The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and the Sharansky Test

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What follows is a slightly edited and expanded reprise of a blog post I did about ten years ago. Unfortunately, it is even more timely now than it was then. I had been invited to address a group of Presbyterian seminarians in various stages of immersion in the clerical world of the PC(USA). I was asked to give a Jewish community perspective on  discussion and decisions in the PC(USA) concerning divestment from those firms doing business with Israel which the PC(USA) deem to contribute to what they term the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank. I was encouraged to be frank, and I was. What follows is approximately 20 percent of my presentation, which was presented holographically. This means I first stated my position in one sentence, then in a paragraph, then in one page, then in a ten minute treatment, then in a 20 minute treatment. What follows approximates the ten minute version. 

Most Jews are not surprised that the Presbyterian divestment discussion and decisions identify the PCUSA as anti-Semitic, biblically twisted, and morally selective because it fails the Sharansky test.

This test, developed by Natan Sharansky, specifies three criteria of contemporary political anti-Semitism, that is, that phenomenon wherein anti-Zionism is in reality a veiled form of anti-Zionism.  He calls his test, “The Three D’s.”  Unknown-1These are the demonization of Israel, the application of double standards to Israel, and the delegimization of Israel.  Here is what Sharansky says about that test. It is brilliant, and its brilliance illumines the darkness and dispels the smoke around current controversies:

The first “D” is the test of demonization . Today we must take note when the Jewish state or its leaders are being demonized, with their actions being blown out of all rational proportion.  For example, the comparisons of Israelis to Nazis and of the Palestinian refugee camps to Auschwitz — comparisons heard frequently throughout Europe and on North American university campuses — are clearly antisemitic. Those who draw such analogies either are deliberately ignorant regarding Nazi Germany or, more commonly, are deliberately depicting modern-day Israel as the embodiment of evil.

The second “D” is the test of double standards. From discriminatory laws many nations enacted against Jews to the tendency to judge their behavior by a different yardstick, this differential treatment of Jews was always a clear sign of antisemitism. Similarly, today we must ask whether criticism of Israel is being applied selectively. In other words, do similar policies pursued by other governments produce similar criticism?

The third “D” is the test of delegitimization. Traditionally, antisemites denied the legitimacy of the Jewish religion, the Jewish people, or both. Today, they attempt to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state, presenting it as, among other things, the prime remnant of imperialist colonialism.While criticism of an Israeli policy may not be antisemitic, the denial of Israel’s right to exist is always antisemitic. If other peoples, including 21 Arab Muslim States — and particularly the many states created in the postcolonial period following World War II — have the right to live securely in their homelands, then the Jewish people has that right as well, particularly given the sanction of the United Nations in setting up and recognizing the country at its founding. Questioning that legitimacy is pure antisemitism.

Sadly, most Jews I know are not surprised at what is happening in the theological world vis-a-vis the Jews, because this is what we have come to expect from Christendom in general when it deems the church to be the new Israel, therefore leaving the Jewish people at best vestigial as far as being the chosen people of God. This is the tradition of supersessionism, the transfer of chosenness status to the church, which has superseded Israel in this status. This theology is also called by some “Replacement Theology,” because the church has replaced Israel.

My PhD research demonstrated that this position pervades Christian theologizing except for those theological camps stigmatized by the “enlightened” theological establishment. Thus, anyone holding for a continuing theological status for the Jewish people and for the Jewish state is labeled “a Christian Zionist” or a “dispensationalist,” words which  in the PC(USA) mean to be a “theological hayseed,” “red-neck fundamentalist” and “biblical idiot.”

This smacks of what UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, in his best seller “Don’t Think of an Elephant” calls “framing.” “Framing” pertains to the conceptual field of the language we use. Lakoff says “”You can’t see or hear frames. they are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’–structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences; the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain” [2004:xv].

Lakoff, a Progressive Democrat, discusses framing as the reason Republicans had been winning elections, and the Democrats losing during the Bush years. The Republicans set the stage of the debate through the language they used, and language almost predetermined results. For example, when taxation was discussed under the rubric “tax relief,” even before debate had begun, tax was assumed to be a burden, those who cut taxes, rescuers from that burden, and those seeking to increase taxes are oppressors.

Similarly, the PC(USA) and others have skillfully stigmatized the theological legitimacy of Israel in their own circles through labeling adherents of such a position as “Christian Zionists,” [“Zionists” being a “”bad word” due to its being stigmatized in the UN as a form of racism, and due to the political milieu of Left-leaning Presbyterians], and “dispensationists,” a likewise a stigmatized term, explicitly associated in PC(USA) documents with such caricatures as John Hagee, Hal Lindsey and Jerry Jenkins of the  “Left Behind” series of books. What sophisticated Presbyterian would want to be identified with such people? Thus, the entire discussion is foreclosed through how the position of those who theologically favor the State of Israel is framed. Skillful, and, in my view, by no means accidental.

The presumption of Israel’s replacement by the Church is as subtle as it is pervasive. So it is that the respected Reverend _________, of the likewise respected _______Presbyterian Church in _________, California, writing of the divestment controversy, performed theological sleight-of hand which made the Jewish people disappear as the people of God, thus delegitmizing the Jewish State. In a sermon delivered July 25, 2004, he quoted Rev. _________, of ________ Presbyterian Church, whose words precisely mirror his own sentiments. Watch carefully as the Jewish people disappear as the Israel of God, and notice who becomes Israel instead!

I for one, will never back off on my support for Israel’s right to exist peacefully. I oppose terrorism, whatever the source. Israel has a right to protect itself. But it also has a higher calling to do justice in the way the prophets of the Old Testament proclaimed. The State of Israel is unbelieving Israel. Only a small percentage of the population has any religious orientation. True Israel, in the Old Testament, was never seen as a racial, blood identity. Israel is a spiritual identity fulfilled in the new Israel, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, who have bowed the knee to Jesus the Christ. Members of the body of Christ are our Arab brothers and sisters who we cannot forsake, nor can we tolerate their oppression.

It is stunning what he does, and for Jews like me, absolutely chilling. The state of Israel is labeled as “unbelieving Israel,” and dismissed as being without theological standing or significance. Then he substitutes “the new Israel” made up of [Jesus] believing Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, only Jews who believe in Christ are part of Israel. Then, having pushed the descendants of Jacob off-stage as the people of God, he moves the sons of Ishmael into their place: Members of the body of Christ are “our Arab brothers and sisters who we cannot forsake, nor can we tolerate their oppression”. So, Arabs are Israel and Jews are not. Stunning!!

Israel is delegitimized theologically, demonized as unbelievers, and subjected to a double-standard for its failure to do that justice which Older Testament prophets called for.  Somehow, Israel’s use of violence and restrictive measures marks them out for special opprobrium. Somehow, the non-stop violence from the Palestinian side, most of it directed at civilians, creating myriads of orphans, widows, and parents bereaved of their children, is “understandable under the circumstances,” receives no chiding, escaping the prophets’ and PC(USA)’s censure. But not so Israel. Is this not a double standard, and is Israel not being demonized and delegitimized here?

You might ask what Sharansky wants after all is said and done. As a Refusenik, he was imprisoned for nine years and tortured in a Soviet prison for the crime of wanting to go to a land of his own, Israel.  What does he want for the Palestinians, you wonder?  Here are his own words.



Perhaps you might make his sentiments yours.  On the other hand, you may feel more comfortable blaming Israel for all the problems in the Middle East.

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