Where we are


According to the most recent polling available, 74% of Presbyterians believe that our peacemaking strategy in the Middle East should include the U.S. “maintaining the close diplomatic and military relationship with Israel;” 51% oppose further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem; a strong 65% support a two state solution; only 35% oppose the construction of the barrier between Israel and Palestine with 46% having no opinion on or neither support or oppose the barrier.

 This polling data reflects the position of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace that the PCUSA is most effective as a peacemaker in the Middle East when we adopt a mediating rather than partisan role. Mediation, by its very nature, demands that the mediator not overly identify with the arguments of one side or the other. The mediator must be viewed by both parties as a fair broker.

 In support of such a role, in 2008, the General Assembly adopted an overture calling for the PCUSA to “Be a voice for the victims of violence in both Israel and Palestine. We ask PC(USA) members, congregations, committees, and other entities to become nonpartisan advocates for peace. As such, we will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians. Instead we will identify with the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror.”

The General Assembly in 2010 continued to seek out an authentic mediating role for the PCUSA. A controversial report from The Middle East Study Committee was altered in significant ways to make it less partisan. As important, folks from all sides of the Middle East issues began a respectful dialogue that continues to this day. In this dialogue, differences of opinion have not magically disappeared. Individuals and groups continue to make highly politicized statements. However, people are talking to one another in ways that indicate a new willingness to listen to different views.

The 2010 GA also authorized the creation of a study guide for the Kairos Palestinian Christian statement. There are many things that can be said about Kairos. In this post, I would like to focus on one.

It seems to me that Kairos’ call for economic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel is, by itself, a disqualifer for the document to be taken seriously by Christians. While some of us have favored and continue to favor the use of economic leverage in the pursuit of social justice, when it comes to Israel, it has to be strongly opposed.   Why? One need only examine the 2000 year old history of Christians using economic boycotts and discrimination tactics against Jews. It is an infamous part of our interfaith interactions with Jews. From that perspective alone, BDS has to be taken off the table.

The history of economic boycotts against Jews led by Christians is shameful. A few examples are in order. In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued a bull, cum nimis absurdum, instituting religious and economic restrictions against Jews in the extensive papal lands in Italy. Various types of economic attacks on Jews continued over the centuries and intensified in the late 19th century when there were well documented economic boycotts against Jews in Czarist Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Poland.

In Ireland in 1904, the Limerick Pogrom was an economic boycott waged against Limerick’s small Jewish community for over two years. Gratefully, Limerick‘s Protestant community, many of whom were also traders, supported the Jews throughout the pogrom. However, ultimately Limerick‘s Jews fled the city. Finally, the Roman Catholic authorities ousted the priest who was the leader of the boycott movement.

The point here is not to accuse the Palestinian Christians or their supporters of being blatant anti-Semites. The salient point is that, for centuries, the tool of economic boycott has been used repeatedly by Christians against Jews. As a result, BDS must be disqualified as a tool in the struggle to gain Palestinian statehood.

The tragic history of Christian economic boycotts against Jews is why I opposed the decision by the 2004 General Assembly to pursue the possibility of selective, phased divestment from several companies related to Israel. At the end of the 1970s, I supported PCUSA divestment from J. P. Stevens because of its anti-worker practices. The divestment made sense to me, in part, because many in J. P. Stevens’ management were Presbyterians. However, given the violence imposed by Christians against Jews for two thousand years, proposing Christian-led economic boycotts, divestment and sanctions against a Jewish state, as the Kairos document does, is a totally different reality than J.P Stevens.

While the 2010 General Assembly endorsed “the (Kairos) document’s emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation,” it is hard to see how Christians endorsing economic boycotts, divestment and sancations against Jews works toward those ends. They don’t. The idea of BDS is a form of violence and, especially within the context of the historical interactions between Judaism and Christianity, it creates division, not reconciliation.

There is more to say, in future posts, about Kairos. It is dangerously misleading to assert that the conflict between Israel and Palestine will evaporate if the occupation ends is beyond wishful thinking. However, for now, I call on all concerned peacemakers to reject the violence implicit and explicit in Kairos’ call for boycotts, divestment and economic sanctions. Let us join those Protestants in Limerick who refused to continue the tragic history of Christians boycotting Jews.

John Wimberly
Co-Moderator, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace