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Belhar in Practice: Blaming Israel Alone

By Alan F.H. Wisdom, The Layman

belharconfessionPerhaps the most significant action of the 2016 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly was final approval of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in the denomination’s Book of Confessions. The 1980s liberation theology manifesto exercised an influence that was already apparent in the Portland assembly’s other business—especially its discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Belhar was cited repeatedly by advocates of a PCUSA report blaming Israel alone for stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Belhar’s binary mode of social analysis—dividing the world between “the oppressed” and “the oppressors” and demanding that the church always support the former against the latter—prevailed as the report passed by an overwhelming majority.

We can expect to see this mode of analysis multiply as the denomination lives into its new confession and applies it to other issues. Belhar’s binary thinking fits well in a church and society where groups strive to assert a claim to victim status. Once secured, that victim status then becomes a trump card to be used against political opponents, as the pro-Palestinian advocates at the assembly used it to win their case against Israel.

 

One-Sided Criticism, Theologically Justified

The report at issue in Portland, entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” came from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). The 36-page report was ACSWP’s response to the 2014 assembly’s request for “a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance.” A “two-state solution” would involve Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. A “neutral stance” would have opened the PCUSA to the possibility, favored by many Palestinian activists, of a single Arab-majority state ruling over the entire land, including its Jewish communities.

The ACSWP report concludes pessimistically that “the door to a viable Palestinian state is closing rapidly.” It cites Israelis and Palestinians who doubt that any peace agreement is possible under current conditions. Nevertheless, ACSWP wishes “[t]o keep open the option of a two-state solution” in the absence of better alternatives.

For this impasse, the report casts blame upon Israel. It laments: “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued [Jewish] settlements and brutal occupation [in the Palestinian-majority West Bank] is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.” By contrast, ACSWP finds little fault with the other party to the conflict: the Palestinian Authority leadership.

The final vote approving the report was 429-129. Attempts to soften the report’s harsh criticisms of Israel were largely unsuccessful. The ACSWP report was the most prominent of several anti-Israel measures passed by the assembly.

Doug Tilton, a member of the ACSWP writing team, presented its report to the assembly. “The report is deeply rooted in Reformed theology,” Tilton said at the start. He then turned to attacking Israel: “The Netanyahu administration has presided over one of the most rapid periods of illegal settlement expansion in Israeli history…. Israeli, Palestinian, and international experts have long held that settlement expansion diminishes the possibility of two states. The report makes concrete recommendations designed to help stem the expansion of illegal settlements and the loss of Palestinian territory.” Tilton voiced no reservations about Palestinian policies.

“Friends,” Tilton addressed the commissioners, “our newest confession [Belhar] affirms our belief that God is ‘in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.’” He commended the ACSWP report, with its pro-Palestinian slant, as an expression of that theological conviction.

Dissenters Appeal for Reconciliation, ‘Regardless of Who Threw the First Stone’

A minority report from the assembly’s Middle East Committee challenged the ACSWP proposal as “a pugnaciously flawed document.” The committee minority asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency to revise ACSWP’s document to “remove rhetorical structure” that may “harm interreligious dialogue” with the Jewish community. The minority also wanted the mission agency to “add content that acknowledges and offers a corrective to the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism complicate global discourse about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

Speaking for the minority, Teaching Elder Commissioner Brian Paulson from Chicago Presbytery argued: “For this crucial work we need to keep and expand our circle of allies in Israel-Palestine and around the world. Unfortunately, the tone of this document—even more than any one specific flaw …—is repeatedly dismissive and often acerbic and as such does not rise to the level of discourse required in a document that is being offered in the name of the whole church.” Neither Paulson nor any of his allies cited specific passages to substantiate their general critique of the ACSWP report.

Young Adult Advisory Delegate Nivin Lee from Southern Kansas Presbytery made a passionate appeal on behalf of the minority. Lee drew from New Testament passages about reconciliation to sketch a theological vision at odds with Belhar’s partisan approach. “We are called to tear down this wall of division and hostility,” Lee said. “It’s high time we raise our voices and bring peace, justice, unity, and reconciliation to all—regardless of political identity, nationality, or language, regardless of who threw the first stone, who threw the last stone, or who threw the most stones—and most importantly, regardless of which side of the wall they are on.”

Ruling Elder Karen Beshears from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois urged her fellow commissioners to “look very seriously at the Confession of 1967.” She quoted that confession as teaching that “the members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics.” (9.25) Beshears added, “I would like us to do that by approving the minority report.” But C-67, now almost a half-century old, was not the confession that gained the ear of this year’s commissioners.

Critics of the ACSWP report won minor changes in the document. A comment was inserted stating, “As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, of the people of Abraham and the lineage of David, we stand with the people of Israel, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation, and we stand with the Palestinian people, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation.” The comment also stressed the assembly’s “preference for a two-state solution.” The dissidents, however, were unable to alter the overall anti-Israel tenor of the document. Their minority report was defeated on a 140-405 vote.

Belhar as ‘the Foundation of Our Actions’

Sam Jones of the ACSWP writing team was the strongest advocate for its proposal. Jones defended the one-sided criticism of Israel. “The balance in suffering and power of Palestinians and Israelis … simply does not exist,” Jones told the commissioners. “The number of deaths, acres of land taken, demolitions of houses and infrastructure, children arrested, and other human rights violations are disproportionately Palestinian….  And there is no balance of power between an occupying power with one of the world’s strongest militaries and the occupied population.”

