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Repairing A Relationship

Rabbis and their allies among Presbyterian clergy are committed to educating the church's leadership.

Tue, 08/26/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson
Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson

In late June, when the three innocent Israeli teenagers kidnapped by Hamas had not yet been found murdered and the Jewish world still only feared the worst, the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly voted to “selectively divest” from three companies it claimed “furthered the Israeli occupation in Palestine.” In doing so, the denomination’s governing body cast its lot with the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel and blame it for the conflict. The decision, while stunning in its bias, was really not all that surprising.

With the denomination’s promotion of “Zionism Unsettled” (a congregational study guide on the conflict that is both anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic) and with its continual debate over divestment at each of its general assemblies dating back 10 years, the momentum seemed to be building toward this decision, close though it was. Maddeningly, even with all the resentment generated by the vote, on July 16, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued another prejudiced statement blaming the abduction of those three Israeli teens on the “illegal Israeli occupation” — as if Hamas were not even involved — and asserted that Hamas rockets started firing only after Israel’s military began its pursuit of the kidnappers and Israeli terrorists brutally murdered a Palestinian teenager. The latter was an atrocious act of vengeance, but the claim is untrue. Hamas has been firing rockets for years. They’ve never stopped.

Thankfully, the resolution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) GA seems not to reflect the attitudes of most Americans (as a recent Pew Research Center study indicated) or of most Presbyterians but rather — as the outcome was described by my local colleagues — the views of slightly more than half of the small group of representatives elected by their local presbyteries to attend the denomination’s biennial leadership meeting.

The pastors of some of New York’s largest Presbyterian churches, distraught over the vote, have been vocal in their opposition to the divestment resolution. And in July, I was invited to a meeting with three of them, along with three of my rabbinic colleagues, and the moderator and vice moderator of the General Assembly. Our local pastors called the gathering so that they and we might have the opportunity to share with the Presbyterian Church’s national leadership just how hurtful the resolution was and that we might understand the process that led to it.

One source of frustration that became clear — exasperating not just to the Jewish community but to my Presbyterian colleagues as well — was the procedure by which such weighty decisions are brought to and considered by the denomination’s governing body. Simply put, the Presbyterian Church fails to educate broadly and prepare adequately its 600 commissioners on the issues. As happens so often, the loudest voices carry the greatest influence.

Sadly, one of the most strident voices at the General Assembly was Jewish Voice for Peace, which despite its name is an organization representing not even a significant minority of the Jewish community. It is a fringe group that has called not just for divestment but also for the suspension of U.S. military support for Israel, which has been critical in saving millions of Israelis from harm. Without the Iron Dome defense system, population centers all across Israel would have suffered under a barrage of rocket fire. But this was the voice many of the Presbyterian Church’s leaders chose to hear, in spite of letters signed by hundreds of rabbis and the efforts of the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other mainstream Jewish organizations urging them to reject divestment.

As we approach the season of the Jewish year when we seek to repair our relationships (even when we might not be to blame for their strain), I think back to this July meeting. The most important outcome was a commitment to strategize with our local colleagues and the denomination’s leadership on how to rebuild what has been a critically important interfaith partnership. My colleagues and I have committed to working with the Presbyterian Church’s leadership to broaden their understanding of the history and complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and committed to exposing them to a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints. One step, we hope, will be a joint mission to Israel with American Presbyterian and Jewish clergy.

At the local level, we will encourage synagogues and churches to enter into meaningful dialogue and study. In Manhattan, we are blessed with Presbyterian congregations and colleagues who are sensitive to Israel’s struggle. In partnering with them, we can model the sort of relationships that churches and synagogues might create around the country, building from the ground up a greater understanding of the existential threats that Israel faces, so that in two years’ time — when the denomination’s leadership gathers again — they will rescind the divestment resolution.

