US Jews praise Presbyterian Church's stance on ME

Eight months ago a Presbyterian church leader called rockets attacks on Israel "acts of retaliation."

ny church 88 298 (photo credit: Julian Voloj)
ny church 88 298
(photo credit: Julian Voloj)
Jewish groups cautiously praised the Presbyterian Church's decision last week not to "over-identify" with either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict last week. Seeking elusive balance on Middle East issues, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly on Friday urged its members to become "nonpartisan advocates for peace" and "a voice for the victims of violence in both Israel and Palestine." Spearheaded by the umbrella organization the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which includes the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith International, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements and the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement Friday in support of some improvements taken last week by delegates to the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. "The decision is a step forward," said Ethan Felson, the Associate Executive Director of the JCPA, who participated in the eight-day conference that resulted in the recent endorsement. "There have been moves in the past that have signaled great change; whether this heralds change is something that stands to be seen in large measure in how it's carried out." Eight months ago a Presbyterian church leader called rockets attacks on Israel "acts of retaliation." "I'd like to think that would not happen under a policy such as the one they just passed," said Felson. "These problems seem to emerge in this church much more often than in the others, but commissioners are aware of it and are trying to rectify it." Disagreement erupted over the assembly's decision to endorse an Arab-Israeli peace proposal that Jewish leaders say would spell the end of the state of Israel. "On Peace and Justice in Palestine and Israel" includes an endorsement of the "Amman Call" on Arab-Israeli peace, issued in June 2007 by a conference of the World Council of Churches. The proposal includes a Palestinian Arab "right of return," which Jewish leaders say would lead to the demise of Israel as a Jewish state. But Felson said the Amman Call was explained as the "right of return or to compensation." "It was a little unclear, but certainly the commissioners understood it in vaguer terms. They didn't understand the endorsement of the Amman call as something reflecting imbalance." Some commissioners, or delegates, to the Presbyterian assembly said the endorsement would undermine the denomination's peacemaking issues. But an effort to delete the endorsement was rejected. The high emotions around the resolutions underscored tensions in a denomination that traditionally has identified strongly with the Palestinian cause but has made an effort recently to be more sensitive to Jewish concerns. The 2.2 million-member Protestant denomination's relationship with Jewish groups was damaged in 2004 after the General Assembly voted to authorize "phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel" because of its policies toward Palestinians. Two years later, the General Assembly softened that stance to urge investment of church assets in "only peaceful pursuits" in Israel and the Palestinian territories. This year's resolutions on Middle East peace maintained the status quo on divestment, endorsed a two-state solution and called for a detailed two-year study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It continues a positive trend in our church toward recognizing the legitimate aspirations and hopes of both Israelis and Palestinians, and those Arabs and Muslims in other nations in the Middle East who want to see a peaceful solution to the conflict," said Reverend William Harter, pastor of Falling Springs Presbyterian Church in Chambersburg, PA, and one of two national co-conveners of the Presbyterian concern for Jewish and Christian relations. "It's taken the church some time to begin to come to terms theologically with the establishment of the State of Israel," said Harter. "It's a very difficult challenge for mainline churches, unlike Pentecostal and dispensationalist oriented churches, because our theological perspective wasn't a millennial theological perspective on Israel." As a church, the Presbyterians have had a long-term relationship through many different mission enterprises with a number of Arab countries, including Arab populations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. "We are very thankful we have that, because it enables us to have credibility in our desire to be peacemakers," said Harter. "But given the tone of things in recent years we have needed to restore our credibility as a church with the State of Israel and the Israeli people." Presbyterian Mission enterprises in the region started roughly 175 years ago, and were largely conducted through universities and churches. "A natural connection grew up with the Arab community, and part of it was a decreasing emphasis on the conversion of the Jews in the church," explained Harter. The Presbyterian Church sought to address the refugee crisis. "Meanwhile the Jewish community was caring for its refugees, and wouldn't have welcomed a Christian role in the years of the founding of the state," said Harter. But a paper released in 1987 which clearly repudiates anti-Seimitism, validates God's convenant with the Jewish people, and repudiates supercessionism and replacement theology represented a landmark in the church's evolution on this issue, said Harter. "Understanding how it relates to the establishment of a political state for the Jewish people continues to be a theological challenge," said Harter. "But the sentiment in any pulse-taking that occurs is that a very sizeable percentage of Presbyterians look favorably on the state of Israel, even as they support a two-state solution." Several Jewish groups issued a joint statement Friday welcoming the Presbyterians' move "toward balance" on its policies in the region but raised concern about the endorsement of the Amman Call. Jonathan Bernstein, director of a San Francisco-based regional office of Anti-Defamation League, echoed that view. "It's a sign to me that we need to do more dialogue in educating with the Presbyterian Church," Bernstein said.