Picking an unnecessary fight with Presbyterians

Picking an unnecessary fight with Presbyterians

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Sometimes Jewish leaders take positions toward the “outside” world in ways that make one want to scream. Case in point: “Presbyterians Against Israel,” an op-ed in the Dec. 10 Wall Street Journal by Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To begin with, it seems Journal editors didn’t read the article before placing a grossly distorting and gratuitous headline on it. Secondly, the article itself inaccurately represented some of the meetings and resolutions to which it referred.

Israel and the American-Jewish community have for years been at odds over many of the positions taken by mainline Protestant churches involving Christians, Jews, and Muslims in general, and in the Middle East in particular. Many of the churches — both their American branches as well as their international umbrella organizations — have advocated, and some have even adopted or recommended, policies for their affiliates which sought to single out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Some of the conversations between Jewish groups and these churches have successfully ameliorated criticisms of Israel and some have not.

In discussing documents and resolutions debated by the Presbyterian Church PC (USA), Hier and Cooper presented only a selective and distorted version of the facts and recent history. Prior to their General Assembly in Minneapolis last July, PC (USA) delegates had indeed intended to study and vote on a document by the church’s Middle East Study Committee that many Jewish leaders considered extremely one-sided and which seemed to blame Israel for the terror it endures. Hier and Cooper assert that these positions “embolden terrorists and anti-Semites, and cast carefully nurtured interfaith relations into darkness and disarray.”

What they don’t mention is how much had changed between February, when the Middle East Study Committee issued its one-sided report, and July, when the General Assembly debated a much revised version

Over months of slow, painstaking, dogged community relations efforts led by Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a larger vision of the issues and their implications was brought to the attention of delegates. Throughout the country Jewish leaders and Presbyterian churches and G.A. delegates met in dialogue. This work culminated in the exhaustive efforts based on the deep-seated commitment of Rev. Katherine Henderson, head of Auburn Theological Seminary; Rev. William Harter of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace; and Rev. John Wimberly, cochair of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Relations. They engaged PC (USA) leadership and delegates rejected a resolution that would have called for divestment. As this newspaper reported, delegates “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 resolutions they adopted were still not perfect, but more balanced than those previously proposed.

Curiously, the Wiesenthal Center was itself involved at many stages of these conversations over the years and knew full well the extraordinarily diligent and effective work being done to turn things around within the Presbyterian Church. And yet they insist that “the anti-Israel politics of certain powerful Christian bodies hampers interfaith relations and threatens to breathe new life into medieval doctrine that demonized Jews for hundreds of years.”

The Jewish community faces many problems and Israel needs friends wherever it is able to find them. It is evident that the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement which has been expanding in many European countries is making inroads in the United States. The fight over Sabra-brand hummus at Princeton University was only the latest example.

At the same time, over the past several years, a growing mutual understanding and sensitivity has developed among many church groups, Jews, and Israelis. To a large extent this has been at the local level and under the radar screen. To attack the Presbyterian Church only months after a public success was achieved at their biennial convention is inexplicable.

The fact that The Wall Street Journal not only published this attack but, as of this writing, has yet to publish even one qualifying letter (I know many have been submitted) suggests that perhaps the editors are more fixated on the reputations of some of the op-ed writers than they are on the accuracy of their commentary.

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