Growing schism on ecumenical committee over Presbyterian antisemitism

Reverend whistleblower resigns over comments made by Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II.

Presbyterian flags (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Presbyterian flags
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

A Presbyterian reverend resigned from the ecumenical council over an anti-Israel trend he believes has crossed over into antisemitism. 

In the wake of his resignation, more clergy have joined in, voicing their concerns, while at least one Jewish theologian believes that the anti-Israel history of the Presbyterian Church made antisemitism inevitable.

Rev. Nelson: ‘West Bank occupation is 21st-century slavery

The conflict began last month on Dr. Martin Luther King Day when Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), equated the situation in the West Bank with slavery. 

“The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately,” Nelson said in a statement. 

The reverend called on the Jews in the US and the US government to act towards “ending the immoral enslavement”. 

Rev. Nelson’s statement caused consternation among Jewish groups, especially as it came one week after the hostage crisis in a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

Rev. Merritt resigns

In reaction to these statements, Rev. Brian Merritt announced his resignation from the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) on February 12 stating that he could no longer fulfill his role “in good conscience.” 

Merritt claimed that the statements made by Nelson in the name of the committee on Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians constituted antisemitism.

While noting the committee’s unwavering commitment to the full human rights of all individuals in that region and its commitment to fighting antisemitism, Merritt maintained that the statement did not take into account the current embattled nature of Jewish communities.

“With our Jewish neighbors in faith consisting of only 2% of our population, but shouldering 54.9% of religious biased crimes in the United States it is our call to never increasing suffering of any other community finding itself experiencing its rights attacked,” Merritt wrote in his resignation letter. “To think that during the midst of a religious based crime against a synagogue we put out such an insensitive statement is for us to reflect upon, not dig in our heels.”

More committee members take action 

Last week, another group of six GACEIR committee members, including two executive committee members, joined with Merritt, signing a letter addressed to Nelson that was presented in an open committee meeting and distributed to committee members.  

“While most, if not all, on our committee share your passionate and urgent beliefs against the human rights violations perpetrated upon Palestinian people by the government and paramilitary organizations of the State of Israel, the language and imagery you chose was, however unintentionally, antisemitic,” the letter read. 

The letter referred to the GACEIR’s Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia study document, which emphasized that when dealing with issues concerning Israel and the Palestinians, it is necessary to distinguish the State of Israel from the Jewish people. 

“When you connected the occupation of Palestine with ‘Jewish humble beginnings’ in their sacred text, you called out all Jewish persons for the wrongful actions of the State of Israel. These two should not be conflated, as there are many Jewish people working on behalf of Palestine, and there are Jewish people as part of a Diasporic community of faith around the world. You held Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s conduct,” which they said was antisemitism according to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA).

The JDA is the basis for the GACIER’s definition of antisemitism.  

The letter went on to state that by calling on the Jewish community to “influence the call to join the US government in ending the immoral enslavement,” Nelson was “unintentionally, employing tropes that are suggestive of a stereotype that Jewish persons in the United States hold a particular influence in the government.”  

While affirming that Israel has a “right to exist as a homeland for Jews, providing a safe haven for all Jewish people,” it emphasizes that by “occupying Palestinian land, Israel is guilty of consistent abuse of the fundamental human rights of Palestinians.”

They added that by entering the conversation about Palestine using Jewish sacred texts against them and “conflating the actions of the State of Israel with all Jewish people, and relying upon antisemitic imagery and tropes, we have already broken trust with them.”

Dave Nekrutman: Presbyterian antisemitism inevitable

David Nekrutman, an American-Israeli theologian who has been involved in Jewish-Christian relations for over 20 years, came out in support of Merritt’s “courageous public resignation”.

“Jews should not be surprised that a senior-ranking representative of the Presbyterian Church would cross the lines of antisemitic rhetoric,” Nekrutman told the Jerusalem Post. “It was bound to happen.”

Nekrutmamn cited the “Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews" adopted by the 199th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1987. The paper stated explicitly that "the State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically."  

Leaders within the PCUSA began moves to engage in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2004. In June of 2014, the PCUSA passed a vote by a narrow margin (310 to 303) to divest $21 million from three companies doing business with Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

Nekrutman also cited a congregational study guide published in January of 2014 by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA entitled “Zionism Unsettled.” The study guide was supposed to foster a deeper understanding toward bringing peace, reconciliation and justice to the homeland that Palestinians and Israelis share. 

But the guide viewed Zionism as the source of evil that leads to ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, Nekrutman said.

“Most Jews view Israel as a theological entity,” Nekrutman added. “For this reason, anti-Israel sentiment can certainly become antisemitism.”

Nekrutman stressed that not all PCUSA leaders agree with the denomination’s stance on Israel, but said that “as long as a vocal segment of PCUSA continues to view Israel as solely a geopolitical entity without any theological validation combined with viewing the world via an exclusively Social Gospel paradigm, the denomination will continue to nurture antisemitism.”

Nekrutman explained that this is already happening with some branches of Chrisitian leadership incorporating this form of antisemitism into their policy.

“Reverend J. Herbert Nelson holds a degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, an educational institution that aims to identify and dismantle systems of oppression. It is part of a movement that has consistently viewed Israel as the Goliath and the Palestinians as the David,” Nekrutman said. “When a denomination continues to spew a false narrative about Israel to its members and at the same time completely exonerates and excuses the Palestinian leadership of any wrongdoing, how does a pastor reared in these teachings think otherwise? His statements demonized Israel and employed a double standard.”