A Chaplain’s calling: ‘It drew me in’
For Rabbi Jason Weiner, his one-year chaplaincy internship at Beth Israel Medical Center New York’s Lower East Side was a not-so-pleasant requirement while he was a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
“I didn’t feel like I had any impact. I didn’t feel like I could really help people,” said Weiner, who is now senior rabbi and manager of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The feeling changed in 2007, when Weiner, who was serving as assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Century City, was asked to fill in part time at Cedars-Sinai because the hospital’s longtime chaplain, Rabbi Levi Meier, had fallen ill.
“I quickly began to build confidence in the impact a chaplain could have in people’s lives. I began to realize how appreciative people were, and how fulfilling it was, and how much I was learning and growing. I felt like I was on the front lines of life and death. The intensity of that really drew me in,” he said.
Christians picking on Israel
With Christians being persecuted and threatened across much of the Middle East, guess which country the leaders of several major U.S. Christian denominations have decided to pick on?
That’s right, the country where Christians are safest: Israel.
In case you missed it, in a letter dated Oct. 5, leaders of 15 Christian denominations — including Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists — asked members of Congress to reconsider U.S. aid to Israel in light of “widespread Israeli human rights violations.”
The signatories say “unconditional U.S. military assistance” to Israel is a factor in “deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” that threaten the “realization of a just peace.”
The letter makes no mention of reconsidering U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt, where many Christians fear for their lives and where Coptic Christian families have fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula after receiving death threats.
As Elliott Abrams writes in National Review Online, the letter is utterly silent on the “deteriorating and truly dangerous conditions for Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.”
Meanwhile, in contrast to the dramatic dwindling of the Christian population in the Arab world, in Israel the number of Christians has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 155,000 today.
The initiative reeks of hypocrisy: Although they purport to care for Palestinian rights, the Christian leaders ignore the misery of Palestinian refugees being oppressed in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.
Although they attack the “restrictions on movement” in the West Bank, they fail to mention, as Abrams notes, “the many ways in which the Netanyahu government in recent years has loosened those restrictions … [or] the recent steps by the government of Israel to assist the Palestinian Authority as it faces a financial crisis.”
And, of course, the signatories ignore all context. They say nothing of Israel’s many attempts over the years to make peace with the Palestinians and end the occupation, or of the teaching of Jew-hatred and incitement in Palestinian society, or of Israel’s evacuation of Gaza seven years ago that was rewarded with thousands of terror rockets still raining down today on Israeli civilians.
Even if you count yourself as an unabashed critic of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians, it’s hard not to see this single-minded invective against the Jewish state as unfair and hypocritical.
Ironically (or stupidly), the letter was sent a few weeks before a scheduled interfaith conference that included many of the signatories, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to pull out.
“It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination,” ADL director Abraham Foxman said in a press release, “these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state. … It is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.”
Many other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), have expressed outrage.
“When religious liberty and safety of Christians across the Middle East are threatened by the repercussions of the Arab Spring,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, “these Christian leaders have chosen to initiate a polemic against Israel, a country that protects religious freedom and expression for Christians, Muslims and others.”
Why would Christian leaders initiate such an obviously biased attack against Israel, a country that already has more than its fair share of internal criticism and dissent?
Who knows, maybe they’re trying to boost declining attendance at their churches. It’s always a safe bet to follow the global herd and pick on Israel, one of the world’s favorite punching bags.
But it’s possible there’s something deeper going on — like an irrational obsession with the Jews.
Maybe it all goes back to that fateful moment at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, when Jews received God’s Torah and became His first witnesses. Ever since, it seems as if the “chosen people” have attracted an inordinate amount of attention — mostly for the worse — as they have stubbornly refused to abandon their faith. The rebirth of Israel after centuries of exile seems only to have amplified this attention.
This phenomenon of irrational obsession is complex and can be studied at length, but it’s worth noting here that in the case of Israel and Christian America, the obsession has two sides.
Just as you have Christian denominations that are obsessed with rebuking the Jewish state, there are plenty of other Christian groups — such as Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel — that are emotionally bonded with Israel and are obsessed with defending the Jewish state.
I won’t lie to you: I have a decided preference for the latter groups.
