Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ Letter to Delegates at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly
Copies of this letter are being given to delegates at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly in Detroit, MI, who will be voting this week on several Israel-focused resolutions related to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)
As the president of America’s largest Jewish denomination, representing 1.5 million North American Jews, it is my honor to join you at your General Assembly.
I have come here to Detroit with an important message about strengthening our alliance. I look forward to discussing this matter with you in person, but it is of such heartfelt concern to me, and so many millions of American Jews, that I am taking the extra step to write you a detailed letter.
Like yours, our community yearns for peace and justice for all peoples. Like you, we pride ourselves on our social justice work and interfaith relations. Your creation-care and social service projects throughout the world are nothing short of exemplary. We have worked closely with your Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. for more than 50 years, and partnered with clergy from your churches in interfaith coalitions and dialogue programs. These collaborations are based on mutual respect and understanding – and, at their best, are grounded in the core rule of coalitional relationships. In order to have a friend, you must be a friend and seek common ground. That is especially true when a partner’s survival is at stake.
As you know, our love for Israel is paramount to our identity and our faith. We appreciate and share deeply your constant concern for the vulnerable across the globe, including in Palestine. It is a source of pain to us that you fail to show that same consistent, sensitive and passionate concern for our Israeli civilian brothers, sisters and children (Jewish and Arab alike) in your statements and actions. Israeli civilians also face genuine existential threats and are so often the target of violence and terrorism. This harsh reality betrayed itself just this week when three Jewish teens were kidnapped by terrorists while walking home from school. And, rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas continue to cause fear in southern Israel.
I am proud to say that our Reform Movement has a long-standing policy of opposition to the Israeli settlements. We stand firmly on this—and for two states–and want to partner with you, but your support for BDS will make this much harder.
We firmly believe that our Zionism, exemplified in our support for the Jewish people’s liberation movement as realized in the state of Israel, should not come at the expense of the Palestinian people who deserve freedom and dignity, in an independent state.
Every day the occupation causes pain and hardship to too many Palestinians. Only two states for two peoples living side by side in peace will allow this tragic conflict to end, giving way to coexistence in this blood-soaked patch of land. We truly yearn for the day when the swords of all nations will melt into plough shares and when the lives of all the children of the region, of Iraq and Syria, of Palestine and Israel, marred by fear and hate, will be mended by tranquility and laughter.
Israel is an imperfect democracy, as is the United States. Israel is not immune from criticism, and we hold Israel to the same standards of justice and equality of all democratic nations. In order to bring about desired change, it is imperative that the actions taken help fulfill the goal at hand. If the desire is, as I believe it must be, two states for two peoples, these divestment moves are not the answer. That’s because, thus far, support for divestment from Israel has only proven to harden the positions of those who least desire justice for the Palestinians. The resolutions you will consider may be aimed at specific companies, but the headlines around the world will be “Presbyterians Endorse BDS,” and will further strengthen hardliners on both sides.
We are inspired by the poetry of the prophets, but we live in the prose of a daily struggle to create a better world through the difficult, sometimes relentless work of compromise. Indeed, compromise is a rare and precious commodity between the people of Israel and the people of a future state of Palestine, but it is essential and we must work hard to achieve it.
Much of the rhetoric and the materials produced for the Church around this debate have been profoundly troubling. In particular,I have been terribly saddened, even horrified, by the document Zionism Unsettled, which is being sold as a teaching guide on the Presbyterian Church USA website. It is one of the most biased and ahistorical documents I have read. There is no way to sugarcoat it: this document is a vicious attack on Judaism, the Jewish people and the state of Israel, negating the very theological legitimacy of the Jewish religion.
How should Jews react in the face of efforts to equate Israel or Zionism with apartheid? Comparing apartheid to the situation of Israel, a democracy that, with all its flaws, grants fundamental rights and due process to all its citizens is deeply troubling. In Israel, Arabs and Jews sit side by side in restaurants, are treated in the same hospitals by Arab and Jewish doctors and nurses, and study at the same universities in courses taught by Arab and Jewish professors. There is an Arab Christian Israeli, Justice Salim Joubran, serving on Israel’s Supreme Court. To compare the horror, brutality and pervasive systematic racism of apartheid that permeated every sphere of South African life with the ills of Israel’s policy is not only unfair to Israel, but also dilutes the horror of apartheid and demeans the struggle of those who heroically defeated it.
The terminology and imagery of apartheid and Nazism conveys that one side of an argument is so intrinsically evil, so illegitimate that it has no place in the discussion and its proponents have no place at the table. Such language suggests that the Jewish yearning for our own homeland is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent, denying Jews their own identity as a people. A sweeping indictment of Zionism amounts to a blanket condemnation of the vast majority of Jews in the world.
Over the past century, we Jews and Presbyterians have become more loving brothers and sisters, but we are at a crucial junction in our relationship. I pray that the decisions of this General Assembly will bring us closer, so that we, in the words of Isaiah, can be “restorers of the breach” that threatens to divide us from each other and from the backbreaking work God commands of us to shape a world of reason and justice, of compassion and peace.
I pray that God’s blessing will rest upon you and guide you in your challenging deliberations.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace,
Rabbi Rick Jacobs