The vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three American companies doing business in Israel was met by condemnation from Jewish groups nationwide, predicting a rupture in the relationship between Jews and the national governing body of the church.
The PCUSA’s biennial General Assembly approved the divestment measure 310-303 late last Friday evening in Detroit after hours of at times emotional debate. The resolution divests from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. A similar resolution was narrowly defeated by a margin of two votes at the last biennial held in Pittsburgh in 2012.
Some of the delegates promoting the resolution were at pains to distance it from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, noting that the measure targeted only American companies profiting from West Bank security systems and successfully added amendments making the distinction clear.
Others said that the resolution,
coupled with an anti-Zionist tract called “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study” that was released earlier this year by a church committee, allied the church with groups that seek to dismantle Israel.
The “decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (USA),” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said in a statement.
“We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace, but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination,” Gutow said.
There is a distinction, though, between the national Presbyterian organization and its local presbyteries, according to Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council (CRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“Our relationship to the local presbytery is second to none,” Roman said, adding that the Federation even helped fund Off the Floor, a service project operated by local Presbyterian churches.
But Roman joined with the plethora of national Jewish organizations — including the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, J Street, AJC (American Jewish Committee) and StandWithUs — in strongly condemning the PCUSA for approving the divestment measure.
Roman further condemned the PCUSA for its continued dissemination of “Zionism Unsettled,” which he referred to as “a warped indictment of the right for the Jewish people to have their own nation state by equating Zionism with Nazism.”
‘Zionism Unsettled’ is now being used as a centerpiece document by virulent anti-Semites, hate groups and white supremacists to further bolster their vitriol,” Roman stressed.
While the PCUSA adopted a resolution which said the publication “does not represent the view of the PCUSA,” “Zionism Unsettled” remains for sale on the church’s website, albeit with a disclaimer that the committee that created it — the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) — “speaks to the church not for the church.”
“It is a dangerous and one-sided document that people are going to use the wrong way,” said Skip Grinberg, chairman of Pittsburgh’s CRC. “This is what you’d expect to be written by a radical anti-Semitic group. It uses what you would call classic anti-Semitic language. It rejects the Jewish state of Israel on theological grounds.”
Roman minced no words in addressing the disingenuousness of PCUSA moderator Heath Rada’s comments that the divestment resolution “shouldn’t be considered an affront” to Jews, and “in no way is a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”
“Who exactly does he think he is?” Roman said, noting that Rada should have been on notice that a divestment resolution would be offensive to Jews after the community outrage that arose three months ago when “Zionism Unsettled” was released.
“He should have had a hint that going down this road wasn’t the way to further Jewish/Presbyterian relations,” Roman continued, “especially when his church is giving tools to the enemies of civil rights, religious freedom and the supporters of racism and hate movements to further condemn these individuals that he’s calling his ‘brothers and sisters.’ That’s not how we in the Jewish community treat our family. And that’s certainly not how we treat our Presbyterian brothers and sisters.”
Local Jewish leaders met with leaders of the local presbytery twice in May and June in anticipation of the divestment vote in Detroit. While Roman thought the local meetings were “pretty successful,” the national vote nonetheless passed by a narrow margin.
The three companies from which the church is divesting ironically all provide valuable services to Palestinians, Roman noted. Motorola phones are used by Palestinian police and military forces, and the company has an office in the West Bank; Caterpillar equipment is used to build new Palestinian homes; and Hewlett-Packard provides scores of jobs for Israelis and Palestinians alike, he said, and Presbyterian divestment from these companies is misguided.
“What they should be doing is condemning the kidnapping of three teenagers and condemning the incessant call for the murder of all Jews,” Roman said. “And they should be supporting peacemakers like Abbas as opposed to giving Hamas further tools to delegitimize Israel. The Presbyterian Church can now count white power movements, neo-Nazi hate groups, radical religious extremist movements and terror organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad as their allies in the movement to divest from Israel. They’ve just given the gift of the year to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.”
