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Presbyterians Vote to Divest from Israel, Fraying Inter-Faith Relations

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October 2004

Leaders of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, believing that Israel is denying human rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, have voted to review their investments in Israel. With the decision, approved in a 431-62 vote at the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the church, with nearly 3 million members, is believed to be the largest institution to join the divestment campaign against Israel. It is the first Christian denomination to do so, according to Sister Patricia Wolfe, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of 275 Christian denominations. “This now raises the issue,” Wolfe said, “and will cause ICCR to have a discussion.”  

Jewish groups have been highly critical of the Presbyterian Church actions. Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Council of Synagogues, the first rabbi ever invited to a Presbyterian General Assembly, was “dismayed.” Rabbi Leonard Thal of the Union for Reform Judaism called the resolutions “heavy handed.” Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious advisor for the American Jewish Committee, said the actions of the Presbyterians was “a catastrophic disaster.” The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter calling the analogy to apartheid “unconscionable.” Some Jewish peace activists supported the church’s position. The California-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which claims 8,000 supporters and has Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich and Ed Asner on its board, issued a statement applauding the Presbyterian action.  

Also of concern to Jewish groups was the Presbyterian General Assembly’s defeat of an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion.  

Mark J. Pelavin, director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism, argues that, “In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels. On the national level , we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-USA and explain — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace. On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue about Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement, but is absolutely essential.”  

In Pelavins view, “Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion ... It is now our job to explain that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects of peace in the region ...We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.”  

Late in September, Jewish and Presbyterian leaders met in New York, but failed to reach agreement about the question of divestment. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which organized the gathering, told the Presbyterians their church’s vote reflected “a fundamental unfairness” toward Israel and would hurt the Palestinians by hardening Israelis against a negotiated solution to the Mideast conflict. The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk, or executive officer, of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said he would continue discussing the issue with Jewish groups, but planned no immediate changes in how church officials will carry out the vote. He said his denomination’s goal was to pressure companies to end their involvement in practices that harm Palestinians. He said divestment would be used only as a last resort, if discussions with company officials and presentations to shareholders fail.  

Time (Aug. 2, 2004) reported that, “For nearly half a century, few interfaith relationships have been sturdier than that between Jews and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Forged after the Holocaust and during the civil rights movement, the amity reached a high point in 1987, when a Presbyterian ‘study document’ acknowledged the Jews’ ongoing and legitimate covenant with God.”  

Jay Rock, director for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, states that Jewish-Presbyterian relations are “very good” and that the problem is simply a difference of opinions on how best to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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