Church Report Deemed ‘Anti-Israel’ Endangers Jewish-Presbyterian Ties

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.

The country’s main Presbyterian denomination is set to consider officially endorsing a church report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jewish groups are condemning in the strongest terms.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is expected to consider the report, recently issued by a church study group, at its biennial General Assembly in July. Jewish communal officials are expressing frustration over their difficulties in having a meaningful dialogue with the policy-making ranks of the church and are warning that the adoption of the report would do serious damage to Jewish-Presbyterian ties.

Countering perceived pro-Palestinian bias among so-called mainline Protestant churches has been an ongoing battle for the Jewish community, one that has yielded only limited success. The situation, some say, is actually getting worse.

“It is all snowballing,” warned Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “We are seeing an increase in anti-Israel resources being disseminated by these churches.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which claims to have 2.1 million members in more than 10,000 congregations, has been a focus of Jewish communal concern since 2004. That year the church’s General Assembly voted to explore divesting from select multinational companies doing business with Israel, based on their impact on the conflict with the Palestinians. After an outcry from Jewish groups, the church’s next General Assembly in 2006 distanced itself from the divestment resolution, calling instead for investment “in peaceful pursuits.” In 2008, the General Assembly called for the formation of a study group to examine policy issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and articulate an “evenhanded view.”

But the 173-page Presbyterian report, which was released in April, has sparked outrage from the organized Jewish community. Jewish groups were irked by the report’s approach to theology, history and current politics, and also by what they regarded as its condescending approach toward the Jewish community.

The report argues against the biblical interpretation of Israel as the promised land of the Jewish people; it refrains from using the term “homeland” when describing the Jewish connection to Israel, and it portrays Israel’s occupation of what it says is Palestinian territory as “the major obstacle to regional stability.” It also expresses “an equal concern” about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Israel’s nuclear stockpile.

The issue of divestment is not a prominent part of the report, though it does call for divesting Presbyterian funds from Caterpillar, which pro-Palestinian activists have targeted over its sales of bulldozers to the Israeli military. But even if the assembly endorses the report, this recommendation would still need the approval of the church’s investment committee to be implemented. The report does, however, endorse the Kairos-Palestine paper, a document issued last year by Palestinian Christians that criticizes Israel using theological language and includes a general call for divestment from companies doing business with Israel.

Presbyterian Church (USA) spokesman Barry Creech at the church’s headquarters in Louisville, Ky., did not respond to requests from the Forward for comment.

For Jewish groups, there was also a deep sense of insult because of the way the report described the views of American Jews. It urged the Jewish community to “catch up” with views held by several left-wing organizations, naming Jewish Voice for Peace, B’Tselem and J Street as models from which other Jewish organizations should learn.

The report “speaks down to the Jewish community,” said a statement issued by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Jewish communal officials complained that while the study group that prepared the report spent hours speaking to left-wing groups, it only invited one representative from a mainstream American Jewish group and only for a one-hour panel alongside representative of non-Jewish groups. The representative, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said this was hardly enough to convey what the community feels. “I told them they cannot check the box of consulting with the Jewish community by inviting me to this short discussion,” he said.

J Street issued a statement stressing that despite being mentioned in the report, it was not consulted and did not speak with the Presbyterian study group. J Street also said it was “troubled” by the report.

Jewish groups have launched a concerted effort to prevent the church’s General Assembly from endorsing the report. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has sent a list of the names of 700 Presbyterian delegates to the upcoming assembly to synagogues and local Jewish community relations councils. The JCPA urged Jewish activists to contact Presbyterian delegates and ask them to reject the report.

Jewish communal officials say that while church leaders and members of its study group were not open to Jewish outreach efforts, many rank-and-file Presbyterians and local church leaders are more receptive to the Jewish community’s views on the issue or are even unaware of the church’s positions regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

“We’re at a deciding crossroad in which our friends in the church have a chance to find a path that allows for positive relations with the Jewish community,” said JCPA’s vice president, Ethan Felson. “Unfortunately, there are those who are advocating for a path that would be extremely destructive.”

The ADL’s Greenberg said that if the church adopts the report “it would raise serious questions about PCUSA’s credibility as a partner in interfaith dialogue with the Jewish community.” Greenberg stressed, however, that he does not believe the issue should affect talks with Presbyterians at the local level.

Emily Soloff, associate director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee, cautioned against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” She argued that disengaging from talks with Presbyterians would only mean “that we cede everything to the Palestinian supporters.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com



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