In late June, when the three innocent Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas had not yet been found murdered and the Jewish world still only feared the worst, the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly voted to “selectively divest” from three companies it claimed “furthered the Israeli occupation in Palestine.” In doing so, the denomination’s governing body cast its lot with the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel and blame it for the conflict. The decision, while stunning in its bias, was really not all that surprising.
With the denomination’s promotion of “Zionism Unsettled” (a congregational study guide on the conflict that is both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic) and with its continual debate over divestment at each of its general assemblies dating back 10 years, the momentum seemed to be building toward this decision, close though it was. Maddeningly, even with all the resentment generated by the vote, on July 16, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued another prejudiced statement blaming the abduction of those three Israeli teens on the “illegal Israeli occupation” — as if Hamas were not even involved — and asserted that Hamas rockets started firing only after Israel’s military began its pursuit of the kidnappers and Israeli terrorists brutally murdered a Palestinian teenager. The latter was an atrocious act of vengeance, but the claim is untrue. Hamas has been firing rockets for years. They’ve never stopped.
Thankfully, the resolution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) GA seems not to reflect the attitudes of most Americans (as a recent Pew Research Center study indicated) or of most Presbyterians but rather — as the outcome was described by my local colleagues — the views of slightly more than half of the small group of representatives elected by their local presbyteries to attend the denomination’s biennial leadership meeting.
The pastors of some of New York’s largest Presbyterian churches, distraught over the vote, have been vocal in their opposition to the divestment resolution. And in July, I was invited to a meeting with three of them, along with three of my rabbinic colleagues, and the moderator and vice moderator of the General Assembly. Our local pastors called the gathering so that they and we might have the opportunity to share with the Presbyterian Church’s national leadership just how hurtful the resolution was and that we might understand the process that led to it.
One source of frustration that became clear — exasperating not just to the Jewish community but to my Presbyterian colleagues as well — was the procedure by which such weighty decisions are brought to and considered by the denomination’s governing body. Simply put, the Presbyterian Church fails to educate broadly and prepare adequately its 600 commissioners on the issues. As happens so often, the loudest voices carry the greatest influence.
Sadly, one of the most strident voices at the General Assembly was Jewish Voice for Peace, which despite its name is an organization representing not even a significant minority of the Jewish community. It is a fringe group that has called not just for divestment but also for the suspension of U.S. military support for Israel, which has been critical in saving millions of Israelis from harm. Without the Iron Dome defense system, population centers all across Israel would have suffered under a barrage of rocket fire. But this was the voice many of the Presbyterian Church’s leaders chose to hear, in spite of letters signed by hundreds of rabbis and the efforts of the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other mainstream Jewish organizations urging them to reject divestment.
As we approach the season of the Jewish year when we seek to repair our relationships (even when we might not be to blame for their strain), I think back to this July meeting. The most important outcome was a commitment to strategize with our local colleagues and the denomination’s leadership on how to rebuild what has been a critically important interfaith partnership. My colleagues and I have committed to working with the Presbyterian Church’s leadership to broaden their understanding of the history and complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and committed to exposing them to a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints. One step, we hope, will be a joint mission to Israel with American Presbyterian and Jewish clergy.
At the local level, we will encourage synagogues and churches to enter into meaningful dialogue and study. In Manhattan, we are blessed with Presbyterian congregations and colleagues who are sensitive to Israel’s struggle. In partnering with them, we can model the sort of relationships that churches and synagogues might create around the country, building from the ground up a greater understanding of the existential threats that Israel faces, so that in two years’ time — when the denomination’s leadership gathers again — they will rescind the divestment resolution.
It seems unlikely that they will reverse direction before then. However, when we brought to the moderator’s attention the biased, inaccurate pronouncements still posted on the denomination’s website, he indicated he would make certain that future statements addressed the conflict with greater accuracy. Finally, and perhaps most important, we agreed to look at the divestment resolution — certainly a nadir in the recent history of the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship — as an impetus to renew and strengthen our interfaith efforts.
It was a productive conversation and a ray of light in the darkness of a difficult time. Even as we were speaking, a missile penetrated the Iron Dome defense system and landed in Tel Aviv. Israeli soldiers were dying and missing. And now 2,000 Palestinians, most of them innocent victims, have been killed. Golda Meir said it so poignantly of previous Arab-Israeli struggles: “We can forgive [them] for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” This is what Hamas does when it places rockets in schools and hospitals and tunnels under mosques. Even so, we do not ration our tears. We shed them for the Palestinians’ dead, as for Israel’s.
Joshua Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.