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On Eve of Meeting, Divestment Issue Still Roiling Jewish-presbyterian Ties

May 12, 2006
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As Presbyterians across America gear up for their biennial assembly next month, the legacy of the last such meeting is still roiling the Jewish community and the church’s own members. Two years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution calling for "phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel."

Those who long have followed Jewish-Protestant relations weren’t surprised.

"It was the culmination of decades — not years, but decades — of hostility toward Israel and Zionism, not by the rank-and-file members of these churches, but by some of the leadership," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, where he staffed the interfaith department for 38 years.

The passion ignited by the divestment resolution at the last General Assembly is likely to erupt again at the June 15-22 meeting in Birmingham, Ala.

What happens there will have a lasting impact on the already strained relationship between Jews and the entire Protestant community. The estimated 3 million Presbyterians in the United States influence the other white mainline Protestant churches in this country, whose members number more than 20 million.

Presbyterians are considered the "conscience" and reason of the Protestant community, serving as something of a "swing vote," Rudin said.

Indeed, after the Presbyterians’ 2004 resolution on divestment, several other Protestant communities took up the issue. The Methodists decided to study their options; the United Church of Christ, also known as the Congregationalists, endorsed divestment but did not create a process to enact it; the Episcopalians considered but rejected divestment; and the Lutherans rejected a divestment resolution, and instead passed a resolution to invest in cooperative ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.

What will happen in Birmingham is anyone’s guess, though both Presbyterian and Jewish officials predict that no immediate action on divestment will be taken.

According to Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, "the prevailing wisdom" is that a recommendation proposed by the General Assembly committee to appoint a committee for continued debate on divestment, without halting the divestment process, will pass.

Soon after the resolution was passed, the group’s committee charged with assessing the church’s stock portfolio for potential divestment expanded the criteria of companies to include companies that support Israel’s presence in the West Bank; its separation barrier; settlement building and violence to either party in the conflict.

The committee is still in its investigative stages. It has already begun initial talks with three of the five companies in question. The Presbyterian Church says it has targeted the following companies for these reasons:

Caterpillar, because the Israeli military uses its equipment to demolish Palestinian homes and construct roads for Israeli settlers in "the occupied territories";

Citigroup, due to charges that it has transferred funds to Palestinian terrorist groups;

ITT Industries, for supplying communication devices to the Israeli military used in "the occupied territories";

Motorola, because it also supplies the Israeli military with communication devices, and takes "advantage of the Israeli government policy of delaying or prohibiting the importation of modern equipment into Palestine"; and

United Technologies, for providing helicopters to the Israeli military that have been used in attacks against suspected Palestinian terrorists.

More than $65 million is at stake — the combined shares of Presbyterian Church stock in the aforementioned companies. The MRTI committee has made no requests for action by the companies, said a church press officer. The meetings were about "fact finding" and "information sharing," she said.

The more immediate question is whether the church will continue to go down the divestment path or reverse course.

To some extent, the issue can be viewed as a struggle between the denomination’s ministers and laity. According to an internal Presbyterian USA poll taken in November 2004, more laity — some 42 percent of members and 46 percent of elders — oppose divestment, compared with 28 percent of members and 30 percent of elders which are against. Meanwhile, pastors favor divestment by 48 percent to 43 percent and specialized clergy favor it by 64 percent to 24 percent.

Furthermore, the church said that the poll showed that "despite widespread media attention," most Presbyterian laity were not even aware of the decision of the 216th General Assembly to "begin a process of phased, selective divestment" of companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

But it would be hard to imagine that anyone heading to Birmingham could miss the subject, given the sheer number of overtures, or proposals, on divestment submitted to the church by regional presbyteries for the upcoming assembly.

Nearly one-fifth of the 137 proposals to be considered at the assembly address divestment. Some want to press forward with the divestment process, many others aim to rescind the original resolution and express serious concern about the damage the issue has done to Jewish-Presbyterian relations and the church’s reputation.

The overtures come before a committee, which will condense them into a single resolution or propose an alternative to present to the assembly.

Some 3,000 clergy and lay people are expected at the assembly. Of these, 534 individuals — half clergy, half laity, are eligible to vote on the overtures.

Given the wave of overtures to reject divestment, "one would hope they would see that as the will of the people," said the Rev. John Wimberly, pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington.

Wimberly is on the steering committee of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations, a group that has pushed hard to further overtures against divestment.

However, "this issue has become the ‘in’ issue," Wimberly said. "It’s the issue of the left today in the Presbyterian Church and it gains a kind of life of its own."

Asked about the issue by JTA, Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief ecclesiastical officer of the Presbyterian Church, said it has been "very painful that in our effort to secure peace and justice for all," the church has hurt members of the Jewish community, for which the church has "deep respect." The Presbyterian Church is committed to both good interfaith relations with Jews and Muslims while pursuing "peace and justice in the Middle East."

Some devoted to Jewish-Christian relations have made overturning divestment a priority. They include the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, a network that long has worked with Jewish and Christian supporters to promote Israel’s cause.

