Local reaction to Presbyterian vote: cautious optimism

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Jewish groups are reacting with a carefully calibrated blend of cautious optimism to the passage of a major Christian denomination’s controversial Middle East report after modifications softened criticism of Israel.

The document, an amended version of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s original Middle East Study Committee report, was overwhelmingly approved at the church’s biennial General Assembly Friday. Entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” it had initially drawn sharp reactions from Israel advocacy groups amidst allegations of bias against the Jewish State. The church’s final 558 to 119 vote came after changes made the previous day by the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee reaffirmed support for Israel, deleted portions of the study’s background materials and slackened opposition to the Jewish State’s blockade of Gaza.

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Other changes reworded the report’s mention of “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth,” a paper harshly critical of Israel. The new wording clarifies that the church endorses only the aspects of the statement that pertain to love of enemy, hope for liberation, non-violence and reconciliation.

“While we may not have gotten every aspect of what we thought was necessary, on balance, an enormous effort brought about the best resolution possible,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. “We mobilized and we worked together as a united community in the face of what would have been an extremely negative outcome had it come about.”

Abramson-Goldstein lauded what she called a very respectful process that produced the modifications, including a strongly worded statement recognizing Israel’s right to exist and amendments which eased other points of contention.

“One particular, which was extremely disturbing, was the call for a complete lifting of the blockade into Gaza,” she said. “[Now], it does make it clear that Israel has the right and the responsibility to keep weapons from going into Gaza. That was an important recognition.”

Barry Rosenberg, executive vice-president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, also struck a mildly positive note.

“Although still problematic, the outcome of the Presbyterian General Assembly’s position is substantially better than it might have been,” Rosenberg said via email. “I want to commend the coalition of Jewish community relations organizations – including many funded by the Jewish Federation – that worked tirelessly to build bridges and dialogue with Presbyterian leadership. They had a clear and important impact.”

That theme was echoed at the national level as well. Emily Soloff, the American Jewish Committee’s national associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations, said the outcome shouldn’t be seen in terms of a victory or a defeat.

“I don’t think anybody in the Jewish community who has worked closely with the Presbyterians expected a complete reversal of all of the overtures and the Mideast study report,” she said. “Those of us who have worked closely with them recognize their concerns and their frustrations. The effort to reach out to moderates within the church was an important effort and one that Presbyterians themselves accomplished.”

Ethan Felson, vice-president of the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while there were still “troubling” aspects, such as the Presbyterians’ calls to withdraw aid from Israel unless settlement expansion is halted, he thought the good aspects represented a step forward. He noted that the report had expunged some of its previous background material with the intent to replace it with more balanced narratives.

“The most important thing here is that there were so many things before the church that were very one-sided and even if there are things in the final action that are uncomfortable – and there are – there’s a commitment moving forward for the church to be faithful to its relationships to Palestinian Christians, to Jews and to Israel’s right to exist and its security needs.”

Israel advocates did not get everything they wanted. The church continued to call for relocation of the separation barrier to the 1967 border and a reworded section of the final report still advances the idea of making American aid to the Jewish State contingent upon Israel’s “compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” Also remaining intact was language appearing to place primary responsibility for ending the conflict on the Israelis. Meanwhile, other passages include a strong denunciation of Caterpillar, Inc., for the use of its products in the West Bank.

Harsher resolutions pushing outright divestment from the heavy equipment maker were set aside in favor of the condemnation. Similarly set aside was a resolution terming Israel’s behavior “apartheid.” Meanwhile, a resolution calling on the U.S. to suspend military aid to Israel due to complaints about the latter nation’s human rights record passed on a voice vote.

Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman noted the “positive efforts” and hoped for more dialogue but had mixed feelings about the result.

“We are saddened that the efforts of our good friends in the Presbyterian Church who worked so hard were not more successful and, at best, averted a rupture between the Church and the Jewish people,” he said in a statement released through ADL’s Website.  “However, anti-Israel bias continues with the approval of recommendations which single out and put the onus for peacemaking on Israel.  The recommendations against U.S. aid to Israel are one-sided and demonstrate the depth of anti-Israel bias.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director of ADL’s Missouri and Southern Illnois office, traveled to Minneapolis to spend two days at the convention. She called the work of the Jewish community and its Presbyterian allies “heroic” but said she was still concerned by various parts of the report, including its use of the sternly worded Kairos document.

“The significant burden for making peace is still placed on the backs of the Israelis,” she said. “PCUSA made extraordinary strides in the changes that exist now from what the original report was. They did a lot of educating people and I think they’ve opened a new opportunity for significant dialogue. My hope would be that Presbyterians take this and see it as an opportunity to do more together.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Reiter, executive presbyter of the local Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, which encompasses St. Louis and surrounding areas, said his group would continue to engage in joint efforts and an open dialogue process with the Jewish community. He said the changes addressed his concerns about the original report including the calls to divest from Caterpillar and, particularly, the Kairos document.

“I feel that the response of the Assembly to the Committee’s recommendation was supportive of our historic positions on the efforts for peace in the Middle East,” he said. “The Kairos document was controversial, and while I feel it was wise to support the concepts of ‘hope for liberation, non-violence, love of enemy and reconciliation’ I am pleased that the Assembly did not support much of the document, and that they commended it for study.”

Rev. Karen Dimon moderated the 52-member committee that altered and unanimously passed the report. She said the compromise united Presbyterian hopes for both Israel and Palestine. Calling the result a “new beginning,” she felt it needed to be a springboard for future conversations within and outside the Presbyterian community.

“There was so much contention prior we never thought that there would be any agreement,” said Dimon, who heads a congregation in upstate New York. “It was almost miraculous that the group came together and these amendments were acceptable.”

Local rabbis had varying opinions on the results. Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman said he had been following events closely and was gratified by the changes though he remained disturbed by some of the language in the piece and was saddened that another more positive paper, “Christians and Jews: People of God,” had been sent back for further study instead of being approved.

“There was much more understanding of Israel’s situation,” said Stiffman, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, regarding “Breaking Down the Walls.” “I was very heartened that they amended it so that the people who were going to be responsible for continuing the study will be much more balanced than the present group. That was a great step forward.”

Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life, also had mixed feelings.

“Broadly speaking, the Presbyterian group ought to be commended for listening to multiple opinions and working toward an accommodation that they found reasonable,” he said. “Personally, I found it deeply painful to learn that there were individual Jews who spoke out on behalf of the positions advocated by the leaders of the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion said the alterations had done little to improve the final product, noting that in his view the Presbyterian Church seemed to be going after the Jewish State “tooth and nail.”

“It’s very quickly forgotten that Israel is the one who is under attack,” he said. “If the Palestinians dropped their weapons we all know what would happen in the Middle East. There would be peace. If the Israelis dropped their weapons, we all know what would happen. There would be no more Israel.”

Smason said that he found it alarming that the church put responsibility on the Jewish State to make peace, continued to condemn Caterpillar and had not altered its view on encouraging the United States to cut aid to Israel over the settlement issue, an act he called “beyond divestment.”

“We have to try and be as diplomatic as will be effective,” he said. “By the same token, we in the Jewish community have to realize that this is a shot across the bow. They’re playing hardball.”