BILOXI, Miss (Jun. 17)
A compromise document on Christian-Jewish relations that recognizes Israel only “geopolitically” was ratified here Tuesday night by delegates to the 199th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The paper, “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews,” had been in preparation for six years by a committee of the 3.1 million-member church. In a series of compromises Saturday night, its status was downgraded from “policy statement” to “study document.”
The document, while acknowledging God’s promise of a homeland to the Jews, rejects the notion that Israel fulfills that promise. “The State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically,” the statement said.
Another compromise was the reference to obligations of the Jews to the Palestinians as told by the “Hebrew prophets.” The document explained, “Those in possession of land have a responsibility and obligation to the disadvantaged, the oppressed and the strangers in their gates.”
The document also acknowledged that Jews have an existing covenant with God and should not be cursed because of refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah or be candidates for conversion.
Opposition to the pre-compromise draft document came from Presbyterians who have worked in Arab countries, notably the Rev. Benjamin Weir, who was a hostage in Lebanon for 16 months and just completed a term as leader of the Presbyterian Church.
Weir told the assembly that he would find it “very difficult to live with the paper” if it included a section calling Israel the promised land for Jews. He said there was “a great possibility” the document would be “misunderstood and misinterpreted.”
Other opponents of the document were a small but vocal number of Presbyterian ministers who are converts from Judaism.
In addition, the executive secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, the Rev. Salim Sahiouny, who represents 50,000 Presbyterians in Arab countries, criticized the effort to reword the document, which he called fundamentally flawed. He asked for its all-out rejection, contending the document used “biblical and theological material to support the political entity of Israel.”
Sahiouny rejected the idea that Christians could believe that God’s covenant with the Jews still exists. He said fulfillment of the Old Testament rests in Jesus, and that by denying Jesus, “the Jews have rejected the covenant.”
Sahiouny finally accepted the draft document because of its call for a special conference in an Arab country by 1989.
The Rev. Albert Isteero, president of the Cairo Theological Seminary, rejected a suggestion that Holocaust Remembrance Day be included in the Presbyterian Church calendar. He charged that the Holocaust “is a problem of the European Churches. What has the American church to do with the Holocaust?”
Although the destruction of European Jewry was “a terrible evil,” he said, “other Holocausts” exist today because of Israel’s policies.
A document on Christian-Moslem relations was approved by the committee of the 650-member General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) separately with no opposition. This paper did not approach these relations on a theological basis, but rather called for greater understanding and an end to discrimination and stereotypes.
One of the two Jewish consultants to the six-year-long proceedings, Michael Wyschogrod, a professor of philosophy at Baruch College of the City University of New York who represented the American Jewish Congress, lauded the document.
He termed it “an extremely significant contribution in Jewish-Christian relations,” but was disappointed that the paper was not stronger than a study document. He said it went further in recognizing the legitimacy of both Judaism and Zionism than any previous Christian position paper.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, AJC director of interreligious affairs who has had a long relationship with the Presbyterian Church, called the document “potentially historically important,” but said its final impact on Christian-Jewish relations could be judged only by its application.
He said that the Presbyterians “realized that it was finally time to come to terms with Jews and Judaism in a series of systematic ways and not piecemeal. This statement is the result of this work.” The Presbyterian Church, said Rudin, is “weary of the legacy of anti-Semitism. They want their theology to reflect what they really believe.”
Fundamental to the problem was the approach to conversion of Jews, which has been inherent in Christian theology. Rudin said the new statement means that “Christians have not replaced Jews. They affirm as Christians that there is theological space for Judaism. The Presbyterian Church must always acknowledge that Jews are in a covenantal relationship with God.”
GOOD AND BAD
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, saw both positive and negative aspects in the agreement, and disagreed with Wyschogrod on its importance. He said documents of the National Council of Churches, the Catholic Church and others were at least as progressive as this document.
He added that the Presbyterians were the first Protestant church to engage in dialogue with Jews more than 25 yeas ago, but said the influx of conservative and Arab Christians has changed that.
Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, was disappointed with the document’s Israel position. In a statement, Reich declared that “We deeply regret the apparent surrender to Arab pressure by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in vitiating what might have been a historical document on Jewish-Christian relations.”
The Presbyterian Church has a 150-year history involvement in the Arab Middle East that includes schools, hospitals and orphanages. Since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, said Rudin, Presbyterian Arabs have reached increasingly sophisticated levels of lobbying and involvement in Church matters. “I hope this will open relations between the American Presbyterian Church and Israeli Jews,” said Rudin.