Commissioners favoring the ACSWP report applied the logic of Belhar: Israel is more powerful and the Palestinians weaker. Therefore, Israel must be the oppressor while Palestinians are the oppressed. Consequently, the church should side with the Palestinians against the Jewish state. It should always blame the Israeli government, never the Palestinian Authority.

Ruling Elder Bill Plitt from National Capital Presbytery explained his thinking: “I borrow from our new Belhar Confession as the foundation of our actions” in approving the ACSWP report. He pointed to  passages in Belhar declaring that “the church as a possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice, with the wronged,” and that “in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” Plitt clearly judged Israelis to be among “the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests.”

Ruling Elder Guy Moody from Baltimore Presbytery also turned to Belhar. Moody quoted from the confession: “Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the Gospel.” The commissioner closed by stating that “Israel is occupying Palestinian territory,” which for him was an injustice compelling him to resist any motions that might convey sympathy or understanding for Israel’s position.

Teaching Elder Matt Drumheller from Charlotte Presbytery did not refer specifically to Belhar, but he spoke its language. “We are called by God to be a prophetic people,” he insisted. “Being prophetic means speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power means saying some difficult things. When that power is oppressing another people, God calls us to speak out on behalf of the oppressed.”  Drumheller opposed any delay in issuing the ACSWP report, because “Palestinians are being oppressed and killed now.”

‘Very Insulting’ to Speak of Jesus as Jewish

 The debate took an odd turn when two speakers objected to a phrase in the comment added to the ACSWP report. The comment is “fundamentally flawed,” charged Teaching Elder Brian Camara of Prospect Hill Presbytery in Iowa/Nebraska, “because it identifies Jesus as ‘of the lineage of David,’ which implicitly identifies him with the Jewish people.” Camara contended: “Jesus was also a member of an oppressed religious minority in an occupied territory. He also is a Palestinian in that sense.”

Ruling Elder Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers replied quickly: “I’m sorry, but Jesus was Jewish. He was a Jew. I don’t understand the argument.”

Yet Camarra’s grievance resurfaced later. Rafaat Zaki, the Arab-American executive of the Synod of the Covenant and chair of the denomination’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, intervened in the debate.  “[O]ne of the amendments has language that says, ‘As disciples of Jesus Christ, people of Abraham and lineage of David,’” Zaki complained. “I don’t know whom we are referring to. I do not come from the lineage of David and I do not belong to the people of Abraham.” He characterized the passing reference to Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity as “a very insulting statement.”

Zaki apparently forgot the apostle Paul’s proclamation, in the letter to the Galatians, that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). Just as all—Jew and non-Jew alike—are “imprisoned under sin” and unable to justify themselves by their own righteousness, so “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ” is available to all “those who believe” (3:22). Biblically and according to classic Reformed confessions, all persons and groups stand on level ground before God. All are accountable to God’s commandments, all must admit they violate those commandments, and all find forgiveness and reconciliation and hope only in the grace of Christ Jesus.

But this was not the perspective that dominated the Portland assembly’s discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead it was the Belhar template was applied: There are groups like the Palestinians, identified as “the oppressed,” who stand in a position of social righteousness, immune from criticism for any wrongdoing. On the other hand, there are groups like the Israeli Jews, identified as “the oppressors,” who by their social position among “the powerful and privileged” merit relentless condemnation for all their actions.

A Wider Application of Belhar?

Some may question whether Belhar, as the PCUSA’s twelfth confession, would have any more influence than the denomination’s previous eleven confessions. In 2012 and 2014 the General Assembly upheld its moderator in ruling that the Book of Confessions is not “a rule book” that determines the denomination’s practices. The assemblies in those years felt free to consider (and ultimately adopt) Book of Order amendments that contradicted confessional teaching on marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Similarly, a 2012 Permanent Judicial Commission decision affirmed that the existence of “thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians” regarding sexuality vitiated the authority of the confessions to determine ordination decisions.

Yet these considerations do not lessen the impact of Belhar, as demonstrated in Portland. Commissioners at the assembly turned to Belhar more as an inspiration than as a rule book. They found it inspirational because it was the PCUSA’s latest word, summoning and validating the spirit of the times among denominational leaders. Earlier confessions, viewed as fossilized remnants of earlier times, could never have the same force or application to today’s issues. Moreover, in matters of social justice such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, commissioners are not restrained by the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has largely silenced confessional (and biblical) texts regarding sexuality. Regarding putative causes of the oppressed, on the contrary, there is an eagerness to claim confessional and biblical inspiration.

Of course, there is much oppression in the world outside the narrow confines of Israel-Palestine. There are many groups besides the Palestinians that can be numbered among the oppressed. At the 2016 General Assembly, the application of the Belhar Confession was focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no similar binary analysis of any other conflict, even in the war-torn Middle East. Perhaps we shall see the new confession applied more broadly in the coming years.

 

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The PCUSA’s Obsession with Israel

Institutional Anti-Semitism becomes to apparent to ignore.

By Joseph Puder, FrontPage Magazine.

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

The Presbyterian Church (USA) assembled in Portland, Oregon for its 222 General Assembly, lasting from June 18-25.  Once again, latent anti-Semitism in the form of controversial resolutions on divestment from Israel became a major issue in the proceedings.  Delegates from 171 PCUSA presbyteries, representing the 1.57 million members, along with other participants and observers from around the world, gathered in Portland for the biennial General Assembly (GA).

