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Auburn Seminary head on Presbyterian Zionism guide: ‘Demonization, distortion and imbalance’

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is famous for lacking a hierarchy.

It does have locii of influence, however, and preeminent among these is the Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan, which trains leaders and tackles interfaith understanding.

So it’s significant that when we asked church leaders who have engaged in dialogue with Jews to comment on the “Zionism Unsettled” study guide published last month by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, one of the most scathing indictments came from its president, Katharine Rhodes Henderson.

Here is the statement she issued to JTA in full:

Zionism Unsettled, a publication by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, an advocacy group created by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), is not a congregational study guide as it claims to be, but rather a polemic that reduces the complex and multiple narratives of Israelis and Palestinians through a single lens: the problem of Zionism. The premise of the document appears to be that Zionism is the cause of the entire conflict in the Middle East and the root of all its problems. For its authors, Zionism functions as the original sin, from which flows all the suffering of the Palestinian people.

One of the important consequences of this polemic is to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel and contradict policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over several decades. Our denomination has consistently supported the needs and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians; it has advocated for justice, security and reconciliation for all, while acknowledging the complexity of the problem and the difficulty in reaching a just and lasting peace.

An ideologically driven document such as this one cannot conceivably promote solutions that all parties in this conflict urgently need. Moreover, it is written at a particularly unfortunate moment as world leaders struggle to engage in new efforts to work towards resolution of the practical problems that face everyone in the region and make actual reconciliation between the parties extremely difficult.

This document purports to be about love but it actually expresses demonization, distortion and imbalance. Sadly, its sweeping allegations, blanket condemnations and troubling omissions are not likely to foster productive conversations, but rather to prevent them. It creates walls not just between Presbyterians and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, but also within the Presbyterian body itself.

The Presbyterian Church has in the past wisely recognized our prophetic role in repairing breaches, not exacerbating them. I pray that church leaders will pursue proactive measures to mitigate the damage of this publication by reassuring those who are alarmed by this document that it does not reflect or represent the viewpoints of a vast majority of Presbyterians. On a local level, I hope that Presbyterians will reach out to Jewish colleagues and rabbis to learn about their understandings of Zionism, as well as to Arab Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and Palestinian Americans as well as both Muslims and Christians to supplement a narrow and partisan discourse with a broader range of voices. And for those of us who believe in the power of prayer and a God who can make a way out of no way, now would be the time to pray for all those, both in the U.S. and the Middle East, who seek a just and lasting peace.

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