Presbyterian report on Israel draws fire from Jewish groups

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By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A controversial report on the Middle East situation set to be presented at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA) is drawing fire from Jewish groups locally and across the country amid allegations of bias against Israel.

“Breaking Down the Walls,” a 173-page document prepared by the church’s Middle East Study Committee will be formally introduced this week at the Minneapolis conference of the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, which represents some 2.1 million members nationwide. Hundreds of commissioners representing 173 different presbyteries at the biennial event will vote on the status of the paper’s findings, which urge Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, recommend “corporate engagement” with companies that profit from Israel’s presence in the disputed areas, and seem to suggest that the Jewish State’s position of military superiority gives it primary responsibility to end the conflict.

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“Many of us have come to this work out of a love for Israel,” said the report in a letter to the Jewish community. “And it is because of this love that we continue to say the things that we say about the occupation, the settlement infrastructure, and the absolute death knell it is sounding for the hopes of a two-state solution, a solution that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has supported for more than sixty years.”

Various Jewish organizations have savaged the document. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) termed the work “a toxic mix of bad history, politically motivated distortions and offensive attacks on Judaism and Israel.” The Jewish Council for Public Affairs worried that a majority of the document’s work and its creators were dominated by an “anti-Israel narrative.” The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR) cited the work for “serious theological and exegetical problems” including “imbalanced or unreliable analyses of religious themes, highly questionable interpretations of biblical passages, and statements reminiscent of traditional Christian anti-Judaism.”

“We believe that this report will harm interfaith relations in the United States and the Middle East, and undermine the prospects for effective negotiations and positive outcomes for all parties,” the CCJR concluded in a letter late last month.

Among its less controversial provisions, the document condemns anti-Semitism, urges an end to violence and demonization on both sides, and condemns Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Holocaust denial activities.

It also repeatedly reaffirms recognition of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people in the strongest terms.

“We have said this before and we say this again,” noted the study. “We say it because we continue to believe it; we say it because we want it to continue to be true.”

Harsh words for the Jewish State

However, “Breaking Down the Walls” has harsher words for the Jewish State on other issues. The report’s recommendations call for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza, a relocation of the separation barrier to the 1967 border, and a freeze on American aid to Israel as long as new settlements continue to be built. It characterizes the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza as “illegitimate,” “illegal,” and “an enduring threat to peace in the region.”

The paper includes a strong denunciation of Caterpillar Inc. The heavy equipment maker has been criticized for Israel’s use of its bulldozers in the West Bank, and the report asks that the company “end its complicity in the violation of human rights.” The study also raises the possibility of American military assistance being withdrawn “as a means of bringing Israel to compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.”

“We are aware that our report will likely draw such critiques as being ‘unfair’ or ‘imbalanced,'” said the document. “We believe, however, that our report is quite fair. Our analysis, both through careful research and through our experience of being in the Middle East, is that Israel is the most powerful party to the conflict. Therefore, Israel has both the responsibility and the ability to reverse the course of the current precipitous decline throughout the region.”

Locally, Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (JCRC), was deeply critical of the document, calling it a diatribe against Israel. She felt the nine-member committee, charged by the last General Assembly in 2008 to develop the report, had not done enough to meet with mainstream Jewish organizations in a meaningful way and undertook the effort with significant preconceptions. She said the original intent in forming the body had been good but she believed the process had been “hijacked.”

“Its use of sacred texts to set the context is highly selective,” she said. “It does the same thing in recounting historical events and with the current state of affairs. It’s done in an almost prosecutorial kind of way to build a case against the Jewish State.”

Abramson-Goldstein was further disturbed by the document’s use of “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth; A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering,” a statement issued by Palestinian Christians late last year at the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum. The report endorses certain aspects of “Kairos” and includes the paper as part of its study materials. Abramson-Goldstein said she believed some of the passages in “Kairos” delegitimize Israeli security concerns and excuse Palestinian violence.

“If the text of the document is pernicious, then picking out pieces here and there [is unacceptable]. The whole fruit is, as we see it, poisoned and should not be accepted by the national body,” she said. “We see it as an enormous step backwards by PCUSA.”

