While national Jewish leaders are predicting a rift in Jewish-Presbyterian relations following last week’s PCUSA General Assembly vote to divest from three American companies doing business with Israel, the situation likely will prove more affable in Baltimore.
“We have a lot of very strong relationships with the local Presbyterian Church” said Chana Siff, associate director of Israel and government relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council. “We have those relationships, we have our friends, I imagine we will not change that based upon what happened at a national level.”
After hours of at times emotional debate last Friday, June 20, the Presbyterian Church-USA approved a resolution by a vote of 310 to 303 to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard, companies that resolution advocates said profit from West Bank security systems.
This was the second time in two years that the measure has been put to vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly. It was defeated by just two votes in 2012.
Some said this most recent decision, combined with a church assembly’s release of an anti-Zionist tract earlier this year called “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study,” points toward a connection between the Presbyterian Church and groups that wish to dismantle Israel.
The “decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (USA),” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups, said in a statement.
“We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace, but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination,” Gutow said.
Amendments added to the resolution during the course of the assembly sought to distance it from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a move that Siff said was meaningless given the intention of the resolution.
“If you’re divesting from three companies you can disassociate yourself as much as you’d like but you have participated in what the BDS movement stands for,” she said. “There’s no differentiating between those two things.”
The Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, StandWithUs, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the American Jewish Committee all spoke out against the resolution, predicting strained relations in the future.
On the other side of the debate, Jewish Voice for Peace applauded the measure.
“We are grateful the church voted not to profit from the suffering of Palestinians under Israel’s 47-year-old occupation,” said the group’s deputy director, Cecile Surasky, in a statement. “Now that U.S.-backed peace talks have proven to be ineffective, we hope that others, including Jewish institutions, will follow suit. Divestment has become one of our best hopes for change.”
Rev. Craig Palmer, transitional general presbyter at the Presbytery of Baltimore, said he and other local Presbyterians are preparing for backlash.
“I’m aware, just from talking to some of our pastors, they are planning on connecting with rabbis that are … in their community or in their neighborhood where they’ve got relationships to have those conversations,” said Palmer. “The hope is that through dialogue we can continue to be in a relationship, and, obviously, all our desire is that peace may one day prevail throughout the region, and secure boundaries will be established, and no more shall there be war and violence.”
Additionally, Palmer pointed out that the commissioners sent from each region to the General Assembly are not there to vote for what they believe is popular in their local congregation. Rather, the commissioners sent to the assembly “are commissioned to discern God’s will at this time for the church in this place, in this day and age. This isn’t representative government,” he continued. “If a poll was taken of our denomination, I’m not sure where it would come out on divestment.”
The BJC’s Siff said her organization has not heard of any similar divestment efforts moving through any other Christian denominations, but the council is planning summer and fall campaigns to educate the public about Israel and strengthen relationships with the Baltimore’s Christian community.
“We will continue to advocate and share the facts with our friends so that they’re aware of them,” she said.
“Unfortunately this incident happened and they did pass this resolution but we have heard and we feel that the local position and the national position are two diverse positions,” said Siff, adding that those who voted on the measure are not necessarily representative of the whole Presbyterian Church. Conference commissioners are chosen each year from congregations around the country to represent their region and each assembly general consists of different commissioners.
“They are very frustrated,” Siff saif of the local Presbyterian groups the BJC has worked with. “They do not believe in divestment of the church. Many of them strongly support Israel. They recognize that Israel is not perfect but do not agree that divestment is the right way to go.”