Ask Pete Bloss why he worked against resolutions critical of Israel at the general assembly of the largest Presbyterian group in the United States, and the Gulfport, Miss., resident speaks more about Hurricane Katrina than about Israeli policy.
“The richness and diversity of points of view in the Jewish community really became clear to us when Jewish college groups started arriving,” he said, recalling the Jews who worked with his church on reconstruction projects after the 2005 disaster. “We koshered our kitchen for several weeks.… We had rabbis teaching the Old Testament in our Sunday school classes. It was just wonderful to share things.”
An elder in his local Presbyterian church, and a practicing attorney, Bloss said that hosting the influx of Jews who came to help “probably energized us, and people like me, to say that when incredibly unbalanced things were taking place with the general assembly, that we wanted to try to be a part of bringing that back into balance.”
Presbyterians and Jewish activists say it was Presbyterians alone who made the decisions the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved on Israel policy at its biennial General Assembly, held from July 2 through July 9 in Minneapolis. But some national Jewish groups have dedicated significant time and resources to building relationships with delegates like Bloss, who has been supportive of Israel within the denomination since 2004.
By the close of the assembly, the Jewish groups felt that their investment had paid off as the convocation approved a report on the Israel-Palestinian conflict that blunted or blocked some of the text’s original language which had most disturbed them.
“Being here is about relationships,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, on the last day of the convention. “That is the most important thing to understand about pro-Israel advocacy.”
Nevertheless, the assembly did accept portions of the report that were heavily critical of Israel, calling its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “a sin against God and other fellow human beings.”
The General Assembly of the PC(USA), which represents the more than 2 million members of the denomination, has been a flashpoint of debate over Israel since at least 2004. That was the year delegates voted to begin a process of “phased selective divestment” from “multinational corporations operating in Israel.” Two years later, that directive was amended by the body to remove the recommendation for divestment in favor of support for “corporate engagement.”
This year, the run-up to the assembly was marked by controversy over a report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, commissioned by the group in 2008. The lengthy document, written by a nine-person committee, criticizes Israel’s occupation and offers a history and analysis of the conflict between Israel, its neighbors,and the Palestinians that critics argued was biased.
National Jewish groups strongly criticized the report. The Simon Wiesenthal Center warned in February that its adoption by the assembly would be “nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel and her supporters.”
Eager to blunt the report’s impact, national Jewish organizations, particularly the JCPA, an umbrella group for local and national Jewish community relations organizations, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the activist arm of the Reform movement, dedicated significant staff time to lobbying against its adoption.
The RAC hired a full-time staff member to work on the effort for about one month. That staff member put Reform rabbis in touch with delegates to the General Assembly from their area to discuss their take on the report. According to Mark Pelavin, associate director of the RAC, at least 100 contacts were made between local rabbis and delegates.
“Those relationships were going to be absolutely crucial,” Pelavin said. “The relationships are ones of long standing.”
While the RAC focused on the lead-up to the conference, the JCPA took the lead during the weeklong event. In the evenings throughout the conference, Felson met with a group of mostly Presbyterian opponents of the report, dubbed the St. Croix group after the room in the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis where they met late into the night. Also in the St. Croix group were Bloss and the Rev. Bill Harter of Chambersburg, Pa., a leader of an organization called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, which opposed the report.
St. Croix group members said that the presence of Jewish representatives, including Felson and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Wiesenthal Center, brought the Jewish community’s voice into their conversation.
“I think that our Jewish friends played a very appropriate role as resource people and conversation partners,” said Katharine Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the PC(USA). “We could have conversations and reflect with our Jewish colleagues on how they felt about the report, how they understood the language of the report. Because the American Jewish community had not been really consulted.”
Adlerstein said that Jewish opponents of the report deliberately kept the number of people they sent to the assembly low so as not to seem overbearing. “They did not want a large Jewish presence there to make it seem like an oppressive amount of Jewish intrusion,” he said.
On the final day of the conference, the General Assembly approved an amended version of the report and its associated recommendations that added a reference to “Israel’s right to exist.” The delegates also replaced language calling for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza with a call for Israel and Egypt to allow humanitarian supplies and commercial goods into Gaza. The assembly voted to simply “receive” rather than adopt as policy one segment of the report that contained reflections on the drafters’ trip to Israel and the occupied territories that were highly critical of Israel. And the group scrapped another section that included a history of the conflict and sent it back with instructions for redrafting.
The delegates also rejected calls for PC(USA) organizations to divest from Caterpillar Inc. over its role in providing bulldozers to the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian buildings on the West Bank. Still, a separate resolution condemning Caterpillar for the sale of the bulldozers was adopted. Another resolution to call Israeli policy toward the Palestinians “apartheid” did not pass.
One strong motion critical of Israel did pass. The approved provision effectively called on the American government to cease military aid to Israel based on the Jewish state’s human rights record. But a pro-Israel delegate dismissed this as a major concern, saying that the provision merely restated long-standing church policy. Jewish advocates for Israel at the conference did not raise concerns about the measure.
National Jewish groups were broadly supportive of what they saw as important compromises. “The church has charted a course that recognizes Israel’s legitimate rights and security needs while remaining faithful to the church’s Palestinian Christian partners,” Felson said.
Not all Jewish groups that lobbied the convention were pleased with the outcome. Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, a group strongly critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, attended the assembly to support divestment from Caterpillar. He criticized the Jewish groups opposing the report, and particularly the Wiesenthal Center’s charge that its adoption would be a “declaration of war.”
“The Simon Wiesenthal Center went into a high level of inflammatory rhetoric, which was really below the belt as far as it being certainly unkind, but also untrue,” Levy said. “The church has been looking time and time again at these issues, and then you have Jewish groups that blackmail the church on interfaith relations. They say, ‘Don’t move forward, because you’re going to upset us.’”
Adlerstein said that he stands by his group’s February statement.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.