Although the divestment resolution states that “this action on divestment is not to be construed … as alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement,” Roman said that is a distinction without a difference.
“For all the nuances they use in their resolution not connecting this to the BDS movement, at the end of the day,” said Roman, “when individuals talk of the bodies that call for divestment from Israel, the national Presbyterian Church and the KKK will become synonymous in parlor conversations due to their irresponsible and audacious actions taken in Detroit last week.”
Divestment from companies in Israel is “a step in the wrong direction,” Grinberg said. “And clearly, BDS supporters are running with this, the same way they ran with the ‘Zionism Unsettled’ issue. However responsible [the Presbyterian GA delegates] thought they were, people on the extremes know how to use this.”
But despite last week’s PCUSA vote, local Jewish leaders involved in fostering interfaith relations still hope to maintain a dialogue with the presbytery.
“On the one hand, it should not be business as usual,” said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, former chair of the National Council of Synagogues, and a longtime member of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, who spoke at the GA in 2012 regarding the divestment resolution on the table then. “On the other hand, over 300 of those delegates are in our camp. If we take the position ‘a plague on your house,’ then we are really hurting our supporters.”
Ten years ago, the PCUSA passed a similar divestment resolution, but church leaders were subsequently persuaded to change their position, Berkun pointed out.
“I think we need to continue in the trenches,” he said. “We need to keep the doors open, and certainly to talk to those that are sympathetic to our position. I think the local presbytery is sympathetic to our position. Ten years ago, the local presbyters were embarrassed and chagrined [by the decision to divest from companies doing business in Israel], and they fired off a letter distancing themselves from the national church.”
That the vote was so close, both this year and in 2012, is indicative of the even split of the church on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, according to Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister to the Pittsburgh Presbytery.
A whole new set of delegates vote at each biennial, he noted.
“It’s an entirely different set of people,” he said. “The similarity in the number of votes [in 2012 and 2014] says a lot about how evenly distributed the church’s view on these things is. We’re just really at an impasse. We feel deeply both ways, both with our friendship with the Jewish people and our relationship to Israel. We don’t want this to be taken as a BDS vote, or an anti-Israel vote. We believe in a two-state solution, and the GA disassociated itself with ‘Zionism Unsettled.’
“At the same time,” Sorge continued, “we don’t want to leave the Palestinian folks unaddressed.”
Sorge co-wrote an editorial with Rabbi James Gibson that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 1, 2014, in which the two faith leaders opined on the need for a two-state solution, and the one-sidedness of “Zionism Unsettled.” Sorge kept in communication with Gibson throughout his attendance at the GA last week, he said.
“We are committed to continue to be in conversation together,” Sorge said.
Gibson also said he hoped to continue a dialogue.
“We’re trying to maintain good working relationships with Presbyterians who are committed to a Jewish state, and committed to a two-state solution,” Gibson said.
While the approved PSUSA resolutions included an affirmation of Israel’s “right to exist as a sovereign nation,” there was no affirmation of its right to exist as a Jewish state.
Moreover, the GA voted to “reconsider” its support for a two-state solution, and to create a study guide “that will help inform the whole church of the situation on the ground in Palestine.”
Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, a coalition of more than two dozen Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations that issues policy statements and promotes church unity, was optimistic about the future of local Jewish/Christian relations even in the wake of the recent PCUSA votes.
“I think, fortunately, the commitments we have locally can weather this kind of conflict,” Barlow said. “I think it’s important that everyone understand the limited nature of the resolution and that it was passed by a narrow margin; there is not even consensus among the Presbyterians and certainly not among the wider Christian community.”
Despite the actions of the PCUSA, Roman said the CRC would continue to dialogue with the local presbytery.
“In the end, we want to continue our relationship with the local presbytery,” he said. “But if the PCUSA thinks its relationship with the Jewish community will continue business as usual, it is dearly mistaken.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
JTA contributed to this report.