Community relations can’t be ‘all or nothing’

Gerald P. Greiman is President of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Batya Abramson-Goldstein is the organization’s Executive Director.


In a blog post reprinted in the Jewish Light [“Why ‘optimism’ on Presbyterian vote?” July 28], our friend, Robert Cohn, focused on the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly that was held in early July. He took great issue with the Israel-related outcomes of this national church conference. We are long-standing admirers of Bob; nonetheless, on this subject, we respectfully but unequivocally take a very different position. 

This difference of opinion emerges from the response of the General Assembly to the Middle East Study Committee Report that was presented and voted upon at the national conference of the denomination. In the months preceding the conference, there was grave concern that the passing of the report, which had rightfully been described as “toxic”, and of additional anti-Israel resolutions would create an irreparable rift between Presbyterians nationwide and the Jewish community.

The national community relations network, spearheaded by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Ethan Felson, went into action. At the national and local level, numerous in-depth meetings took place between representatives of both communities. In St. Louis, the JCRC, working with a long-time friend, Executive Presbyter Paul Reiter, organized a meeting with St. Louis delegates to the Presbyterian General Assembly. Representatives of the local chapters of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League joined the JCRC and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association at this meeting.

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Together, we worked to lay out for the Presbyterian delegates the deep concerns of the Jewish community regarding the Middle East Study Committee Report and pending resolutions that we viewed as historically inaccurate, deeply biased and pernicious.

 Meetings such as these and the intense consultations at the General Assembly up to and including the day of the vote made an impact. The call for divestment in Caterpillar was dropped; the hateful references to Israeli “apartheid” were dropped; and, there was not, as had been greatly feared, an endorsement of the Kairos Document, written by Palestinian Christians, a document that called for a boycott and international sanctions against Israel, and described the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as “a sin against God and humanity”. Additionally there was a decision by the church body to call for replacing the original narrative of the Middle East Study Report which had spoken only to the Palestinian experience. In the meanwhile, as a response to the virulent worldwide attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, the following words were added to the resolution: “(We reaffirm) Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders.”

These were results that could, and should, be applauded. And, applauded they were. American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah the Women’s Zionist Organization, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Rabbinical Assembly, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Union for Reform Judaism, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  joined in  commending the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for its embrace of “… a more thoughtful approach to Middle East peacemaking.”

We fully agree with that conclusion. This is not to say that the results were perfect. The results were, in fact, far from perfect. But, the 12 signatory organizations recognized that the perfect must not be allowed to be the enemy of the good. We agree.

Columnist James Besser noted in the New York Jewish Week of July 9, 2010: “The object wasn’t to brand the (Presbyterian) Church as an enemy or to batter it into submission, but to take a terrible, one-sided report and make it a little less one sided, and to build relationships that would allow that educational process to continue.” This, he pointed out, is the way community relations works. This, he also pointed out, is why community relations efforts succeed.

Here in St. Louis, follow-up meetings by Jewish community representatives with the local Presbyterian leadership are planned. We will continue to talk. We will continue to make Israel’s case. Our work will continue to be based on the understanding that we work for the long term, and that we cannot conduct community relations with an “all or nothing” approach.

Gerald P. Greiman is President of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Batya Abramson-Goldstein is the organization’s Executive Director.