Presbyterian Church still one-sided on Israel

How many sour notes does it take to render a piece of music impossible to listen to? While there may be no scientific answer, reasonable people can agree that too many ruins the tune. Such is the case with a report overwhelmingly adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) at its recent biennial General Assembly held in Minneapolis.

While removing some horrendous anti-Israel and anti-Jewish language from a 172-page report called "Breaking Down the Walls," significant one-sided anti-Israel bias remains.

Presbyterian Church representatives voted by a 4-1 margin (558-119) to adopt the report, which most disturbingly calls for withholding U.S. aid as a means to pressure Israel to make peace and cease settlement activity.  Those who argue that the Church merely reaffirmed a longtime position are missing the point. Singling out Israel has always been insidious, particularly in today''s environment where Israel is the target of well-orchestrated campaigns that question its legitimacy.

The General Assembly also approved an amended endorsement of a very troubling text produced by Palestinian Christians in 2009, "A Moment of Truth," also known as the Kairos Palestine Document. Kairos is a prime example of an effort to undercut the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish State. It calls terror a form of legal resistance, it endorses boycotts and divestment against Israel, and it denies any connection between biblical covenants and the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the General Assembly chose not to confront these awful points.

Rather, the Presbyterian Church endorsed selected "positive" themes of "liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation." It approved the study and distribution of the entire Kairos Document along with a study guide that is promised to be fair and balanced. We can hope this will be the case going forward.  However, there are grounds for concern based on the bias of the original report of the Middle East Study Committee.

Even the revised study committee report remained silent on threats to Israel, such as the commitment of the terrorist group Hamas to the destruction of the Jewish State, and strongly denounced the Illinois-based company Caterpillar Inc. for what it calls "profit-making from non-peaceful uses of a number of its products" used by Israel. In addition, a joint interfaith report focused on improving theological relations between Presbyterians and Jews that was six years in the making was flatly rejected.

Still, some significant changes were made to "Breaking Down the Walls" during the convention, in no small part due to a committed and courageous group called Presbyterians For Middle East Peace. In the best spirit of interfaith dialogue, this group heard the grave concerns of the Jewish community about the MESC report and succeeded in obtaining a range of changes to remove some of the most problematic aspects of it.

As a result, the approved report declared Israel''s right to exist "as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders." The final report removed several distorted anti-Israel historical essays, which will be replaced in the future with four essays from Israelis and Palestinians. Horrible language likening Israel to Nazis was omitted. The 2004 call by the Presbyterian Church for selective divestment from Israel was allowed to lapse. Finally, the report recognized Israel''s legitimate security need to maintain a blockade on military equipment and weapons entering Gaza. A proposal to link Israel''s policies to apartheid was defeated.

Thanks and appreciation must be given to the many courageous Presbyterian leaders across the country who volunteered their time and resources to alert and educate their fellow Presbyterians about the horrendous bigoted, unfair and unbalanced anti-Israel provisions being proposed as church policy. They worked tirelessly to avert a severe rupture in Presbyterian-Jewish relations.

In the emotional aftermath of the convention battle, some involved in the struggle are publicly declaring the General Assembly results in revelational superlatives, while others paint it as a victory.

That would be a mistake. The PCUSA continues to apply a double standard when it comes to Israel. Singling out Israel for special punishment is simply unacceptable, and runs counter to the PCUSA''s oft-proclaimed attempt to be a genuine voice of Christian conscience and reconciliation.

We must wonder why the original toxic report made it as far as it did to the convention, with the backing of 16 Presbyterian Church Moderators and the church''s key executive leader.

And while we can understand that for some Presbyterians the official act of recognizing Israel''s right to exist by the Church can be considered a major success, for Jews, 62 years after the United Nations declared Israel a sovereign state, this is not only underwhelming, but lowers the bar of expectations to an unacceptable level.

Moving ahead our focus must be on maintaining and building upon the wonderful respectful interfaith relationships made and reinforced during the past few months in the Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  We must forge ahead to create strong grassroots relationships between local Presbyterians and Jews so that we can continue to learn from each other.

And we must remain vigilant and work harder to remove the continuing anti-Israel bias from church policies. Until then, the Presbyterian policy on the Middle East is simply painfully discordant.