The outcome of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which considered a number of overtures related to Palestinian rights and nonviolent economic pressure in support thereof, was not what anyone expected. In a majority victory for supporters of Palestinian rights, the Church voted to endorse a boycott of all goods made in West Bank settlements, all of which are illegal under international law. Yet it also decided to continue investing Church funds in companies that its own socially responsible investment body (MRTI) has deemed complicit, and unwilling to end their role, in practices used to maintain the occupation of the Palestinian Territory. This bizarre combination of positions, as well as the plenary’s reversal of positions adopted by a large majority in earlier committee deliberations (including a decision to recommend divestment), begin to make sense when examined in the context of the General Assembly’s structure and procedures.
The business portion of the General Assembly begins with between two and two-and-a-half days of committee meetings. During this time, each of the nearly two dozen committees meet to discuss specific initiatives (referred to as “overtures” within the Church polity) and other business in detail, rendering an advisory vote on each item. These recommendations are then presented to the plenary, which must address each business item referred by each committee within the space of about three days. The plenary makes the final votes on all proposed items.
Church protocol allows for extensive discussion and debate during committee deliberations, but places far more restrictions on who may speak before the plenary. In plenary, these restrictions, coupled with the rushed pace of deliberations, fatigue on the part of participants, and overt abuse and manipulation of the process by anti-divestment groups, prevented divestment from receiving a direct up or down vote, and ultimately led to the removal of divestment from consideration by a razor-thin margin of 333 to 331, with two abstentions.
While parliamentary procedures can be abused or manipulated in committee as well, the plenary is much more susceptible to having its deliberations derailed by such efforts. Even simple mistakes on the part of the moderator, such as calling on consecutive speakers for or against an overture, may have a significant impact upon the outcome of the plenary while having only a limited impact in committee.
The Moderator of the General Assembly, an elected official chosen at the beginning of the assembly to serve a two-year term that commences immediately, facilitates the plenary session. At this General Assembly, the Moderator did, in fact, call upon consecutive speakers against divestment. He also failed to call upon speakers in different areas of the room in an even distribution. Still, the likely impact of these errors pales in comparison with that of overt manipulation and interference on the part of anti-divestment organizations and individuals. Two examples stand out in particular.
Failure of Commissioners with a Clear Conflict of Interest to Abstain from Voting
In the weeks before the General Assembly convened, four Commissioners (voting plenary delegates) and eight Advisory Delegates (who participate in advisory votes within the plenary) accepted a free trip to Israel from anti-Palestinian and anti-divestment lobbying group the Israel Action Network, a joint project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
Church members questioned the propriety of commissioners participating in such a trip during the process of electing the General Assembly`s Moderator, which preceded committee deliberations. When the Middle East Peacemaking Issues committee convened, one member admitted to having participated in the trip, and formally abstained from all votes relating to divestment, citing a "perceived conflict of interest."
However, other participants in the trip belonged to different committees. As such, they were not involved in committee deliberations over divestment, but still enjoyed full voting power in the plenary, which delivered the final, binding vote.
At no point during the plenary session was the issue of the trip raised again, and on the critical vote on whether to replace the "divestment plus investment" overture with an "investment only" substitute, only two commissioners abstained. It is unclear why no public intervention was made to challenge the validity of the vote under these circumstances.
Abuse of Religious Privilege to Gain Exclusive Access to Plenary
On the morning of the final divestment vote, clergy representing a variety of faiths were each invited to deliver an "ecumenical greeting" to the plenary. This was to be the sole opportunity for any person unaffiliated with the Church to address the body as a whole. One of the individuals selected was Rabbi Gil Rosenthal, who instead of delivering an "ecumenical greeting," launched into a five-minute tirade about the evils of divestment and how, in his view, it would cause irreparable harm to relationships between Presbyterians and Jews.
