Presbyterians Seen Renewing Attacks On Israeli Policy

Presbyterians Seen Renewing Attacks On Israeli Policy

Jewish leaders lash out at new, left-leaning report; cite lack of dialogue with major groups here.

ewish community leaders are furious that a committee of the Presbyterian Church USA has lashed out at major American Jewish groups over their Israel policies without ever consulting them.

Although a member of the church committee insisted that it was not again calling for divestment from Israel — as the church did in 2004 — Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he understood the committee would be endorsing the Kairos Palestine Document, which calls for a boycott and sanctions against Israel.

"They may say they are not embracing all of it, but we say that once it is invoked without a clear delineation of what is in and what is not, Kairos has the potential of becoming part of the final report that may be adopted by the [church] General Assembly in July."

The General Assembly is the leadership of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, said to number nearly three million members. Its 2004 decision made it the largest institution and the first Christian denomination to join the divestment campaign against Israel in the belief that Israel was denying Palestinians fundamental human rights in the occupied territories. But two years later, the General Assembly reversed that action and replaced it with the company-targeted "engagement" process that had been in effect prior to 2004.

Rabbi Adlerstein spoke on Tuesday, one day before the committee was to release the completion of its three-part report, including its recommendations.

Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, pointed out that in the past, the church leadership at their General Assemblies "has called for consultation and dialogue with the Jewish community." But based on the first two parts of the committee’s report, Felson said, "there is every reason to believe that they have put the blinders back on."

He explained that over the course of two years the committee appears to have met with only one American Jewish leader, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. And yet, Felson said, "It has the chutzpah to say that we, the American Jewish leadership, are not partners for a more just and secure Israel."

He said this assertion goes against the Presbyterians’ own 2008 General Assembly in which they promised to "avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim."

In a section of the report released this week, the committee wrote: "Our hope is that we can work together for a more just and secure Israel. We have found this to be possible with local networks more often than with national organizations within the mainstream Jewish community. We are hard-pressed to find statements from such organizations that are willing to oppose the occupation or the settlement policy that has dominated Israel since 1967.

"Even so, we are hopeful as organizations like J-Street, B’Tselem, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others continue to raise the banner that being pro-Israel and being truly Jewish is not tantamount to complicity in the excesses of Israeli policy. It is our hope that the leadership of mainstream American Jewish organizations will catch up with this growing reality of Jewish identity in the U.S."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he respects "them to tell me where Protestant America is, but it is absolute arrogance on their part to tell us who should set the tone and policy of the American Jewish community vis a vis Israel and the Middle East. That statement prejudges any conversation. They have already made up their mind whom their allies are. It looks like they haven’t learned very much from the past."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said last month that based upon a press release leaked by the committee, it understood the committee would be recommending that the U.S. withhold financial and military aid to Israel; declare that Israel must be inherently racist; would apologize to Palestinians for conceding that Israel has a right to exist; and embrace the Kairos Palestine Document, which calls in part for the full Palestinian "right of return" to Israel, and a claim that Jewish history only began with the Holocaust.

The Rev. Susan Andrews, a member of the nine-member committee, suggested that the committee’s report is much more nuanced than the Wiesenthal statement suggests.

"Our report was not finished when that statement was made," she said. "The conclusions and summary statements are incorrect."

She said, for instance, that the committee does not apologize for the Presbyterian Church conceding Israel’s right to exist, but that some Palestinian members of the committee inserted a footnote in which they expressed the belief that the church’s statement to that effect was "problematic."

"The recommendations we will be making are in keeping with our former statements and policies," Rev. Andrews insisted. "Nothing new is being said. … Our report is not about divestment. Its main focus is on our Christian brothers and sisters in Lebanon, Syria and on what we hear from Iran and Iraq."

She insisted that her committee had spoken with many Jewish leaders, including the deputy ambassador from Israel to the United Nations, two rabbis in Israel, Pelavin and the representative of the American Jewish Committee in Israel. That representative, Ed Rettig, told The Jewish Week that he met once with the committee and "they listened to nothing."

"When interlocutors like me try to lay out for them that what is taking place [in Israel] is not in a cartoon but involves real people living real lives and facing real threats and having real rights … they did not open their minds and hearts to listen, which is terribly disappointing."

Told that Andrews said the committee’s report would be saying "nothing new," Rettig was incredulous.

"If they can reiterate the same things they have been saying for the last 10 years in light of all the changes that are taking place here, then they are not paying attention to the people living here," he said.

Pelavin pointed out that of the three groups the committee said best reflected the views of the American Jewish community, one (B’Tselem) is not an American group and another (Jewish Voice for Peace) "does not reflect the American Jewish community."

Pelavin said what he found most troubling in the committee’s statement is that it "reserves to themselves the right to interpret American Jewish views." And he pointed out that the individuals Andrews said her committee met with are all Israelis.

"It sounds to me that they are grappling with the issues," he said. "It’s just not clear to me that they are getting it right."

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