As Jewish groups struggle against increasing attempts to delegitimize Israel, they are claiming at least partial victory when it comes to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Following intensive grassroots lobbying efforts by a coalition of national Jewish organizations, the 219th General Assembly of the the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been meeting this week, July 3-10 in Minneapolis, on Friday rejected overtures that called for divestment from Israel and equated Israeli policy with apartheid.
In an equally significant move, the G.A. also declined Friday to endorse the original text of an inflammatory report on the Middle East conflict that threatened to drive a wedge between the organized Jewish community and the two-million member church. Instead, the G.A’s 700 delegates passed a revised report, in which much of the language most troubling to Jewish groups had been modified or replaced.
But Jewish groups did not win all the concessions they had hoped. Despite intensive lobbying, delegates overwhelmingly approved a call tying U.S. aid to Israel to a settlement freeze. Another overture denounced Caterpillar, which has long been targeted by anti-Israel activists because it supplies bulldozers to the Israeli military.
“Because it’s not perfect, you can look at the glass as half full or half empty,” said Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I would strongly prefer, based on the mood and the prospects, to look at the glass as half full.”
Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs— the national umbrella group that oversees local Jewish Community Relations Councils and led the lobbying effort – went even further, calling it a “remarkable General Assembly.”
“The different segments of the church came here looking to model the Israeli Palestinian conflict, with each of them thinking that they had to support or defeat the report that was before them,” Felson said, referring to the Middle East Study Committee’s controversial report. “The committee found a way to bring all the voices together in a unanimous report that models a new approach.”
Still, Felson added, “significant concerns remain.”
Jewish groups have been working to defeat divestment resolutions put forth by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 2004, when the G.A. first considered the issue. A 2006 divestment resolution was voted down, and two years later, the Middle East Study Committee was formed to articulate the church’s stance on Israeli-Palestinian policy issues.
This time around, Jewish groups were most concerned with the resulting 173-page report, which argued against the biblical interpretation of Israel as the promised land of the Jewish people and called for a blanket lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
Over the course of the weeklong assembly, however, committee members on the left and on the right hashed out a compromise. The report’s historical narrative section – which Jewish groups and some Presbyterians viewed as egregiously skewed to the Palestinian point of view – will be replaced with eight different narratives, four from the Israeli side, and four from the Palestinian side.
Additionally, the language around the Gaza blockade was amended so that it now applies to both Israel and Egypt, and allows for a blockade on military equipment.
“Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation was affirmed,” said the Reverend Doctor Katharine Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institute for religious leadership development.
Henderson also noted that only the “positive” aspects of the Kairos Palestine document – a call for an end to the Israeli occupation, which was drafted in 2009 by Palestinian Christians – were adopted. Jewish groups had feared that the document, which calls for boycott, divestment, and economic sanctions against Israel, would be endorsed in its totality.
“In the final analysis, it isn’t everything we wanted, in every way we wanted,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious & intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee. “So although there is still a sensitivity and affinity for Palestinian Christians, which I would expect they will continue to have, they have been able to understand the Israeli point of view much more clearly,” he said, referring to the Presbyterians.
At least one major Jewish organization was less than thrilled with the outcome.
“We are saddened that the efforts of our good friends in the Presbyterian Church who worked so hard were not more successful and, at best, averted a rupture between the Church and the Jewish people,” the national ADL director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement.