In an unprecedented victory for pro-Palestinian activists, leaders of the largest Presbyterian denomination officially equated the Jewish state with apartheid South Africa and have voted to stop investing in Israel.
With the decision, approved in a 431-62 vote at the 216th annual General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA), the church, boasting nearly 3 million members, is believed to be the largest organization or institution to join the fledgling divestment campaign against Israel. It is the first Christian denomination to do so, according to Sister Patricia Wolfe, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, coalition of 275 Christian denominations.
“This now raises the issue,” Wolfe said, “and will cause ICCR to have a discussion.”
In 2001 the combined value of the church’s foundation and pension fund was estimated at $7 billion.
Leaders of Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant church, approved several other anti-Israel resolutions at their gathering in Richmond, Va., and also refused to halt funding for “messianic congregations” that target Jews for conversion.
The Presbyterian resolutions came just as Jewish organizations were hailing the results of a historic international interfaith meeting in Buenos Aires last week, where Roman Catholic officials for the first time signed on to a document equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
The declaration, also signed by Jewish communal leaders, calls for “the total rejection of antisemitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism as a more recent manifestation
of antisemitism.” The declaration also decries terrorism, calling it a sin against man and God, and declaring that “terror, in all its forms, and killing ‘in the name of God’ can never be justified.”
“While the Catholics are decrying antisemitism in any form, it appears as if the Presbyterians are pretending it doesn’t exist,” said Rabbi Gary
Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, who helped draft the Buenos Aires document.
The document was signed by members of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious
Consultation (IJCIC), a coalition including ADL, World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogue movements. It marks the first time at an interfaith meeting that the Catholic Church has equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which Pope John Paul II has defined as a sin.
“With the imprimatur of the Vatican, the Catholic Church is recognizing that anti-Zionism is an attack not only against Jews, but against the whole Jewish people,” said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
“I believe it is important for Catholic-Jewish relations because it deepens the Vatican’s firm commitment to the State of Israel as a political entity,” said Father John Pawlikowski, head of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, who also helped draft the document.
Jewish and Catholic leaders pledged to publicize the declaration and to work together for justice and charity — the themes of the conference. Theological issues and human rights concerns were discussed, as well, and participants proposed a joint celebration next year commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II Council.
The tone was quite different in Richmond, where Presbyterian leaders passed several highly critical resolutions regarding Israel. Jewish organizational leaders were particularly angry over the divestment measure.
“The national policy is very, very troublesome,” said Rabbi Gil Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues, in an interview with the Forward. Rosenthal, who said he was the first rabbi ever invited to a General Assembly, added: “I’m dismayed that there’s such a one-sided attitude.”
Rabbi Lennard Thal, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which recently launched a national interreligious dialogue with Presbyterians as well as other Protestant representatives, said he was very disappointed, calling the resolutions “heavy-handed.”
James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee, called the Presbyterian actions “a catastrophic disaster.”
ADL leaders blasted the resolutions in a letter sent Tuesday to Presbyterian leader Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick.
“To assert that there is a moral equivalency between the racist policy of apartheid and the efforts to protect the citizenry of Israel is unconscionable,” wrote Bretton-Granatoor and national director Abraham Foxman. “The recent actions… calls into question the efforts of interfaith dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews.”
But Jay Rock, Director for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, told the Forward that Jewish-Presbyterian relations “are very good.” The only problem, he said, is a “wildly different opinion on how to go about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I think there’s a blindness on both sides of the disagreement. I think there’s truth on both sides.”
The assembly set the stage for the church to divest itself from companies that receive $1 million dollars or more in profits per year from investments in Israel or have invested $1 million dollars or more in Israel.
In a news release, the Presbyterian Church (USA) liaison to the Middle East, Rev. Victor Makari, was quoted as saying: “If nothing else seems to have changed the policy of Israel toward Palestinians, we need to send a clear and strong message.” The church news release noted that “divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and ‘80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.”
In addition to the Israel resolutions, assembly participants voted 260 to 233 to reject a proposal to stop future funding of messianic congregations. The vote came after a debate last year that arose over revelations that the church had been funding a messianic congregation in Philadelphia accused of using deceptive tactics to attract Jews.
Rev. Dr. William Harter, who fought to suspend funding, said the narrow margin — 27 votes — was much closer than expected, and could be seen as a victory for better interfaith relations.
He contended that approval of a related motion calling for study and re-examination of the relationship between Presbyterians and Jews over the next two years means the Presbyterian Church “recognizes we need to do more in-depth conversation, dialogue and study of our relationship with the Jewish people.”
Harter also said the assembly’s “one-sided” Israel resolutions must be understood in context, citing previous resolutions affirming Israel’s rights to existence and security. And while conceding Israel and Jews “took a beating” this year at the assembly, he said grass roots and local relationships between Jews and Presbyterians “remain strong and positive.”
But, Harter added, to be considered credible, Presbyterian Church (USA) must in the future approve resolutions stating concern for Christian persecution in Arab lands, particularly in areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority.