Beginning Saturday, July 3 and continuing through Saturday, July 10, the Presbyterian Church (USA) [PC(USA)] will be gathering in Minneapolis, MN for their 219th General Assembly. As has been the case with past PC(USA) General Assemblies, the Jewish community will be watching the 219th closely.
The PC(USA), the third largest Mainline Protestant denomination in the United States and longtime coalition partner with the Jewish community on a variety of domestic policy issues, including civil rights, immigration and health care, is large and diverse. In 2004, the PC(USA)adopted a resolution calling “phased, selective” divestment from companies doing business in Israel. The surprising and stunning passing of this resolution sparked two years of intense dialogue between the Jewish community and the PC(USA). As a result of this engagement, in 2006 the PC(USA)adopted a new resolution eliminating the call for divestment from Israel and asking for “a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue” with the Jewish community. Despite the ongoing dialogue, the 2008 General Assembly also saw more action centered around Israel, in particular the formation of a Middle East Study Committee charged with presenting a report to the 2010 General Assembly.
Breaking Down Walls
The Middle East Study Committee (MESC) report titled, “Breaking Down Walls” will be the Jewish community”s primary focus at the 219th General Assembly. Despite its rather innocuous title and stated goal of “[being] called to be those who work to break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God”s peaceful and just kingdom,” the MESC report builds far more and higher walls than it breaks down, in particular,
* While claiming to be even handed the Report is an egregious anti-Israel diatribe, making selective use of facts and a selective reading of history to build a case against Israel and to erase almost 1900 years of Jewish presence in and connection to the Land of Israel. (Please See CCAR Statement.)
* Additionally the MESC report”s recommendations are extremely biased against Israel. There are more than a dozen demands placed on Israel and the United States for policies supporting Israel. The few recommendations for Palestinian reforms are generally paired with additional demands on Israel.
* The MESC suggests withholding U.S. aid to Israel until Israel is “in compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” The PC(USA) is hardly a fair arbiter of international law or peacemaking efforts. The MESC makes no analogous call to link Palestinian aid to Palestinian reforms. In discussing aid, the report uses the familiar, but offensive and transparent tactic, of referring to anti-Israel Jews where it quotes a Jewish critic of Israel who suggests redirecting aid to resettle Palestinian refugees in Israel.
* When discussing history, the MESC report glosses over anti-Israel aggression and war-mongering currently and throughout history. It ignores the oppression of the Jewish people by the Byzantine Christians. It describes Palestinian refugees from 1948, but fails to acknowledge Jewish refugees from Arab lands resulting from the same war. One author describes “the 1948 invasion of Palestine by Israeli soldiers.” It ignores the events leading to the 1967 war, and overlooks any Palestinian challenges to Christian identity during centuries of Muslim rule.
* The report blames Israel for the violence it endures. There is a complete failure to address pre-occupation Arab and Palestinian violence, rejectionism and aggression. ”If there were no occupation, there would be no Palestinian resistance. If there was no Palestinian resistance, Israelis could live in peace and security.” (Please see: Backgrounder Presbyterian Church (USA) Middle East Study Committee Report, As well as these additional resources compiled by the JCPA.)
* The report endorses the anti-Israel Kairos Palestine document for “its emphases for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation.” This is a position which the authors of the MESC suggest is a qualified endorsement of only the “positive” elements of Kairos, but in reality would promote the entire document, including its call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions and its framing anti-Israel terror as “legal resistance.”
The General Assembly will also consider separately
* a statement on Christian-Jewish relations that is positive
This document, entitled “Christians and Jews: People of God” is “intended to refine and deepened the theological understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as well as to provide a further resource for discussion in the church and for conversations between Christians and Jews.” The Jewish community, across the denominational spectrum, was consulted strongly in the formation of the paper and sees it as a positive step towards stronger relations between the PC(USA) and the Jewish community.
* a report from their socially responsible investment committee (MRTI) that harshly criticizes Israel and rebukes the Caterpillar corporation, but does not call for divestment (this recommendation is endorsed by the MESC).
* four other resolutions (overtures) that go beyond the MESC report calling for divestment, a declaration that Israel is an Apartheid state, and endorsing the Kairos Palestine Document.
* One positive resolution calls for balance in the church”s approach to peacemaking.
What to Look For
As Jews committed to Middle East peace, in partnership with many leaders of the PC(USA), it is our prayer that the report not be adopted. Clearly, there are others within the Church who have mobilized to ensure the report is adopted as is. Ultimately, while the Jewish community is deeply pained by the MESC report, the issue will, rightly, be decided by the Presbyterian Church (USA) through its Middle East Committee and General Assembly.
The report is divided into three sections. The major debate will center around Part II “recommendations” though it is possible that Part I “We Bear Witness” and Part III “Study Materials” will generate discussion and discord.
As the report moves through the committee and GA, we should be paying careful to the language that is being used. It is quite possible that the GA will be asked to take some action can be framed as something less than an “up-or-down” decision, such as receiving it for study and reflection, adopting one section, affirming another, etc. Indeed, there is a tradition of parsing language that often sends contradictory messages with the desire to signal different things to different audiences.
If the report and recommendations are adopted, they will become the official policy of the Presbyterian Church (USA). However, much as with policies of Jewish denominations, they do not become binding on individual churches.
There will be several times during the General Assembly when the MESC report will be discussed. Former Speaker of the Knesset, Hon. Avram Burg, will speak on Friday. Supporters of the MESC report will present programs on Friday July 2, Saturday July 3, and others throughout the week. The group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, one of our coalition partners, will sponsor a program on Sunday, July 4. Rachel Lerner from the J Street Educational Fund will speak on be part of the panel on Sunday.
Committee 14, the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee meets on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. They will vote on Tuesday afternoon. The General Assembly will then take up the matter prior to the G
A concluding on Saturday, July 10.
How to Follow
What You Can Do Afterward
We will communicate about what happens at the GA and you will be invited to a conference call after the GA to discuss the actions taken by the PCUSA. Regardless of the outcome, building strong, relations with local Presbyterians will remain a critical priority of the Jewish and pro-Israel community. We will also be looking to other mainline Protestant denominations with upcoming conventions including the Methodist, Lutheran and United Church of Christ ” and looking to you to initiate and continue conversations with leaders in these denominations. You are strongly urged to reach out to the PC(USA) and other Mainline Protestant churches in your area Remember, this is not just about rabbis reaching out to ministers, but about creating relationships between members. There is much the Jewish and Mainline Protestant communities agree on. We often live in close contact. There is no reason that we can”t build relationships and friendships. Ultimately, it is those friendships that help us convey our concerns and, we hope, enable us to work together for Middle East peace.
This document was prepared by Rabbi Eric Stark for the Commission on Interreligous Affairs of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA). It was edited by Ethan Felson of the JCPA and by Mark Pelavin and Daphne Price of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.