Elements from within the PCUSA displayed their unrestrained prejudice against the Jewish state when according to the former Vice President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Alan Wisdom, only one resolution about the Middle East entailed “anything besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He described the PCUSA GA as an “onslaught of anti-Israel legislation.”

Wisdom further explained that “of the six items placed before the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee, five aimed harsh criticism at Israel.” Only one issue raised gently concerned itself with the threats to Middle Eastern Christians.  That resolution does not even bother to identify the threat as being Islam and Muslim radicalism and jihadism.  Instead, it qualified the threat coming from “unnamed religiously based actors in the region.”

The multiple anti-Israel resolutions proposed divesting from companies doing business in the Jewish state, with one specifically called the PCUSA, to prayerfully consider Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel.  Israel alone was singled out.  The only vibrant democracy in the Middle East where religious freedom exists and is flourishing, where human and civil rights are sacrosanct, was vilified.  Yet, Arab Palestinian Muslim terrorism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, incitement against Israelis and Jews, and denial of human rights and religious freedom has been ignored.

There were no “overtures,” i.e. resolutions against the most notorious dictatorships in the Middle East including the Islamic Republic of Iran, which tramples on basic human rights, denies religious freedom to Christians, Jews, or Baha’is, hangs youthful dissidents, gays and lesbians, and oppresses its minority Kurdish, Baluchi, and Ahwazi people.  The hypocrisy and glaring bias displayed by the PCUSA General Assembly was obvious when the worst human rights offenders in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Assad of Syria, and a host of other Middle East Muslim states did not get mentioned, let alone subjected to BDS.

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PCUSA General Assembly 2016: Divestment, Pacifism, and Apologies

By Joseph Rossell, Juicy Ecumenism.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) wrapped up its biannual General Assembly last Saturday. Liberals largely got their way, passing numerous progressive resolutions. Delegates agreed to explore divestment from Israel, declared that a peaceful two-state Israel/Palestine solution was nearly “impossible,” affirmed Christian pacifism, and issued apologies to Native Americans and theIMG_2774 community.

Perhaps the most extreme measures General Assembly adopted involved Israel. Delegates passed a resolution that stated that the PCUSA should: “Prayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel…”

This resolution was intended to discipline Israel for allegedly violating the human rights of Palestinians. It expanded on a resolution passed in 2014 requiring the PCUSA to divest from companies supposedly profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. These companies included Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola Solutions.

Delegates at General Assembly also affirmed their “preference for a two-state solution,” a position which the denomination has held since 1982, but simultaneously recommended considering alternatives to achieve “a new political arrangement.” The assembly passed a statement that said:

Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.

These measures drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). While glad that the PCUSA was “supportive of Israel’s legitimacy,” ADL criticized the denomination’s move toward supporting BDS and for backing away from a diplomatic solution they traditionally supported.

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Assembly Struggles with Israeli-Palestinian Issues

IMG_2531On its final full day, amidst an overloaded docket of business, the 2016 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly spent more than 2-1/2 hours wrestling with its response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The June 24 report of the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee was consumed in debate over a series of measures proposing verbal and symbolic protests against Israel’s presence in the majority-Palestinian West Bank. A determined minority of commissioners put forward amendments and substitute motions trying to soften and balance the assembly’s criticisms of Israel. The dissidents won some concessions; however, they failed to parry the overall anti-Israel thrust of original proposals.  The Portland assembly’s condemnations of the Jewish state are still stinging.

The most hotly debated measure, a 36-page report entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” passed the assembly [link to other article when available] essentially unaltered. The report (Item 08-06) from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) blames “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” for the stalemate in peace talks with the Palestinians. By contrast, it finds little fault with the Palestinian leadership.

The ACSWP report passed the assembly by a wide 429-129 vote. The dissidents lost this and other 2016 votes by far larger majorities than the razor-thin margins by which earlier assemblies had decided divestment and other Middle East-related issues. This shift in vote patterns may reflect the altered dynamics of a denomination whose more conservative elements are diminished and discouraged.

‘A Pugnaciously Flawed Document’ Survives

A minority report had challenged the ACSWP proposal as “a pugnaciously flawed document.” The committee minority asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency to revise ACSWP’s document to “remove rhetorical structure” that may “harm interreligious dialogue” with the Jewish community. The minority also wanted the mission agency to “add content that acknowledges and offers a corrective to the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism complicate global discourse about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

But Sam Jones of the ACSWP writing team defended the one-sided criticism of Israel. “The balance in suffering and power of Palestinians and Israelis … simply does not exist,” Jones told the commissioners. “The number of deaths, acres of land taken, demolitions of houses and infrastructure, children arrested, and other human rights violations are disproportionately Palestinian….  And there is no balance of power between an occupying power with one of the world’s strongest militaries and the occupied population.”  The minority report failed on a 140-405 vote. The only notable change made to the ACSWP report was the addition of a prefatory comment stressing the assembly’s “preference for a two-state solution” with Israel existing alongside a sovereign Palestinian state.

