding Israel-Palestine are being driven by secular BDS organizations and not by serious theological and biblical reflection? Will Presbyterians join Episcopalians and Methodists in rejecting a simplistic, dualistic approach to the Middle East conflict in which one side (Israel) is portrayed as the problem and the other side (Palestinians) is portrayed as innocents? Will Presbyterians ask their standing committees to think for themselves rather than rubber stamping the leadership of a the secular, harsh BDS agenda?

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John Wimberly

A Target on Our Back

The PCUSA Portland General Assembly is one of three denominational meetings this summer being targeted by the secular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, referred to hereafter as “End the Occupation”, a non-Presbyterian, secular umbrella organization promoting BDS, has zeroed in on the Methodist, Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist denominational meetings. As their Call to Action concludes, “Here’s to 2016 being the most exciting year for church divestment yet!” 

In Portland, the BDS movement, which refuses to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state, is committed to seeing the PCUSA end its historic commitment to a two state solution. Through groups like End the Occupation it will strongly lobby in support of an ACSWP Study paper coming to the General Assembly that recommends the PCUSA no longer support a two state solution. We at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace strongly urge the GA to continue support of the only diplomatic approach endorsed by the world’s major powers.

End the Occupation and the Presbyterian-related Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) have worked closely to align the PCUSA with the BDS movement’s agenda. The two groups have enlisted Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a small fringe group of American Jewish young people, in their efforts. The efforts of End the Occupation, IPMN and JVP have been vigorously denounced by all mainline Jewish organizations. J Street, a very progressive Jewish organization, has also opposed all efforts to divest that are trumpeted by End the Occupation, IPMN and JVP.

Of course, forgotten in the statements of End the Occupation and, oftentimes, IPMN is the fact that the 2014 General Assembly explicitly distanced itself from the BDS movement. In the overture endorsing divestment of GA funds from three companies, the General Assembly stated, “This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.” Further distancing itself from BDS efforts, the General Assembly instructed the IPMN to place a disclaimer on its controversial paper Zionism Unsettled, stating that the document in no way represented the positions of the PCUSA.

In 2014, opponents of divestment warned that it was naïve to think the PCUSA would not be viewed as being in alignment with the BDS movement if we voted to divest. Sadly, the opponents were prophetic. Within minutes of the 2014 vote, the BDS movement was sending messages around the world that the PCUSA had joined their movement. That message has continued unabated for two years.

At Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, we hope that commissioners will realize that we, the PCUSA, are being used cynically by a secular BDS movement that in no way shares our theological commitments. Let’s get the target off our back.       

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John Wimberly

Peace or Polarization?

Is Jesus Opposed to Building Normal Relationships Between Israelis and Palestinians?

The Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement is on record as opposing efforts to create “normalization” of relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. They reject all forms of dialogue, cooperation, or engagement between Israelis and Palestinians and their respective supporters. On the BDS Movement website, the BDS National Committee “calls for action against projects and initiatives which amount to recognition of or cooperation with Israel’s regime of apartheid, colonialism and occupation (i.e., normalization).  This means opposition to programs like Hand in Hand that promote coexistence and are supported by many PCUSA congregations.  Hand in Hand and programs like it bring young Israelis and Palestinians together to build trust and friendships.

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John Wimberly

The Plight of Middle Eastern Christians

As Christians, we are concerned about all the people who are suffering and dying in the chaos that has engulfed much of the Middle East. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have a special bond with Christians who are being persecuted. From Syria to Iraq to Egypt to Libya, we hear horrifying stories of Christians being jailed and murdered, even by beheading. At its April, 2014 meeting, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) responded to a Pittsburgh Presbytery overture expressing concern about the plight of Christians “in Egypt and other parts of the world” with the following advice to the Detroit General Assembly:

“Use of the word “persecution” mischaracterizes the nature of the maltreatment of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, and in many cases would be an unhelpful exaggeration.”

If this statement strikes the reader as incredible, it is. How have we reached a point where our leaders can dismiss the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians?

Due to the divestment debate, our denomination has been focused on the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis for more than a decade. Can it be that our preoccupation with the Palestine-Israel conflict has caused us to lose any and all understanding of the bigger picture in the Middle East? Have we become so absorbed in the suffering of the Palestinians and Israelis that we can see the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East as an “unhelpful exaggeration?”

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John Wimberly

Here We Go Again

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) announced the membership of a group authorized by the 2014 General Assembly to study the two state solution as a peacemaking strategy for Israel and Palestine. Sadly, ACSWP has chosen to create a study team with an ideological imbalance that predetermines the result of its work. In the lead-up to the study team’s creation, ACSWP stressed that it would find experts to produce an objective analysis of the situation in the Middle East.  Instead, ACSWP has chosen several well-known pro-divestment activists to serve on the committee.  One member has written media op-ed pieces lobbying for the PCUSA to pass divestment overtures.  Another study group member was a staff person and current board member of Friends of Sabeel, an early leader in the divestment movement. 

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Guest — Mary Jane Card

Here we go again, for sure.

I was relieved to find this on line and learn that some of Presbyterian persuasion are concerned with the BDS movement and it's un... Read More
Tuesday, 07 July 2015 17:10
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