Israel labeled an apartheid state by Presbyterian Church USA
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Interfaith relations225th General Assembly continues to pen anti-Israel actions

Israel labeled an apartheid state by Presbyterian Church USA

“I think, in general, it moves the needle backwards in terms of relationships between Christians, Muslims and Jews,” Cherner said.

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian organization, has long been accused of facilitating anti-Israel sentiment.    File photo.
The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian organization, has long been accused of facilitating anti-Israel sentiment. File photo.

The 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted on July 5 to label Israel an apartheid state. The vote was approved 266-116 by commissioners at the church’s biannual gathering in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Assembly Action reads in part:

“The Presbytery of Grace overtures the 225th General Assembly (2022) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to do the following:

1. Recognize that the government of Israel’s laws, policies and practices regarding the Palestinian people fulfill the International legal definition of Apartheid. Apartheid is legally defined as inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The action goes on to accuse Israel of having two sets of laws, one for Israelis and another for Palestinians; expropriating Palestinian land and water; denying the right of freedom of residence to Palestinians; and denying Palestinians the right to nationality.

While the General Assembly approved the action, General Minister to the Pittsburgh Presbytery Rev. Sheldon Sorge, who was unable to attend the biannual, said it is important to see the action as that of a particular assembly rather than the PC(USA).

“So, it is not insignificant,” Sorge said, “but it is not a position taken by the church as a whole and there are many in PC (USA) churches who disagree with this position.”

Sorge said that a subsequent assembly could revisit the question and overturn the action in the future.

He said that the vote is a result of a strong lobbying effort over a long time for the “Palestinian plight.”

“That goes back to a long history; the early Palestinian Christian churches were basically founded by the Presbyterians,” he said.

Sorge noted that the church has a long history of fraternal relations with the Jewish community.

“That is also something very significant, and we have position papers on our relationship with Israel that had nothing to do with this particular thing.”

The reverend pointed to the General Assembly positions in favor of a two-state solution and multiple positions against antisemitism.

“This is a lively, ongoing conversation that isn’t going away any time soon,” Sorge said.

Rev. Asa J. Lee, president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, sent the Chronicle a statement saying the seminary is committed to creating a learning environment that fosters ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Lee wrote that the seminary was not directly involved in the General Assembly’s decisions but understood the hurt and anger of the Jewish community.

“As an institution of the church, we are not in uniform agreement on any given issue. We can be members of the PC(USA) and at the same time take different positions in loving disagreement with our siblings across the denomination. And as a PC(USA)-related Seminary, we seek to be a place where students and community members are equipped with the tools to seek to understand and relate with persons of all faiths, nationalities, and ethnicities, amid disagreements and denominational decisions.”

The vote is just the latest episode in a tense relationship between the largest U.S. Presbyterian denomination and the Jewish community.

In 2016, the PC(USA) passed a series of resolutions in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and called on Israel to leave disputed territories. That measure passed by a 429-120 vote. The 2018 General Assembly also supported the BDS movement.

Earlier this year, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, accused Israel of enslaving Palestinians.

“The continued occupation in Palestine Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately,” he said.

The remarks were made during a Martin Luther King Day sermon and published on the Presbyterian Church USA website.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has hosted an annual Racial Justice Summit, which has featured several speakers and organizations considered by many to be antisemitic. Over the life of the Summit, numerous antisemitic tropes and rhetoric have been included at talks.

In 2019, then-PTS President David Esterline wrote in the Chronicle that the school welcomes divergent viewpoints but is not antisemitic.

The seminary, he wrote, “unequivocally rejects all forms of hate speech, racism and egregious activities that will harm others in any way … We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.”

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Community Relations Council Director Laura Cherner called the action by the General Assembly disappointing.

“I think, in general, it moves the needle backwards in terms of relationships between Christians, Muslims and Jews,” she said.

Cherner said that while nationally the PC(USA) passed the action, locally the Jewish community has good relationships with Presbyterian individuals and churches.

“I think that a lot of local Presbyterians don’t necessarily feel that the assembly speaks for them and the individual ways they conduct relationships,” she said. “Will this impact the way we engage with Presbyterians on the ground in our local community? I think it’s worth a conversation, educating them even further why this is harmful. But does it serve to sever ties locally? I would say, no.”

Working locally with willing partners, Cherner said, is one way the Jewish community can affect positive change. She pointed to the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace as one such resource.

The organization did put out a statement condemning the PC(USA) action.

In addition to the action labeling Israel as an apartheid state, PC(USA) also voted to establish a Nakba Remembrance Day and to add it to the church’s calendar. The day will mark the founding of Israel as a day to mourn the displacement of Palestinians.

According to The Jerusalem Post, a resolution from the Presbytery of New Castle also passed unanimously. It called for an end to the “siege of Gaza” and the “collective punishment of innocent Palestinian and Israeli citizens.” It went on to call for Israel to end all military action in Gaza.

Sorge said he understood the consternation in the Jewish community and that he was deeply distressed by it. Like Cherner, he urged the Jewish community not to disengage from relationships with Presbyterians.

“Stay engaged with us,” he said. “That’s going to be a better way to find a path forward, it seems to me, than simply walking away.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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