Menu JTA Search

Presbyterian-Hezbollah meet angers Chicago Jews

CHICAGO, Dec. 6 (JTA) — Five Chicago Jewish organizations, all active in interfaith relations, have denounced a recent meeting in Lebanon between Chicago Presbyterians and a Hezbollah leader. The groups also said the Chicago Presbytery’s failure to condemn the meeting further erodes the already damaged dialogue between Jews and Presbyterians. The October trip was co-sponsored by the Chicago Presbytery’s Middle East Task Force. The Rev. Bob Reynolds, the Presbytery’s executive, was among the participants. According to media reports, the trip’s leader, Dr. Robert Worley, praised Hezbollah and said Presbyterians “have suffered much pressure on the part of Jewish organizations” due to their church’s efforts to divest from companies working with Israel. Speaking at a Dec. 1 press conference at the Jewish United Fund in Chicago, Jay Tcath, director of the JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said this was not the first time a Presbyterian delegation has met with and praised Hezbollah, which the United States and European Union have designated a terrorist organization. “I can’t imagine the Chicago Presbytery meeting with the KKK to share views on racial justice. Why then are Hezbollah terrorists now on their ‘must meet’ list?” Tcath asked. He said the fact that national church plans to establish guidelines for members’ travel to troubled areas indicates that the church remains open to such meetings. “Hezbollah is interested in murder, not co-existence,” said Lonnie Nasatir, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest Region. “As America wages a war on terror, we cannot understand why Presbyterian leaders would meet with terrorists who have the blood of innocent people on their hands.” Hundreds of Americans, military and civilian, have been killed in attacks by Hezbollah, he noted. When they learned of the meeting, Jewish groups contacted the Chicago Presbytery leadership “hoping to hear a denunciation of the meeting, and a formal rebuke of those who participated in it,” Tcath said. In response, “we received rationalizations, contextualizations and explanations of the minutia of the Presbytery’s chain of command.” The Presbytery leadership said the meeting, though organized by the Middle East Task Force, was not officially sanctioned by the Presbytery, and that Rev. Reynolds was not participating in his official capacity. The fact that Hezbollah runs charity and social-welfare programs for Palestinians “must not cloud the fact that these are licentious murderers,” said Susan Ostrov, the American Jewish Congress’ Midwest region director. The actions and words of Worley, the trip organizer, were wrong and harmful to American interests, Ostrov said, and “the deafening silence from Presbyterian leaders opposed to Worley’s comments and actions is as shocking as the meeting itself.” Emily Soloff, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago chapter, said she admires “the Presbyterian impulse to hear all points of view, [but] in the pursuit of justice, we must also recognize evil and speak truth to those who do evil deeds.” While the great majority of Presbyterians support Israel, Soloff said, the Presbytery’s Middle East Task Force repeatedly provides a simplistic, one-sided approach to a very complex issue. “They are not interested in discourse, but in promoting an agenda that … makes peace harder to reach. And that is the real tragedy here,” she said. Jewish groups want a deeper relationship with those in the church whom “we can work with, debate with, even disagree with. But we cannot continue a dialogue with those who seek input from unrepentant terrorists whose world view is as anti-American and anti-Christian as it is anti-Semitic,” Soloff said. Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, described Chicago Presbytery leaders as good people and outstanding religious leaders, but called their response to the Jewish groups’ concerns “an abdication of moral responsibility.” “Religious leaders don’t distance themselves from evil,” Youdovin said. “They confront and denounce it, even — or especially — when its perpetrators are their own people.” During the meeting in Lebanon, Youdovin said, Worley reportedly told his host that Jewish pressure keeps Americans from hearing anything other than that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Rabbi Youdovin noted that Worley made the statement “to people whose aim is annihilating the State of Israel, and with it half of the world’s Jewish population.” Yet, he said, those on the trip “said nothing while their spokesperson forged a kinship between Presbyterians and Hezbollah as fellow victims of Jewish power.” Tcath said the relationship between the Chicago Jewish community and the Chicago Presbytery had been severely breached when the national church adopted a divestment resolution. “From that point forward it hasn’t been business as usual between the Chicago Presbytery and us,” he said. “This latest, escalating development makes clear that partnership under such conditions cannot exist.”