Jewish-Presbyterian Ties at ‘New Low’

Washington — Jewish outreach efforts to one of the major Protestant churches suffered a blow this month, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) backtracked on language providing assurances against anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric within the denomination.

Earlier this month, after a period of intense dialogue with Jewish groups, the church published a document that it defined as a “resource” on “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias.”

But according to Jewish communal officials, language that the church had assured would be included in the publication was omitted from the final version, a turnaround described in a letter by leaders of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements as a “new low-point in Presbyterian-Jewish relations.” Indeed, while pledging to continue reaching out to mainline Protestants, those involved in interfaith dialogue were quite explicit in their criticism of the Presbyterians.

“They are particularly problematic to the Jewish people and the Jewish state,” said Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 125 local Jewish community relations councils.

A spokesman at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquarters in Louisville, Ky., did not return calls for comment.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, mainline Protestant churches, including the United Methodists, the Presbyterians and others, have taken a critical stand that is viewed by many American Jewish groups as biased. Several resolutions passed by the churches have called for divestment of church assets from companies they consider to be complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. The resolutions prompted efforts at interfaith dialogue between Jewish groups and the churches, but the outreach has yielded uneven results.

The Presbyterian church’s definition of the document as a “resource” means it will not be debated or voted on at the church’s upcoming General Assembly. The final version of the document, according to Jewish officials who examined the text, contains a series of changes, additions and omissions that amount to a negative change in attitude toward the Jewish community and toward Israel.

As one example, they pointed to the omission of a paragraph from the original version that called on Presbyterians to be vigilant when dealing with allegations against Israel and Jews in the context of the Palestinian conflict. Another sentence from the original that was dropped from the new version, according to the Jewish officials, read: “We Presbyterians can and should confront stereotypes and biases we may hold regarding Israel, characterize the concerns and positions of Jews accurately, and avoid stereotyping or demonizing the Jewish people.” Also omitted is a reference to Presbyterian discourse on the Palestinian issue as being “troubling in its demonization of Israel.”

A comparative analysis of the original and new texts prepared by the JCPA found that in the new version, “the burden is shifted to Jews.” The revised document, the analysis notes, calls Israel “the oppressive force in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”

“These changes are very significant and represent a major theological shift,” Felson said.

The church has 2.3 million members and more than 10,000 congregations. Its biannual General Assembly begins June 21 in San Jose, Calif.

Relations between the Jewish community and the Presbyterians turned rocky after a series of church statements in 2004, arguing that the Israeli occupation was “at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.”

The statements prompted an intense outreach effort on both the local and national levels, between Jewish communities and their neighboring presbyteries, and between communal leaders of both sides. While Jewish officials involved in the dialogue effort described the talks as having their “ups and downs,” they noted a sense of progress that reached its peak two years ago. At the church’s 2006 General Assembly, Presbyterian leaders apologized for any pain their rhetoric had caused. They also called for a “new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

To judge by the flurry of critical Jewish responses to the church’s revised publication, mutual understanding remains an elusive goal.

“Today we note with profound hurt that the season for which we continue to hope has indeed not yet arrived,” read a June 10 statement signed by 12 leading Jewish groups.

“The new statement marks a new low-point in Presbyterian-Jewish relations,” read another letter sent by leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements to the head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reverend Cliff Kirkpatrick. “Friends, or even dialogue partners, do not engage in actions that can so easily and plausibly be seen as ‘bait and switch’ tactics.”

But despite disappointment over the Presbyterians’ about-face, the interfaith outreach efforts will continue, said Mark Pelavin, director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Interreligious Affairs.

“We’re frustrated and angry,” Pelavin said, “but that doesn’t mean we will walk away.”

Author

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at guttman@forward.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman

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Jewish-Presbyterian Ties at ‘New Low’

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