September 21, 2004 | National Review Online

Presbyterian Preachiness

Authored by Eugene Kontorovich

What do the Presbyterian Church and the Syrian Baathist dictatorship have in common? They have both pledged themselves to cutting off ties with American firms doing business with Israel.

Syria started its economic warfare against Israel soon after the Jewish state gained independence. As a leading member of the Arab League, it implemented a boycott that extended to third-country firms having dealings with Israel. The effort has been run by the Central Boycott Office, headquartered in Damascus. Just last month, it moved to add Caterpillar, the large Peoria-based construction-equipment company, to its blacklist of firms trading with the enemy.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from American companies that do business with Israel. The action, taken at the church's 216th General Assembly meeting in Richmond, is the first of its kind taken by an American denomination. Indeed, even colleges and universities, where anti-Israel campaigning is rampant, have rejected calls for divestment. As with Syria, Caterpillar is a particular object of Presbyterian ire.

The divestment action manifests a singular animosity towards Israel. The Presbyterians have not divested their funds from any of the cruel regimes of the world: not from China for its ethnic cleansing of Tibetans, and its repression of Muslems and Falun Gong; and not even from Sudan, currently engaged in the extermination of Africans in Darfur. But then again, Syria has not boycotted those states either.

One would expect the Presbyterian Church to use its economic clout with an eye to punishing the many regimes around the world that oppress their fellow Christians, and call attention to their plight. However, the church has not taken action against such nations as Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, or North Korea (whose government has reportedly murdered 300,000 Christians), where anti-Christian persecution has been detailed by Christian human-rights groups. Indeed, the Presbyterians have not even boycotted Lebanon, where Christians have been slaughtered by various Muslim groups. But then, neither has Syria, which controls Lebanon as a vassal state.

Since the creation of Israel, Christians have been able to worship there unmolested and unafraid. Israel does not afford Christians this treatment as a matter of sovereign grace or condescension, but rather because it shares the American values of religious freedom and pluralism. The Presbyterians have set themselves against the best and only friend and protector of Christianity in the Middle East.

They have done so to support a movement that has slaughtered Christians and defiled their holy places. Yasser Arafat, to whose aid the Presbyterians now come, massacred Christian civilians in Lebanon when his Fatah organization was based there. When Israel invaded to dislodge Arafat, it formed a 20-year alliance with the Christian minority. The Presbyterians' action takes the side of those who have cynically defiled holy Christian sites. The Church of the Nativity has been turned into terrorist hide-out and Manger Square into a place where people are publicly executed without trial.

Moreover, the assembly's action comes after the collapse of the intifada, and after Israel has declared its intent to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a move not matched by any Palestinian concessions. The signal this sends to Israel is that its efforts will never be deemed satisfactory, unless it gives in to maximalist Palestinian demands, demands that the failed Camp David negotiations revealed to go far beyond Israel's withdrawal from the territories.

The Presbyterians say the policy is prompted by Israel's treatment of Palestinians–the same line Syria advances these days. Yet it can't change the fact that the policy has the effect of economically strangling the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Presbyterians have not seen fit to take sanctions against the Palestinians on account of the hundreds of Jews they have murdered.

One hopes that the vote of the assembly does not represent the sentiments of three million members of the church. One also prays that the companies targeted for divestment will be no more swayed by it than by Syria's boycott.

– Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at George Mason University School of Law, in Arlington, Virginia, and an academic fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focused on terrorism.