As far as those 15 church leaders who’d rather pick on Israel than on the intolerant regimes that are oppressing their Christian brethren, all I can say is: Are you sure this is what Jesus would do?
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinion: Look between the headlines to understand the Presbyterians’ vote
The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 220th General Assembly had just cast its first vote on an anti-Israel divestment resolution when the spin began. Major news outlets and activists on each side could hardly wait for the debate to finish the next day before declaring winners and losers.
This was my fourth GA and one thing I’ve learned is that reality lies somewhere between the headlines. Here are some reality checks on the GA.
* The defeat of divestment was narrow—and it wasn’t.
The widely reported 333-331 vote earlier this month was on a motion to substitute a positive investment minority report for the main divestment resolution. This means the very first time the plenary had a chance, it shot down divestment. It was close, but in subsequent votes the positive approach passed by a much wider margin—and additional pro-divestment motions continued to fail by increasingly wider margins. The Positive Investment substitute—passed 369-290—calls for financial support for projects that include collaboration among Christians, Jews and Muslims and that will help develop viable Palestinian infrastructure, job creation and economic development.
* The PCUSA is different from other churches – and it isn’t.
Think of the most intense anti-Israel delegitimizers you’ve ever seen, heard or read. They run the show at the PCUSA.
Before the GA, the PCUSA’s coordinator of social witness policy defended divestment, attacked positive investment and said an Israel-apartheid comparison is unavoidable. An advisory committee called as its resource person before the GA’s Middle East committee a Jewish representative from an anti-Zionist group that actively favors boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Even the church’s executive council backed divestment.
But there were also several major Presbyteries, seminary presidents, former national moderators and other key leaders who opposed divestment. One group, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, successfully advocated for a balanced approach that was clearly more in keeping with the mind-set of Presbyterians.
* The targeted companies are profiteers—and they aren’t.
The PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, or MRTI—the body that originally recommended divestment—concluded that no further conversations would matter for Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. They were irredeemably and unequivocally guilty. The Methodist pension board, meanwhile, reached the exact opposite conclusion.
A close reading of the MRTI report reveals that it relied on resolutions filed by radical groups better known for harassing corporations than engaging them.
Motions filed on a broader human rights issue were presented as if they were about Israel, and corporate transgressions like a corporate officer rescheduling a conference call were submitted as conclusive proof of indifference. But companies are companies. Their jobs are making money, not playing politics—and they get attacked so often, it’s just noise to them.
* The divestment debate is really about anti-Semitism—and it isn’t.
A church leader told me that he had never heard of Israel’s security fence described as being even partially a defensive move, indicating that the silencing of Israel’s legitimate security stance isn’t just about choosing sides but about something much deeper.
More than 1,500 American rabbis representing a broad geographical and ideological range sent a letter against divestment to every PCUSA commissioner. Had women or ethnic leaders in the United States sent a letter on a topic of concern, the PCUSA leadership might have stopped dead in its tracks. Disturbingly, that didn’t happen with this letter.
Even more disturbing was a pro-BDS letter signed by fewer than two dozen rabbis and trumpeted by a PCUSA committee that said it was tantamount to racism to suggest that the Jewish community opposes divestment. That doesn’t rise to the level of anti-Semitism. Yet the church leadership’s failure to challenge this outrageous comment certainly isn’t a measure of respect either.
* The divestment debate is actually about Christian Zionism—and it isn’t.
There is an intense struggle between left and right in American churches that plays out over many issues, including sexuality and Israel. The struggle is so intense that it drowns out the real debate over issues; Israel becomes a proxy for a much wider conversation.
We are told sometimes that we need to choose between friendship with liberal or with conservative Christians. Not true. We should not be forced to choose between neighbors and friends. Peacemaking requires a path that is faithful to all who seek peace, including Palestinians and Israelis, Christians, Muslims and Jews.
* The PCUSA has become irrelevant—and it hasn’t.
The membership of the PCUSA is dropping—rapidly. As with many of the “mainline” churches, it has lost half its members in 40 years, with one in five leaving in the past decade. The median age is 61 and fewer than one in 10 Presbyterians is aged 18 to 34. But there also is new life in many parts of the church—and little to celebrate in the exodus from other parts of the PCUSA. It is a major American institution and an important partner on a range of issues.
