Moral Idiocy, Presbyterian-Style

The Middle East Peace Committee of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) has released its report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Anti-Defamation League has denounced it as “an offensive attack.” Already a cascade of articles has discussed the report, which promises to generate further controversy as the summer General Assembly vote on the report nears.

I won’t try to detail the factual problems and biases in the report, which are overwhelming, and which others are better qualified to analyze than I. I will, however, try to show that the moral foundations of the report are lacking. Here is the report’s summary of its ethical foundations:

In accordance with past policy statements and the theological-ethical bases of our confessions, the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the following human rights, moral principles, and goals guiding its recommendations:

a. The human right to self-determination through free elections and the rule of law, including the right to enjoy such basic freedoms as those of speech, press, and assembly.

That’s great, but the report fails to note that these rights are respected (if not always perfectly) in Israel, but not at all in the Palestinian territories. This becomes a point with which to bash Israel; the Palestinian Authority is nowhere held responsible for its utter disregard of these freedoms. It’s not just the PA, now, however; it’s hard to think of Islamic countries that respect these basic freedoms. The report pushes for a Palestinian state, but the probability that such a state will have free elections, the rule of law, and protection of free speech, press, and assembly is virtually zero.

b. The human right to religious freedom, including full access to religious sites and freedom from all discriminatory practices based on religious identity.

Again, Israel respects these rights, with exceptions in place for security reasons; the Palestinian Authority, like every other Muslim-controlled area, denies these rights altogether. Islam does not permit religious freedom, and in fact demands discrimination against non-Muslims.

c. Those additional rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights conventions, including the principle of universal jurisdiction.

The principle of universal jurisdiction says that bodies in one country, or affiliated with an international organization, may prosecute people of another country for crimes against humanity. It is controversial because it denies state sovereignty. Here, the intention is to allow leftists in other countries to prosecute Israeli politicians and soldiers.

d. The moral principle of applying humanitarian laws regarding warfare to all nations. These laws protect civilians and nonmilitary facilities, prohibit such internationally recognized violations as the use of anti-personnel weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the assassination of political opponents, collective punishment, detention without due process, and the torture or abuse of prisoners.

e. The moral principle of applying these same humanitarian laws regarding warfare to nongovernmental combatants as well. These laws prohibit such practices as suicide bombing, kidnapping, shelling civilian populations, and torturing or abusing prisoners.

Here the report “even-handedly” rejects terrorism and defenses against terrorism, giving terrorists engaged in acts targeting civilians the same protections accorded members of the military. Is striking back at terrorists guilty of attacks against civilians “the assassination of political opponents”?

f. The moral principle of granting to Red Cross, Star, or Crescent inspection teams access to all prison facilities.

g. The moral principle that all refugees have an individual right to return or to adjudicate or negotiate compensation for the loss of home and homeland, wherever those may be.

This, of course, is the “right of return” that would spell the death of the state of Israel. Since few of the individuals who were allegedly expelled from Palestine in 1948 are alive today, this gets extended to the descendants of those people. How far this extends is unclear. Don’t Jews and Christians have a “right of return” to lands now under Arab rule, on the grounds that they were expelled in the eighth and ninth centuries?

h. The moral goal for nations to create a nuclear-free world and, toward that goal, to sign and comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other relevant treaties.

Why is a nuclear-free world a “moral goal”? There are powerful consequentialist arguments in favor of nuclear weapons—they have kept the peace, to a large extent, for 55 years without being used—and it’s hard to see why other kinds of moral arguments would apply to nuclear weapons specifically rather than to military technologies generally. The answer, of course, is that Israel has nuclear weapons, and the Palestinians don’t. The underlying view seems to be that anything that gives Israel a military advantage is morally prohibited.

i. The moral goal of demilitarizing conflict situations to levels consistent with a state’s or people’s right to self-defense.

This one sounds fine, but think about it carefully. What is a level “consistent” with self-defense? Does this mean that A must demilitarize to a point consistent with A’s self-defense? But that’s meaningless; if a certain level of A’s armament is consistent with A’s self-defense, so is any greater level. Does this mean that, in a conflict between A and B, A must disarm to a point consistent with B’s self-defense? So, Israel must disarm to the point where it poses no danger to the Palestinians? But plainly the PA poses a danger to Israel. It’s been said before, but it’s worth stressing: If the Palestinians were to disarm, there would be peace. If Israel were to disarm, there would be slaughter. The above principle makes no distinction between aggressors and those trying to defend against them.

j. The moral principle of respecting United Nations observers and peacekeeping forces and imposing disciplinary sanctions when nations or entities target UN facilities and personnel.

k. The moral principle of nonintervention in, noninterference with, and non-destabilization of other countries.

Doesn’t this contradict the principle of universal jurisdiction? And what about self-defense? Notice that it’s nowhere listed as a right, even though most moral philosophers consider the right to self-preservation as a basic human right. If Palestinians launch rocket attacks against Israel from Palestinian territory, surely responding to those attacks should not count as interference in any morally objectionable sense.

If the fundamental principles are problematic, the recommendations are worse.

