The Presbyterians, Israel and the value of community relations
07/09/2010 - 15:31
James Besser

In a world where Israel has fewer and fewer friends, Jewish groups here increasingly face a choice: do they treat Israel's critics as implacable adversaries? Or do they look for ways to work with some critics and perhaps change their mind on some issues?

Increasingly, muscular pro-Israel groups take the first approach; the second, which defines  the whole Jewish community relations movement, is in disfavor in many Jewish circles.

Today's vote at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems to me a reminder of the value of looking for ways to build bridges to our opponents, not just try to blow them out of the water. In other words, it's an affirmation of the community relations process.

To recap: the Church's Middle East Study Committee produced an obnoxious report that put virtually all of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Israel, endorsed only the Palestinian historical narrative and used tortured theological reasoning to blast the Jewish state, and then presented it for consideration at the Church's General Assembly in Minneapolis this week.

Jewish community relations groups, with leadership from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), took that as a challenge.

Instead of issuing indignant press releases and making harsh public statements – pretty easy things to do, after all, and always good for fundraising – JCPA leaders engaged in laborious, difficult, sometimes contentious discussions with church leaders, with friends within the Presbyterian church, with anybody who would talk to them.

The object wasn't to brand the Church as an enemy or to batter it into submission, but to take a terrible, one-sided report and make it a little less one sided, and to build relationships that would allow that educational process to continue.

Today they succeeded – not in producing a final report likely to win an award at the next AIPAC policy conference, but in winning dramatic revisions in a report that, if adopted in its original form, would only harden lines of conflict, both in the Middle East and between American Jewish and Christian groups.

Divestment was rejected; so was a section that seemed to endorse only the Palestinian narrative.

From a pro-Israel point of view, what finally passed was far from perfect – it still called for linking Israel's U.S. aid to a halt in settlement construction, among other things – but it was far better than the original.

And in the process, JCPA didn't burn bridges ; it built relationships that the group will continue to use to make Israel's case.

Ethan Felson, the group's assistant director, told me this: “The Church is, we hope, charting a course in which it recognizes Israel's legitimate security rights and needs even as it remains faithful to its Palestinian Christian partners.”

In other words: JCPA recognizes that the Presbyterians have different interests, and doesn't dispute the legitimacy of those interests – but also seeks to work with the Church and its activists to produce a more balanced approach to the Middle East.

That's community relations at its best. It's not as easy as issuing the harsh press release, and maybe not as emotionally satisfying – but in the long term it may be a whole lot more productive.


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Why does it have to be one or the other? There is a time for negotiation and a time for confrontation. If the job can be done through negotiation, that's great, but negotiation doesn't work all the time - some groups and individuals are just set on destroying Israel and Jews, and won't listen to facts or reason. Even those who believe themselves to be 'fair-minded' and would never, ever consider themselves anti-semitic are often completely oblivious to their own prejudices. I have had a good deal of contact with the anti-Israel church community in my area; the level of ignorance, ingrained bias, and closing of eyes to the most basic facts is appalling. (I mean the last literally - a church warden literally closed his eyes when I tried to show him photos of church-sponsored 'activists' holding pro-Hamas signs at a rally). And I very much appreciate your comment, Presbyterian Elder. It's important to remember that even amongst the most biased of groups, there are still individuals of courage and conviction. I truly appreciate the many Christians who go to great lengths, often suffering personal repercussions, to bring balance and fairness to the controversy.
Mr. Besser, your article is right on. I am a Presbyterian Elder who cringes every four years when our General Assembly meets. While we Presbyterians are based a representative for of government, we haven’t learned how to elect representative who will represent the entire Church. Our internal studies show a large opinion gap between our GA and our full membership on important issues. Too often our representatives are activists more willing to “have a voice” than prepare their minds (by listening to both sides) prior to voting. Typically their resolutions are not ratified by the Church, but they survive long enough to make the newspaper headlines. I am sometimes embarrassed at our willingness to judge others in an ignorant yet superior way. I listened to one of our Palestinian leaning activists “educate” me on the “deplorable occupation of Palestinian land”. I asked her if she was willing to return her own home in California to the Native Americans or Mexicans who lost their land by the force of an American Army. She stood before me speechless; the hypocrisy had come so easily. Your efforts to inform and put a face on your perspectives are priceless.