On the Upper West Side, Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a veteran of a study mission to Israel and dialogue activities with the Jewish community.
In Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston, Mississippi-born Rev. Frederick Seay, pastor of his city’s First Presbyterian Church, “no expert of affairs in the Middle East,” has never been to Israel and has scant ties with Sugar Land’s small Jewish community.
Last week both were among 120 Presbyterian leaders in this country, members of the clergy and the laity, who signed a full-page ad in The New York Times that strongly criticized the church’s vote in June in favor of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution at a national conference. The 310-303 approval of a motion to withdraw about $21 million invested in three U.S. corporations that operate on the West Bank made the 1.8-million-member church the first one in this country to approve a pro-BDS resolution.
The vote in Detroit, at the General Assembly of PC-USA, inflamed many parts of the American Jewish community, and seemed to threaten interfaith ties between U.S. Jewry, Presbyterians and possibly some of the wider Protestant community.
“While most people on all sides of this debate share a common goal of a just and lasting peace, unfortunately the decision for divestment fueled polarization rather than peacemaking,” Rev. Henderson said of her decision to join the signers of the Times ad. “The ad was assembled by an ad-hoc group of leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who believe divestment strengthens the extreme positions on both sides of this conflict without alleviating the suffering of Palestinians … [a] group deeply committed to a just and lasting peace between the Palestinian and Israeli people,” Rev. Henderson said.
Rev. Seay, who calls himself “a child of the Presbyterian pew,” said he signed the ad as a statement against the pro-BDS vote that he called “very one-sided.” The vote, he said, “didn’t speak for all Presbyterians. Frequently, people in the pews assume” that the Presbyterian representatives who voted in favor of BDS represent the entire denomination.
“Presbyterians: We can do better than divestment,” stated the headline of the Times ad.
The ad, one of the most prominent challenges to a major Protestant denomination’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian divide in recent decades by leading members of a church’s own ranks, was sponsored by Presbyterians for a Just and Peaceful Future in the Middle East (firstname.lastname@example.org), which formed in the wake of the General Assembly vote. The group is not affiliated with PC USA.
Among the prominent signers is theologian and former New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr, grand-nephew of famed Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
The ad makes an effort at balance, criticizing both “the extensive suffering and death of Palestinians” during this summer’s Protective Edge fighting against Hamas terrorists in Gaza and “the unabated expansion of settlements,” as well as “the trauma of increasing rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians” and “the discovery of tunnels for major terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.”
“We represent the mainstream” of the Presbyterian community, said Rev. Susan Andrews, who signed the ad. General presbyter (administrator) of the upstate Hudson River Presbytery and a former parish pastor, she said the “ad hoc group of leaders … [are] from all parts of the country,” mostly “centrist people who believe the [Israeli] occupation is wrong but totally support the right of Israel to exist as a safe state.” They understood “how divisive that [BDS] vote was,” she said, calling the ad an effort “to reach people in the pews.”
Like Rev. Henderson, many of the Presbyterians who signed the ad were veterans of interfaith work that was strained by the BDS vote, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior spiritual leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side and a longtime participant in ecumenical activities. He said many New York rabbis and local Presbyterian pastors increased their frequency of contacts to repair the damage of the BDS vote. “We discussed the issue. We’re friends.”
The Times ad grew out of similar interfaith meetings that took place across the country since the summer, Rabbi Hirsch said. He said Presbyterians declared that the pro-BDS vote “did not express the general sentiment” of members of the church.
He called the letter a public declaration of the leaders’ dissatisfaction with the vote. “The felt they had an obligation to respond.”
The timing of the ad was not related to recent terrorism attacks in Israel or this summer’s fighting in Gaza, but was the result of the signers’ efforts to reach a consensus in the text’s language and to raise funds for the ad, church members said.
The signers “are deeply committed to a just and lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israeli peoples,” the text of the ad stated. “We are among the many Presbyterians all over the country who have worked against [the pro-BDS vote], believing that divestment would strengthen the extreme positions on both sides of this conflict without alleviating the suffering of Palestinians … We continue to dissent from this divestment action, and many of the Presbyterians who fill our pews on Sunday mornings share this conviction.”
The ad urges members of the church to “reclaim the church’s role as ‘repairer of the breach,’ nationally and locally, among ourselves and between Christians, Jews, and Muslims”; to “reaffirm boldly the church’s commitment to a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace”; and to “seek out opportunities in Palestine, Israel, and between Israelis and Palestinians for proactive investment in economic, educational and interfaith ventures.”
Jewish and Christian spokesmen praised the ad.
“Hopefully, [it] will remind concerned Jews that the PDUSA anti-Israel stance does not represent most members of the PCUSA,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based interdenominational Christian think tank with strong Methodist ties. “The ad is admirable for challenging the PCUSA’s irresponsible stance for anti-Israel divestment.”
“The coming together of so many luminaries in the Presbyterian church is heartening,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are reminded that a motion advanced by a radical segment in the church does not speak for an entire denomination.”
Rabbi Noam Marans, who coordinates interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee, said “the ad offers some hope. It suggests constructive ideas for engagement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and more productive interreligious relations in the United States and beyond.”
Rabbi Marans, in a email interview with The Jewish Week, said the ad, which followed the pro-divestment vote and the publication earlier in the year of a study guide by a Presbyterian advocacy group that challenged the legitimacy of the Zionist movement, and “severely strained and undermined” Jewish-Presbyterian relations, “can serve as a model for other beyond the Presbyterian community.”