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Jews See Signs of Rapprochement As Episcopalians Reject Divestment

October 12, 2005
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The Episcopal Church’s decision not to pursue divestment from Israel reflects a growing coalition of Jews and Christians committed to peace in the Middle East and opposed to one-sided approaches to the conflict, Jewish officials say. The Episcopalians are “joining with the other mainline churches in seeking constructive ways to influence the United States’ government and Israelis and Palestinians to find a two-state solution,” said David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

“For the first time since this conflict began, there is a broad-based coalition of Protestants, Catholics and Jews committed to a two-state solution and peace,” he said. “This is the news, not the conflict. We are actually working together for peace.”

On Oct. 3, the Episcopal Church’s Social Responsibility in Investments Committee issued its report, which was approved by the church’s Executive Council on Saturday.

The church calls on the committee to file shareholder resolutions with companies in which the church has investments “whose products or services contribute to violence against either side or contribute to the infrastructure that supports or sustains the Occupation, such as settlements and their bypass roads, the security barrier where it is built on Palestinian land, and demolition of Palestinian homes.”

The resolution also calls on the committee to encourage companies in which it has holdings to support Palestinian economic development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But it stops short of recommending that the church divest from companies that profit from Israel’s presence in the territories, which had been a possibility.

The committee said it was not recommending divestment because “the goal is for selected companies to change behavior, resulting in a more hopeful climate for peace. If the church simply divests, nothing positive has happened.”

“What this evidences is that the corner has been turned,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The churches can find balanced and reasonable approaches that enable them to ensure that their investments are done in a way that comports with their values, without delegitimizing Israel or embracing a decidedly one-sided narrative.”

Officials of the church’s Executive Council were traveling Tuesday from their meeting in Nevada and could not be reached.

The Episcopalian move could influence the United Methodist Church, which currently is studying how it should respond to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Jewish officials say.

Considering that the Presbyterian Church USA is now the only Protestant church that has called for divestment, the Episcopal Church’s decision reflects a trend toward greater closeness between Jews and Protestants, Jewish officials say.

“The Jewish community and the mainline Protestant community have not engaged each other on the Middle East for decades,” Elcott said. “We have not taken each other seriously. Now we are working together to reach peace. That is a breakthrough.”

But some in the Jewish community wish that the Episcopalians had gone further.

Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, called the move “a step in the right direction.”

“We are concerned, however, that they failed to acknowledge the important steps that Israel has taken with disengagement,” he said, referring to Israel’s recent Gaza Strip withdrawal. “But we hope that other churches follow the lead” and reject divestment.

When the Presbyterian Church took up divestment from Israel last summer, it paved the way for other mainline Protestant churches to consider divestment — and touched off a year of intensified Jewish-Protestant dialogue. Jewish groups felt the Protestants were not sensitive to Israel’s perspective and were being duped by pro-Palestinian propagandists who took advantage of well-meaning, but naive, church officials to present a distorted view of the conflict.

National Jewish and Protestant leaders traveled together to Israel last month, a trip participants said influenced both sides and may have reinforced a move toward rapprochement in the lead-up to the Episcopalians’ decision.

“What you’re seeing is a building of consensus,” Elcott said. “When you experience the suffering on both sides, you realize that there is simply no point in validating one side over the other.”

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