The controversy over the report prompted a meeting between church commissioners representing the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy and representatives from the Jewish community including the JCRC, ADL and American Jewish Committee for a dialogue session on the issue.

Rev. Dr. Paul T. Reiter, Executive Presbyter of Giddings-Lovejoy, which covers 91 congregations across parts of Missouri and Illinois, was responsible for convening the gathering. He said he hoped that other commissioners across the country had the same opportunity to “do their homework” and listen to their own Jewish communities before making a decision on how to vote.

“I think what it did was sensitize the commissioners to ensure that the questions being raised from the Jewish community are going to be addressed in the discussions,” he said. “That was really our goal, to have the commissioners who will be taking direct action on the report become familiar with the Jewish community’s concerns so they would be in a position to articulate those and ask questions about them.”

He said he understood the Jewish community’s interest in the issue.

“I think they are right to have the concerns that they have, especially if it looks like we are veering away from our historical positions,” said Reiter, who noted his own concerns over the report, particularly its partial endorsement of “Kairos.” “Certainly, I’m committed to the historical positions that we’ve taken as a church to continue to affirm our longstanding commitment to the safety and security of Israel.”

Abramson-Goldstein said the JCRC had long had a good working relationship with Reiter and the local presbytery dating back to an occasion when similar issues had arisen at the national level several years ago.

Reiter said it was difficult to predict the commissioners’ actions at the General Assembly but they will have the opportunity to alter the document’s recommendations should they choose to do so.

Differing opinions

Rev. Dr. Gary Ferbet, an executive pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield and one of the area’s six commissioners, was unequivocal on which way he would vote. He hoped the paper would be defeated outright.

“I guess I have fairly strong feelings about it,” he said. “I do think the report is unbalanced and I think it is biased towards the Palestinians. Some of the demands or suggestions that it makes are unrealistic.”

At least one Jewish organization singled out for praise by the committee’s document was unhappy with its results. J Street, a Jewish organization based in Washington D.C., which is typically associated with the political left, opposes the occupation of the West Bank and backs a loosening of the Gaza blockade. Still, it expressed strong objections to the PCUSA report, saying it downplayed Israel’s security concerns, deemphasized Palestinian responsibility for resolving the conflict and underplayed the Israeli narrative. J Street said it was surprised to be mentioned in the document at all and was never contacted by the committee.

“While we appreciate the Church’s stated desire to achieve peace in the region, and while we do agree with some parts of the study, we have serious disagreements with the Committee’s recommendations, particularly the call for the possible withholding of U.S. aid to Israel,” said Rachel Lerner, associate executive director of the J Street Education Fund in blog post on the group’s Website.

Not all Jewish groups were unhappy with the committee’s work however. Jewish Voices for Peace, another organization whose work was lauded in the report’s opening pages, expressed support for some of its conclusions. Sydney Levy, campaign director for the Oakland Calif.,-based group, which supports divestment from companies profiting from operations in the West Bank, said he was optimistic that the report and its associated resolutions – known as overtures – would open the door for such actions. He said it was not anti-Israel to oppose the occupation.

“I have heard it said repeatedly that these motions delegitimize the State of Israel,” Levy said. “They delegitimize the occupation and the occupation is already illegitimate in that it’s not legal under international law so there is nothing wrong with delegitimizing it.”

Both Lerner and Levy were among those who would be traveling to the Minneapolis Conference as representatives of the Jewish community.

A message left at a number designated by PCUSA’s national office for questions regarding the report went unanswered as of press time but Jay Rock, interfaith relations coordinator for the church, was able to be reached at his office last week. Rock said the Middle East Study Committee’s work was outside his area but he took note of another paper “Christians and Jews: People of God” which he said was very positive in terms of the church’s relations with the Jewish community.

“It’s got a lot of things to say that I think will last and be significant for some time to come whereas the Middle East report is very topical and has to do with the current situation,” he said. “‘Christians and Jews: People of God'” is a theological paper that is going to have a lot longer shelf life.”

As of press time it was unclear when the vote on the Middle East document and its related resolutions would take place. The PCUSA General Assembly runs through Saturday.