Menu JTA Search

Under Sway of Radical Palestinians, Presbyterian Ties to Jews Are Fraying

Ever since the Presbyterian Church USA announced its willingness last summer to place economic sanctions on Israel, Jewish-Presbyterian relations seem to have gone from bad to worse. Close to giving up on talks with Presbyterian leaders, Jewish officials say the church’s leadership is being swayed by the political agenda of radical Palestinians.

The Presbyterian “leadership has been hijacked by a radicalized” Palestinian Christian population that “represents a fraction of the Christian community in Israel,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the interfaith director for the Anti-Defamation League.

Bretton-Granatoor is referring to groups such as Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based, ecumenical liberation-theology center that has called on churches to divest from companies that profit from Israeli activities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sabeel’s speakers are routinely hosted by Presbyterians and other Protestant groups.

Sabeel’s “Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel” posits a vision of a two-state solution but argues that “the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a binational state in Palestine-Israel,” a suggestion most Jews take either as a conscious or subconscious call for the end of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, members of the Jewish coalition addressing interfaith affairs fume that they are barred from Presbyterian meetings.

According to Barry Creech, the spokesman for the Presbyterian Church USA, the church does not have a process for “including persons from outside the Christian tradition” during the business of its General Assembly.

But to include perspective from the region, Creech said that Rabbis for Human Rights, which is affiliated with members of the Jewish coalition, attended a Presbyterian gathering on the Middle East at the church’s Louisville headquarters.

Rabbis for Human Rights, for its part, decries the Presbyterian move to consider divestment as “unequal treatment toward the Jewish people.”

According to Creech, the divestment issue emerged not from the national level but from a local Florida congregation through a regional body, or presbytery. The presbytery wanted to divest from companies making more than $1 million from business with Israel.

In response, the Presbyterian General Assembly approved a “phased, selective divestment” from companies that profit from Israel’s West Bank security barrier or from the Israeli presence in territories the Palestinians demand and from any company that supports violence against innocent civilians on either side, Creech said.

After the Presbyterian Church USA voted to consider divesting from Israel last year, other mainline Protestant churches took varied approaches to the subject. Methodists, for example, are studying the prospect of divestment, and the Episcopal Church is seeking to pressure companies that support the Israeli occupation or that support groups carrying out attacks on Israelis.

But the Presbyterians have taken the hardest line against Israel.

Early this month the church targeted four companies that supply the Israeli military with products and services — as well as Citigroup, which the Presbyterians say has allowed funds to be moved to front groups for Palestinian terrorist organizations.

If the targeted companies, which include corporate behemoths such as Caterpillar and Motorola, refuse to amend their policies, the church will consider dropping its investments in them.

Dialogue isn’t completely dead — a Presbyterian representative will join a Jewish-Protestant mission to Israel next month — but Jewish officials feel little inclination right now to reach out to the Presbyterian leadership.

“It’s not worth it,” said David Elcott, the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “We’ve not found that engaging on the national level with Presbyterian leadership has been helpful” toward “bringing them into our peace coalition,” he said.

“By trying to detach Zionism from Judaism and by such virulently anti-Israel stances, they deny” the Jewish people’s right to define themselves as a nation whose covenant is based on the Land of Israel, Elcott said.

In fact, Jewish-Presbyterian relations have long been difficult, said Rabbi James Rudin, the AJCommittee’s senior interreligious adviser.

There is a “long history of antipathy, even hostility, to Israel” and Zionism among the Presbyterian leadership, Rudin said. Presbyterian missionaries have long been closely allied with Arabs, helping to found American universities in Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah, which in turn has informed their pro-Arab stance.

Among mainline Protestant churches the Presbyterians are regarded as experts on Middle East issues and as an influential voice of conscience, he said.

However, there is a “schizophrenic relationship” between the Presbyterians’ Arabist leadership and the church’s rank-and-file members, who are influenced by American support of Israel.

Divestment is only one element of the tension between Jews and Protestants.

One key irritant was the Sept.-Oct. 2004 issue of “Church & Society.” The magazine was devoted to criticism of the security fence, which has proven markedly effective in reducing terror attacks on the Jewish state. The publication was edited by Rev. Victor Makari, who coordinates Middle East affairs for the church.

Only recently discovered by Jewish officials, the magazine published pictures of graffiti drawn on the security barrier, including a Jewish star designed in dollar signs and the slogan “From Warsaw Ghetto to Abu Dis Ghetto.”

Jewish officials were particularly outraged at a passage in the issue’s introduction that seemed to compare Israel to Mammon, a mythological figure associated with avarice and the pursuit of money.

“It is ironic that, in the Judeo-Christian milieu of this nation, the church’s appeals, for over five decades, to the convictions of faith, to the biblical mandates of justice, and to moral consciousness have fallen largely on deaf ears. But when Mammon was aroused, floodgates of anger broke loose,” Makari wrote.

Members of the Jewish coalition — the ADL, the AJCommittee, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements — wrote Makari a bitter letter on June 3, saying the reference was reminiscent of a dangerous brand of medieval Christian anti-Semitism.

In response, Makari said he was referring to American materialism.

In a letter to the AJCommittee’s Elcott, Makari said the photos aimed to show the oppressed feelings of Palestinians, who may link the barrier to U.S. aid to Israel.

Elcott called Makari’s response “heartfelt but wholly inadequate.”

“What it addressed was whether he had anti-Semitic motivation, not whether it could have anti-Semitic impact, and that’s the difference,” he said.

Jewish officials were also offended by guidelines published in February by the Presbyterian Church USA on dialogue with Jews and Muslims.

Those guidelines warn Presbyterians of Jews’ “emotional rhetoric,” which can introduce “an unhelpful level of guilt into the conversation.”

“The Presbyterians seem to be in a very different place than the other denominations,” said Ethan Felson, the assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “There is ample evidence of a very cynical approach not just to Israel, but to American Jews,” he said.

Most of the time, he added, that mentality is “separate from the divestment debate, although it undergirds it.”

Peter Pettit, the director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, has a different take.

“I don’t think it’s anything particular to the Presbyterian community that causes them to take the lead or to be particularly harsh in their assessment of things. These are themes that are present in all of the Christian denominations to one degree or another,” he said. “It’s a question of in which denomination this particular voice gains prominence at a given time.”

In fact, Pettit said, the issue may point to a disconnect between the church’s Middle East and interfaith branches.

Though it was never adopted, the Presbyterians in 1987 crafted and widely circulated among their congregations a paper on Jewish-Christian relations that was considered a model document, Pettit said.

But the fact that the 1987 document was never passed raises questions for Jewish officials. Rudin argues that Presbyterian leaders never pressed strongly enough for its passage.

In the meantime the flashpoints between Jews and Presbyterians are taking their toll.

“It may be a generation before ‘Presbyterian’ means something other than a negative to Jewish leadership,” Felson said, adding, “That’s not a guilt trip. That’s a reality check.”

NEXT STORY