Mainline Protestants Challenge Israel Lobby

The Presbyterian Church recently came under fire for its decision to employ a human rights tactic on behalf of Palestinians that it once used to encourage racial reform in apartheid South Africa: the process of divestment – in this case, from companies that profit from Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian territories.

The divestment process was set in motion by the PC-USA’s 216th General Assembly last summer. In early November, the Church’s committee on socially responsible investment set criteria to guide the “phased selective divestment” from corporations that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“It is a modest attempt by one small denomination to say a word of peace and justice and hope in the middle of continuing mind-numbing violence and human suffering,” the Rev. John Buchanan, senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, recently told the Chicago Tribune.

The response was immediate – and extreme.

An anonymous letter postmarked in Queens, N.Y., was sent to the Louisville, Ky., headquarters of the Presbyterian Church USA threatening arson against Presbyterian churches in retaliation for “your anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes.”

According to an account of the incident issued by the Presbyterian News Service, the handwritten letter read, “I promise violence against Presbyterian Churches – They will go up in flames, bet your ass that’s a terrorist threat.”

The church stepped up security and notified federal authorities in Kentucky and New York.

The threat came on the heels of another letter objecting to the Presbyterians’ divestment decision, this one written by Congressman Howard L. Berman (D, Calif.) and signed by 13 of his colleagues in the House of Representatives.

Using rhetoric that alternated between propaganda and hysteria, Berman and his co-signers (seven Republicans and six Democrats), claimed that, by initiating divestment from certain companies doing business in Israel, “the Presbyterian Church has knowingly gone on record calling for jeopardizing the existence of the State of Israel.”

Also writing a letter, not to the church, but to the U.S. Department of Commerce, were 13 more members of Congress, urging the shutdown of any divestment campaigns affecting Israel.

According to an account of that letter issued in a Sept. 28 press release by the Zionist Organization of America (which bragged of initiating the action), the Congressmembers accused divestment organizers of violating the “anti-boycott provisions of the Export Administration Act,” and demanded that the Department of Commerce “investigate the national boycott campaign against Israel, shut down the illegal divestment campaigns, and impose the appropriate penalties.”

What on earth is going on here?

When members of Congress, who ostensibly work for American taxpayers, write the Department of Commerce, which also ostensibly works for American taxpayers, demanding it investigate and sanction those same taxpaying Americans for their measured opposition to the policies of a foreign power – policies often employed using U.S. taxpayer money and military hardware – the question has to be asked: who do those members of Congress think they represent, Americans or the Israeli government?

Perhaps feeding Congressional insolence – and bad judgment – is AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) which openly identifies itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby” and is ranked by Fortune Magazine as the second most powerful lobby in Washington, behind only The American Association of Retired Persons. AIPAC has 65,000 members in 50 states, many of them in highly influential positions, and is known to generously reward Israel’s Congressional partisans and ruthlessly crush those who believe the U.S. government should put American interests before those of Israel.

Well-known Congressional casualties targeted for defeat by AIPAC and other pro-Israel forces include Senators Adlai Stevenson and Charles Percy, and Reps. Paul Findley, Paul McCloskey, Earl Hilliard, and Cynthia McKinney, all of whom ran afoul of Israeli interests in one way or another and were summarily eliminated from Congress with resources that came largely from Israeli lobbies or those acting on Israel’s behalf.

Adding insult to American taxpayers is the fact that the foreign power on behalf of which these Israeli-backing bullies are twisting arms is one that has been on the U.S. foreign aid dole to the tune of tens of billions dollars spanning several decades – more than any other country in the history of U.S. foreign welfare. Given the close relationship between Israel and its various lobbies in the U.S., it is highly likely that some of that money is recycled back to America to defeat those who oppose blank-check U.S. aid to Israeli.