‘Not Much to Commend’ in Israel

The vote was similarly overwhelming, 464-95, in favor of an overture (Item 08-02) denouncing Israel for “widespread and systematic patterns of ill treatment and torture” of Palestinian children. The overture bases this accusation, in part, on a 2013 United Nations report enumerating such abuses. It fails to note that Israel changed some practices in response to the UN report—a change acknowledged by the UN. In view of this information, Teaching Elder Commissioner Mark Boyd from Beaver-Butler Presbytery in Pennsylvania proposed an amendment to “commend the State of Israel for its response to concerns and criticisms raised in the UN report of 2013” and urge the Israeli government to “continue in this work of reform.”

Teaching Elder Derek Forbes from Utah Presbytery replied, “Currently, there is not much to commend for how the Israeli Defense Forces are treating children. We heard people speak from the area who told us offenses against children are as severe as ever.” Boyd’s amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

Ruling Elder Karen Beshears from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois remarked that many of the Palestinian minors detained by Israeli forces are “teenagers who are taught to do things that are dangerous to themselves and others.”  The only change made to Item 08-02 was the insertion in committee of a clause calling on “the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the government of Israel to denounce and cease the incitement of violence against children or at the hands of children.” The overture does not specifically accuse Palestinian leaders of inciting children to violence, while it goes into detail about alleged Israeli violence against children.

Trying to Listen to Both Sides

More significant changes were made to Item 08-07, an overture that encourages Presbyterians to “prayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel.” Teaching Elder Christopher Carlson from Peace River Presbytery in Florida objected: ““For the last 68 years Israel has been surrounded by countries and organizations that have sought to destroy Israel. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions is the same song, 25th verse.” Carlson described the international BDS movement as “an attempt to destroy Israel” by economic means. He declared, “We [the PCUSA] have no business studying how to support such an action and being enablers to those who wish to do such economic violence.”

Objections like Carlson’s were answered in committee by amendments advising church members also to consult “resources that oppose this BDS movement.” With those amendments, the overture was approved by the assembly on a 407-146 vote.

The only item of assembly business that went against the anti-Israel grain was a commissioners’ resolution (Item 08-08) requesting all PCUSA entities “to refrain from financial support and affiliation with the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, an umbrella organization of BDS advocate groups.” The assembly turned this resolution aside by saying it had answered the concern with its call (in 08-07) for dialogue with BDS proponents and opponents.

The only anti-Israel proposal that the assembly rejected was Item 08-01, an overture that summoned Presbyterians to “boycott all products manufactured and sold” by Hewlett Packard (HP). The reason cited was HP’s sales of information technology to the Israeli military. Teaching Elder Bob Kelley from Nevada shared his misgivings about the suggested boycott: Even if successful, it would simply allow another corporation to take HP’s share of the Israeli market. “The answer,” Kelley said, “is not a boycott but actually being able to put pressure on the United States government to prevent the exportation of this kind of technology to Israel.” The boycott overture was disapproved on a 483-72 vote.

A Glaring Disproportion

Item 08-04 was substantially softened in the Middle East Issues Committee. The original overture sought to press the real estate firm RE/MAX to “cut its ties with [Israeli] franchises involved in the sale or rental of [Jewish] settlement properties in the occupied West Bank.” The overture was amended to commend RE/MAX “for responding favorably to discussions of this matter with representatives of the PC(USA) and committing to take action to ensure that RE/MAX, LLC, will no longer receive any income from the sale of Jewish settlement properties in the West Bank.” The amended overture was approved without debate in a consent agenda.

Likewise on the consent agenda was Item 08-03, an overture expressing concern about unidentified “religiously based radical thought and action” causing Middle Eastern Christians to flee. Since that overture was the only Middle East Issues Committee item of business dealing with anything besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the result was that the committee’s plenary report was all Israel/Palestine, all the time. The entire 2-1/2 hours was taken up in discussing disputes among 12 million Israelis and Palestinians. The other 400 million-plus people in the Middle East went virtually unmentioned. Scarcely a word was said about catastrophic civil wars in larger countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

 

 

 

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Pro-Palestinian Recommendations Proceed to General Assembly Floor

Israel and Palestine flag puzzle with the pieces separated on an isolated white background with a clipping path

At the end of the day Monday, the Middle East Issues Committee voted 58-18 to approve with comment, the controversial Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) report 08-06 entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace.”  

The report with recommendations was developed by ACSWP in response to a request from the 221st General Assembly of the PCUSA in 2014. That assembly asked ACSWP to “make a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance that seeks not to determine for Israelis and Palestinians what the right ‘solution’ should be.”

A “two-state solution” is understood to mean that the sovereign democratic state os Israel would co-exist between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea alongside a sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.  A “neutral stance” is just what it sounds like – alternate possibilities including that favored by many Palestinian activists, of a single Arab-majority state ruling over the entire land. Where do the Jews fit into that vision? That question is answered by many variant speculative scenarios.

What is now before the GA for action is a full report with recommendations that, if approved, would require the denomination to act and advocate with both the Israeli and U.S. governments. The PCUSA would ask the U.S. government to resist using its veto power at the UN which currently prevents the full membership for Palestine.  

The denomination would also directly pressure Israel by:

  • lobbying the U.S. Congress to hold hearings on Israeli use of U.S.-made military and police equipment in the West Bank;
  • Call on the Internal Revenue Service to pursue revocation of the tax exempt status and tax advantages for individuals and organizations that support Israeli settlements on Palestinian land;
  • Pressure the U.S. government to lower trade barriers for Palestinian goods made in the West Bank and require labeling of goods made in Israeli settlements.