It seems unlikely that they will reverse direction before then. However, when we brought to the moderator’s attention the biased, inaccurate pronouncements still posted on the denomination’s website, he indicated he would make certain that future statements addressed the conflict with greater accuracy. Finally, and perhaps most important, we agreed to look at the divestment resolution — certainly a nadir in the recent history of the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship — as an impetus to renew and strengthen our interfaith efforts.

It was a productive conversation and a ray of light in the darkness of a difficult time. Even as we were speaking, a missile penetrated the Iron Dome defense system and landed in Tel Aviv. Israeli soldiers were dying and missing. And now 2,000 Palestinians, most of them innocent victims, have been killed. Golda Meir said it so poignantly of previous Arab-Israeli struggles: “We can forgive [them] for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” This is what Hamas does when it places rockets in schools and hospitals and tunnels under mosques. Even so, we do not ration our tears. We shed them for the Palestinians’ dead, as for Israel’s.

Joshua Davidson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.

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Being a long-time Presbyterian, this is hardly surprising. Our congregation at St. Andrews Church in Newport Beach, CA. When we firs accepted their offer of $1,800,00, we were ecstatic. However, that changed within a week when St. Mark Presbyterian Church filed a complaint indicating we were not paying enough money. The congregation was incredibly disappointed. The intent was to go with ECO.

Geoff,
I see how deeply you feel the pain of the Arabs who for a relatively brief period of history have lived in the Jewish homeland and have seen their land 'confiscated', as you allege, by Israel. As I am sure you are a person of moral principle, I would expect your pain over the European settler expropriation of land from the North American native population to be profound. Remember, Joshua lead the nation of Israel into the Promised Land in 1451 B.C. That means that the land of Israel was a thriving Jewish nation 3000 years before Columbus discovered America. Therefore, I hope I can count on you and your fellow travelers to withdraw from your homes and communities, return the land you took as conquest to the native American inhabitants, and go back to Europe, which has really nice cappuccino.

Not all Presbyterians Are PC(USA). Our congregation left and joined EPC ( Evangelical Presbyterian Church). Our denomination takes no position on political matters unless they are dictated by scripture. PC(USA) is no longer Presbyterian since it is ruled from above and not from below. Do not confuse Presbyterian with PC(USA). They are not the same.

Christians overwhelmingly support Israel as recent polls indicate. Unfortunately Jews have a decidedly negative view towards Christians. Asking all Christians to accept Irael's opression of Palestians would be problematic to say the least.

It is really offensive, really anti-semitic of some posters to 'The Jewish Week' to argue that Israel oppresses Palestinians. I just read a true news story that 3 Arab-Israeli members of the Knesset attended a Hamas victory rally. Are you kidding? Imagine if 3 members of the US Congress attended an ISIS victory rally or a Russia victory rally. I can't even fathom what the public response would be, but I guarantee it would not be tolerant of the Congressmen. Yet I will also guarantee you that these 3 Arab-Israelis will NOT be put on trial for treason, and will more than likely be returned to office by their political constituents. Folks, Israel does NOT oppress Arabs - not even close. Please take your head out of the place where the sun doesn't shine.

You say, 'Christians overwhelmingly support Israel as recent polls indicate. Unfortunately Jews have a decidedly negative view towards Christians. Asking all Christians to accept Irael's opression of Palestians would be problematic to say the least.'
As a Jew, your statement that 'Jews have a decidedly negative view towards Christians' is news to me. What is your evidence for this? You say that Israel oppresses Palestinians. That is just not true, not fair, and shameless Arab/Leftist propaganda. Wikipedia says there have been 69 past and present Arab-Israelis who have been elected to the Knesset beginning in 1949. That means Arab-Israelis have FULL political rights. Israel has withdrawn from every inch of Gazan territory years ago. What is Hamas's excuse for launching missiles into Israel and kidnapping Israelis? How is Gaza oppressed by Israel? Please learn the facts before you preach. The truth shall set you free.

