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Jewish Journal

New Presbyterian statement irks Jewish groups, sparks divestment fears

by Ben Harris

June 19, 2008 | 4:07 pm

NEW YORK (JTA)—Just days before they are due to consider a range of motions on the Middle East at their biennial convention, the Presbyterian Church USA has released a document on combating anti-Jewish ideas. But Jewish organizational leaders say the statement is “infused with the very bias” it purports to condemn.

The document, “Vigilance Against anti-Jewish Bias In the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” aims to help Presbyterians advance existing church policies opposing Israel’s occupation and the construction of the West Bank separation barrier, while avoiding anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish rhetoric.

“The purpose of this resource is to help Presbyterians guard against anti-Jewish bias, even as they make a strong stand for justice, and work in sustained ways for peace,” the document reads.

But to some Jewish ears, the document lays blame for the conflict squarely with Israel, avoids any substantive treatment of Arab support for terrorism, and is yet another church statement that appears to hold Israel responsible for the violence directed against it.

An unusually large coalition of 13 Jewish organizations—the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, and the major bodies of the Conservative and Reform movements among them—harshly denounced the document last week.

The document’s release has generated fear that years of Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue following pro-divestment votes in 2004 and 2006 have yielded little fruit.

A feeling of betrayal was evident in a separate protest from the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue associations, who wrote to the clerk of the Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Cliff Kirkpatrick, warning the document “marks a new low-point” in intercommunal relations.

In the letter, the leaders say the statement, which replaces an earlier one that was welcomed by the Jewish community, has generated “deep suspicion” that the Presbyterians are engaging in a “bait and switch.”

Presbyterian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

But Rev. Charles Henderson, editor of the interfaith publication Cross Currents and a member of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations, said the document’s authors were not being deceitful. Henderson shares the concerns of Jewish leaders, but thinks the church’s pro-Palestinian factions were responsible for amendments to the original document.

“I think it was simply the fact that Jay Rock and others who may have been involved in the production of the document in the first place didn’t realize the firestorm they may have been stepping into,” Henderson said. “I know the people who are involved as players and I don’t think it was a deceitful bait-and-switch process at all.”

Rev. Jay Rock is the church’s coordinator for interfaith relations.

“A paper that supposedly is dealing with removing anti-Jewish bias in fact becomes a paper on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you read it through, that’s really the major theme,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “And it presents that conflict in a terribly one-sided way. Ultimately, the anti-Semitism part seems in many cases like an afterthought.”

Particularly galling to Yoffie was a lengthy quotation lifted from a recent speech in which he urged Jews to avoid alliances with conservative Christian Zionists like Pastor John Hagee. In that speech, he asserted that they don’t have Israel’s true interests at heart. The Presbyterians cited Yoffie to support their opposition to Christian Zionists whose beliefs, the document says, “negatively affect” Israelis and Palestinians.

“What infuriates me here is they quoted that and embedded it in a doctrine that is so hostile to Israel,” Yoffie said. “I’m not uncomfortable on the substance of the matter.”

In 2004, the Presbyterians became the first Protestant church to endorse divestment from companies doing business in Israel. The vote prompted a flurry of Jewish outreach, leading the church to retreat partially in 2006 with its call for engagement with companies engaging in peaceful pursuits.

After working to help defeat several divestment motions at the recent general assembly of the Methodist Church, Jewish leaders were hopeful that the divestment push could be similarly quashed at the Presbyterian conclave, which begins June 21 in San Jose, Calif.

But the release of the new document has darkened the forecast. It updates an earlier statement on the same subject, released in May, that addressed more fully Christian complicity in anti-Semitism and the tendency of Palestinian liberation theology to displace Jews from the biblical story of the Exodus.

In the liberation narrative, Palestinians are also sometimes compared to Jesus on the cross, which implicitly brands Israelis as Christ-killers in an echo of classic anti-Semitic charges.

“It’s a return to 2004,” said Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Divestment was always in the realm of symbolism. While there’s a calling to have their investments in peace that is understandable, there’s also a strategy that was unfolded at Durban to paint Israel as an apartheid state. We felt that was employed in 2004 and rejected in 2006.”

If the document does reignite the divestment push, it would appear to validate the claims made after the Methodist conference by Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing group based in San Francisco that stands virtually alone among Jewish organizations in supporting selective divestment as a means to pressure the Israeli government.

Jewish Voice for Peace saw the Methodist conference, which decided to keep divestment on the table even while rejecting several resolutions specifically targeting Israel, as a victory. The Jewish group also supports the new Presbyterian statement.

“To me, the question is not whether the statement was changed from A to B, but whether B is good,” wrote Sydney Levy, the group’s director of chapters and campaigns, in an email to JTA. “The answer is unequivocal: Yes. The current statement strikes a good balance between the two concerns of the church on this issue.”

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