A minority report is expected and the business will come before the GA plenary on either Thursday or Friday.

On my way t0 the committee’s meeting, I asked a young man in a J-street ball cap, “How are things going in there?” He answered cautiously, “well, that depends if you love or hate Israel.”  

While not all of the business before the Middle East Issues Committee #10 is related to the conflict, relationship or future of the people and the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the most energetic and lengthy debates center on Israel.

Efforts to substantively amend the report failed although two incidental comments were amended to the report approved by the committee. One comment affirms commitment to a two-state solution and the other affirms a commitment to continue working with partners in Israel interested in peace.

During debate, Rev. Roy Howard shared that a line from an article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times is being used in the report to advocate for the end of hope for peaceful diplomatic. He emailed Friedman and this was his response he received:

Dear Roy,

Thank you for coming by my office for a chat about my position on a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. I am appalled to learn that some people have been extracting a line from one of my columns to suggest that I am no longer for a two-state solution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have stood for a two-state solution my entire life, and still do. It is the only just, fair, and secure way to resolve the struggle between two peoples over the same land. Out of my despair that the current leadership in Israel may be no longer willing to pursue such a solution, I have written some provocative columns to suggest that it may be too late. But deep down I hope that is not the case and I hope my columns will shock Israelis into understanding the terrible implications for a Jewish democratic state if they abandoned the two-state option. It is the only way to go forward.

Bless you for your good works on behalf of two states for two people.

Tom Friedman

Former IDF soldier, Eric Flamm, testified that the two state solution remains the best option for an end to the conflict. “I lived in Israel for seven years from 1994-2001. During that time, I served in the Israel Defense Forces as a combat soldier.”

He warned that only one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River would result in a civil war. Flamm said, “A single state would not address the needs of security and full political and civil rights for both groups.”

He went on to say “the two-state solution remains the only viable option and has been endorsed by each of most recent Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We can build consensus around crystal clear denunciations of the violence and affirmation of opposition to unilateral actions that move the sides further from, rather than toward, peaceful diplomatic resolution of the conflict.”

Flamm concluded, “I’ve seen first hand that there is nothing inherently hostile in either of these two populations. The two-state solution remains the best answer to this conflict.”

Dr. Michael Gizzi, ruling elder from Great Rivers Presbytery, and a political scientist professor at Illinois State University said that he was “surprised and disappointed when (he) read the ACSWP report, from both its lack of intellectual rigor, failure to seek out multiple viewpoints, and the use of language that distorts facts.”

He noted that “on the very first page, the report provides a brief history of the conflict, in which the First Intifada is described as a ‘largely non-violent movement that led to the Oslo Accords.’  What the authors of the report apparently are trying to do is to equate the Palestinian resistance, then led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO as being on the same moral level as the American civil rights movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience to effect change. King led bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches to overcome legal segregation.”

He then that pointed out that 1,300 people died in the First Intifada between 1987-1991, concluding, “That is not non-violent resistance.”

Gizzi identified several other facts in error.

  • Report claims Jerusalem has always been a city open to all. But from 1948-1967, when the city was under Jordanian control, Jews were not allowed in East Jerusalem nor in the Old City.
  • The report claims that the status of East Jerusalem was resolved in the 1993 Oslo Accords.  But it wasn’t.  It was one of several hot-button issues left unresolved in Oslo, so a tentative agreement could be reached.
  • The report cites a 2013 UN Report listing instances of mistreatment of children by Israel, but fails to mention a 2014 UN Report that praises Israel for significant progress on resolving the issues listed in 2013.
  • The report claims that Israelis lead “relatively secure lives.”   In fact, 63 percent of Israeli children near the Gaza strip suffer PTSD.  67 percent of Israelis in a 2016 poll fear being hurt in the current wave of terror aimed at them.

A motion to amend by deleting section 2. e. 2.  failed 20-56.

For acknowledgment and confession of our complicity in the injustices in Israel-Palestine, that:

(2)  Appropriate agencies of the assembly support measures by the Internal Revenue Service (or related units of the United States government) to investigate and possibly revoke the 501(c)(3) status for organizations, and tax deductions for individuals, that promote and finance the development or operation of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law and obstacles to peace.

Another motion to refer the document back to the Presbyterian Mission Agency for editing failed as well.

Conversations about Israel spilled over into other committees at the General Assembly. The Theological Issues committee which is dealing with a re-write of the denomination’s Directory for Worship, reduced the number of times the word “Israel” appears in the book to three and in two of those three places was convinced to specify ancient Israel, in an effort to distinguish it from the modern nation state.

 

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GA Committee Approves Slightly Amended Revision of the Directory of Worship

directory of worshipThe Theological Issues and Institutions Committee of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) shouldered the task of amending the denomination’s Revised Directory of Worship during Tuesday’s afternoon and evening sessions.

A wide assortment of resource people spoke, including three of the people charged with the revision, Chip Hardwick, Charles Wiley and David Gambrell of the office of Theology, Worship & Education at the denominational headquarters, representatives from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and Rev. Rafaat Zaki of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns.

Gambrell spoke to the history of the revision that started with an overture in 2011 recommending that changes be made to the Directory of Worship that would allow the document to be more user friendly, concise, and address changes made to the Form of Government section of the Book of Order.

Kristen Saldine educated the General Assembly committee by saying that the Directory of Worship is authoritative, descriptive and in a few places prescriptive as it describes the theology and practice of worship.