It helps no one if responsible voices bolt and leave behind a denomination less able to discern between peacemaking and radicalism.
* The debate is really about what Palestinian Christians want – and it isn’t.
The PCUSA has close connections with Palestinian Christians. They visit them, hear from them and care about them. They have skin in the game.
But there also are American denominations with sister churches in the Palestinian areas that have rejected divestment, most recently the Episcopal Church, which heard from Palestinian Christians who oppose divestment.
There are many myths about the Palestinian Christians. Some friends of Israel believe the only stresses that Palestinian Christians face are from Muslims. And many detractors of Israel have fabricated a story that the Palestinian Christian population is in free fall due to Israeli policies (it isn’t—the West Bank Christian population is actually increasing). Palestinian Christians do face stresses, as do Israelis.
* Not surprisingly, the story is far more complex than either “side” would have it. The battle continues.
Well, that is true.
The PCUSA passed a troubling boycott resolution. While there are committed Zionists who have supported a boycott of West Bank settlement groups, the effort in the PCUSA was led by groups that don’t support a Jewish state. For them it is incremental delegitimization.
Presbyterians have much to decide. Do they want their church to be positive or negative? One that understands that there are multiple narratives or just one version, with characters conveniently symbolized by American companies to reduce a painful conflict affecting real lives to a caricature of innocence and evil?
In the end, that is a Presbyterian conversation. And it isn’t.
Ethan Felson is the vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Divestment: What the Presbyterian vote could mean
In the next few days, the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), will convene in Pittsburgh. If delegates pass any one of several resolutions calling for punitive economic measures against Israel, the Church will have capitulated to one of the worst assaults on Jewish integrity coming from any church group since the Holocaust. That blow to Jewish history, belief and aspiration is contained in the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD), ironically, a document unknown to most Presbyterians.
About two-and-a-half years ago, KPD was penned by a group of Palestinian Christians. Redolent with Scriptural references, it is a powerful appeal for Christian sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.
KPD is also, however, a frontal assault on the very legitimacy of Israel, and an attack on Judaism itself. The Kairos Palestine Document justifies (but does not recommend) terrorism. It assigns all the blame to Israel for the Middle East’s problems. It acknowledges nothing about Palestinian terror, rocket attacks, or the teaching of virulent anti-Semitism in schools, on Palestinian Authority television, and in mosques.
It denies any Biblical link between the Jewish people and the Holy Land. It rewrites modern history as well, by promoting the canard that Israel was created in sin, an imposition of Western colonialists, driven by guilt for the Nazi Holocaust, on the backs of the true owners of the land. It conveniently ignores 3,500 years of a Jewish presence in the Holy Land, and erases a 150 years of peaceful up-building of the land by Jews before the establishment of the state.
It gets even worse. Kairos’ appeals to Scripture take the classic form of Replacement Theology, in which all references to the Jews in the Bible, all covenants with them, are replaced, as Christians become the New Jews. The old Jews, thereby, become the discards of history. (Christians invoked Replacement Theology, together with the charge of deicide, for centuries to justify persecuting Jews). Finally, this document culminates in a core political demand of Israel’s enemies: the cessation of all US military aid to Israel, and for economic boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state.
Jewish leaders voiced their dismay and outrage when a PCUSA recommended adoption of Kairos at the 2010 General Assembly. KPD made a mockery of the 1987 Presbyterian document, “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.” The 1987 document contained seven theological affirmations, among them that the identity of the Church “is intimately related to the continuing identity of the Jewish people”; that both “Christians that Jews are in covenant relationship with G-d”; and a pledge that they would “put an end to the teaching of contempt for the Jews.”
KPD devalued the identity of the Jewish people, denied any continuing covenant, and was contemptuous of the way Jews looked at themselves, their beliefs and the centrality of their Land.
While Kairos was not formally adopted, it was “lifted up for study,” “along with a pledge to Jewish groups that a new spirit of fairness to all sides would soon prevail.”
It never happened. A new study guide on the Middle East that was just released betrayed that promise.
