Fall 2005, Vol. 8, No. 2

Table of Contents
Fall 2005

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Was New Orleans Asking For It?

The God Squadron

Culture War, Italian Style

Establishment In the Balance

Covering Homosexuality in the Schools

Presbyterians Divest the Jews

Cruisin' For a Scientological Bruisin'



Presbyterians Divest the Jews
by Andrew Walsh


Coverage of routine institutional religious business is so deeply out of journalistic fashion that nobody much noticed on July 2, 2004, when the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) passed a package of resolutions touching on relations between Jews and Christians and initiating a lengthy process of disinvestment intended to press Israel’s government to change its occupation policies in the Palestinian territories.

Nevertheless, news of the resolutions did eventually dribble out, initially in a Religion News Service roundup on July 6.  PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” picked up the story on July 9, when anchor Bob Abernethy noted briefly that the mainline denomination had decided “to begin divesting in some companies that do business with Israel,” perhaps including “U.S. companies such as Caterpillar, which makes bulldozers used by the Israeli army.”

Eric J. Greenberg of the weekly Forward broke the story to the Jewish community on July 16, 2004. “In an unprecedented victory for pro-Palestinian activists, leaders of the largest Presbyterian denomination officially equated the Jewish state with apartheid South Africa and have voted to stop investing in Israel.” While not an accurate summary of the Presbyterian resolutions, it certainly mobilized Jewish reaction. 

“The Presbyterian Church (USA) has committed a grievous sin,” Alan Dershowitz thundered on August 4, 2004 in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that was widely reprinted. “Unless the church rescinds this immoral, sinful and bigoted denigration of the Jewish state, it will be ‘participating in’ and ‘contributing to’ anti-Jewish bigotry and the encouragement of terrorism.”

“If these are our friends, exactly who are our enemies?” Jonathan Tobin jabbed in the August 2004 issue of the Deep South Jewish Voice. “In their own buttoned-down, white-bread manner, the Presbyterians are telling the Jews to go to hell.”

Even the more rhetorically measured response of interfaith veterans like Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior ecumenical official, betrayed considerable anxiety. Rudin complained in his Religion News Service column on July 22 that the resolutions (especially one continuing denominational funding for a small Presbyterian sponsored congregation of Messianic Jews) had “undermined more than 40 years of constructive Presbyterian-Jewish religious dialogue that was built on mutual respect and understanding.”

If the Jewish response was hot, the Presbyterian reaction was frosty. Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination’s highest elected official, defended the General Assembly’s votes in a lengthy public statement issued on July 22. The assembly, he said, “did not approve a blanket divestment from companies that do business in Israel, as is being reported in some places.” Further, it had not asserted “any moral equivalency” between Israel and apartheid South Africa. 

Instead, the Presbyterian assembly’s actions arose, he said, from “a longstanding commitment to the secure existence of Israel and the Israeli people, in a similar commitment to the security and existence of the Palestinians in their own state, and in a passionate vision of negotiated peace as the only way forward.”

These summer exchanges set the stage for an uncommon, steely, and unflinching controversy between Jews and Presbyterians that has unfolded step by step over the past year as Jews have struggled, so far with no success, to persuade the Presbyterians to back off their Israel resolutions. More than a shouting match, the confrontation has revealed the deep structure that governs how both sides engage faith in public action, how sensitive each is to accusations of moral misconduct, and how little (40 years of dialogue or no) each side understands what makes the other tick.

From the Jewish perspective, the problem centered on the drift of mainline Protestants—once the Jewish community’s closest allies in public policy—into what seems like open endorsement of Palestinian aims and goals.

On the Presbyterian side, as Neela Banerjee put it in the September 28, 2004 New York Times, the decision “to explore divestment may be the starkest example so far of the frustration among many Protestants with the crumbling of peace efforts, a fact worsened, they believe, by Israel’s decision to build the barrier (wall) in the West Bank.” The Protestant view, Antonios Kireopoulos, assistant general secretary for international affairs of the National Council of Churches told the Times, was that “interfaith dialogue between Jews and American Protestants has waned over the last few years, in great part because of tension over Israel’s policies.”

A meeting between Presbyterian and Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in New York on September 28, 2004 failed to cool things off. Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post reported on September 29, 2004 that “neither side gave any ground” in a “polite but tense” meeting.” Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism told reporters after the meeting, “Holding something over the head of Israel to change its conduct, while holding nothing over the heads of the Palestinians to change their conduct…has caused utter dismay in the Jewish community.”

As the confrontation built up, both sides had to cope with the excesses of their own extremists. Jewish leaders had to find their way around their original overstatements of the Presbyterian resolutions, their sense of shock at hearing the news, and, some months later, their chagrin at an anonymous arson threat against Presbyterian churches for their tilt against Israel. 

In October, the Presbyterians, in turn, had to deal with the embarrassing statements of a delegation of Pres-byterian peace activists on a study tour of the situation in Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. One retired seminary ethics professor ended up on Hezbollah’s satellite TV network saying that “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogues with Jewish leaders.” That led to a November 17 announcement that the PCUSA had fired two staff members who had met with Hezbollah leaders.