The commissioners sent to GA were mostly from the PC Presbyterians and some Pastors are with the group as well or the anti -Jewish divestment action would not have taken place. These PC members of Presbytery do not understand the long standing conflict between Jews and Palestinians. During the 6 day war with the Arabs Israel was almost destroyed by the overwhelming odds against her small country. No one sent troops to save Israel. Somehow they survived and I give credit only to Almighty God who favored Israel in this conflict. Since the
Arabs launched their deadly attacks from Gaza Israel captured those lands for their security and made settlements on it. The Palestinians were offered a State if they would affirm that Israel had a right to exist but declined. Now they complain of land Israel claims. Now they continue to send missiles into Israel killing soldiers, children and anyone who stands in the way of their missiles. They dig tunnels to invade Israel and kidnap Israeli citizens for ransom, and other deadly deeds. All Israel dose is fire back in self defense and everyone criticizes the Israeli government but not Hamas. Hamas is to blame for all the deaths in Israel and in Gaza for their agrression. Place blame where the wrongdoers are:

Geoff,
You say, 'Presbyterians are not de-legitimizing Israel, Israel is doing this with their continuing occupation and growing settlements and demolition of homes and land confiscation and a host of injustices.'
You obviously are unaware of basic history. 1) The Balfour Declaration gave all the land of Palestine west of the Jordan River to the Jews to re-establish their national homeland from which they were expelled. By definition, Jews cannot be 'occupiers' of their own national homeland. The Balfour Declaration did NOT establish another Arab homeland in Palestine west of the Jordan. 2) The 'settlements' are NOT illegal.
Gene Rostow said this: 'The attempt to present Israeli settlements as a violation of the 4th Geneva convention is clearly untenable. As Professor Eugene Rostow, former Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs has written: "the Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there" (AJIL, 1990, vol. 84, p.72).' 3) I strongly doubt there is 'land confiscation and a host of injustices' in Israel. Israel has a highly evolved legal system of which Arabs avail themselves every day.
Geoff, sadly, you lack true knowledge of Israel and their conflict with the Arabs. The argument you make is pure Arab/Leftist propaganda - it is not true.
I have never offered suggestions for Presbyterians how they should live. I have never heard Israel offering guidelines for Presbyterians. I am very proud of Israel, their justice, morals, ethics, compassion. I see no reason for the Jewish state to apologize or to rethink in the Presbyterian way. I believe that Israel is a light that should guide other nations.

As a Presbyterian, I love and value the relationships with many of my Jewish colleagues and we often work together on local issues of justice and social concern. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, we seem to hit a wall. What is the end game here? Presbyterians are not de-legitimizing Israel, Israel is doing this with their continuing occupation and growing settlements and demolition of homes and land confiscation and a host of injustices.

As David Ben-Gurion is credited with saying, Israel wants 3 things, the land, a Jewish state, and a democracy. But they can only have 2 of the 3. Right now it seems that Israel is trying to have all three and in so doing, Israel will erode its credibility and status and legitimacy in the world. Those of us who are working for justice and peace want to see Israel survive and thrive within safe and secure and internationally recognized borders. We are trying to save Israel from the very thing you are accusing us of doing - de-legitimacy.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that makes Jews despair of the PCUSA ever being able to seen reason.

Israel is "de-legitimizing" itself by defending itself against those who want to destroy it? "Continuing occupation"? You do know that Gaza has not been occupied since 2005, right? And that the blockade was only instituted in 2007 as a result of Hamas attacks and weapons smuggling?

You also imply that there is something illegitimate about Israel being a Jewish state. I'll wait with bated breath hearing your denunciations of Pakistan as an Islamic state, Saudi Arabia as an Arab state, and most of the Arab nations of the Middle East being thorough Judenrein.

Israel has not been blameless in the conflict, nor is everything that it has done right. When Israel is wrong, it should be criticized and corrected. But what PCUSA leadership has done is consistently laid the entire burden of responsibility for the conflict on Israel, and turned a blind eye to the existential threat that it faces. It holds Israel to a standard of conduct that is not applied in any way to any of its neighbors, and it sanctions groups (the Israel Palestine Mission Network, source of the "Zionism Unsettled" propaganda to which the article refers) that pump out blatantly anti-Semitic material and statements on a regular basis. Until PCUSA leadership cleans up its act, I have a hard time imagining that any meaningful dialogue is possible.

