Protestant churches finding balance on Israel

Protestant churches finding balance on Israel

Is some of the anger that mainline Protestant churches in America have shown in recent years toward Israel regarding its treatment of Palestinians beginning to cool?

That’s the suggestion of the Jewish community’s point man on outreach to Protestant churches, Ethan Felson, in assessing a busy summer of votes on Middle East resolutions at their national conventions.

Both the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church this summer supported moderate resolutions, offering a balance to ones in favor of the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement that would isolate Israel economically, said Felson, executive director of the Israel Action Network (IAM); the network was created by Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). He offered his update in a webinar interview last week conducted by JCPA President David Bernstein titled “Mainline Protestants and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Where Do We Go From Here?”

“The Presbyterian Church overwhelmingly adopted a helpful stance favoring people-to-people programs between Israelis and Palestinians — and did so over the strong objections of BDS groups which oppose these reconciliation efforts,” Felson said. (In 2014, the church narrowly passed a divestment resolution that pulled $21 million in church funds from three corporations it said supply products that help Israel carry out its West Bank policies.) “We feel they are important for peace-building. The [Presbyterian] General Assembly also adopted less helpful stances on Jerusalem and Gaza.”

Felson reports, “The Episcopal Church thankfully rejected divestment again. Instead, they opted to apply their longstanding policies, which include support for two states, to their investments.”

Felson, a veteran of pro-Israel lobbying efforts with New York City-area and national Christian organizations, said the denominations usually described as mainstream, which typically are more liberal politically and theologically than evangelical churches, often display more sympathy to Palestinians than to Israelis in Middle East discussions.

“Mainline Protestant churches have habitually used the phrase ‘Palestinian rights’” in their condemnation of Israel, stated in a recent article on the topic.

“The Jewish community should continue to invest in relationships with friendly neighbors of all religious affiliations,” Felson said. “We have many allies and potential allies — and we reach them best as partners at the local level who share interests and values. They are searching to do the right thing.”

While many of the mainstream churches are smaller and less influential than in previous years, the moderate resolutions they passed this summer reflect a reservoir of good will toward Israel that often characterizes Jewish-Protestant relations at the local level, Felson said.

He said the current close relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government and U.S. Evangelical Protestants “animates some of the debate in the [mainstream] churches, as it does the rest of America.” Mainstream churches, which in recent years have been prone to consider or adopt resolutions viewed as anti-Israel, are seen as less influential among Israeli leaders than Evangelical churches. “This is nothing new, although it is more intense.”

Felson continued: “It would be a huge mistake to ignore” relations with mainstream churches. “There are vibrant and prominent local churches that are important partners of local Jewish communities. Nationally, though, several denominations such as the PCUSA are in steady decline, losing 5 percent of their members each year.”

“These are our friends, our neighbors,” he said. “It’s not healthy to ignore them.”

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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