Troubling Presbyterian Document


In the wake of recent economic and academic attacks on Israel comes a resumption on the theological front.

Last week, the Palestine Mission Network, an advisory group to the Presbyterian Church in this country, released “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide,” a 74-page illustrated booklet that the liberal Protestant denomination describes as a resource for leaders and laity with an interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The publication appeared ahead of the church’s biennial General Assembly, a national gathering that will take place in June in Detroit.

The guide has drawn the condemnation from a wide range of Jewish organizations for statements that cite a “pathology inherent in Zionism,” urge a “renunciation of the morally hazardous claims of a hierarchy of victimhood,” and call for an “expanded, inclusive” understanding of the Holocaust that would expand its historical lessons to the current status of Palestinian Arabs.

In short, say Jewish leaders, the document rewrites modern Jewish history, putting the onus for a diplomatic stalemate on Israeli intransigency, and undercutting the biblical-historical justification for a Jewish homeland that the majority of Jews support.

The Presbyterian guide follows a series of recent attacks on Israel’s viability — the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israeli universities; calls for actress Scarlett Johansson to withdraw as a spokeswoman for the West Bank-based SodaStream company (she did not; instead she withdrew from the board of anti-poverty charity Oxfam); the announcement by two large European banks that they will boycott Israeli banks that operate in the “occupied territories.”

The Presbyterians’ publication and anticipated divestment vote at the upcoming General Assembly pose little existential threat to Israel; the booklet is only the latest in a series of anti-Israel salvos made by any number of enemies of the Jewish state; and the money invested in Israel by members of the church is inconsequential.

But the symbolic damage can be immeasurable. When a major, mainstream denomination of American Protestantism unequivocally demonizes Israel, it sends a message to other Christians in this country, those unfamiliar with the vagaries and complexities of the Middle East situation — that Israel is the bad guy, that Israel deserves the bulk of criticism, that Israel is fair game.

“The Jewish community should be very concerned,” says Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “that the Presbyterian Church has seemingly rejected a half-century of interfaith reconciliation.”

According to statement from Felson, in deviating from repeated pledges in this decade to work for a “new season of interfaith understanding,” to serve as “nonpartisan advocates for peace,” to take a balanced approach to its positions on the Middle East, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is parting company both with other Protestant groups, who have rejected calls for support of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, and with their own members, most of whom back, according to public opinion polling, a “strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Most Americans, polls consistently find, are in favor of strong American support for Israel, and are sympathetic to Israel’s legitimate security concerns — which the writers of “Zionism Unsettled” are not.

In issuing a one-sided, polemic publication, the Presbyterian Church does more damage to its own reputation than to the country at which it aims its rhetorical weapons.