Again these terrible lies, as if negotiations with the Hamas Jihadists are a real option. Negotiations with the PA are hardly a real option, as has been demonstrated several times, in particular during the days of Barak and Olmert. The Palestinian goal is not statehood but the destruction of the State of Israel. This destruction is in their mind a pre-condition for establishing a Palestinian State. The Jewish line should be clear here. No talks, no communication and certainly not any type of reconciliation with a "church" which is spiritually so corrupt and bankrupt as is the Presbyterian, which denies Israel's biblical history. They should be shunned forever.

You may be trying to do a lot of things - but saving Israel isn't one of them. The Palestinians could have had their first ever state in 1948 by adopting the UN resolution dividing the British mandate - but chose war instead. Hamas still has in its charter the destruction of Israel - even though Israel no longer 'occupies' Gaza. I guess the 'land-for-peace' progressive mantra didn't work so well for the Israelis on that one. The international 'de-legitimization' of Israel comes from Arabs and sympathetic Western progressives like you who find the Jewish state a Western imperialist transplant into the idyllic Muslim-dominated region of Southwest Asia. Face it, you find a Jewish Israel repulsive - but you use catchy homogenized phrases like 'social justice' to hide your worldview. If Israel is occupying anything, tell me when the West Bank and Gaza were 'free' and ruled by local Muslims? Please don't hide behind catchy, feel-good phrases to hide your loathing of traditional Judeo-Christian culture. C'mon Geoff, let's read what you really think!

As a Presbyterian Seminary graduate and Bible teacher for nearly 30 years, and having visited Israel twice, I am distraught about the recent actions of the PCUSA. It is not only the divestment issue which is outrageous but what is most certainly a rising tide of anti-Semitism that is deplorable. Every Christian should abhor this behavior and speak against it with every opportunity. And I do!

Bomb Gaza till there are no more Hamas people alive. Tell the civiiansthey must leave Gaza or go to areas that do not have Hamas people ( if you can call them people)living there.We will never have peace as long as they are alive. They are no better the the naziz

This dialogue may be useful from a social and political view, but hardly from a religious view. The bottom line for most Jews is: Most Christian denominations at their heart hope for the eventual elimination of the: Jewish religion in the "end of days"; Jewish self-understanding of its own history and scripture; and acceptance of the universal Christian view that religion and land do not mix negating claims to the Land of Israel. This of course is counter to the traditional Jewish view of self-definition. For the plurality of the 42% of the Jewish people in Israel (and growing), its high birth rate, and the decline of the Jewish Diaspora, the traditional Jewish view will continue to be self-definitional and self-fullfilling. It is time for all Christians to accept Jewish self-definition and for all Jews to not allow a Christian vote on that. It is G-d given, ours, we earned it; and, on this, it is even praise worthy to be "stiff necked".

I am a Presbyterian minister serving as a chaplain in a non-sectarian community hospital. I was (and still am) astounded, dumbfounded, and angry over my denomination's general assembly actions on divestment. The action was approved by a very thin majority of the commisioners, and will not affect the prospects for peace at all, but has done much to strain Presbyterian/Jewish relationships. I am grateful to Rabbi Davidson and my Presbyterian colleagues for meeting together and find ways to mend the breech.

Clarification: the UPCUSA has not been a bible-believing church since the 1920s, they are nothing whatsoever, name only, to do with Presbyterianism. If you want to see what Presbyterians believe check out the Orthodox Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian, Bible Presbyterian, Reformed etc. groups. Once again the mainstream media informs the ignorant who then opine. Try to read alternative news sites like worldnetdaily, cnsnews, prisonplanet, you'll learn what's truly going on in the world!

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