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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Israel

Bright Spot in the American Miasma

by NORMAN POLLACK

Miasma: an atmosphere that tends to corrupt, alternatively, a vaporous exhalation believed to cause disease—take your pick, each signifies America currently, the former, a policy context geared to global hegemony abroad simultaneous with massive surveillance and social control at home, the latter, 21st century liberal rhetoric, especially that of Obama combining the National Security State with Advanced Capitalism to obscure corporatism for purposes of achieving the former. Indeed, “miasma” is a pretty generous designation in light of compulsive intervention and targeted assassination abroad, enjoying popular support (or at least no sign of a deserved groundswell of protest) and matched domestically by structural-economic trends toward the further shaping of an underclass: a black president’s estimable contribution to the welfare of blacks, and working people in general.

I begin thusly because in such an atmosphere, anything that bucks the tide of officially-sanctioned Truth is a bright spot, cause for celebration, however seemingly minor the movement of thought forward. In a tightly-closed society, every declaration, every gesture, of freedom, is a symbolic victory which has the capacity for generating a groundswell of protest. On Friday last (June 20), meeting in Detroit in general convention, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) narrowly voted, 310 to 303, to divest from three American companies directly supplying equipment to Israel in its continued assault on the Palestinian people. The amount seems insignificant, $21M, hence primarily of symbolic value, but, along with Mennonites and Quakers, divestment was approved, here a major Protestant denomination not easily ridiculed out of existence (although Israelis and American Jewish organization spokespersons tried). The object was to stop settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the targets selected highly specific—Caterpillar (bulldozers to level Palestinian homes and crush resistance), Hewlett-Packard and Motorola (surveillance equipment and technology).

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Why is this important? Lately, churches have been on my mind, or more exactly, ministers. This is the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer (see my recent CounterPunch article which seeks to connect those events with the present, the Obama administration, his and its record of intervention and social poverty), which began with the disappearance and MURDER of three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, significantly, a biracial coalition in microcosm, two Jews, one black. The historical connection between then and now is twofold at the outset, summarized in Obama’s denigration of the civil-rights cause and, with Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman, the equally clear denigration of the humanistic-ethical-radical teachings and protest of American Judaism, which, perhaps up to, say, 1950, had been in the vanguard of American social-democratic action, by itself, and often in coalition with black organizations and groups. This progressive dimension of incipient as well as actual radicalism found in both groups has been lost, gradually for blacks after 1970 and, more abruptly in the days of the Second Red Scare (the First, the Palmer Raids of World War One vintage) for Jews in America with the advent of McCarthyism and antiradicalism run amuck.

Here Israel must be factored into the analysis to explain Jewish social-political-ideological conservatism and the collapse of Jewish-Black mutual bonds of social struggle on behalf of freedom and justice. In the case of both bridges to the present, what has been lost in a journey toward conformity and submission is the recognition of, and motivation to act on and be inspired by, a moral cause. Business as usual, as funneled through the two major parties in their race to the bottom in inflicting harm on humanity. For blacks, this did not have to be, Dr. King’s inspired mission and vision, which inseparably connected both opposition to the Vietnam War and mounting the Poor People’s Campaign, together, as he intended, a fundamental alternative direction for American society. Mississippi Freedom Summer was like a launch pad for the radicalization of civil-rights protest.

Before 1950, pride of Jewish radicalism was what really defined the Jewish community, a sense of social enlightenment, as in giving support to FDR and the New Deal, which cut across class lines and welcomed biracial progress and equitable policies of government. There were obvious exceptions, but, as I recall, most if not all Jews felt a personal loss with the execution of the Rosenbergs, knowing instinctively that whatever our politics (myself included, as a 17-year-old awakening radical), they fought the right fight: anti-Fascism. World War Two was a cataclysmic event, of course, for Jews, but even for American Jews, and this, more than membership of some in the Communist Party, defined a world outlook, with a carry over to domestic politics, like FEPC and sympathy for the Soviet Union in gratitude for the millions killed in Russia to defeat Hitler. The Progressive Party of 1948, with Henry Wallace, as presidential candidate, would be unrecognizable today—and certainly from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, bookends in lighting the fires of Cold War, on which America appears to thrive.

Anti-Fascist was my identity of choice in high school and college (a designation long-and-deliberately thrown on the ash-heap of history by what we generally call, the forces of order), with its corollary, racial justice and the end to segregation and lynching. That was inscribed in the Jewish DNA, and, for me, took the form of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, written in the midst of the Second World War, the great anti-fascist symphony, with the Fanfare for the Common Man orchestrated as a deafening affirmation of humankind, as well as the work of Ben Shahn, as in his deeply moving depiction of Sacco and Vanzetti and their powerful words before execution. In short, the Jewish community through the aftermath of the War provided an umbrella under which labor rights, civil rights, and a flourishing of the arts were pursued. And this context of creativity and protest also provided the idealism first associated with American views of Zionism: labor Zionism, Habonim among high-school students, in which there was no thought of persecuting others, no ethnic cleansing (which after all had been the fate of European Jewry).

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The sea-change in the American radical landscape to that of obedient servants of power (what the British antiwar poets might have described as cannon fodder) can be seen in the stir created by the Presbyterian modest proposal of divestment. Modest, yet again, symbolic, not least because of the hate-mongering engaged in by Jewish groups and Israeli officials in retaliation. This was not an anti-Semitic proposal, as churned out by the AIPAC propaganda machinery against all critics of Israel, Jews especially, like myself. I am indebted to Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times article, “Presbyterians Vote to Divest Holdings to Pressure Israel,” (June 21), for a balanced account of the controversy, including the derogatory references directed to this action. (I have learned to expect NYT bias in all things related to Israel, US foreign policy, anything pertaining to Russia and China, etc., thus making this article the more astonishing. For a recent critique of NYT, particularly on surveillance policy, see Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide.) She points out the good will surrounding the divestment: “The measure that was passed not only called for divestment but also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy Land, and instructed the church to undertake ‘positive investment’ in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.” The motion even denied endorsement of B.D.S. (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), yet not good enough for the watchdogs of Israel’s security in the US and Israel. This despite the statement of Heath Rada, the church’s moderator and leader of the proceedings: “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”

Perhaps the closer one comes to placating Israel, the swifter and harsher is its response. Goodstein writes, “Large American Jewish organizations lobbied the Presbyterians furiously to defeat the divestment vote,” and “more than 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states signed an open letter” to the assembly urging its defeat, while Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Reform movement (American Judaism’s largest branch) offered to set up a meeting with Netanyahu and “the church’s two top leaders so they could convey their church’s concerns about the occupation—on the condition that the divestment measure was defeated.” She reported that this only stoked the delegates’ anger, “given what they perceive as Mr. Netanyahu’s approval of more settlements in disputed areas and lack of enthusiasm for peace negotiations.” Finally, she notes: “Major Jewish organizations were quick to issue statements expressing distress and outrage. Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the divestment action ‘outrageous’ and said it would have a ‘devastating effect’ on relations between the national church and mainstream Jewish groups.”

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My perspective: It’s time to throw the ball in the other court. I’ll stand with the Rosenbergs as the exemplars of world Jewry at a particular moment in history, and it is the Neo-Cons, AIPAC, those who defend Israel no matter what crimes it commits, who are the real anti-Semites, precisely because they have falsified the spirit and teaching of Torah and the rich philosophical heritage of Jews who have been in the foreground of humanity’s struggle for all peoples. Enough pampering. Get on track, or earn the opprobrium (if not already) of humankind, including Jewish people who have not been blinded by totemic loyalties. My New York Times Comment on the Goodstein article, same date, follows:

Presbyterian Church U.S.A. does not go far enough, softening its vote by too many concessions. Two facts stand out in my mind: 1) the Jewish community in America has drastically changed, from a once-proud radical force through the end of WWII, to an increasingly conservative social force aligned with USG on war, intervention, antiradicalism, super-patriotism–truly a denial of its once-love for human rights. Neocons of course illustrate the trend, from Vietnam to Latin American death squads (even siding with Argentina when the “disappeared” were mostly Jewish, because it might hurt an Israeli-Argentine wheat deal). Reprehensible the Jewish position in support of dictators, e.g., the Shah of Iran.

2) Israel itself similarly has lost its kibbutz-spirit by the end of WWII, Zionism becoming an arrogant, oppressive force committed to ethnic cleansing and an ideology of superiority which succinctly shows the psychopathology of moving from oppressed to oppressor, persecuted to PERSECUTORS. Israel’s militarism defines its national character–the real split is now between Israeli policy and mental-set on one hand, and teachings of Torah on the other.
As a Jew I say, knowing the denunciation to follow, Israel is the enemy of Judaism. It didn’t have to be this way. Arrogance, cruelty defined the Zionist relationship to the Palestinians very early; a self-styled warrior state on hire to reactionary global regimes defines its relationship to the world. No compassion for others.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.