While it was supposed to provide two perspectives on the Middle East, it did nothing of the sort.
At the General Assembly that begins this week, PCUSA will vote on a number of resolutions incorporating the worst influences of Kairos. A call for divestment has the backing of a prestigious standing committee of the Church. Passing any one of the anti-Israel resolutions will mean that Presbyterians have responded to the call of Palestinians with nothing less than a repudiation of the principles that governed dialogue with Church leadership for decades.
Their votes will not help a single Palestinian but will leave Jews little choice but to end all ties with Presbyterian leadership, and ignore their unfair and unfaithful pronouncements on Israel in the future.
The Jewish community has some difficult lessons to absorb from this fiasco masquerading as dialogue.
We have to clearly articulate that any group’s inability to come to terms with Israel as a Jewish state is not only a deal-breaker, but also a signal of contempt for Jews and Judaism.
It is almost beyond belief that as the ground literally burns beneath the Christian faithful in Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq that PCUSA stays fixated in aiding and abetting the de-legitimizing of Israel. All other mainline Christian denominations have either rejected or shelved divestment measures. If Presbyterians go it alone, they will have made an unnecessary but clear choice between the narratives of two people.
A huge number of ordinary Presbyterians reject the actions of their church leadership. They enjoy a mutually warm and respectful relationship with Jewish friends. Those valued friendships will continue.
But as far as PCUSA denominational leadership, the upcoming vote may bring us to the end of the road.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
This essay originally appeared at jpost.com
Presbyterian committee approves Israel divestment
The country’s largest Presbyterian church has agreed to vote by week’s end on divesting its portfolio from three companies that it is says has resisted the request to stop providing services that aid Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly’s Middle East Committee voted 36 to 11 with one abstention in favoring of divesting its portfolio from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The Committee said the company’s helped “Israel’s use of their products in violations of Palestinian human rights.”
The group recommended the church put those funds instead into companies “engaging in peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine.”
The Church’s full convention, being held in Pittsburgh, is expected to vote either Thursday or Friday on the proposal.
Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, is at the convention and is speaking with Church leaders about toning down the resolution, according to a JCPA spokesman.
A 2011 church report found that Caterpillar supplies bulldozers for the demolition of Palestinian homes, Motorola provides cell phone technology to West Bank settlements and Hewlett-Packard manages information technology for the Israeli Navy.
New Presbyterian statement irks Jewish groups, sparks divestment fears
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.”
Truth Trumps Presbyterian Divestment Resolution
Last week, delegates to the Presbyterian Church USA’s (PCUSA) General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., voted to undo their hateful 2004 anti-Israel divestment resolution. Understanding its significance requires a crash course in obscure acronyms.
The first is BDS, which stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It is the cornerstone of the Palestinian lobby’s strategy to delegitimize Israel.
The next is WCC, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches — an international umbrella group of mainline Protestant denominations, including America’s Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian and Methodist Churches. The WCC’s monomaniacal animus toward Israel is reflected in a moral crusade promoting such measures as economic boycotts and demanding the dismantling of its life-saving anti-terrorism barrier.
And then there was the United Nation’s WCAR, its World Conference Against Racism, which proved to be the launching pad for labeling Israel as the apartheid state of the 21st century. Israel’s friends have had a difficult time counteracting this campaign, which has wide support in Europe, on campuses and in some U.S. churches.
All this reflects the three D’s — demonization, double-standard and delegitimization — Natan Sharansky’s litmus test dividing acceptable criticism of Israel and outright anti-Semitism.
The WCC demonizes the Jewish state by issuing a tsunami of resolutions against Israel, far more than all trouble spots around the globe combined. Israel is a greater problem than genocide in Sudan, concentration camps in North Korea, prosecution of converts to Christianity in Muslim nations and the suppression of Tibet, to name a few.
Meanwhile, Protestant denominations demanding the dismantling of Israel’s security fence — without ever suggesting an alternative to protect against suicide bombing — constitutes a chilling double-standard. Demands are made to no other country to give free access for terrorists to mass murder in buses and restaurants.
And in the name of peace, Protestant denominations partner with organizations like Sabeel, whose answer to Israel’s “occupation” is a one-state solution (i.e., populated by an Arab majority) that delegitimizes Israel by insuring that it will not remain a Jewish state.
