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Lessons One Rabbi Learned From Presbyterian Church (USA)

by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

July 13, 2010 | 5:37 pm

In 2004, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA), passed a resolution calling for divestment from companies assisting the “occupation.” It became the first mainline Protestant denomination urging punitive action against Israel. This led other denominations to consider similar measures.

Two years ago, against the backdrop of protests from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other groups, Presbyterian friends succeeded in shepherding a resolution calling for a complete review of the church’s Mideast posture to restore a sense of balance.
Unfortunately, the heavily pro-Palestinian Middle East Study Committee (MESC) threw the book at Israel.

The report blamed all woes on Israel’s “occupation.” It accepted the Arab historic narrative, while ignoring Israel’s. Here’s how it depicted the Six-Day War: “In June 1967, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria.” No mention of the genocidal threats and armies poised on its borders. It apologized for having to mention that Israel had a right to exist. It endorsed the notorious Kairos Palestine Document that denies Israel’s right to be a Jewish state, calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, offers a justification for suicide bombing and reverts to replacement theology, in which all promises made to the Jewish people in Hebrew Scripture are transferred to Christians, and Jews cease to have any place in history.

To become church policy, the report would have to clear Committee 14, in charge of all Middle East resolutions, and then a full floor vote. At the invitation of Presbyterian friends with whom we worked closely for years, I traveled to the General Assembly on behalf of the Wiesenthal Center to address delegates.

To their credit, committee members recognized that the report was flawed and began amending it — trying to remain faithful to what they saw as their responsibilities to partner churches and Palestinian Christians, while simultaneously listening to Israel’s advocates — Presbyterian and Jewish.

The worst elements, including very hostile declarations on theology, boycotts and the impossibility of a Jewish state, did not become church policy.

But we did not accomplish everything we hoped for. Instead of repudiating the Kairos Palestine Document, now a template for anti-Israel activism in churches on both sides of the Atlantic, it remains available for Presbyterians to “study.”

The development with the greatest potential for good was the decision to scrap the horrid history section to be replaced by eight narratives, four Palestinian and four Israeli. For the first time, mainstream Israeli voices will be heard by members of PCUSA.

Whatever good came out of the General Assembly is due to a cadre of indefatigable Presbyterian friends, many of whom worked hours a day for years. The Jewish community should know their names, beginning with a supermensch, the Rev. Bill Harter. Harter began his role in Presbyterian-Jewish relations in 1967 and has been a tireless campaigner for Israel ever since. Many others deserve recognition, including the Revs. John Wimberly, Bob Henley and Jim Berkley, and laypeople Gary Green, Jim Roberts and JoAnn Magnuson.

Another PCUSA friend, U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), without fanfare organized an impactful letter to church leadership from Presbyterian members of Congress.

However people score last week’s events, we can take solace from the unprecedented number of Presbyterians who stood up for Israel this year like no year before.

We will need them. We remain deeply troubled that mainline denominations refuse to refer to Israel as a Jewish state and to openly repudiate supersessionism. Dozens of NGOs continue the campaign to push churches, academic groups, labor unions and cultural agencies to smear Israel as an apartheid state. The demands of the global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) advocates are not to secure a two-state solution but to erase the “historic mistake” of Israel. This campaign first manifested itself at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, and is buoyed by the World Council of Churches’ decades-long hostility toward Israel.

These groups are beating down the doors of our closest allies across the Christian spectrum, including evangelicals. We must be resolute in battling them on many fronts, including print and digital media. We need a new cadre of informed Jews to reach out to Christian neighbors.

It is not just non-Jews we need to reach. My most difficult moments at the General Assembly were not listening to Palestinian pastors or hearing the small number of vicious anti-Semites in the hall. Most painful was listening to Jews who came to passionately endorse every anti-Israel initiative. Our community needs to work harder to understand how to retrieve Jews who today stand at the forefront of delegitimizing Israel efforts.

As a rabbi, I think it is also important to thank our Presbyterian neighbors for welcoming us and allowing us to take part in their deliberations. Only in America!

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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