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Sun., June 29, 2014

Martin Schram: Presbyterian Church action on Israel misguided

All hell was breaking out, yet again, in the Arab world that surrounds Israel – well before the late news that broke in a most unlikely locale Friday and was mainly missed by most of the world.

Here’s what the world was watching:

Iraq was free-falling. Fanatic forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were sweeping through Iraq’s cities with speed that astonished policymakers from Baghdad to Washington.

ISIS’ rapid success was achieved mainly not by their military perfection but due to the swiftness with which the U.S.-trained Iraqi troops successfully stripped off their uniforms, dropped their weapons, abandoned their marked vehicles and scampered away, saving only their most precious of assets.

Closer to Israel’s homeland (but, importantly, not actually inside it), three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank area near Jerusalem. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was quick to praise the act as heroic.

“Blessed be the hands that captured them,” the Hamas chief told al-Jazeera television. “This is a Palestinian duty, the responsibility of the Palestinian people.”

Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and Mashaal was carefully coy about that: “No one claimed responsibility so far. I can neither confirm nor deny it.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping and vowed to help find the kidnapped youths.

Now this. Newsbreak – dateline Detroit: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on June 20 became America’s first large prominent religious group to vote to divest church stock in three major U.S. companies that make products Israel utilizes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Presbyterian Church has itself been under a siege of sorts, losing 37 percent of its membership in the past 21 years, as its membership dropped to a reported 1.76 million people. The church’s General Assembly approved the divestiture resolution by the slim margin of 310 to 303 votes.

The resolution calls on the Presbyterian Church to sell its $21 million in stock in three companies – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions – that supply equipment critics say is used by Israel in the West Bank. Caterpillar said in a statement it doesn’t sell equipment to Israel but to the U.S. government. HP said its West Bank checkpoints were developed to create “a secure environment, enabling (the Palestinian) people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way.” Motorola Solutions says it follows the laws and its corporate human rights policies.

(The United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has decided against a churchwide divestiture. Two small church groups, the U.S. Quakers’ Friends Fiduciary Corp. and the Mennonite Central Committee, have voted to divest in companies doing business with Israel.)

While Israelis long long been bombarded and besieged by Palestinian missiles and militants, I always have believed Israel did a disservice to its own prospects for peace by building new settlements in the Palestinian territories after the historic accomplishments that began with President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David summit with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of short-sightedness on all of these Middle East conflagrations. But interestingly, the most compelling perspective on the Presbyterians’ recent misguided decision came from a hardly unbiased source: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli hardliner waxed rather eloquently when asked about it on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

“It should trouble all people of conscience and morality because it’s so disgraceful,” Netanyahu said.

“You know, you look at what’s happening in the Middle East, and I think most Americans understand this: They see this enormous area riveted by religious hatred, by savagery of unimaginable proportions.

“Then you come to Israel and you see the one democracy that upholds basic human rights, that guards the rights of all minorities, that protects Christians. Christians are persecuted throughout the Middle East. So most Americans understand that Israel is a beacon of civilization and moderation.

“You know, I would suggest to those Presbyterian organizations to fly to the Middle East, come see Israel for the embattled democracy that it is, and then take a bus tour. Go to Libya, go to Syria, go to Iraq, and see the difference. And I would give them two pieces of advice: One is make sure it’s an armor-plated bus. And, second, don’t say that you’re Christians.”

Martin Schram, a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive, is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. His email address is

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