NEW YORK, Sept. 28 (JTA) — Not long ago, the Presbyterian Church USA managed to do something most Jewish organizations can only dream of: It generated Jewish unity. Jewish groups were outraged when the organization passed a resolution over the summer calling for divesting from companies that do business in or with Israel. The group is sticking to its position after meeting here Tuesday with Jewish religious leaders and organizational officials, who aired their sentiments face to face with the Presbyterians for the first time since the decision in July. As the Jews expressed unanimous, vehement opposition to the move, church officials said they were eager to “dialogue” with the Jews on the issue and expressed regret that the discussion had not taken place earlier. But they also insisted that the church, representing 3 million-plus members, would not back away from the decision, which passed by a 431-62 vote at the group’s General Assembly. “We’re looking forward to this being the first of a number of meetings,” Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the General Assembly, said at a news conference following Tuesday’s meeting in New York. “It’s clear to us this conversation should have taken place some time ago.” Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, told JTA after the meeting that fundamental differences remained. “There’s a natural divide in terms of perspectives. We see things through radically different lenses,” he said. “We put on the table very clearly our concerns.” The bulk of the meeting was devoted to the issue of divestiture, participants said, with the Jews arguing that the decision was patently unfair and the Presbyterians arguing that it is meant to promote peace in the region. The Presbyterian Church USA has about $7 billion in assets, most of it earmarked for pensions. Church officials could not say how much of their assets are invested in companies that do business in Israel. “The conversations crossed each other,” David Elcott, U.S. interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA. “The Jewish community vented all of the arguments in support of the State of Israel and explained the failures of the Palestinians. The Presbyterians spoke of the powerlessness of the Palestinians and the power of Israel over the Palestinians.” No accord was reached, except to step up dialogue efforts. While this hardly is the first conflict between Jews and Presbyterians, even on issues relating to Israel, the decision to divest from Israeli companies or companies doing business in Israel touched a particularly raw nerve among Jews. It could do serious damage to Jewish-Christian relations, some observers said. It could also have a domino effect on other churches considering similar moves, resulting in substantial economic hardship to Israel. Already, there are signals that the Anglican Church could be next; the Anglican Peace and Justice Network last week issued a report that alarmed Jewish officials in its placement of the lion’s share of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Israel. “If the Presbyterians go ahead with any kind of divestment, the Anglicans are not far behind,” said A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser at the AJCommittee. “They already are showing interest in it. There could be other church bodies that want to follow it, and it can spread.” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which hosted Tuesday’s meeting, said, “The Jewish community is deeply disturbed about this.” He said his group already has reached out to the Anglican Church but has not yet received a substantial response. The July resolution at the Presbyterian General Assembly was substantially different than past Presbyterian resolutions perceived by Jews as hostile to Israel, Rudin said. “Up to now it’s been: Cut off aid, Israel should stop building settlements — it’s verbal. This is the first one that I know of that a resolution coming out of a church body has talked about divestment. We’re talking about money,” he said. “This one’s really got teeth. It has a chilling effect,” Rudin added. It represents “a real threat to the economic life and security of Israel.” The point of Tuesday’s meeting was not necessarily to get the church to reverse its decision — Jewish officials said that clearly was unrealistic — but to sensitize church officials to the issue. “We asked for the meeting,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “They jumped at it because I think that underneath there really is a genuine feeling to be closer to the Jewish people for a dialogue.” Elcott said the church was caught off guard by the angry Jewish response to the decision. “I think that there was a naivete in the resolution,” he said. “It was easier for them to pass a resolution because they didn’t think it would have any negative impact on the Jewish community. They were surprised by the response.” Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church, acknowledged as much. “We want to be much more intentional about consulting one another,” he said of the church’s dialogue with the Jewish community on this issue. Kirkpatrick stressed that the General Assembly vote did not mandate divestiture as a first step, but as a last resort after other attempts to change Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians have been exhausted. The church committee that will examine the divestiture option has not yet had its first meeting. It is scheduled for November, and may involve discussions on divesting from the Caterpillar company, whose bulldozers are used in the demolition of Palestinian homes, church officials said. Kirkpatrick cautioned that the church would not take steps to reverse a decision that was taken by the group, the ninth-largest Christian denomination in America. “I don’t think these decisions should be changed,” Kirkpatrick said. “But going forward should be shaped by a conversation with the Jewish community.”
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Uriel Heilman is JTA's managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA's editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.
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