Presbyterians heed concerns of Jewish groups

Presbyterians heed concerns of Jewish groups

Middle East plank, milder in final form, drops ‘apartheid’ label

Katharine Rhodes Henderson called the Presbyterian USA convention’s outcome “a game-changing event.”
Katharine Rhodes Henderson called the Presbyterian USA convention’s outcome “a game-changing event.”

Jewish groups are giving mixed reviews to a compromise achieved after intense lobbying to water down Presbyterian Church resolutions they deemed hostile to Israel.

During their weeklong General Assembly in Minneapolis, delegates of the Presbyterian Church USA unanimously rejected calls to brand Israel as an “apartheid state,” divest church stocks in companies doing business in Israel, and totally condemn the blockade of Gaza.

The original proposals were parts of a lengthy report, “Breaking Down the Walls,” that was drafted by the church’s Middle East Study Committee, then amended by a General Assembly vote on July 9.

Delegates also substituted what one Jewish observer called “new language that says Israel has the right to exist as a nation with secure and internationally recognized borders.”

“That had not been in there but now it is,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

But Jewish groups were disappointed that the resolution still includes a call for suspension of American aid to Israel if it builds more settlements in the West Bank.

Even as it commended the General Assembly for “rejecting some extremely harsh anti-Israel proposals and language,” the Anti-Defamation League said, “Anti-Israel bias continues with the approval of recommendations which single out and put the onus for peacemaking on Israel. The recommendations against U.S. aid to Israel are one-sided and demonstrate the depth of anti-Israel bias.”

Felson, who led quiet negotiations with Presbyterian allies to soften the harsher earlier drafts, considered the outcome a partial success.

“It wasn’t a situation of winners and losers. There was a recognition that if anyone loses we all lose,” he said. “We have to find ways toward the middle. While there are very serious concerns about some things that happened at the General Assembly, looking toward the future, an approach informed by multiple narratives and that respects multiple positions is the way of reconciliation.”

Allyson Gall, director of the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey Area, said she is “pleased” that delegates abandoned the word “apartheid” and dropped the call for divestment.

She called for expansion of the Jewish-Christian dialogue on the Middle East.

“We do need to listen and we need to get it across that we are pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli,” she said. “What we want is, indeed, peace and justice…a Jewish state of Israel next to a Palestinian one with no intentions of destroying each other.”

Delegates also modified a report drafted by Palestinian Christians called the “Kairos Palestine Document.” In its original form, the statement described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as “a sin against God and humanity.”

But at their convention, the Presbyterians issued what Felson called “a selective endorsement of its ostensibly positive messages — of love, hope, and reconciliation.” But, he added, “we would, of course, just as soon have seen Kairos not embraced in any way.”

Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York and an ally of the Jewish groups seeking to amend the controversial documents, called the convention’s outcome “a game-changing event for the General Assembly.”

“I thought we were going to reenact Israeli-Palestinian conflict right on the spot,” she told NJ Jewish News in an e-mailed statement. “So, to have an outcome like this — where people feel on both sides this amended report is actually a better document than the original one, where even proponents of the original document feel that way — is a huge win.”

The Rev. Bill Harter, another leader of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, told NJJN, “Our group fashioned a major nationwide effort to deal with the negative dimensions of the documents that led to a growing pressure within the church. All sides came together, and some people even used the word ‘miraculous.’”

“The amazing thing was we were able to build consensus between people who never agreed before,” said the Rev. Ronald Shive, who chaired the committee that drafted “Breaking Down the Walls.”

In a July 10 interview, Shive told the Los Angeles Times that Presbyterians “listened to our Jewish partners” and reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.

“This is something that needs to be in the report,” he said.

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