The largest Lutheran denomination in the United States last week approved a pair of resolutions that, like those adopted in recent years by other prominent Protestant groups, is critical of Israel.
But, said observers of interfaith relations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at its triennial assembly in New Orleans, did not adopt more strident resolutions proposed by several local church councils around the country. One of the adopted resolutions favored an “investment screen” that would guide church members’ investments in U.S. corporations that do business in Israel, rather than a direct call for divestment from these firms.
And the language of the adopted resolutions, which urge the U.S. president to “recognize the State of Palestine” and encourage church members to “increase positive investment in Palestine,” offers a more balanced approach to Middle East issues than some other churches’ resolutions, the observers said.
The Lutheran resolutions, coming two months after the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a report that representatives of the Jewish community characterized as more balanced than that denomination’s past resolutions, and three months after a committee of the United Methodists rejected four divestment resolutions, may represent a small move in some Protestant circles away from automatic support for the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and towards positions that hold both Israelis and Palestinians responsible for progress in the Middle East peace process.
“I think it reflects a recognition that easy ‘solutions’ to difficult and complex problems are not solutions at all but actually inflame volatile situations,” said Emily Soloff, the American Jewish Committee’s national associate director of Interreligious and Intergroup relations. She attended last week’s Lutheran gathering.
The Lutheran resolutions — among several dozen on a wide range of theological and political topics considered at the assembly — were “not a one-sided deal” that took a largely anti-Israel stance, Soloff, who lives in Chicago, said in a telephone interview.
The Lutheran resolutions are “clearly better” than those passed in recent years by other Protestant denominations, said Rabbi David Sandmel, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of interfaith affairs. “There’s no divestment language,” and no calls to unilaterally cut off U.S. foreign aid to Israel.
“Divestment may be losing some of its appeal. Clearly, it’s seen as divisive. It appears to be completely ineffective,” added Rabbi Sandmel, who also attended the Lutheran assembly. “The rhetoric that has been found in some of the churches,” he said, is not found in the Lutherans’ most recent resolutions.
While the approved resolutions urged church members to ask the president and members of Congress to make continued U.S. “financial and military aid” contingent on Israel complying with “internationally recognized human rights standards,” the resolutions did not call for an outright suspension of such U.S. aid.
Absent from the resolutions was the more critical language contained in some motions proposed by local synods. “This opens the possibility to say that the Palestinians are doing things that are problematic,” Soloff said.
“There are nuances in the language of the [approved] resolutions … there is a balance,” Soloff said. “There is really a desire … to be partners with the Jewish community. This will not hurt interfaith [Jewish-Lutheran] ties.”
A call for an investment screen, which offers “guidance to investors” instead of advocating support for the BDS movement, will allow the Lutheran Church to “stay at the table” with the Jewish community on discussions about Israel, she added.
“Social criteria investment screens do not constitute binding mandates or provide … specific lists of corporations” in which not to invest, the Lutheran assembly report states.
The Lutheran resolutions did not specify the amount of money invested by church members or church organizations in firms that operate in Israel, and the church did not respond to a request by The Jewish Week for comment on this subject.
But these moves will not necessarily influence other Protestant denominations, Soloff said. “They will ‘make Shabbos for themselves’”; i.e., each denomination independently determines its own approach to Middle East issues.
The Lutheran resolutions also affirmed the church’s “commitment” to “promote the protection of the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis,” “call on” the U.S. president to work for a “viable” two-state agreement, and “stop settlement building and expansion of existing settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
The language of the adopted resolutions reflects a division within the Lutheran church, which has about four million members, between advocates of the Palestinian cause and those members of the church whose priority is maintaining a good working relationship with the Jewish community, Rabbi Sandmel said. “Clearly, their relationship with the Jewish community is of great concern to them.