Mainline Churches vs Israel?

From the archive (legacy material)

Daniel Trieman |

Will new church moves toward stopping investment in companies that do business in Israel endanger Christian-Jewish relations?
When the Presbyterian Church (USA), the nation’s major Presbyterian body, decided this summer to move toward cutting off investments in select companies that do business with Israel, Jewish groups were caught off guard. They were outraged that divestment, a tactic utilized against apartheid South Africa, was now being advocated by a major American Protestant denomination as a means of pressuring the Jewish state.
“Prior to its pronouncement, had you asked me if this is on the agenda, I’d say I can’t imagine it,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
Now, however, four months after the General Assembly of the 2.4-million member church overwhelmingly voted to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel,” similar efforts in other mainline Protestant denominations appear to be gaining momentum.
In September, the Episcopal Church’s Socially Responsible Investment committee recommended that the church explore whether to take action against companies that contribute to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Officials with other mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), say there is now heightened interest in divestment within their membership, though there are no specific proposals currently under consideration.
The embrace of divestment by mainline Protestants alarms Jewish communal leaders, who fear it is being used to stigmatize Israel. It also has brought to the fore longstanding divisions over the Middle East between Jewish groups and the liberal Protestant churches, traditional allies on domestic issues.
Mainline church officials emphasize their denominations’ support for Israel’s right to exist. But the churches, some of which have ties to Palestinian and Arab sister churches, have long been critical of the Israeli occupation and the country’s use of force, as well as concerned about the Palestinians’ plight. The Presbyterians’ resolution on divestment called the occupation “the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.” In addition, the largest mainline denominations–the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church, and Episcopal Church– have all criticized the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. The United Methodist Church’s General Board on Church and Society issued a statement October 17 calling on Israel to “withdraw from the occupied territories and to tear down the wall it is constructing,” along with calling on Palestinians to end terrorism.
“I think that frankly we see both sides in the conflict,” said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, contrasting these church statements with what he sees as the U.S. government’s one-sided approach. “To bring about peace,” he added, “the United States has to use an even-handed approach, which they have completely failed to do over the past 55 years.”
The divestment issue has brought to the fore longstanding divisions over the Middle East between Jewish groups and the liberal Protestant churches.
The Rev. Bruce Gillette, who moderated the Presbyterians’ Committee on Peacemaking, said the group recommended divestment to the General Assembly because it felt “more needed to be done than mere words” to stop the “deteriorating conditions” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The testimony of Middle Eastern Christians was influential in the decision, he said, noting in particular the remarks of the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran minister from Bethlehem.
“Our General Assembly wants Israel to continue to be, to be secure, to be at peace. We think the [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon policies are not only causing suffering for the Palestinians, but actually will be self-destructive for Israel’s security in the long run,” said Gillette, co-pastor of Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del.
Jewish groups, however, believe that the Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants have unfairly put the onus for the conflict on Israel. They aired their concerns about recent Protestant actions during two days of marathon meetings in Washington last week between representatives of Jewish organizations and mainline Protestant churches.
“One of the questions that we asked, maybe the question that we asked, is: Where’s the outrage? Where’s the passion in the mainline churches about Palestinian terrorism?” said Mark Pelavin, director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism. “We clearly hear that outrage, and we hear that passion about the living conditions–which I would agree are deeply, deeply problematic–of the Palestinians. But we don’t hear that passion about Palestinian terror; we don’t hear criticism of the Palestinian leadership.”
Gillette rejected suggestions that the resolution was one-sided, noting that the resolution also condemned Palestinian terrorism. The resolution’s text denounced “horrific acts of violence and deadly attacks on innocent people, whether carried out by Palestinian ‘suicide bombers’ or by the Israeli military.”
The ADL’s Bretton-Granatoor said that Jewish groups and mainline churches had previously ignored their differences on the Middle East, preferring to focus on domestic issues instead.
“They’ve been saying similar things for awhile, and we’ve been pretending that they really haven’t said it because we’ve been so proud of our work together,” he said. “I think that the Jewish community is at fault for not taking them on earlier and not seeing this as a dangerous development, but I think both sides have really tried to lead each other out of discussions on the Middle East, and we can no longer do that.”
Prior to the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, efforts to promote divestment from companies that do business with Israel had been largely confined to college campuses. But pro-Palestinian student activists, comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, made little headway in convincing their schools to divest. The Presbyterian Church, however, has long used divestment as a tool to promote its vision of social justice. With an investment portfolio valued at $8 billion and a standing Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, the church has used divestment to protest issues from tobacco to arms sales, targeting companies such as Boeing and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Holdings.
Though the divestment controversy already has Jews and Christians riled up, Jerry Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian News Service, said in the end, the church may not divest from any companies and that any such action could not take place for another two years. He said the process the church has initiated will begin with attempts to establish dialogue with companies deemed to be contributing to the Israeli occupation. He said the only company church officials have identified publicly so far is Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers to the Israeli army that have been used in demolitions of Palestinian homes. Church bodies have invested in Caterpillar to the tune of $2 million. The church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee will meet November 6 to begin developing criteria to determine which companies the church should approach.
The next step in the process, said Van Marter, is the filing of shareholder resolutions. If that doesn’t work, the church moves to divestment of stock. He said the earliest this last step can occur is June 2006 when the next General Assembly meets.
“The Presbyterian Church’s goal whenever we undertake a process like this is to not divest, but to effect changes in corporate behavior; that’s the goal,” he said. “Divestment is not the goal. The goal is to persuade by what means we have to persuade corporations to change their corporate conduct.”
Conservative pundits have decried the church’s divestment move. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington group and perennial critic of the mainline churches, issued a study in September accusing the liberal denominations of a pattern of disproportionately singling out the United States and Israel for criticism on human rights issues–conclusions that mainline leaders vehemently deny.
But liberal Jewish groups, including some that are often critical of Israeli actions, also have reacted to the moves toward divestment with fury. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, accused proponents of divestment of “moral blindness.” Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that has engaged in civil disobedience to prevent Israeli authorities from demolishing Palestinian homes, blasted the Presbyterians’ divestment resolution as “a call for discrimination against Jews.”
“When you have incidents like this, it reinforces for the Jewish people who our true friends are at our time of crisis and need,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
B’nai B’rith, the storied Jewish fraternal organization, went so far as to call publicly for an end to dialogue with the Presbyterian Church.
Observers note that there is a wide spectrum of opinion on Israel within the Presbyterian Church and other mainline denominations. Some suggest that church leaders may be more critical of Israeli policy than rank-and-file members. A number of Presbyterian clergy have denounced the divestment resolution.
The Rev. Peter A. Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, said that there are indeed elements within the mainline denominations that are particularly sympathetic to the Palestinian side in the conflict. He cited those mainline Protestants who have been involved in missionary and relief work in the Middle East, with their close ties to Arab Christians, as well as those who have been influenced by “liberation theology” who tend to see Palestinians as an “oppressed indigenous population.”
“The mainline churches in their peace and justice wings and their mission, development, and relief wings tend to see Israeli actions as predominantly responsible, if not exclusively responsible, for the plight of the Palestinians. And those are the voices that have emerged from the mainline churches,” said Pettit, a Lutheran minister.
The already simmering tensions between Jewish groups and the Presbyterian Church flared up again when news broke of an October 17 meeting between a delegation from the church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and leaders of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah television reportedly showed Ronald Stone, a recently retired professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, praising the militant group’s “expression of goodwill towards the American people” and remarking that “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”
Stone’s comments launched a quick round of statements and repudiations. Jewish groups were livid and denounced the meeting. Presbyterian Church officials quickly issued a statement explaining simply that the visit and Stone’s remarks “do not reflect the official position” of the church. In response, the Union for Reform Judaism sent an angry letter to church leaders complaining that their statement failed to repudiate the remarks or “condemn the fact that an official delegation from your church met with a known terrorist entity.” The Presbyterian Church leaders then released a second statement calling the reported remarks “reprehensible” and the meeting with Hezbollah “misguided, at best.”
While Jewish communal officials welcomed the church’s second statement, the flap over the Hezbollah meeting nevertheless underscored the tensions between Jewish groups and the mainline Protestant denominations. These tensions could strengthen the hand of those Jews who argue that their community’s best friends among Christians are conservative evangelicals. While their social conservatism and millenarian tendencies make many in the liberal-leaning Jewish community wary, evangelicals are often fervent supporters of Israel.
“When you have incidents like this with the Presbyterian church, it reinforces for the Jewish people who our true friends are at our time of crisis and need,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the Orthodox leader of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and a pioneer in alliance-building with evangelicals.
Representatives of leading national Jewish organizations and the mainline churches, however, say they are committed to continuing dialogue. In the meantime, the wounds remain raw.
“Presbyterians have historically believed that the Jews are God’s chosen people, people of the covenant, and that that covenant is inviolable. As such they are our brothers and sisters,” Van Marter, the Presbyterian News Service head, said. “And to be estranged from them is to be estranged from the family of God, and that’s an intolerable situation for us.”
Daniel Treiman is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.