The Directory for Worship finds its roots in the 1645 Westminster Directory, with new directories written in the 1960s and the last revision made in 1989 when the southern and northern denominations merged.

“It is our compass, gives us bearing and direction of worship, points to the primary things of worship – glory to God – Reformed theological understanding and navigates relationship between freedom and form – structurally flexible but gives guidance – encouraging a variety of styles and expressions.”

Joyce Liebermann said that a major emphasis was placed on making the Directory of Worship a good partner to the new Form of Government approved in 2011. “It fulfills that goal as the revised Directory of Worship is shorter and streamlined – more permission-giving just as new FOG is more permission-giving. It is less formulaic, yet a sense of Reformed worship is maintained and it has constitutional integrity. This revision is what we had hoped to accomplish.”

Presenters reiterated that this is a revision – not a completely new directory as it seeks to preserve the spirit and strength of Reformed tradition; giving glory to God; focus on Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, centrality of Scripture and unity.

Some of the highlights include an emphasis on grace and gratitude and new sections on worship and culture and the work of the Holy Spirit as it seeks to be more attuned to cultural context. It has been reduced from seven to five chapters with 9,000 fewer words compared with the original Directory of Worship.

Although several amendments were made by the Theological Issues and Institutions committee on Tuesday, the proposed revision to remained relatively unchanged in its final form that will be voted on during plenary sessions later in the week.

Of interest, is the reduced references to Israel in the proposed revision. When the document arrived, there were only three places where a reference to Israel remained. The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns recommended that in those three references the language should be changed to “ancient Israel,” to differentiate between ancient Israel and the contemporary political state of Israel.

After consideration, the committee failed to change the language in one instance found in W-1.0302; and made the recommendation to change the language in the second paragraphs of 3-0402 (baptism) and 3.0409 (The Lord’s Supper).

A more theological debate was entered into during the discussion of who is eligible to partake of The Lord’s Supper. The revision changed the requirement that limits participation to those who are baptized believers.

At one point, an amendment was made to reinstate the historical requirement of baptism, but after a lengthy discussion, a desire to be inclusive ruled the day. The requirement of baptism to receive communion will be absent if the full body of commissioners votes to send the revision to presbyteries for ratification.

 

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General Assembly Urged to Intensify Pressure against Israel

By Alan F.H. Wisdom

israelflagTwo years after the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly ordered denominational divestment from three corporations doing business with Israel, the 2016 assembly will receive proposals for further measures directed against the Jewish state. Two overtures from local presbyteries would protest Israel’s presence in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank by targeting corporations held complicit in that presence. Another overture would commend Palestinian calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. A fourth would denounce Israel for violating the human rights of Palestinian children. A proposed resolution from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy faults “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” for difficulties in achieving a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Unlike previous assemblies, next week’s gathering in Portland, Ore., will not see any overtures disputing the anti-Israel onslaught. An overture from Flint River Presbytery that would have revoked the 2014 divestment mandate was disqualified for lack of a concurrence from another presbytery. Of the six items currently before the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee, five aim harsh criticisms at Israel. The other one gently raises concerns about threats to Middle Eastern Christians from unnamed “religiously based” actors in the region.

Item 08-01, an overture from the Synod of the Covenant, would summon U.S. Presbyterians to “boycott all products manufactured and sold” by Hewlett Packard (HP). The reason cited is HP’s sales of biometric scanners, personal digital assistants, and other information technology used by the Israeli military in the West Bank. By these sales, the overture charges, HP “profit[s] from these human rights abuses [against Palestinians] and acts of militarized violence.” Hewlett Packard was one of three companies named in the 2014 divestment mandate.

Item 08-02, also from the Synod of the Covenant, asserts that “the children of Palestine … suffer widespread and systematic patterns of ill treatment and torture within the Israeli military detention system.” It demands that Israel change its tactics for suppressing West Bank terrorism: “stop night arrests; stop blindfolds and restraints; stop separation from parents and legal counsel; stop physical abuse and verbal threats; and stop isolation and coerced confessions.” The overture does not address the tactics of Palestinian political movements that place children in harm’s way by encouraging them to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Item 08-04, an overture from the Presbytery of the Redwoods, notes that RE/MAX “has real estate franchises involved in the sale and rental of Jewish-only housing in Israeli settlement colonies in the occupied West Bank of Palestine.” It asks Presbyterians to press U.S. RE/MAX offices to “cut [their] ties with [Israeli] franchises involved in the sale or rental of settlement properties in the occupied West Bank.”

Item 08-07, an overture from New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina, asks Presbyterians to “[p]rayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel.” It advises church members to “[e]ngage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue with the authors and signatories of this [pro-BDS] document.” The overture makes no mention of dialogue with Israelis or Palestinians opposed to a BDS strategy.

Item 08-06 is a lengthy resolution from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace.” The ACSWP resolution re-examines the PCUSA’s longstanding support for a “two-state solution” with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza standing alongside Israel. “[T]he door to a viable Palestinian state is closing rapidly, if it is still open at all,” ACSWP warns.

The resolution fixes all blame on one side of the conflict: “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.” Without repudiating a two-state solution, ACSWP recommends that “the Presbyterian Church (USA) should advance those efforts that best accord with its values, which have relevance in any political arrangement, including but not limited to that of two sovereign states—Israel and Palestine.”

 Among all the issues that might be raised regarding the Middle East—catastrophic wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, for example—only one of the six items before the assembly committee deals with anything besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Item 08-03, from the Presbytery of New York City, expresses concern that Christians “have been leaving the Middle East in growing numbers for decades.” It attributes those departures to two causes: economic difficulties and “religiously based radical thought and action in the region.” The overture does not name any specific groups that might be the source of this “religiously based” threat to fellow Christians. It directs PCUSA officials to consult with Middle Eastern partner churches about how best to address the problem.

 

 

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ACSWP Resolution Blames Israel for Fading Peace Prospects

By Alan F.H. Wisdom

A proposed resolution from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) faults “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” for difficulties in achieving a peace settlement with the Palestinians. By contrast, the resolution declines to attribute blame to the other side in the conflict: the Palestinian Authority leadership. This ACSWP resolution is to be considered, alongside four other anti-Israel proposals, at the PCUSA General Assembly starting Saturday in Portland, OR.

Thisraelpalestine-flagse lengthy resolution, entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” was developed by ACSWP in response to a request from the 2014 PCUSA assembly. That assembly asked ACSWP to “make a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance that seeks not to determine for Israelis and Palestinians what the right ‘solution’ should be.” A “two-state solution” would involve Israel co-existing with a sovereign Palestinian state planted on the West Bank and Gaza. A “neutral stance” would have opened the PCUSA to the alternate possibility, favored by many Palestinian activists, of a single Arab-majority state ruling over the entire land, including its Jewish communities.

This year’s proposal responds ambiguously to the 2014 request. “Over the years,” ACSWP notes, “the Presbyterian church has supported the international consensus favoring a two-state solution with a shared Jerusalem. Yet as situations change, the church must evaluate its positions accordingly. And in the view of many analysts, the door to a viable Palestinian state is closing rapidly, if it is still open at all.”

The resolution complains, “Repeating the mantra of ‘Two-State Solution’ has kept U.S. funding flowing to Israel but has failed to end the violence or lead to mutually accepted solutions.” It decries “the growth of Israeli power and resources and the weakening of Palestinian economic capacity, institutions, and culture, and even family life.” ACSWP cites Israelis and Palestinians who doubt that any peace agreement is possible under such unequal conditions. Nevertheless, the PCUSA committee wishes “[t]o keep open the option of a two-state solution” in the absence of a better alternative.

A Bill of Particulars against Israel

For the stalemated peace process, ACSWP casts all blame upon Israel. It describes the Palestinians as “a people kept stateless by [Israeli] military occupation and exile.” The resolution laments: “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued [Jewish] settlements and brutal occupation [in the Palestinian-majority West Bank] is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.”

The ACSWP resolution delivers a bill of particulars against Israeli policy:

  • “The Israeli government has annexed all Jerusalem and expanded the city’s boundaries to include [Jewish] settlements, while depriving Palestinian residents of citizenship and public services….”
  • Palestinian “[r]efugees’ right of return to their former homes in what is now Israel … remains unaddressed.”
  • “Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, illegal under international law, have continued to expand in number, territory, and population….”
  • Israel’s security barrier “primarily on West Bank territory follows a path in defiance of a decision by the International Court of Justice.”
  • “Israeli authorities tightly limit the access of Palestinians to water….”
  • “Economic development for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffers from Israeli restrictions” on the movement of people and goods.
  • “Problems in Gaza have always been the most severe, due to the economic and fiscal blockade and periodic attacks by Israel.”

In urging policy changes, the resolution specifically addresses only Israel and the United States. For example, it demands that Israel “stop the collective punishment and isolation of broad sections of the Palestinian population—the blockade of Gaza, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the administrative detention, the torture and forced feeding of Palestinian detainees—and to restore the ID documents and citizenship status that have been stripped from Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.” There are no equivalent demands made for respect of human rights by the Palestinian Authority.

 Hinting at ‘Limitations of Palestinian Leadership’

The PCUSA committee alludes only briefly to concerns about Palestinian policies. Its resolution speaks elliptically of “limitations of Palestinian leadership” that are not all Israel’s fault.  ACSWP criticizes “decisions of the Palestinian Authority that discourage new leadership and its passivity in the face of” alleged Israeli violations of previous peace accords. It grieves, “Despite the daily heroism and nonviolence of countless Palestinians, their political organizations have not maintained the unity needed for strength.” In other words, ACSWP’s insinuation is not that Palestinian leaders are overly aggressive against Israel but the opposite: that the Palestinian Authority is insufficiently aggressive.

The resolution acknowledges in a single phrase that the Islamist Hamas movement controlling Gaza “promotes an antagonistic ideology.” But it is quick to offer excuses: Hamas “mirrors the extremist Israeli settler parties,” its leaders have difficulty operating amidst “repeated Israeli military efforts to remove them since their victory in the free and fair elections of 2006,” and the Islamist movement “has arguably offered long-term truces to Israel in the past.” Unmentioned is the fact that Hamas’s charter declares that the entire “land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf [trust] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day” and “[t]here is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad.”

ACSWP minimizes Israel’s worries about its security as a small nation surrounded by mostly hostile neighbors. “Israel faces no significant military challenges,” the resolution reassures, and “most Israelis lead relatively secure lives.” It charges that Israel “labels any resistance as ‘terrorism,’ even though international law gives an occupied people the right to armed struggle to resist the occupier.” The use of sneer quotes suggests that Palestinian “resistance” is not “terrorism,” and that it is justified in any case.

