September 30, 2004
Presbyterians and Jews: Tensions and Opportunity
William A. Gralnick
Presbyterians have swatted a bit of a wasp's nest at the Church's recent General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, and Jewish groups are the ones being stung. What's going on here?
Seemingly out of the blue, the Assembly was presented with two resolutions on hot button issues. They pressed them both. The first, an issue that seems to have more lives than the proverbial cat, is divestiture. In general, this is an effort to pressure industries and institutions to divest themselves of holdings in Israel to "persuade" the Israeli government to reconsider its Palestinian policies.
This incarnation of the policy calls for selective divestment in companies that "might cause damage and hurt the peace process," according to Jay Rock, coordinator for Interfaith Relations at the Presbyterian church (Haaretz, August 5, 2004), that is, mainly companies that support Israel's military. Companies that deal in education, social welfare and construction in Israel would be exempt. This resolution would compromise the safety and security of the Jewish state and deal a blow to an economy that is losing two billion dollars a year in tourist income.
The second issue stems from a church in Philadelphia donating money to establish a messianic Jewish congregation. The state presbytery added considerable sums to the effort. This resolution, in effect, directly targets Jews for conversion through non-transparent means. It touches a particularly raw nerve in many Jewish communities, such as Palm Beach County, Florida, which had to grapple with an organized Jews for Jesus conversion campaign this past December, and Detroit, which will be targeted in the coming months.
Both resolutions call for a period of study and analysis. That is the good news. As a former commissioner to past assemblies and a recently retired pastor in Florida said to me, "Remember, the General Assembly speaks to the presbyteries, not for them."
Tuesday, leaders representing the church and major national Jewish organizations got down to brass tacks. The Jews were unanimous in their ire; the Presbyterians were unanimous that they wouldn't reconsider the decision. All agreed it would have been better to have talked before the vote, yet they also agreed to continue talking. Presbyterians who are committed to joining Jews in promoting peace, mutual religious respect, and pluralism can find ways, during this interim period, to witness to faith commitments that do not de-legitimize the State of Israel or use guile to convert Jews.
There is a window of opportunity here for all involved. After the General Assembly in July, Mr. Rock reflected, "We need to engage and think together how two communities, which both want to bring peace to the region, can think together about ways to do it," and "it's clear that tension exists right now, but I hope that an opportunity for dialogue will emerge from this."
Presbyterians at the local level can reach out to national Jewish organizations. These organizations can send representatives to dialogue with leaders of the presbyteries who will hear that we are a community committed to pluralism, peace, and mutual respect. We seek to deepen relationships with those who share our beliefs. We support democratic conversation about peace in the Middle East and are prepared for serious discussions towards that end. Divestment is not a means to that end and will not promote constructive dialogue; it is a cruel and unwieldy tool that would undermine the State of Israel.
Jews also accept the Christian "mitzvah" of witness, but we reject the cultivation of environments, falsely Jewish, to attract Jews to Christianity. Such deceptive behavior is a rejection of the long-standing relationship between our faiths and the statement made by the Presbyterian Church itself that Jews bear a direct covenant with G-d and do not need Christianity to be redeemed.
Hopefully, we can move forward, together, on these issues. If the Presbyterian Church USA refuses to back down on divestment, as they claim, they are choosing, as David Elcott, Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee has said, to "separate themselves from other Christian Churches and from those of us who are building a coalition dedicated to peace."
May warm hearts and cool heads prevail.
William A. Gralnick is Southeast Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee. In the 1970's, he was part of a committee that advised the Presbyterian Church USA on proposed revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, as it related to Jews, Judaism, and Anti-Semitism.