During the fall of 2004, some observers were trying to figure out what had caused the sudden and gaudy collision. The very experienced journalist Ira Rifkin noted in the September 6, 2004 Jerusalem Report, that the normally alert Jewish communal organizations had let the Presbyterian discussion “slip past them.”

This was because the resolution came to the floor of the General Assembly not as a highly publicized proposal from the church’s central administration, but as an unheralded request from the Presbytery of St. Augustine, a regional jurisdiction in northeast Florida, which had passed its resolution on the matter in 2003. The fact that it passed 431-62 also seemed deeply alarming.

“We had no idea this was coming up,” David Saperstein of the Union for Reform Judaism—and the most prominent Jewish lobbyist in Washington—told Minnesota Public Radio’s “Marketplace” on October 19. “They did not seek any input from our community on this.”

Part of the problem, therefore, was that, even after 40 or 50 years of ecumenical dialogue, Jewish leaders had not grasped the inner dynamics of Presbyterian polity, or the denomination’s high sense of its moral responsibility. “The mainline church’s influence today is not about numbers,” Rifkin observed. “Its influence remains strong because of its historic role in the building of the United States and the disproportionate number of members it has among America’s business and political elite.”

In certain respects, the raison d’être for General Assembly is to give the PCUSA the opportunity to meet its moral obligation to call things as it sees them. As Clifton Kirkpatrick, in superb Presbyterian polity-speak, stated in his late July 2004 ripost to Jewish critics, “We make every effort to discern God’s presence in the world and to ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream’ (Amos 5:24). It is out of this faith and commitment, and with careful reflection, that the commissioners of the 216th General Assembly took a number of actions concerning our relations with the Jewish community, as well as the situation of Israel and Palestine.”

This sense of institutional mission identity is rooted in the Presbyterian mania for proper order, for inviolable internal organizational protocols. The 2004 resolutions authorized the PCUSA’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee to make recommendations to the General Assembly Advisory Council in 2005 on selective divestment of corporations in the church’s $8 billion portfolio, with those recommendations to be ratified at the church’s 2006 General Assembly. No earthly power—or argument—could or should alter that

Nevertheless, the Jewish aversion to divestment was so strong that the organized Jewish community felt compelled to try to press Presbyterians to abandon their process.

That set up positional warfare, and, during the fall of 2004, press accounts of coordinated local efforts by local Jewish leaders to persuade local Presbyterians to press their national leaders to halt the process began to appear. In places as varied as Washington, Houston, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Allentown, stories reported intense inter-communal discussions.

“A small group of San Antonio Presbyterians has signed a statement opposing a resolution issued by the national church that calls for divesting church funds from multinational corporations operating in Israel,” J. Michael Parker reported in the San Antonio Express-News on December 10. “The San Antonio statement—in effect a rebuttal to the national resolution—was drafted at University Presbyterian Church. It grew out of discussions involving local Presbyterians and several Jewish leaders.”

James Rudin, in his Religion News Service column of September 23, stressed the opposition of many prominent Presbyterians to the resolutions. The General Assembly “fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down,” he quoted the Rev. Mark Brewer, pastor of Los Angeles’ Bel Air Presbyterian church, as saying. 

But Manya A. Brachear’s Chicago Tribune dispatch of November 10 reported that the Presbyterian process was grinding forward relentlessly, despite the objections of many individual Presbyterians in Chicago and other places. She also found prominent Presbyterians ready to defend the General Assembly.

“It’s not an attack on Israel,” the Rev. John Buchanan, senior pastor of Chicago’s powerhouse Fourth Presbyterian Church told the Tribune. “It’s a modest attempt by one small denomination to say a word of peace and justice and hope in the middle of continuing mind-numbing violence and human suffering.”

Brachear then reported that the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee had announced the standards it had set for selective divestment: “companies that operate on occupied land, sell products, services or technology to support Israeli settlements or the construction of the separation barrier; or do business with organizations that support violence against innocent civilians.”

By December, Jane Lampman of the Christian Science Monitor was re-porting that other Protestant denominations, notably the Episcopal Church, were also thinking about economic action to protest Israeli occupation policies. And by the spring of 2005, these included the world-wide Anglican communion, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and several regional bodies of the United Methodist Church.

In February, the World Council of Churches issued a statement asking its 347 member denominations to give “serious consideration” to economic pressure as a means of obtaining its policy ends. The Christian Century reported on March 22 that the WCC had issued a statement in February commending the Presbyterian plan “in both method and manner” for using “criteria rooted in faith and calling members to do things that make for peace.”

The Century then quoted a battle-weary Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as saying the “divestment campaign has taken on a life of its own. The best thing we can do is continue to call it what it is—holding Israel to a double standard and using religious language to justify political ends.’”