To understand the impact of such a speech upon the plenary, it is necessary to consider the impact that testimony from other non-Presbyterians on the same issue before the committee had made several days earlier. In the context of the General Assembly, commissioners overwhelmingly privileged Jewish opinions above all others with respect to overtures pertaining to Israel.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later reported, "Presbyterians, mainstream American Jews, and Arab Christians all testified, but six committee members and three observers interviewed said the most influential testimony came from young Jewish activists", who unlike a handful of mostly older Jewish speakers, spoke powerfully and eloquently in support of divestment. The article went on to quote committee member Rob Trawick, who supported divestment, stating, "The young Jewish voices were the voices that stuck with me. I understood that they represented a minority. But sometimes small minorities tell us uncomfortable truths."
Many Jews who spoke in support of divestment were clearly uncomfortable with this dynamic, and emphasized in their sixty-second speeches that Jewish voices should not be privileged above those of others, especially those of Palestinians whose lives are most directly impacted by the occupation. These speakers thus wrestled with the ironic fact that the very privilege which enabled them to so strongly influence the committee was itself the product of an unjust dynamic which they were loath to reinforce.
In this context, the impact of a single one-minute statement from any Jewish speaker to the plenary, whether for or against divestment, was certain to have a massively disproportionate impact. Rabbi Rosenthal`s anti-divestment speech lasted for five minutes.
Although many were clearly sympathetic to his views, some commissioners felt that Rosenthal`s behavior had been highly inappropriate, and publicly questioned it when the plenary began deliberating the Middle East-related overtures. In fact, several commissioners who had not been part of the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee later reported being unaware of divergent Jewish views in support of divestment until after the General Assembly had concluded. Asked to comment, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, Chief Executive of the Office of the General Assembly, said Rosenthal`s misuse of an ecumenical greeting for advocacy on Church business had been "over the line."
Despite this determination of the Stated Clerk, no other participant was provided with a comparable length of time before the plenary to rebut Rosenthal. As such, although many Presbyterian speakers freely speculated about what "the Jewish people" felt about divestment, Rosenthal`s was the only Jewish voice permitted to be heard in the plenary, and for far longer than any other voice speaking on the issue.
The Detrimental Role of Americans for Peace Now (APN) and J Street
Much attention as been paid to statements made by two organizations, Americans for Peace Now (APN) and J Street, opposing the divestment effort. The two groups adhere to more or less the same platform, calling for an end to the post-1967 occupation, to be achieved, essentially, by asking Israel nicely to cease and desist its colonial enterprise. Both groups oppose the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and support continued institutional discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.
Both statements were widely publicized and cited by the entire spectrum of anti-Palestinian advocacy organizations. This move was in keeping with the advice of Israel`s Reut Institute to leverage ostensibly "leftist" groups like J Street to divert support from organizations which might actually force changes in Israeli policy through economic pressure.
Despite the attention given to them in the press both before and after the plenary vote, the direct impact of the J Street and APN anti-divestment statements upon the outcome is likely to be somewhat limited. This is due to their timing. The J Street statement came in the form of a Huffington Post op-ed by founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, published on 2 July 2012. APN`s statement came in the form of a press release two days later. By the time Ben-Ami`s op-ed, the earlier of the two pieces, appeared, the General Assembly was well underway, and the first session of the Middle East Peacemaking Issues committee had already taken place. Due to the rigorous nature of the General Assembly program, most participants, once they arrive, are far less attuned to outside media sources, entering into something of a "GA bubble." Although widely reported in the press, including local Pittsburgh media, the extent to which the statements penetrated the bubble is unclear. While activists on either side of the issue were well aware of the statements, commissioners were undoubtedly less so.
Of greater concern is the content of the statements, particularly that from APN. Both statements employed talking points that were echoed by all anti-divestment groups opining on the issue, and were virtually indistinguishable from statements made by organizations considered to be on the political right. The dominant theme in these statements was that a vote in favor of divestment would do irreparable harm to Jewish-Presbyterian relations. The underlying message of Ben-Ami and J Street, though never made fully explicit, is that the post-1967 occupation is wrong and must end, but we are obliged to continue supporting it politically and financially until Israel decides to end it of its own accord. To cease financial investment in the companies, which sustain and profit from the weapons and infrastructure of the occupation is thus "a genuine threat to conflict resolution."