The BDS people want Americans to equate Israel with apartheid and come to treat it as an illegal, pariah vestige of European colonialism.
Last week, a group of Presbyterian activists had enough. They engineered a major setback to the well-oiled divestment machine.
The language of the 2004 PCUSA resolution — which had spurred similar talk and action in all of the other mainline Protestant denominations — was replaced with new language that spoke of investment in peaceful enterprises, rather than divestment. It included an apology to Jews for the hurt that the old “flawed” measure had caused.
While critical of some parts of the security fence, it asserted that it “does not believe that the Presbyterian Church (USA) should tell a sovereign nation whether or how it can protect its borders or handle matters of national defense.”
Delegates approved the new resolution with a 94 percent vote, after defeating two attempts by their own leadership to water it down. They then broke new ground by voting overwhelmingly to condemn all suicide bombings as crimes against humanity and to urge other churches and the United Nations to adopt a measure that would empower victims of terror to legally pursue those who incite and sponsor the real scourge of the 21st century.
The battle is hardly over. The highly politicized elements embedded in the PCUSA administration and in other mainline denominations will not roll over and play dead. Boycott efforts continue in Europe (as in continuing calls in Britain for academic boycott) and in Canada (where the largest public sector labor union recently voted to boycott Israeli goods).
But if Birmingham is not a final victory, it does provide the Jewish community an opportunity. We now know that rank-and-file Protestants are supportive of Israel’s struggle, even if that support has been weakened through years of one-sided propaganda fed by their churches’ administration.
We know that Jewry has dedicated Presbyterian friends within, who have worked tirelessly to put an end to the unfair targeting of the Jewish state. We have been reminded that fair-minded people are open to hear Israel’s narrative.
We recently accompanied 11 Presbyterians on a trip to Israel, where they met people never seen on the official trips organized by PCUSA leadership. We traveled to Birmingham to dialogue with delegates and to testify before the crucial Peacemaking Committee.
We were honored to present to the assembled Presbyterian leaders Dr. Judea Pearl, father of the Wall Street Journal reporter who was brutally slain in Pakistan with the words, “I am a Jew,” on his lips. With great dignity and clarity, Pearl rose above the din of the likes of Norman Finkelstein and other imported anti-Zionist Jews to tell delegates that divestment did not aid a single Palestinian, was not supported by the Israeli peace lobby and only succeeded in strengthening those who aid terror.
Finally, we also confirmed that there is a direct correlation between popular Presbyterian support for Israel with the quality of contacts they had with their Jewish neighbors.
Bottom line: We can neutralize corrosive anti-Israel propaganda with one tool — the truth. The only effective way to convey that truth is personal contact. Christians should hear from Jews why Israel is important and that there is more than one narrative about the Holy Land.
To achieve that goal, every neighborhood synagogue and temple has the potential to serve as facilitators of Israel’s hopes and aspirations, and along the way give our non-Jewish friends a chance to understand why Israel is so precious to us.
The destruction of Israel’s moral position will only be achieved if the lies repeated over and over again go unchallenged. Telling the truth over and over again is the only antidote. We can only do this by sitting together.
In 1963, the KKK dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four black girls attending Sunday school. Civil Rights leaders used the event to galvanize support from fence-sitting moderates and help transform a nation.
Time will tell if Jews turn their Birmingham moment into a wider effort to reach out to millions of decent Americans targeted by an insidious campaign to make Zionism a dirty word and to cripple Israel’s ability to defend herself.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the center’s director of interfaith affairs.
Interfaith Dialogue Can Bring Change
“Teshuvah,” turning, repentance, reconciliation, is a gift given to all people. People change, institutions change, policies change.
Consider the largely unreported and unheralded change in the Presbyterian Church (USA). By a vote of 431 to 62 in July 2004, the church voted to begin selective divestment in multinational corporations in Israel. The design was to punish Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians.
Three other churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopalian Church all set up committees to consider divestment as a punitive measure against Israel.
