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Jewish Journal

Episcopal Church Mulls Divestment

by David Finnigan

October 7, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Jewish leaders are displeased with another mainline Protestant church's call for divestment of church funds from companies doing business with Israel, with Southern California clergy trying to quell what could be an interfaith nightmare.

"Obviously one of our fears when the Presbyterians' divestment call came was that it would spread to other denominations," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. "That looks like it's the case; our fears have been realized."

Buoyed by last summer's controversial Israel divestment push by the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church is moving closer to divestment. On Sept. 22, the Church of England's Anglican Peace and Justice Network issued a worldwide call for Israel to recognize Jerusalem as a shared capital of Israel and a separate Palestinian state and assure the Palestinian refugees the "right of return."

The Anglican group also called for, "the unconditional recognition of the state of Palestine." After comparing the Israeli-Arab conflict to apartheid-era South Africa, the group's leader, Jenny Te Paa of New Zealand, told London's The Guardian newspaper that it was "the Christian call" to advocate for divestment and take on Israel, "one of the most wealthy and incredibly powerful nations."

The Anglican Peace and Justice Network has influence over peace activists in the Episcopal Church, the Church of England's U.S. counterpart. On Oct. 1, the Episcopal Socially Responsible Investment Panel further enraged Jewish leaders by saying the church should research possible divestment.

Like the Presbyterians, the Anglican and Episcopalian divestment overtures are still in the preliminary stages, but the thought of Christian churches trying to financially isolate the Jewish state is unnerving to Jewish leaders.

"This is the diplomatic and 'civil society' flip side of the intifada," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said too many anti-American activists are embracing Israel, "as the new apartheid state.... These moves by elites in these two crucial churches, inspired by pro-Palestinian activists and prodding from their over-the-top European partners, do not reflect the rank and file of the churches they speak for."

In the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, the prominent All Saints Church in Pasadena has an active Middle East Ministry. Elizabeth Crighton, a ministry member and Pomona College politics professor, said the Anglican and Episcopalian divestment suggestions have not been examined at the parish level.

"That conversation has yet to be held," said Crighton, whose teaching specialties include ethnic conflict and peace processes. "We are not yet clear what we are going to do, if anything, with this. I think it's an interesting resolution; it's always a question of what the impact of what a divestment decision would be. Unless lots of groups and lots of individuals jump on board, it has no real impact. I think we need to think about it."

The Anglican peace group's adviser is the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian clergyman who runs the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. The center has denounced Christian Zionism and approaches the conflict from the Palestinian perspective. Last year on the Sabeel Web site, Ateek grieved over the sudden death of Palestinian American scholar and anti-Israel critic Edward Said, an Anglican.

All Saints has hosted Ateek and has been open to many Sabeel perspectives. "We have connections to them, and visitors from Sabeel, so we're definitely connected," Crighton said.

On Oct. 12, All Saints will host a trio of Muslim, Christian and Jewish women from Jerusalem to discuss peace. The group hosting the women's U.S. tour is Washington, D.C.-based Partners for Peace, a Palestinian-allied activist group. Crighton said the women were being hosted at the church as part of their tour but had not been specifically invited. "It was not something that we initiated," she said.

A link between All Saints and the Anglican peace group is Ethan Flad, the Oakland-based editor of the Episcopal online magazine The Witness. Along with Ateek, Flad signed the Anglican group's statement calling for the Palestinian "right of return." All Saints is home to the national Episcopalian gay outreach group Claiming The Blessing, and Flad sits on the group's steering committee. Flad will speak this weekend in Atlanta at the Claiming The Blessing activism conference; his workshop topic will be Israel's security barrier.

"What were hoping to do [at the Atlanta conference] is the draw the parallels between the interlocking oppressions that many of us suffer in terms of a variety of justice issues," said the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming The Blessing. "We as a church are not of one opinion on how best to a partner for peace in the Middle East. We have to continue to wrestle through it."

Diamond met with Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno and his staff, with the rabbi coming away from the meeting cautious but hopeful. "I think they made it clear they wanted to engage in conversation with Jewish leadership prior to coming forward with any resolution," Diamond said. "And those discussions at least locally have begin and will continue."

Bruno is expected to travel to Israel Feb. 7-14 with Diamond and other local Christian clergy. The rabbi and bishop both serve on the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles.

Bruno could not be reached for comment this week because he was traveling. His spokesperson, Janet Kawamoto, said the bishop and Diamond "are in dialogue on this issue and they plan to work together to put together a task force on all the pertinent issues."

Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch is taking more of a wait-and-see approach and continuing dialogue with Bruno. "I really think these [divestment] proposals are wrong-headed," he said.

Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center are launching "an ongoing effort to communicate with pro-Israel voices within these churches to urge them to take the lead in turning back these initiatives," he said.

Cooper also said he wants the Jewish community "to reach out in an informed, firm, but respectful way to the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches to lobby for help. What our Christian neighbors need to hear is how strongly African Americans felt in their opposition to apartheid 20 years ago is matched by the depths of our love and commitment to a safe, viable Israel -- one that is treated as an equal among nations."

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