Kafka in the Motor City

Kafka in the Motor City

In Detroit last week, the biennial meeting of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola.

According to the church, those three U.S. companies “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.”

Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, was there.

He was not surprised by the June 20 vote – the resolution, which passed by a narrow margin, had failed by a similarly narrow margin two years ago, and its organizers were pushing hard for its passage – but he was appalled.

“It is highly problematic that a responsible major religious denomination has aligned itself fully with BDS” – the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction companies and institutions that trade with Israel – “but the dynamics within the Presbyterian church are unique,” Rabbi Marans said. “Inasmuch as anti-Israel forces within the church have been working for more than 10 years, through six general assemblies, with the sometimes implicit but often explicit support from church leadership.

“The nadir of those decade-long efforts was the publication in January of ‘Zionism Unsettled,’ which is an obscene medieval polemic against the Jewish people, disguised as anti-Zionism,” he continued. “That document continues to be available for purchase on the church’s website.”

The general assembly also passed a measure “in favor of a study to reconsider the church’s commitment to a two-state solution,” Rabbi Marans said. “In English, that means it will consider the end of Israel as a Jewish state.”

Moreover, “through a variety of tactics, the church has not allowed even their own Presbyterians to speak fully and properly against these anti-Israel resolutions – let alone mainstream Jewish leadership.”

“There is nothing logical or rational about what took place in Detroit,” Rabbi Marans said. “It was just one large kangaroo court.”

How and why did it happen?

“The anti-Israel advocates take advantage of the particularly democratic forces of the church,” Rabbi Marans said. “As far as I know, there is no other mainstream body that allows the hijacking of its national deliberations by fringe voices. When you are a voting commissioner of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and you are learning about these issues for the first time, it is not hard to understand why you would vote against Israel, after the one-sided, uncontrolled assault on Israel you would hear, both in committee and in the plenary.

“The committee allowed comments against Israel approximately 20 times more often than it allowed favorable or even neutral ones.”

There are historic reasons for the church’s bias, Rabbi Marans said. “First is the Presbyterians’ long history of missions to the ‘Holy Land,’ dating back to the 19th century.

“Second is the influence of Palestinian liberation theology, emanating from the West Bank.” That is based on the liberation theology that was influential in the Christian world in the second half of the 20th century; it was mainly Roman Catholic and developed in Latin America. The middle eastern version is filtered through the Palestinian narrative of persecution at the hands of the Jews. “It embraced a particularly anti-Jewish sentiment in which a Palestinian once again is being crucified by the Jews,” he continued. (At the risk of being obvious, that first Jew who was crucified was Jesus.)

“Third, the success of the Palestinians in making themselves the victims, marketing themselves to the Presbyterians as the most significant victims on the planet.

“And fourth, the portrayal of Israel as Goliath; the reversal that makes the Palestinians into David,” Rabbi Marans said.

That view of Israel is not shared by most Presbyterians, he added. The further up the leadership hierarchy you go, the more Israel is demonized, but most Presbyterians, like most Americans, favor Israel overwhelmingly.

The experience of being at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s general assembly has been terrible, Rabbi Marans said. It has been a Kafka-esque journey through malicious illogic.

“I was there in Pittsburgh two years ago, and again now in Detroit, and the Middle East issues committee is a horror show,” he said. “No lover of Israel should have to sit through this. I consider the two days in Pittsburgh and the two days in Detroit the four worst days of my rabbinic career.

“The state of Israel is demonized and delegitimized in a way that makes it totally unrecognizable to me.”

The overwhelming majority of the American Jewish world lobbied to stop the vote, and issued statements redolent of dismay, disappointment, and betrayal. JStreet, for example, despite its position on the left wing of the organized Jewish world, posted its disapproval.

But then there were the other Jews, the ones who paraded their Jewishness to support the Presbyterians’ anti-Zionist fervor

“I think that at this point we have to admit, sadly, that the anti-Israel forces within the church were aided and abetted by Jews, particularly by Jewish Voice for Peace,” Rabbi Marans said. “That is perhaps the saddest part of the whole sordid story.

“I am not sure who those fringe elements within the Jewish community represent, but we came to Detroit with a historic number of rabbinic signatures. We had some 1,700, from across the spectrum.”

To make matters even worse, Rabbi Marans said, “incredibly, this horror show is taking place at the same time that the three innocent Israeli civilian teenagers are victimized by terrorists, and the Palestinian government now includes Hamas.

“It is a horror that this is going on simultaneously with the increasing rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“This is an alternative universe, completely unhinged from reality.”

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