Rift With Presbyterians Likely
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Rift With Presbyterians Likely

Convention votes narrowly to divest from companies it says profit from Israel's control of Palestinian territories.

The Presbyterian Church’s decision Friday to divest from three American businesses that operate in the West Bank will likely strengthen international sanctions efforts against Israel, and will weaken interfaith ties between the Jewish and Presbyterian communities, Jewish leaders said this week.

The General Convention of the mainline Protestant denomination approved, by a 310-to-303 vote, a proposal to withdraw about $21 million invested in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, making the church the largest one in the country to endorse disinvestment from Israel.

The vote in the weeklong gathering in Detroit followed the defeat two years ago, by two votes, of a similar resolution. Divestment advocates in Presbyterian circles claim that the companies profit from the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territories.

The resolution came six months after the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian advocacy group, issued a study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the history and theological legitimacy of the Zionist movement. And it is considered a coup for the wider BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that is designed to put economic and political pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the Middle East peace process.

“The effect [of Friday’s vote] is devastating,” Ethan Felson, Jewish Council on Public Affairs vice president and general counsel, told The Jewish Week Sunday, referring to future ties between Jews and Presbyterians at the national level. He added that “there is a dramatic divide between the pews and the national denomination.”

“There is a deep problem” in the Presbyterian Church-USA, Felson said. He said the national leadership of the Presbyterians have for years taken positions that indicate a hostility to “Jews, Judaism and Jewish sovereignty. The leaders seem to want to remake Judaism in the anti-Zionist image of some of their anti-Zionist Jewish friends.”

That was an allusion to the Jewish Voice for Peace, a small left-wing organization that visibly lobbied at the convention in favor of the divestment proposal.

“We are grateful to the Presbyterians for showing a real commitment to understanding both legitimate anti-Semitism and Palestinian oppression — and deciding that opposing both is the path to true interfaith partnerships,” a statement on the JVP website declared after the vote.

While other Christian groups “have done major soul-searching about Christian anti-Semitism,” and taken steps in recent decades to improve interfaith relations, “the Presbyterians pretend they have,” Felson told The Jewish Week.

He said it is too early to determine what the effect of the Presbyterian vote will be. “We hope it is an isolated situation with a deeply dysfunctional national church.”

While the divestment proposal included language that said it was “not to be construed” as “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S.” movement, it is likely to be presented as a victory for the wider BDS movement; that movement is designed to put economic and political pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority in the Middle East peace process.

The Presbyterian resolution also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a two-state solution, encouraged interfaith dialogue and travel to the Holy Land, and instructed the church to undertake “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

The Presbyterian vote came a week after the pension board of the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant group in the United States, disclosed that it plans to sell its holdings in the British G4S company, which provides security equipment for Israel’s prison system. Supporters of the move called it a protest over Israel human rights violations against Palestinian political prisoners.

And The Mennonite Central Committee and the Quakers have sold stock in some companies that do business with Israel.

The vote came a half-year after the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian advocacy group, issued a study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” which challenged the history and theological legitimacy of the Zionist movement.

“Over the past ten years, PC (USA) leaders have fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel within the church, promoted a one-sided presentation of the complex realities of the Middle East, and permitted the presentation of a grossly distorted image of the views of the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, nation director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“This resolution sends a painful message to American Jews and threatens the long-standing relationship between the Jewish community and the national Presbyterian Church with whom we have worked closely on many issues of mutual concern.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called the divestment action “outrageous” and said it would have a “devastating impact” on relations between the national church and mainstream Jewish groups.

Several Jewish American organizations had lobbied the Presbyterians to defeat the divestment measure, including an open letter signed by more than 1,700 rabbis from all 50 states that “placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace,” and a speech at the convention by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“PC (USA) has by a very narrow margin chosen its preference for a policy of isolation rather than one of engagement,” Rabbi Jacobs said after last week’s vote. “Of course, we will continue to partner with our allies within the church who are committed to a two-state solution, reject the effort of the BDS campaign to delegitimize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and work toward a just and fair solution to enable the Palestinians to achieve the state that they deserve. We will continue to advocate forcefully for two states for two peoples.

“However, based on [the divestment] vote, especially when taken together with “Zionism Unsettled,” we can reach no conclusion other than that PC (USA) itself does not share those baseline commitments and that they are not a partner for joint work on Israel-Palestine peace issues,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “Whatever the intent of some who supported this resolution, this vote will be widely understood as endorsement of and support for the BDS Movement.”

Rabbi David Sandmel, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs, said in a statement that “We are greatly disappointed by the vote in favor of divesting from companies doing business with Israel, a move that is out of step with the views of the majority of Presbyterians in the pews at the community level.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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