The proposed PCUSA resolution defends its one-sided blaming of Israel by asserting that “the Israelis and Palestinians are in no sense equal negotiating partners. We reject any false equivalence between the capacity of a prosperous nuclear-armed state [Israel] and that of a poor, divided, and occupied set of cantons [the Palestinians].” In other words, the inequality of forces absolves Palestinians of any responsibility for the absence of peace.

 One-Sided Solidarity

ACSWP, however, does hold the United States responsible for Israel’s sins. It “urges Congress to hold hearings into the use of U.S.-made and subsidized military and police equipment by the government of Israel in carrying out policies that abuse human rights, violate Geneva Accords, or oppose American principles of religious liberty and nondiscrimination.” ACSWP asks the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of “organizations … that promote and finance the development or operation of Israeli settlements.” It makes no similar request regarding the tax-exempt status of organizations that support Palestinian causes. Nor does it express concern about misuse of U.S. aid by the Palestinian Authority.

The resolution denounces “Christian Zionism” as a “heretical belief” that “does not reflect Presbyterian values.” It rejects the Zionist conviction that “[t]here has to be a Jewish state where Jews can find refuge.” It disputes the notion that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” It denies that “Islamic extremism is driving Christians out of the Holy Land.”

In the end, ACSWP leaves the question of the “two-state solution” hanging unresolved. It concludes, “This resolution takes the position that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should advance those efforts that best accord with its values, which have relevance in any political arrangement, including but not limited to that of two sovereign states—Israel and Palestine.” Those values include “the dignity of all persons, despite our universal capacity to do harm; self-determination of peoples through democratic means; the building up of community and pursuit of reconciliation; equality under the law and reduction in the separation that fosters inequality; recognition of our complicity and the need for confession and repentance; and solidarity with those who suffer.”

“Without repudiating a long-term goal of two free states living in peace and prosperity, or losing hope that the United States can use its influence and considerable funds in a proportionate and helpful way,” the proposed resolution says, “the Presbyterian Church (USA) hopes to act with both integrity and effectiveness, seeking enforcement of international law and solidarity with civil society organizations to protect the individual and collective human rights of Palestinians.” The resolution makes no mention of solidarity in protecting the individual and collective human rights of Israelis.

 

 

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Israel Supporters See Successes and Challenges with Protestant Churches on BDS

BDSAs support for Israel erodes in many Western countries, especially among liberals and the millennial generation, American-Christian backing for the Jewish state is considered one of the bulwarks against such trends. But not all Christians feel warmly about Israel. During the past several years, a number of leading mainline Protestant churches—including the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and most recently the United Methodist Church (UMC)—have considered or voted on resolutions supporting the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In May, at the Church’s quadrennial general conference in Portland, Ore., UMC committees rejected four resolutions that called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel, such as Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

“What happened at the UMC’s general conference is a miracle,” Dexter Van Zile, a Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), told JNS.org.

Van Zile praised the Methodist delegates for going a step further in their decision by voting to encourage UMC institutions “to disaffiliate with the U.S. Committee to End the Occupation, a far-left anti-Israel agitprop organization that includes ISM (International Solidarity Movement) groups that condone violence against Israel and others that agitate for Israel’s destruction.”

“These decisions place the UMC on a separate planet when it comes to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Van Zile said. “On this planet, the adults are firmly in charge. These days, that’s pretty rare.”

Ethan Felson—executive director of the Israel Action Network (IAN), a strategic initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs—said the UMC’s vote highlights the benefits of liberals and conservatives working together.

“IAN applauds the strong stance of the United Methodist Church general convention in rejecting divestment by a sweeping margin both at the committee and plenary level. Liberals and conservatives came together to reject divestment and investment screens at the general convention,” Felson told JNS.org.

While the Methodist Church’s rejection of BDS—and a similar rejection by the Episcopal Church at its general convention in 2015—mark positive developments for pro-Israel advocates, there remains a broader challenge to win over more support from other mainline Protestant churches. Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted to divest from companies doing business in Israel in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

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Related article: JCRC Meeting Addresses BDS Among Christian Denominations and on Campus

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Methodist Supporters of Israel-Related Divestment Regroup After Setback

By Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service.

umcUnited Methodists who want their church to sanction Israel are regrouping after a committee at their denomination’s General Conference rejected four divestment or investment screening resolutions over the weekend.

Those resolutions “pretty much went down in flames,” said John Lomperis, the director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s United Methodist Action Program and an opponent of divestment.

At the quadrennial policy-making gathering of the 7 million-member church, supporters of selective divestment from companies to pressure Israel out of the Occupied Territories now are rallying around several different plans for the 864 delegates to consider.

Divestment related to Israel’s territories has been a contentious issue at the conference, as it has been in other mainline churches, on college campuses and in trade unions in recent years. Pro-Palestinian divestment supporters say it can help free an oppressed people. Anti-divestment groups say the strategy delegitimizes Israel’s existence and ignores Palestinians’ role in fomenting the conflict.

Positive investments are not a substitute for divestment, according to Susanne Hoder, co-chair of the United Methodist Kairos Response, which had prepared the resolutions related to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But, Hoder said, “Where we see opportunities to move forward together, we’re going to seize them, and I think we’ve demonstrated that in a conference where there are a lot of strong differences of opinion, we’ve managed to find a way forward to work together with people who have opposing views.”

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