Fight Over Protestant Point Man


Jewish groups here expressed concern this week that Jim Winkler, a former leader of the United Methodist Church who has been an outspoken critic of Israel, advocated economic pressure against Israel and believes Israel is trying to “subjugate the Palestinian people,” has been elected president of the National Council of Churches effective Jan. 1.

The National Council of Churches is the largest ecumenical organization of Christians in the U.S., serving as the umbrella for 37 mainline Protestant groups and reportedly encompassing more than 100,000 local churches with 40 million followers.

“It’s sad that such an important institution as the National Council of Churches, which can play such a meaningful role not only in Jewish-Christian dialogue but in bringing peace closer between Israelis and Palestinians, would … select a person who is so biased, prejudiced, one-sided and closed-minded on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Winkler told The Jewish Week that he was “disappointed” in Foxman’s comments.

“It makes me wonder if he really wants to work with the National Council of Churches,” he said.

Winkler insisted that his detractors have misconstrued prior statements he has made that were critical of Israel.

“I don’t regard myself as anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian,” he said. “I believe I am pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. I want an Israel with a safe and secure border, and I want Palestinians to have their own state on contiguous land.”

The focus on Winkler’s election comes as members of the American Studies Association voted with a two-thirds majority in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The vote, which was announced Monday, follows a similar vote in April by the Association for Asian American Studies.

And it comes just a week after Hillel International warned its Swarthmore College chapter that it could no longer use its name if it refuses to follow Hillel International’s guidelines regarding Israel. The Hillel board at the liberal arts Pennsylvania school had voted to reject the guidelines and declare itself an “Open Hillel,” paving the way for it to host groups deemed hostile to Israel.

Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs umbrella group, said the votes of the two academic groups must be put into perspective. Only 1,252 ASA members cast electronic votes out of 5,000 who were eligible and only 867 voted in favor.

Felson noted that the Association of Asian American Studies is a small organization and that these were mostly “symbolic” actions.

Felson said such votes should be contrasted with last month’s vote of the prestigious American Public Health Association, which resoundingly defeated an Israel boycott resolution, 74 percent to 26 percent, despite major lobbying by boycott activists.

Nevertheless, he said the two votes by academics should serve as a “wakeup call to members that we need to be aware of what is happening in their institutions and that they are charting a course that furthers peace and not division.”

“This is part of a broader effort that is ongoing to reduce the conflict to black-and-white terms, good guy and bad guy,” Felson said. “The reason these resolutions are rejected so often in the churches is that rank-and-file members recognize that the conflict is complex. But every now and again there may be resolutions that a small academic association or small church passes because of who is in the room or who is voting or the language of the resolution. But most people of good will recognize that there are multiple narratives to the conflict. One thing for certain is that this type of activity moves us further from peace because the parties need reconciliation and BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] is not a tool of reconciliation.”

Among the church resolutions Felson was referring to was one last year by the Presbyterian Church USA. A resolution calling for divestment from specific American companies whose products are seen as helping Israel “occupy” the territories was defeated and another resolution calling for positive investment was adopted by a wide margin. At the same time, another resolution was adopted calling for a boycott of Israeli products made in the territories.

Methodists also overwhelmingly rejected divestment resolutions in 2008 and again last year. And instead of calling for a boycott of Israeli products made in the territories, it voted in favor of an embargo against such products.

Thus, although some Protestant groups have adopted sanctions against products made in the territories, none have voted for the more extreme action of divestment.

“Every mainline Protestant denomination that has considered divestment since 2006 has rejected it,” Felson said.

Winkler categorically told The Jewish Week: “I have never, ever supported a boycott of Israel. Our concern is with companies profiting from products made in the occupied territories.”

He added that he has no intention of pressing an anti-Israel agenda when he assumes the presidency of the National Council of Churches.

That would be good news to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which sent Winkler a letter congratulating him on his election and “expressing the hope that as leader of an umbrella group of a large segment of Christianity that he would reconsider his past positions,” according to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the center’s director of interfaith affairs.

Winkler’s assurances would also be welcome news to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which this week issued a statement saying: “We hope that when Jim Winkler assumes this new leadership position he will reflect the close relations that we know most NCC members wish to have with the mainstream Jewish community. There is much that Christians and Jews must do to foster reconciliation — here and in the Middle East. Boycotts, divestment and sanctions have been a springboard for division and disharmony. We hope they are not in the future for the NCC.”

Among the actions by Winkler that have troubled Jewish groups was a column in which he blamed Israel alone for its eight-day assault in November 2012 on Hamas terror targets in the Gaza Strip. Israel said it acted after incessant rocket attacks at Israeli targets, including with long-range rockets. But Winkler claimed the Palestinians had the “moral high ground” in the conflict and lamented that Israel was able to use U.S.-supplied weapons that he said were “ever more deadly.”

A year earlier, several church denominations, including Winkler’s, supported Palestinian statehood at the United Nations despite U.S. and Israeli opposition. And after Israeli forces boarded a boat attempting to run Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2011, Winkler condemned Israel and the Israeli soldiers who killed nine activists aboard the boat.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations at the American Jewish Committee, pointed out that although the National Council of Churches’ “size and influence are waning, we are disturbed that a leader of the BDS movement within the United Methodist Church and an outspoken critic of Israel has been elected as its chief professional. Demonization of Israel by church leaders will not lead to the peace we all desire for Israel and Palestinians. Time will tell regarding the future direction of the NCC and its credibility under this new leadership.”

Winkler said he plans to spend the holidays reading the positions the NCC has taken over the years so that when he assumes the presidency his positions will be “consistent with the stances taken by it.”

“I don’t believe my statements have been consistently against Israel,” he said. “I expressed my concern about the killing of nine folks on the boat. And in meeting with Palestinian leaders I have expressed to them our opposition to their use of violence and resistance to the occupation. So I have been consistent in my opposition to violence on both sides. I can’t for the life of me see how the use of violence by Israelis or Palestinians could lead to future of peace or coexistence. Both sides are locked into a cycle of violence and someone must step forward and say we want peace.”

Winkler added that the primary focus of the NCC has been on mass incarceration and the need for peace.

“It has not been directly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is addressed in the years ahead,” he added. “At the present, my focus will be on the current priorities and on emerging from our financial crisis.”