By the spring, Jewish efforts seemed to be moving in two directions. The first was to specify that Palestinian Christians were the source of bad Presbyterian policy notions. Nancy Glass of the Religion News Service reported on August 2 that the ADL and others were pointing to the growing influence of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem on mainline Protestant thinking.

“The Sabeel offices are frequently included in the itineraries of mainline Protestant delegations visiting the Holy Land,” Glass wrote. “In one of many partnerships with U.S. churches, the Rev. Naim Ateek, president of Sabeel, visited the U.S. for four months at the end of 2003 as a guest of the Presbyterians.”

The second approach was to come close to admitting that the tactic of using swarms of local interventions to short-circuit the Presbyterian divestment process wasn’t working and that efforts would simply have to wait until 2006 and the next Presbyterian General Assembly, which alone has the authority to alter the resolutions of previous assemblies.

In early July, meanwhile, the United Church of Christ passed a resolution at its General Synod meeting that, according to Emily Dulcan’s July 9 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was “similar in tone” to the PCUSA’s resolution of the previous year.

So, when the Presbyterian committee deliberating on the selective divestment finally issued its recommendations in Seattle on August 5, reaction was muted. Predictably, the committee suggested a lengthy phased approach of trying to persuade four named military equipment and technology companies (Caterpillar, Motorola, ITT Industries and United Technologies) to change their business practices before undertaking any divestment. Then, acting on its own initiative, the committee also suggested the same process of negotiation with Citibank, alleging (according to an article by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times) that the “bank had a connection to a bank accused of having a role in funneling money from Islamic charities to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.”

After the companies were named, Jewish leaders like Rudin tried a new tack: isolating the Presbyterians from other mainline groups. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Rachel Pomerance quoted Rudin late August as saying that “Jewish-Presbyterian relations have long been difficult.” Rudin now spoke of a “ long history of antipathy, even hostility,” to Israel and Zionism among the Presbyterian leadership and noted that “Presbyterian missionaries have long been closely allied with Arabs, helping to found American universities in Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah, which in turn has informed their pro-Arab stance.”

Pomerance’s piece, which appeared in many Jewish communal newspapers, claimed that Jewish officials were “close to giving up on talks with Presbyterian leaders.” But perhaps not on other Protestants. “The Presbyterians seem to be in a very different place than the other denominations,” declared Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The Presbyterian process, mean-while, ground on, apparently impervious to outside pressure. Nevertheless, questions were being raised by many Presbyterians whether their church’s taste for attempting to influence the behavior of nations was a good thing.

Writing for the media criticism website, The Revealer, Presbyterian minister Ben Daniel suggested on December 23 that the Presbyterian fondness for issuing resolutions in jargon that non-Presbyterians have trouble understanding wasn’t serving the group well. The denomination, he wrote, is “unused to having people pay attention to its actions,” noting that “in the twenty years that I have been following the work of Presbyterian General Assemblies, this is the first time a significant number of non-Presbyterians have really cared about what Presbyterians have to say.”

Other insiders also suggested that the stately process of General Assembly resolutions moves too slowly for the news. The entire first year of the divestment controversy coincided, for example, with Israel’s wrenching withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a goal seemingly consonant with Presbyterian wishes. (And, it’s worth noticing, during which the Israeli army used its Caterpillar bulldozers to knock down Israeli settlements.)

Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and an eminent liberal Presbyterian, took to the pages of the Christian Century on February 8 to call her church’s divestment policy “unwise and ineffective.” Divestment, she noted, “will have symbolic weight only,” because its connection with previous campaigns against apartheid “signals extreme opprobrium” and this “feeds Israeli insecurities and defensiveness….Thus the Presbyterian divestment decision makes it less, not more likely that Israel will modify its policies that afflict Palestinians and will take risky steps toward peace.”

“Instead of delivering moralizing pronouncements and symbolic body blows,” she wrote, “Presbyterians should offer partnership—listening, support and encouragement to Jews, Muslims, and other Christians who are working for peace.”

It is no secret that there has been deep tension between mainline Protestants and the organized Jewish community for many years—mostly over how to solve the problems of the Middle East. But the memory of a vigorous common front in the Civil Rights and Great Society eras—as well as the labor of many individuals—kept elements of a working alliance going. And, by fall, there were signs that many mainline groups don’t want an open break. On October 11, the Religion News Service reported that the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council had “flatly rejected” divestment in companies doing business with Israel and that leaders of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) opposed divestment as well.

This year’s contretemps raises the tantalizing question of whether the old mid-20th century coalition has broken up for good—whether, for example, the dispute will drive the Jewish community into a permanent alliance with evangelical Protestants, who are enthusiastic backers of the State of Israel.

Time, of course, will tell. But the potential for a really significant realignment in the religious politics of the nation exists, and it makes the next General Assembly of the PCUSA, in the summer of 2006 in Birmingham, Alabama, worth much closer journalistic scrutiny than the controversy has received so far. Not very many people were watching as the Presbyterians did their foreign policy business last summer. The same should not be true of 2006.


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