In keeping with the central talking point that Jews and Jewish institutions will cut off all relations with Presbyterians should the denomination choose to divest, Ben-Ami`s op-ed hints at the idea that an end to the occupation cannot be achieved without the support of mainstream American Jewish institutions. This idea was also present in the messaging of Presbyterian anti-divestment group Presbyterians For Middle East Peace (PFMEP), where it crystalized into something bearing a disturbing resemblance to classical anti-Semitism, characterized by an exaggeration of Jewish power and influence.
More surprising was the statement from APN, which, unlike J Street, has endorsed boycotts of settlement goods. The APN press release blatantly mischaracterized the proposed divestment overture as "targeting Israel rather than the occupation," despite the fact that the proposed divestment was specific to three companies whose direct involvement in the occupation has been extensively documented. The statement went on to say that the overture raised "very real and understandable worries about global anti-Semitism", despite the fact that it explicitly reaffirmed the Church`s continued support for "engagement" and "peaceful pursuits" in Israel/Palestine. Reaction to the press release, even from within APN`s own circles, was overwhelmingly negative, with critics saying that the statement deliberately distorted the nature of the overture. Despite this reaction, no retraction or apology has been issued.
For J Street, working hand-in-hand with the far right to defeat a resolution calling for divestment from specific companies profiting from the occupation is nothing new. In 2010, J Street joined a coalition of organizations including the virulently Islamophobic group Stand With Us to denounce a bill introduced by the student government at the University of California at Berkeley, calling for divestment from General Electric and United Technologies, both which supply Israel with weapons that it has consistently deployed against civilian populations, including in the West Bank and Gaza. Like APN`s statement on the Presbyterian overture, the coalition`s statement sought to distort the nature of the proposed resolution, depicting it as simply targeting companies "doing business with Israel," as opposed to companies directly complicit in the violence of the occupation. The statement has since been removed from J Street`s website, but has been preserved elsewhere.
For its role in helping to thwart even the most precisely targeted divestment measure, J Street was widely denounced by Palestine solidarity activists, including Israelis. In a seemingly conciliatory response to these critics, J Street`s Ben-Ami said, "for the record, J Street will not be signing on to letters with organizations like that in group settings again."
The intended meaning of the phrase "group setting" remains unclear. Ben-Ami has continued to work directly with the Israeli government to combat other boycott, divestment, and sanctions initiatives, and it is highly unlikely that J Street`s participation in the recent attacks on the Presbyterian initiative was conducted without significant coordination with other anti-Palestinian organizations.
Other than the Palestinians who continue to suffer under occupation and apartheid, however, the biggest losers in the PC(USA) divestment debacle are likely to be J Street and APN. Both organizations stand to alienate significant segments of their support base through their willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the far right against even the most selective and moderate divestment overture (in fact, Church policy, like that of J Street and APN, explicitly supports a two-state solution). The net impact is likely to be a growing exodus from the ranks of J Street and APN by supporters who believe that, however an organization chooses to pursue the goals it espouses, it should not actively work to thwart them.
The Future Resurgence of Palestinian Voices in the PC(USA) Divestment Battle
As Palestinian rights activists consolidate their gains from the 220th General Assembly, achieved despite the best efforts of groups like J Street and its allies on the far right, questions of representation emerge as a major issue moving forward. Why were so few Palestinian voices heard at the Assembly? Why were Muslim voices absent entirely? How can opposition groups be prevented from disseminating the false and offensive message that Jews are united in support of the continued oppression of Palestinians? How can critical Jewish voices dismantle the opposition`s claims while simultaneously working to dismantle the very paradigm, which grants them the privilege to do so?
Most importantly, how can we ensure that the voices of Palestinians themselves are front and center in the deliberations of the next General Assembly?
The answer to at least one of those questions may lie just over the horizon: In keeping with tradition, the closing days of the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh included the announcement of what city would play host to the 221st: Detroit.