Presbyterian Church Proposals Could Reopen Wounds With Jews
By Josh Gerstein, Staff Reporter of the Sun
San Jose, Calif. - An unusually broad array of American Jewish groups is sounding an alarm about proposals the Presbyterian Church is set take up here tomorrow addressing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.
At least 19 Jewish organizations, ranging from Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America, have spoken out against some of the so-called overtures to be debated at the weeklong biennial meeting of Presbyterians in America.
Jewish leaders contend that some of the resolutions and a new church statement on anti-Semitism threaten to reopen the wounds caused in 2004 when the Presbyterian general assembly approved a measure threatening divestment in companies that do business with the Israeli government.
In a blunt letter this month, leaders of three Jewish denominations said they felt betrayed by Presbyterian Church officials who reached out after the 2004 imbroglio. "Friends, or even dialogue partners, do not engage in actions that can so easily and plausibly be seen as bait-and-switch tactics," Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Dr. Carl Sheingold of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism wrote to the Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, who is stepping down this week after 12 years as the head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The church's statement on anti-Semitism "marks a new low-point in Presbyterian-Jewish relations," the Jewish leaders said. "Indeed, this document reads as a blueprint for how to engage in anti-Israel activity without being accused of anti-Semitism."
A draft of the statement was well-received in the Jewish community, but some Presbyterians objected to it, according to Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "It went too far for some people in the church and they backtracked on it," he said.
In a letter last week, Rev. Kirkpatrick called for a new meeting with Jewish leaders and seemed to acknowledge that communications broke down as the church was finalizing the statement on "Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias in the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace."
"It is clear that, in making the changes to its original version, we have strained our relationships with you, and awakened mistrust between us, and we regret this," he wrote.
About 10 resolutions on Mideast issues are scheduled to be debated when a Presbyterian Church committee on peacemaking convenes tomorrow. One from Newark-area churches calls for a suspension of American military aid to Israel. Another proposal, from San Francisco-area churches, seeks to spur divestment in Caterpillar Inc. and Motorola Inc., because of the use of their equipment by the Israeli military.
"What we are trying to do is call the question on divestment," a church member of San Francisco, Thomas McAfee, said in an interview. He said church members clearly expressed their intent to divest in 2004, but discussions with the companies have gone nowhere. "The process, without divestment as a clear result and consequence, will be endless," he added.
Mr. McAfee noted that the proposed divestment, which could affect $7 billion in church pension funds, is targeted at specific companies and not Israel generally. "We are divesting from the occupation," he said. "I fail to see how divesting from Caterpillar and Motorola is a punishment to anyone."
However, during an interfaith discussion sponsored by Jewish groups yesterday afternoon, other Presbyterians said the church's image with Jews was hurt in 2004 and would be hurt further if new divestment resolutions were adopted. "Do we seriously want to be peacemakers? If we do, we need to have credibility with both sides," the Reverend William Harter of Chambersburg, Pa., said. He also noted that the resolutions do not address the threats Israel faces from other countries, such as Iran. "Be sensitive to the regional contextual framing," he said.
Mr. Felson noted yesterday that some of the language appears to have been deliberately worded to focus on companies supporting the Israeli military, while ignoring large multinational firms that support Iran, which is a major financier of terrorism against Israelis.
A former Presbyterian pastor of Oakland, Calif., Rebecca Kuiken, said the church's use of "Palestinian liberation theology" to posit Palestinian Christians as persecuted by the Jewish state ignored the complexities of the situation.
"Much of what we are doing in our Middle East overtures offers an inaccurate and inadequate reading of theology and history. There is an unbalanced and topsy-turvy use and abuse of Exodus. I don't think this is the right story for this region for right now," she said.
While some Presbyterian divestment advocates complained that the calls for dialogue and "selective divestment" had been overlooked by the press, Rabbi Melanie Aron said church members needed to understand that their actions are inevitably seen and portrayed as an attack on Israel.
"It becomes a movement to isolate Israel," Rabbi Aron said. "It's about that symbolism."
While the Jewish groups objecting to some resolutions claim the membership of more than 90% of "affiliated Jews," many critics of Israel in the church stress that they have the support of some Jews, including a group called Jewish Voice for Peace.
Mr. Felson said Jewish groups that believe in Zionism are virtually united in opposition to divestment. Only a "fringe" that does not support the idea of a Jewish state embraces divestment, he said.