Techniques and Talking Points: For pastors and other church leaders regarding Israel and Palestine

Friends,

This is a moment when the Presbyterian Church (USA) is defining what it will stand for in the decades to come. Such moments are challenging, but we should welcome them because they help us to clarify who we are, what we believe, and what we are willing to do because of what we believe. When we speak honestly, thoughtfully, and boldly about such matters, we are becoming a better expression of who God calls us to be.

Over the coming months, many of us will be in the position of interpreting the actions of the General Assembly in our congregations and with friends who are Presbyterian and from other faith traditions, and possibly with leaders from the Jewish and Muslim communities. Some of us will have the opportunity to craft letters to the editor or to make appearances on local radio or TV stations. We want to provide you with some background to help you prepare well to take advantage of those opportunities. I recommend that you take a few minutes and read through the principles that the PPF created in 2010 and 2014, which will provide you with important language and tone as you craft your own remarks. Please let us know if you have particular questions about which we can provide answers or support.

 

Basics for engaging people with whom you disagree:

So here is one technique for planning one's thoughts that I have found particularly helpful.

  • Draw a triangle on a blank sheet of paper. In the center of the triangle, put the central point you want to make (e.g. Presbyterians are committed to bringing about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians)
  • On each corner of the triangle, put a statement that supports your main thesis (e.g. Presbyterians do not invest in companies that violate human rights, The Occupation must be dismantled and Settlement expansion must be brought to an end, Presbyterians seek both an internationally recognized State of Israel and a viable Palestinian State.
  • Below each supporting point on the corners of the triangle, put three supporting stories or statements (e.g. When I visited the Tent of Nations, I saw. . ., or We are divesting from Cat, Motorola Solutions and HP because they are supporting and profiting from the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.

Now you have your basic outline. Each time you tell a story, return to the inside of the triangle and make your central point (e.g. and that is why Presbyterians believe we must support Palestinians in their nonviolent effort to end the occupation. We believe that we must bring about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians.)

I always look for something that my dialog partner is saying with which I can agree. This tells the person I am listening well and shows a commitment to seek common ground. It also allows the ability to sharpen the differences in our opinions where they do exist. The purpose of any such dialog is not to win an argument, but rather:

  1. To seek common ground if it exists. My favorite words in any argument, public or private, are "Yes, and . . ."
  2. To learn new information or a new way of looking at something, or at the very least, to learn how my dialog partner thinks.
  3. To win over my dialog partner or others who are watching with new information, a new way of understanding something, or a new theological insight.
  4. To assure others that they are being heard, which keeps the relationship open and ongoing based on their feeling respected.

 

Basics for doing presentations on the PC(USA)'s actions regarding Israel and Palestine:

Remember that what underlies the anger and the passion that most people express about this matter is fear:

  • Palestinians have been living under military occupation for nearly fifty years and many can no longer imagine a viable state because of the inexorable appropriation of their lands and resources by the State of Israel.
  • Israelis are deeply concerned that any weakening of the occupation of Palestine threatens their ability to live in Israel at both a deeply existential and an intensely practical level.
  • Many American Jews have been raised on the totally understandable narrative that a Jewish majority State of Israel is the only thing standing between them and the destruction of their people. Given 1900 years of Christian on Jewish violence culminating in the Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed, all of us should be able to appreciate why many are fearful.
  • Palestinians see a constant effort to cleanse their historic homeland of their presence. Given the reality of the "ongoing Nakba" where there is a silent transfer that is intentionally being carried out to remove Palestinians from their lands, all of us should be able to empathize.
  • Presbyterians – and other Christians in the United States – carry deep shame for the ways in which people of our tradition have been responsible for anti-Semitism and we have committed that we will never allow the Jewish people to be targeted for their ethnicity or their religion again. When I disagree with friends with whom I have worked on so many other issues of justice for our church, I try to remind myself that it is this fundamental concern for justice which is the foundation for their passion.

It is critically important that we internalize what it is that Israelis, American Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and American Palestinians are concerned about and be able to authentically demonstrate that we share their concerns. It is rare that I dialog with someone with whom I disagree about these matters without being able to start with the words "I agree that. . . "

Most of us find ourselves in arguments about Israel and Palestine regarding the best means to an end goal that we agree upon. Though we may disagree about how best to respond, we are in agreement that the State of Israel's occupation of Palestine must be dismantled and the settlements deconstructed, that Israelis must be assured that they can be safe from indiscriminate attacks, that Palestinians need a viable state and must be free from collective punishment . . . this list could go on.