But — and this is a most consequential but — as a result of serious interfaith dialogue and serious encounters resulting in an interfaith mission to Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopalian Church of America rejected their earlier resolutions for divestment. Their one-sided disposition against Israel was repudiated without loss of their sympathy for the Palestinian condition.
This church reversal did not take place in a vacuum. The Protestant leaders who went to Israel witnessed the precarious situation of Israel and heard from Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch the need for Israel to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties.
The next day, the interfaith group learned that a panel of Israeli justices had ruled for the second time that the government must reroute a section of the security barrier that, in the court's view, imposed a new hardship on Palestinians living in the area. They learned first hand of the role of the Israeli Supreme Court to limit and restrain torture of detainees.
Institutions change. Change is not spontaneous, easy or automatic. It requires face-to-face encounters and a determination to dialogue. As Martin Buber famously put it, “All real life is meeting.” Absent dialogue, the vacuum creates disinformation and resentment.
We must not belittle interfaith meeting, no matter its frustration, or allow our disappointments to silence dialogue.
All honor to the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Christ for convening an interfaith meeting in May 2004 to discuss peace in the Middle East. All honor to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs for planning and arranging the interfaith mission to Israel.
Dialogue is the language of godliness and extends the promise of teshuvah.
Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Presbyterians Won’t Budge on Divesting
You have to hand it to those Presbyterians. Their leaders know what they want, and they won’t be deflected by things like logic, fairness or the well-being of people in the Middle East.
Church leaders in Louisville, Ky., appear determined to single out Israel for corporate “divestment,” and apparently no amount of internal revolt or outside input will dissuade them.
That’s a big problem for mainstream Jewish groups that have always operated on the principle that dialogue is the first step in dealing with intergroup conflict. The plain fact is that the Presbyterian leaders just aren’t listening.
Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, while reporting useful discussions with local Presbyterian groups, are fed up with the national church leadership. For months after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of “selective divestment” against companies that do business in Israel, the Jewish groups continued to believe that a policy of hard-headed dialogue would help church leaders understand the glaring imbalance of their efforts.
Eventually, they believed, logic would prevail, and the Presbyterians would realize that at the very least, the timing of their action — at the precise moment when the region seemed to be moving toward a new peace process — was perverse.
They didn’t expect a sudden burst of love for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they thought that the Presbyterians would eventually accept what even ardent Jewish peace groups accept — that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan represents the best current hope for renewal of a genuine peace process, and that anything that might get in the way should be avoided.
Jewish leaders set up meetings, wrote papers, visited local churches and planned a joint trip to the Middle East with Protestant leaders. Despite those efforts — and despite a strong internal revolt by Presbyterians who were embarrassed by their church’s unhelpful actions — church leaders just didn’t get the message.
Instead of listening, Presbyterian leaders arranged rigged “dialogue” sessions featuring only Jews representing the miniscule minority that doesn’t think the divestment policy is one-sided and destructive to the peace process. When mainstream Jewish leaders complained, the Presbyterian leaders responded petulantly: How dare the Jews meddle.
The Louisville leadership held a training session on divestment and rejected a position paper expressing the mainstream Jewish view, a paper other churches willingly distributed.
Most Jewish leaders involved in the divestment fight now believe the Presbyterian effort at dialogue was just for show, and that church leaders were unalterably committed to the controversial policy.
The Presbyterian position is particularly glaring, because dialogue has shown at least the potential for progress with groups such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. These churches didn’t abandon their criticism of Israel, but they listened to Jewish concerns and made an effort to find a balance between their support for the Palestinians and the call to be fair to the Jewish state.
Jewish leaders are loathe to assess the Presbyterians’ motives, but it’s getting harder to argue that they don’t include outright hostility to Israel and maybe even anti-Semitism.
How else to explain actions that imply that Israel is alone to blame for the conflict, that it is among the worst human rights abusers in the world and that its current peace efforts count for nothing? What other nations are being targeted for sanctions? How else to explain actions that give legitimacy to groups that blame Israel for everything from its separation fence to tsunamis, and drive pro-Israel forces more into the willing embrace of Christian right extremists?
Too often, Jewish groups have conveyed the impression that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. It isn’t; it’s perfectly possible to detest the occupation and condemn the policies of Sharon without being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Israelis and American Jews do it all the time.
