NEW YORK (JTA) – A study guide prepared by the United Methodist Church on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is drawing fierce condemnation from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations already concerned that divestment is making a comeback among mainline Protestant groups.
This week, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and B’nai B’rith International all issued harsh appraisals of the guide, 225 pages authored by a Jewish-born minister, the Rev. Stephen Goldstein. Four Jewish women’s groups and pro-Israel Christians groups also have protested the guide, called “Israel-Palestine.”
Among the most troubling passages of the guide, published last spring, are a reference to Israel’s “original sin,” the suggestion that Israel’s “hysteria” and “paranoiac sense of isolation” have prevented it from making peace, and the assertion that Israel’s “denial of the word Palestinian reveals a racism that considers Arabs less than human.”
The guide, whose introduction describes it as a “balanced survey” of the conflict, is one of three “mission studies” published annually by the chuch’s General Board of Global Ministries to “motivate, inform and enrich” the church community, according to the board’s Web site.
“I’ve never seen anything like this other than material published by known and recognized hate groups,” said Sister Ruth Lautt, the national director of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, which works to counter anti-Israel sentiment in churches. “It descends to that level.”
The condemnations come as Jewish groups are bracing for a renewed push among mainline Protestant denominations to divest from companies they deem to be supporting Israeli occupation.
The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States, will consider two divestment resolutions when its chief policymaking body, the General Conference, gathers in Fort Worth, Texas, in April.
If the resolutions pass, Jewish leaders fear the move may reignite a push for divestment in other denominations, particularly in the Presbyterian Church USA, whose General Assembly convenes in June in San Jose, Calif. The first Protestant church to endorse divestment, the Presbyterians backtracked somewhat in 2006 from their 2004 decision to divest, moving instead to apply general principles for responsible investing in Israel.
A joint statement from General Board of Global Ministries and the Women’s Division defended the guide as consistent with the church’s position on the conflict. It says charges of bias are based on a “twisted reading” of Goldstein’s personal reflections that are included throughout the study.
“The mission study’s perspective is in keeping with the thoughtful, informed, and consistent position of The United Methodist Church on Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories,” the statement said.
The Global Ministries denied JTA’s request for further comment.
One resolution before the United Methodist Church urges divestment from Caterpillar Inc., a manufacturer of construction and mining equipment whose products have been used by the Israeli military to destroy Palestinian property.
A second resolution targets all companies deemed to support the “occupation” or the violation of Palestinian or Israeli human rights. Targeted companies would be given 60 days to change their practices before stock purchases are cut off.
Officials at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization of local Jewish community councils, said they have been reaching out to General Conference delegates in an effort to open a dialogue on the issue.
Even more troubling to Jewish groups than divestment, which they have had some success deflecting in the past, are the multiple references to the Holocaust in the United Methodist Church’s supporting literature and the attempt to cast Israel in excessively dark terms.
One frequently cited example is an essay by Dr. Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors who while explicitly denying that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is the moral equivalent of the Nazi genocide, nevertheless makes a comparison between the two.
Roy’s essay was published on the front page of a recent bulletin from the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the church body that proposed the broader divestment resolution.
“Within the Jewish community it has always been considered a form of heresy to compare Israeli actions or policies with those of the Nazis, and certainly one must be very careful in doing so,” Roy wrote. “But what does it mean when Israeli soldiers paint identification numbers on Palestinian arms?”
It is material like that, Jewish organizational leaders say, which not only has poisoned the church’s attitude toward Israel but represents a much more sinister impulse that threatens interfaith relations.
“This isn’t just about divestment,” said Ethan Felson, the associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The United Methodist Church “has elegant and appropriate policy on the relationship between our communities and our faiths, and to see the relationship abused over this issue – this isn’t about peacemaking. This is about demonization.”
Doug Mills, one of the Methodist Church’s point people on interfaith relations, told JTA he was “personally not comfortable” with some of the language in the Goldstein study and that it represented only Goldstein’s personal views – notwithstanding the Global Ministries’ assertion that it was consistent with the church’s position.
Mills urged Jews to look at “the whole constellation” of the church’s statements on Israel and interfaith relations.
“It’s absolutely not fair to say that the UMC sees Israeli action as original sin,” Mills said. “That’s an interesting statement that Bishop May put out.” Felton May is the interim general-secretary of the Global Ministries.
While Mills would not, as a church employee, express an opinion on the divestment resolutions, his remarks suggested the study represents a potential setback in interfaith ties.
Asked what he expected the next time he meets with his Jewish counterparts, Mills said, “I think it’s going to be a lot like this interview. There’s no way to hide this.”