 

Basics for speaking with the Media:

I begin every media interaction having to do with Israel and Palestine with the assumption that the interviewer will likely be hostile and challenging to deal with. The trick is not to get defensive, never to lose one's temper (which is what they are hoping for), and to assure that every sentence I speak will stand on its own if it becomes the sound bite that is chosen.

Much of what is written above applies here as well. If I am doing into an interview with the media I prepare a specific topic triangle for that interview. Each time you tell a story, remember to return to the inside of the triangle. Then, if the interview continues, move around the triangle, interspersing personal stories, theological reflection, and points of fact with one another, but always centered on the three supporting points you are trying to make to support your main thesis.

The shorter the interview, the shorter, clearer and more declarative you must make your statements.

Again, assume that all interviews are hostile to your objective. You must be prepared to make the point you want to make, and to shift their questions to your purpose. For instance, if the question is "Why would Presbyterians have taken this action, which is so obviously hurtful to Jews." I would respond by saying "I want to begin by stating clearly what it is that our General Assembly did: After ten years of study and discernment, our Assembly voted to sell our stock in three specific companies that were involved in supporting the State of Israel in carrying out significant human rights violations in Palestine. With this action, we are making it clear that we want peace with genuine security for all Israelis and Palestinians."

Always smile, appreciate the question, and then answer the question with a soundbite that makes your fundamental point. If there is time, back the point up with a very brief story or image or scriptural image/reference (25 to 30 seconds at the most) that finishes with your primary thesis.

Never become defensive! Practice with a friend before the interview takes place.

Remember to breathe.

 

What did the 221st General Assembly actually do? (Never enter into dialog with someone about this challenging matter without reading what our Assembly actually did.)

  • We agreed to sell our stock in three specific companies that have been involved in military contracts to carry out the occupation of Palestine which is illegal under international law and which our denomination has recognized as a primary impediment to peace in the region.
  • We noted that this is not a divestment from the State of Israel and restated our commitment to a solution that will allow both a secure State of Israel and an economically viable State of Palestine.
  • We asked the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to study the viability of a two-state solution and come to the next General Assembly with a thoughtful analysis of what options really exist for a resolution of this conflict that will protect the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis.
  • We committed to work with partners of other faith traditions to seek an end to the occupation and a viable long-term solution.
  • We required that the resource called "Zionism Unsettled" be sold with a disclaimer that it is not an official document of the PC(USA).
  • We committed to be in prayerful support of the Nassar family after the destruction by the Israeli Defense Forces of their property Southwest of Bethlehem called the Tent of Nations.
  • We affirmed the power of an "occupation free" investment strategy, encouraging Presbyterians to proactively screen their investment portfolios to avoid companies that profit from or normalize the disadvantaging and dispossession of Christian and Muslim Palestinians. This action actually affirmed an "occupation free" endowment fund pioneered by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

 

Rick's Talking Points regarding actions of the 221st General Assembly pertaining to Israel and Palestine:

  • The Presbyterian Church has spent decades developing an investment strategy that matches our social witness policy. This decision is an expression of conscience. We do our best not to invest in the violation of Human Rights.
  • Palestinian Christians have been united in their call to us to stand with them in taking bold action to end the State of Israel's military occupation of Palestine.
  • If we expect Palestinians, Muslim or Christian, to use only nonviolent strategies to end the occupation, we must support them when they call on the international community to join them in this principled and nonviolent strategy to bring peace and genuine security for both the Palestinian and the Israeli Jewish communities. This is a good place to share the story of the recent destruction of 1500 mature fruit trees at the nonviolent Tent of Nations.
  • The only objective way to determine the effectiveness of any strategy over time is to look at whether it is resulting in the reversal of settlement expansion or the dismantling of the daily grind of illegal occupation that has been experienced by Palestinians for nearly five decades.
  • We have decades of experience working with the Jewish Community in the United States on a wide variety of justice issues. We are more committed than ever to standing shoulder to shoulder with Jews against acts of anti-Semitism.
  • There are many, many Israelis and American Jews who share our commitment to ending the occupation and finding a just peace with genuine security for all Israelis and Palestinians. A growing number of them are also prepared to adopt Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as the most effective strategy to achieve that goal.
  • Even as we take this limited action of a selective divestment of three companies that are doing business in a way that profits from the occupation, we recognize our responsibility to assure that the strategy of Divestment never be used by ourselves or our allies in a way that justifies or encourages any kind of anti-Semitic behavior.
  • We stand against Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of violence perpetrated against people because of their religion, race, ethnicity or for any other reason.

 

By Rick Ufford-Chase