But to be as one-sided and as oblivious to both Israeli suffering and the progress that is taking place as the Presbyterian leaders are today suggests motives that have nothing to do with a genuine desire for peace.
Jewish groups are beginning to accept the obvious conclusion: The time for dialogue with the hostile, irrational Presbyterian leadership has passed and a more confrontational approach is in order, including publicly challenging their motives and their commitment to a fair peace in the region. At the same time, dialogue with other groups that have proven more sensitive and with local Presbyterian groups needs to be increased.
The point should be emphasized over and over again: It’s not just the knee-jerk defenders of Israel and Likudniks who think divestment is a terrible idea, but Jewish groups from across the ideological spectrum.
Jewish leaders worked hard to get through to the Presbyterians, but church leaders weren’t listening; they have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that dialogue is not their goal, a fair peace not their real interest, and they should be dealt with accordingly.
We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues
Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).
The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.
One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”
These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.
Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.
What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.
Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?
It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.
Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.
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-U.S.A. and explain to them — 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 around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.
Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.
To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”
While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.
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.
Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar
Before the sermon at each of the three services at Bel Air Presbyterian Church last Sunday, the Rev. Mark Allan Brewer did something unusual — he protested. Speaking in a clear, forceful voice, the reverend denounced the 216th annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian church’s decision to selectively divest funds from companies doing business in Israel.
"This may come as a surprise to you, but we are a Presbyterian church, which means that we are affiliated with a group called the General Assembly, which sometimes makes controversial decisions," he said.
"I don’t want to impugn their motives, but it seems that they fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down. The idea that withholding funds is going to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is ridiculous," he told the standing-room-only crowd of 600 in the large, airy church at the 11 a.m. service. The crowd greeted his remarks with applause and laughter.
The Presbyterian assembly, which controls a $7 billion endowment fund, voted 431 to 62 at its June 26-July 3 meeting to divest from companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to Palestinians or Israelis. It took the action in order to oppose "the Israeli occupation of Palestine." However, it did not authorize a blanket divestment from all companies doing business in Israel.
Jewish groups, local Presbyterians and other Christian denominations have roundly condemned the assembly’s action. Those opposing the divestment move charge that it essentially punishes Israel for protecting its citizens, will hurt its economy and provide an impetus for other divestment campaigns, in addition to irreparably damaging relations between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian church in the United States.
"There might be some economic or financial results [for Israel] to this decision, but the main source of concern is that a main church organization decided to take a path of pressure instead of dialogue," said Zvi Vapni, deputy consul general of Israel in Los Angeles.
The Presbyterian Church, with 11,000 congregations in the United States and 2 million members, is considered more liberal on social issues than its evangelical counterparts. At the church’s annual General Assembly, which will now meet biannually, ministers and lay delegates from 170 presbyteries (local governing bodies) met to "vote their conscience" on church policy.
This year’s meeting marked the first time the issue of divestment of funds from companies doing business with Israel was brought up at the Presbyterian gathering. However, divestment of funds from companies as a tool to put pressure on a country is not new. It was used in the 1980s to pressure South Africa to abandon apartheid
In 2001, a group of UC Berkeley students and faculty, called Students for Justice in Palestine, lobbied the University of California system to divest itself of Israel-related investment funds. It sought the divestment in order to protest Israeli settlements and what the group considered Israel’s "apartheid" policies concerning Palestinians. Since then, anti-Israel divestment lobbying groups have established themselves on other U.S. campuses.
Divestment, has also become a central doctrine and effort by such activist left-wing groups as Global Exchange, which organized protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Up until the Presbyterian assembly decision, no major U.S. organization or group had agreed to divestment involving companies doing business with Israel. In its decision, the assembly said that it approved a "call for the corporate witness office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to begin gathering data to support a selective divestment of holdings in multinational corporations doing business in Israel/Palestine — the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee [will] study the matter and make recommendations to the General Assembly Council."
The Mission Responsibility Committee will issue its report to the council in March 2005. There are no specifics available on how or when divestment will be handled once the report is released.
