Presbyterians welcome BDS group with anti-Israel agenda

Presbyterians welcome BDS group with anti-Israel agenda

David Esterline, PTS president (Photo provided by the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)
David Esterline, PTS president (Photo provided by the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), which has the ignoble distinction of ranking on the Anti-Defamation League’s 2013 list of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America, will be holding a conference this weekend in Pittsburgh, and the Presbyterian Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty will be playing host to the event.

FOSNA is the U.S. supporting arm of Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology movement founded by Palestinian Christians and based in Jerusalem, and is known as a driving force of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against the Jewish state.

“People should be aware that this is a group that views a complicated conflict between Israelis and Palestinians through a very blind eye that invariably distorts Israeli actions as evil,” said Ethan Felson, senior vice president and general counsel at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“The Sabeel Center, which they support, traffics in anti-Jewish motifs,” Felson continued, “and Friends of Sabeel has called for certain boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses such as Estee Lauder, Sara Lee and L’Oreal, which is despicable.”

Sabeel holds international conferences every two years and has an active “International Witness Trips” program that brings Christians to Gaza and the West Bank. Together with their “Fellows” program, which brings young missionaries to the territories, and other similar programs, “Sabeel seeks to build a critical mass of Christian influentials who will speak both to the Palestinian condition and their sense of Israel’s culpability in it,” according to a comprehensive brief about FOSNA prepared by the JCPA in 2007.

One of the reasons Sabeel is problematic, according to the JCPA, is because it shifts the blame for anti-Israel violence away from the actual perpetrators and onto Israel itself.

“While self-described as a Christian group invested in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, Sabeel promotes a theologically based narrative that denies the legitimacy of a Jewish claim, alongside a Palestinian claim, to the land,” the brief states. “It asserts as an article of faith that Christians advance a foreign policy that is dismissive of Israel’s security needs. According to the organization, anti-Israel violence is the result of Israeli actions and a lack of Palestinian autonomy.  For Sabeel, peace will come from the birth of a Palestinian state without a previous dismantling of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.”

Those in attendance at the Pittsburgh conference, which begins Friday night, will be welcomed by an address by David Esterline, president of the PTS.

Esterline, who said he did not have time for an interview with The Chronicle regarding the seminary’s decision to host the conference, provided the following statement via email:

“When we received the request from Friends of Sabeel, North America (FOSNA) to hold their upcoming meeting on our campus, we agreed — not only because we are in agreement with FOSNA’s commitment to finding nonviolent responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also because of our own commitment to being a place where constructive dialogue can take place,” Esterline wrote.

“We are open to dialogue with others, whose position or understanding might be different from that of FOSNA, in the hope that nonviolent solutions might be found and that we might work together toward a just peace. We, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, concur with FOSNA’s declaration: ‘We refuse to be enemies.’”

Esterline himself is a proponent of divestment from Israel, he told The Chronicle in an interview earlier this year. While he admitted in that interview that “he is not an expert” on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, he said he was in favor of the divestment resolution that passed the Presbyterian General Assembly in 2014 by a vote of 310-303. That resolution called for the divestment of church funds from three companies — Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard — that the Presbyterian Church USA claims supply Israel with equipment used in the “occupied territories.”  

There is a sharp division in the PCUSA on this issue. A similar resolution was rejected at the previous GA in 2012 by a vote of 333-331.

Gregg Roman, former director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, and current director of the Middle East Forum headquartered in Philadelphia, did not mince words in condemning the decision of the Presbyterian seminary to host FOSNA.

“An institution with a history of trying to represent liberal theology in Pittsburgh has now crossed the Rubicon of hosting theologies of hate,” Roman said. “I didn’t know that the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary promotes ignorance as a doctrine.”

Rather than furthering the peace process, Sabeel has presented obstructions to resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, according to Roman.

“Sabeel has been one of the most hostile organizations to the causes Israel tries to promote in terms of cooperation and finding areas of coexistence,” Roman said. “Every time there is an Israeli initiative to promote peace and cooperation, someone from Sabeel is trying to interrupt us.”

The Palestinian liberation theology espoused by Sabeel, Roman explained, teaches that Palestinians are the oppressed and that Israel is the oppressor and that the oppressed are justified to use any means necessary to overcome their oppression.

“They don’t condemn violence,” Roman said. “They believe that resistance by any means is necessary.”

Saturday’s conference agenda includes a joint workshop specifically for local members of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine and another workshop focusing on BDS.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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