Given the daunting and mounting obstacles to the viability of a “two-state solution,” and following from the above principles, the 219th General Assembly (2010) affirms with greater urgency our historic Presbyterian stances with specific regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for:

a. an immediate cessation of all violence, whether perpetrated by Israelis or Palestinians;

Again, no distinction is made between those who launch terrorist attacks and those who seek to prevent them.

b. the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and diversion of water resources;

What makes them *Palestinian* territories? The report consistently challenges Israel’s right to land, going to great lengths to argue that nothing Biblical gives Israel any right to exist now, but treats Palestinian claims to the land as unassailable. Moreover, the report assails Israel’s Biblical claims on grounds worthy of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson—Israel lost any claim to the land because the people of Israel sinned! Oddly, Palestinian sins do nothing to undermine Palestinian claims.

c. an immediate freeze both on the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and on the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and buildings in East Jerusalem;

Again, this presupposes Palestinian ownership in a particularly strong form; Israelis may not buy land from Palestinians or build on their own land.

d. the relocation by Israel of the Separation Barrier to the 1967 border;

Those borders are hard to defend, and the Arab countries lost that territory in a war of aggression. The principle seems to be that Arabs can attack Israel without risk; if they lose the war, the rest of the world is obliged to restore the situation to the status quo ante. If they win, why, they have a right to whatever they conquer.

e. the withholding of U.S. government aid to the state of Israel as long as Israel persists in creating new West Bank settlements;

This is what has many pro-Israel groups so upset, and understandably so. If we were to cut aid to Israel, but continue to give funds to the PA, then we would plainly be taking the Palestinian side against Israel.

f. continuing corporate engagement through the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment with companies profiting from the sale and use of their products for non-peaceful purposes and/or the violation of human rights;

This sounds fine on its face, but it’s important to realize that the violation of human rights that the report has in mind is the construction of the wall between Jewish and Palestinian settlements that has done so much to stop terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. Undoubtedly the wall is an inconvenience for many people, and worse than that for a few. But the alternative permitted frequent, devastating attacks on the Israeli people. Constructing the wall, in other words, was clearly a justifiable act of self-defense. But again, the report recognizes no right to self-defense.

g. a shared status for Jerusalem;

This not only means that Jerusalem’s Arab population must be permitted to stay, but that the Palestinian state must include significant portions of Jerusalem. No responsible Israeli government could agree to that, given the aggressive behavior of the Palestinians, without compromising Israel’s existence.

h. equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel;

i. the cessation of systematic violation of human rights by any party, specifically, practices of administrative detention, collective punishment, the torture of prisoners and suspects, home demolitions and evictions, and the deportation of dissidents;

Again, the goal seems to be to prohibit Israel from engaging in any acts of self-defense. It may be that sometimes Israel goes too far. But the Israeli military, operating under a media microscope, does its best to eliminate terrorist threats with minimal damage to civilians. The terrorists, knowing that, do their best to use civilian populations as human shields. Is Israel to allow itself to come under attack without responding?

j. the immediate resumption by Israel and Palestine of negotiations toward a two-state solution.

Why believe that such negotiations have even the slightest prospect of success? The Palestinian goal has been reiterated again and again: to eliminate the state of Israel. Really, given that objective, what is there to talk about?

In Through the Moral Maze, Robert Kane imagines someone happening on a frightening scene: a woman struggling with a man who is attempting to rape her. It is not even-handed, it is not high-minded, it is not neutral, and it is not moral to stand by and claim that one cannot take sides, that one must respect the objectives of both sides, etc. It is moral idiocy. Morality requires you to intervene on the side of the woman.

Just so, it is not even-handed, high-minded, etc., to treat Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli soldiers who try to defend Israel against them as moral equals who deserve equal moral respect. The report doesn’t succeed in doing that, of course; it insists that Israel must refrain from defending itself. It is as if the person happening on the attempted rape began clucking about the woman’s fighting back and insisted that she refrain from defending herself.

I wish that Jesus, in addition to the story of the Good Samaritan, had told a variant more immediately relevant to cases such as this. Suppose that the Samaritan came upon the scene as the robbers were attacking the man. What should he do? Allow him to be beaten? Insist that he refrain from self-defense? Maintain that he, a sinner, had no right to his belongings anyway? Demand that both parties negotiate, and that the man give the robbers what they want, or at least a good portion of it, without violence?

I find it hard to imagine Jesus saying any of those things. Maybe he would have the Samaritan tell the man to turn the other cheek, and allow himself to be beaten, even if that meant being beaten to death. But I don’t think so, because, after all, that ignores the role of the Samaritan himself. Doesn’t he have an obligation to try to help the man? Why would his obligation begin only after the man had been beaten?

5 thoughts on “Moral Idiocy, Presbyterian-Style

  1. There is an alternative, Philo, the Presbyterian Church in America, which has four congregations in your town. See you in church.

  2. Good point, Michael. I know some of the people at Redeemer, including the music director.

    By the way, I hope my article critiques Presbyterian idiocy, rather than exemplifying it!

  3. I normally wouldn’t pay the slightest attention to the Presbyterian church. This revolting document is quiet in keeping with the ideological positions of must Protestant churches since WW2. Let no one wonder why I am not a Christian.

  4. To tehag, shaloam,

    You are correct that this is the position of most Protestant churches. It is not, however, the position of most Protestants, nor of the churches representing most Protestants. Baptists and Pentecostals and runaway Presbyterians and Anglicans are quietly but quite tenaciously firm in our understanding of the sentence, “Who blesses you, I will bless; who curses you, I will curse.” We do not believe that support for Israel will bring the Messiah (back) because we do not believe that ANY action by humanity can have that effect. We simply believe that “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.”In the more liturgical of the churches in this bloc, we “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s