On top of all that influence, add the heft of millions of Evangelical Rapturists, who believe their support of Israeli expansionism is hastening the conditions necessary to trigger the return of Jesus. Messianically similar to some Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe the Jewish Messiah won’t arrive until Israel has regained the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria), Rapturists want to see Israel return to its biblical geography, populated by a sufficient number of Jews (who have converted to Christianity) to bring about the Second Coming.

This bizarre theology holds that prior to Armageddon, a small percentage of worthy Christians (including, presumably, those who worked to create the needed conditions) will be “raptured” halfway up to heaven where Jesus will take them the rest of the way. Most other Christians and other nonbelievers will die in the calamitous events that follow on earth, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. The Evangelical Jesus will later return to earth with the raptured and destroy any remaining enemies.

Because of the turnout of millions of Evangelical voters, who were urged to the polls on behalf of George W. Bush in the latest presidential elections, it is now believed that Evangelical beliefs hold special sway within elements of the U.S. government.

Given the various forces at play, it is little wonder that a deeply-rooted Israel entitlement mentality has afflicted the Congressional psyche.

The difference, of course, is that in the past that mentality was directed primarily at defaming and dispossessing the Palestinians. But now it appears to be turning on American Presbyterians – and any other group with the effrontery to question Israeli government actions.

Unfortunately for the Congressional commissars, the Presbyterian Church and its 2.5 million members aren’t going to take the government’s intimidation tactics lying down.

In a spunky response to Berman’s claim that the Presbyterians’ actions had caused “terrible distress,” the Church issued a reply through the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick citing “terrible distress” of its own.

No, Kirkpatrick didn’t whine about the threats to burn down Presbyterians churches. His concern was far more selfless in nature, over “the failure of the U.S. Congress to be a balanced arbiter for peace in the region or [condemn] the illegal expansion of settlements in the West Bank.”

“It has been very disappointing to us that the U.S. Congress has not proven to be an ally or a balanced arbiter in the negotiations for peace in the region,” said Kirkpatrick. “While Congress has passed repeated statements against the Palestinian Authority, it has never passed a resolution condemning the continuous illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank. There has been nothing done by Congress to pressure Israel to adhere to international law. Rather, Israel has been encouraged by Congress to violate international law.”

That defiant reply may signal the beginning of a new mainline Protestant movement determined to stand up to the Israeli lobby, the Evangelicals, and their minions in Congress.

Also considering divestment is the Episcopal Church, whose governing board recently resolved to “investigate what corporate actions might be appropriate with companies that contribute to the infrastructure of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Taking a more reticent approach than the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians said they would also look at companies with connections to organizations responsible for violence against Israel, and consult with, among others, the Anglican Peace and Justice Network before making any divestment decision. But based on the Anglican’s recent conclusions from a fact-finding mission to Israel, the writing is on the wall.

In their September visit to Jerusalem, the Peace and Justice Network found that Israel, with the assistance of the U.S government, seems to be deliberately thumbing its nose at efforts to advance peace in the region.

“We conclude from our experience that there is little will on behalf of the Israeli government to recognize the rights of the Palestinians to a sovereign state to be created in the West Bank – which includes East Jerusalem – and Gaza,” the group said in a statement issued after the visit.

“Israel, with the complicity of the United States, seems determined to flaunt international laws, whether they are the Geneva Conventions, United Nations resolutions, or the most recent decision of the International Court of Justice in declaring the separation wall illegal.”

What appears to be emerging from the mainline Protestant establishment is a counterbalance to what has heretofore been the domination of U.S. government policy toward Israel and the Middle East by a religiously tormented coalition that is reckless, biased, and deeply fatalistic.

Because Israel possess up to 200 nuclear weapons, and because the Israel lobby in America seems intent on encouraging – indeed, enabling – its increasing belligerence in order to advance apocalyptic theological agendas, the emergence of a politically organized Christian counter force in America may well be all that stands between the world and self-fulfilling Armageddon prophecy.

Author: Steve Breyman

Steve Breyman will teach "War in Afghanistan" at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute fall semester. Breyman is a veteran of the U.S. Army.