The group is hosting a May 18 conference on divestment at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City and coordinating a Presbyterian mission to Israel later this month.

There’s "a real groundswell of opposition that’s occurred within the church, and it’s very widespread," said Jim Roberts, a Presbyterian from San Diego, who heads a committee of volunteers and a Web site called "End Divestment Now."

Roberts’ group argues that divestment is rooted in bias and flawed theology, and considers the divestment push a breach of the church’s principles of fairness and bottom-up governance.

Insiders say several sources gave rise to the 2004 divestment resolution and the pro-Palestinian feelings among many Presbyterians.

For one, Palestinian Christians have deeply influenced the church by framing the Israeli-Palestinian issue in terms of "liberation theology," portraying the Palestinians as powerless victims who must be freed from their ostensible oppressors, the Israelis.

The most influential group espousing this platform is the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which sponsors conferences around the world and speakers at Christian gatherings, and advocates divestment from Israel.

Jewish groups, and many Christians, call Sabeel a corrupting influence.

Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East holds news conferences about Sabeel nearly every time the group holds a meeting in America, said the Rev. Roy W. Howard, an executive committee member who is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Rockville, Md.

According to Howard, Sabeel is ambiguous about Israel’s very right to exist: Its devotees speak about a "Greater Palestine" in which there is no Jewish state, he said.

The Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America, calls these charges a distortion.

"There has never been a call for the destruction of Israel or anything like that at all," he said. Leaders of mainstream Jewish groups are often invited, but don’t respond, he said.

San Francisco, a presbytery that has presented an overture affirming divestment, was influenced less by Sabeel than by Presbyterians who visited Palestinian areas, said the Rev. Will McGarvey, pastor of the Community Presbyterian Church, who will present San Francisco’s proposal at the assembly.

Divestment is a last resort in a process that encourages corporations first to act more justly, McGarvey said. Though it may seem one-sided, "there’s only one side that has power right now, and that is the" Israel Defense Forces, he said.

Jewish officials in San Francisco felt insulted that the local presbytery never informed them of its overture.

"That’s awful hurtful," said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region. "I feel like they didn’t really learn a lesson" from the uproar over the 2004 resolution about the need to inform Jewish colleagues about their actions.

It also hasn’t been easy for Jay Tcath, vice president of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and director of its Jewish Community Relations Council.

He has limited his interaction with the local presbytery since the fall of 2004 because the group delayed addressing the divestment resolution. Instead, he turned his attention to individual churches in the area, which he said are more open to dialogue on the issue.

"Friends don’t allow slanders to stand against other friends," he said.

Matters worsened when the Chicago presbytery’s Middle East task force met with leaders of the radical fundamentalist group Hezbollah in Lebanon last fall.

It was smoother in Atlanta, where Jewish officials got early word of an overture for divestment because of their strong interfaith relationships. They successfully called for its withdrawal in favor of broadened dialogue.

Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue on the grass-roots level has intensified since the divestment resolution passed in 2004.

Shari Dollinger, a former interreligious affairs officer for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, launched the Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East after witnessing the heavily pro-Palestinian current at the United Church of Christ’s July 2005 General Synod in Atlanta.

The coalition, whose founding members include The David Project, American Jewish Congress and Stand with Us, is using a grass-roots approach, disseminating information to Jewish and non-Jewish groups at pro-divestment gatherings and on its Web site,

But some say Presbyterian leaders have sidelined Jewish voices on divestment.

It’s "downright embarrassing that the Presbyterians have not made certain that they have multiple points of views and interpretations of what’s going on," said Christopher Leighton, director of the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Leighton cited a conference on divestment last year in Louisville, Ky., site of the church’s national headquarters. The Baltimore delegation walked out because of the lopsided pro-Palestinian representation.

"It was an appalling example of having a foregone conclusion that you want to trumpet and so you know where you want people to end up before they even start out," he said. "It seems to me that that’s symptomatic of how our leadership has handled this."

Some Jewish officials suggest the church is again stacking the deck. The day before this year’s General Assembly, for example, the church has scheduled a Middle East forum with three representatives — a Palestinian Christian, a Palestinian Muslim and a American Jew, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Why, anti-divestment forces wonder, is there no Israeli represented?

Many Presbyterians "have been listening to the message that they have heard from their Jewish brothers and sisters, but there are still very powerful, intransigent leaders who believe that they are serving their community by lifting up Palestinians and beating up on Israel, and that’s sad," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs.

"In the last two years, what has also shocked many people involved in this ongoing dialogue is that all too often when the phrase ‘occupation’ is used, many believe that they are not referring to 1967 but 1948" — in other words, a rejection of Israel’s existence.

Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian chief ecclesiastical officer, rejects that charge.

"It has been the core commitment of every Presbyterian leader I know" to ensure "peace and justice for both Palestinians and Israelis," he said.

For now, there is plenty of debate on all sides of the issue. And many are just plain confused.

Presbyterians may need to "wait for the dust to settle before we can make any real determination of the appropriate way to enhance relations between Israelis and Palestinians," Leighton said.

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