While the assembly voiced support for Israel’s security, it also "called for an end to Israel’s construction of the ‘separation barrier.’" It also declared that "Christian Zionism is not consistent with the basic values of reformed theology [that Presbyterianism is based on], because it makes use of idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture to undergird a certain reading of current events and to generate support for specific political goals that potentially endanger Palestinian and Israeli people."
Israel is not the only Presbyterian divestment target. On its Web page, the Mission Responsibility Committee urges divestment from companies involved in military-related production, tobacco or human rights violations. It lists 21 companies, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. The Web site also notes that the 2000 General Assembly voted to divest from Talisman Energy "after a review of the company’s role in Sudan."
Jay Rock, a church interfaith relations coordinator, said that the Mission Responsibility Committee would use the same criteria in formulating its recommendations to the General Assembly Council on Israel. No specifics on the criteria were made public. It is also unclear how much of the $7 billion endowment would be divested from companies doing business with Israel.
"We are not talking about divesting from companies that invest in computers and pharmaceuticals or health infrastructure, only from such activity that is judged to be harmful," Rock said.
The Presbyterian church’s support for divestiture was greeted with anger and disapproval from Jewish groups, Presbyterians congregants and other Christian denominations after The Forward newspaper erroneously reported that the church voted to "stop investing in Israel."
Talk-show host Dennis Prager wrote a scathing critique of the Presbyterian church on his Web site, comparing it to "Goebbel’s big lie." The divestiture was also condemned in The New Republic and in Front Page Magazine. Both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and B’nai B’rith International said that the assembly’s divestiture vote and a decision to continue funding messianic congregations called into question efforts at interfaith dialogue between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian church.
After the church issued a statement clarifying that it was a selective divestiture, not a blanket one, ADL leaders proposed a meeting to discuss the issues.
In Los Angeles, grass-roots pro-Israel organization StandWithUs issued an e-mail alert urging its followers to protest the divestiture by writing to the Mission Responsibility Committee. In Chicago, Jewish groups protested outside the Fourth Presbyterian Church last Sunday.
"To me, this is crossing the line," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California . "I would like them to withdraw the resolution."
Diamond said he planned to meet with his Presbyterian colleagues from the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders to express his concerns.
"The problem with the divestiture is that it sets a precedent for other organizations, like the Methodists and Baptists, to do the same thing. This could be the instigator for something much broader," said Avi Davis, executive director of the Israel Christian Nexus, an interfaith dialogue group, who called for a meeting between Christian and Jewish clerics in August to discuss the issue and try to get it changed.
Other Christian groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Baptist.org, an online registry of all Baptist organizations, said they were not planning similar divestitures.
Ministers from two of the largest Presbyterian congregations in Southern California, Bel Air Presbyterian and St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, told The Journal that they received phone calls and e-mails from many angry members threatening to leave the denomination because of the divestiture.
"I spent the whole week responding to letters from my people who were ready to leave the Presbyterian church, because of what Dennis [Prager] said," reported the Rev. John Huffman of St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport Beach, a 4,700-member congregation that is the largest U.S. Presbyterian church. "I had to devote a third of my sermon time to this issue."
The decision also provoked the disapproval among evangelicals.
"The Presbyterians have forgotten the clear teachings of the word of God. The Presbyterians have forgotten the Jewish contribution to Christianity," said the Rev. John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a nondenominational evangelical church of 18,000 members. Hagee said he would instruct his followers to write letters to the Presbyterian church protesting the divestiture.
"It’s very distressing, but I’m not as distressed about it as many of my friends in the Jewish community are," said Patricia Johnson, liaison to the Christian community for the Israel Christian Nexus. "This represents a small minority of Christians, and does not represent the 60 million evangelicals who do not agree with divestment and who do support Israel."
Rock told The Journal that he had "no response" to people who were threatening to leave the denomination. He said that anyone wanting to change the assembly’s ruling would need go through the process of creating an "overture" or resolution, which would then be voted on at the next assembly meeting.
"We don’t unmake decisions because hundreds of angry people send e-mails," he said.
With no action on divestment until 2005 at the earliest, it remains unclear what effect it might have on Israel. Huffman told The Journal that he doubts the divestment will actually take place, because it would be difficult to find corporations with "policies clearly designed to hurt the Palestinian people."