Presbyterian cleric defends body’s Israel report
Jewish leaders hoping church delegates will reject ‘flawed’ papers
The chair of the Presbyterian Church’s Middle East Study Committee denied accusations by some Jewish groups that a recent committee “report” delegitimizes Israel.
“We have reaffirmed time and time again, and this report reaffirms emphatically, the right of Israel as a Jewish nation, as a homeland for Jewish people,” said the Rev. Ronald Shive, in a June 28 interview with NJJN. “We are emphatic here.”
The report, titled “Breaking Down the Walls,” is set to be debated when the Presbyterian Church USA begins its General Assembly on July 3 in Minneapolis.
Jewish leaders say the document ignores Palestinian terrorism, delegitimizes Israel as a Jewish state, and puts the entire burden for peacemaking on the Israelis.
Groups including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have been intensely lobbying Presbyterian colleagues in an attempt to change or reject the document.
Shive insisted that “Breaking Down the Walls” includes condemnation of terrorist attacks on Israel.
“Violence is wrong and it doesn’t matter whether it is committed by the IDF against the Palestinians in the West Bank or by a suicide bomber or, particularly, a rocket attack from Gaza,” said Shive, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Burlington, NC. “We decry violence in every form, and the report does that.”
But, he noted, “fairness calls us to apply the same moral principles to all sides of the conflict…. Israel is to be held to the same standard as everybody else, and occupation is a violation of international law and basic human rights.”
The 172-page document says that “Israel has both the responsibility and the ability to reverse the course of the current precipitous decline throughout the region,” a declaration that many Jewish critics consider one-sided.
The report also urges the United States to withhold aid to Israel as long as the country “persists in creating new West Bank settlements” and urges the relocation of the separation barrier to the “1967 border.”
Critics are also lobbying against the 12-page “Kairos Palestine Document” that was prepared by Palestinian Christians in 2009.
That religious manifesto describes the “Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God.”
Shive said American Presbyterians will not endorse the entire Kairos document “because it calls for boycott and divestment, and as a committee we weren’t willing to embrace divestment.”
In 2004 the PC USA approved a policy of divestment from companies doing business in Israel, but later rescinded it after complaints by its membership.
“We will engage in corporate engagement with companies involved in unjust practices,” said Shive. “We are not invested in companies that produce alcohol, tobacco, or firearms. We have not voted to divest from any companies that have profited from the occupation.”
But that appears to be little comfort for groups like the JCPA, which is leading the opposition to “Breaking Down the Walls” in coalition with a dissident church group called Presbyterians for a Middle East Peace.
“We have an uphill battle to have the thing shot down,” said Ethan Felson, JCPA assistant executive director.
Felson said the fate of the two documents “is a matter of significant importance in terms of the flickering hope for positive Presbyterian-Jewish relations.”
“That deeply grieves me,” said Shive, when told of Felson’s remarks. “I view our relationship as one of brothers of Abraham. It is more than just friendship. Our community has a deep love for the Jewish people and a deep love for Israel and a commitment to the well-being of Israel. What we are saying is not meant to threaten the security of Israel. We honestly think this is the best thing for Israel.”
Working in tandem with Felson and the JCPA, the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Area is coordinating a lobbying effort against the documents by 24 rabbis in the state.
The rabbis “are making phone calls — some of them to delegates, some to other Presbyterian clergy in the area,” said New Jersey AJC executive director Allyson Gall.
“So far, one told me he spoke to a delegate who was very much against the report. The rest of the delegates we have spoken with know there is something controversial, but they have a lot of other things on their minds.
“Some may not know a lot about this issue,” said Gall. “Others are being very cautious and say, ‘Thank you for calling and giving us this information. We will be looking at all of this very carefully.’ But they are not saying how they are going to vote one way or the other.”
Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown played a key role in drafting a 23-page analysis of the Presbyterian documents for the CCAR, the Reform movement’s rabbinical body.
The CCAR analysis calls Kairos “a factually, theologically, and morally flawed document” with “inherent anti-Semitism.”
“The Presbyterians failed to denounce terrorism and suggested that Jewish people no longer have a covenant with God because they rejected Jesus,” Rossoff told NJJN.
“That makes the historic connection between the Jews and the land a thing of the past.”
Ultimately, added Rossoff, the document “doesn’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.”