Presbyterian stances causing tension with Jews

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A group commissioned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to promote "a just peace in Israel/Palestine" publishes a study guide that includes depictions of Zionism as a heresy at the root of the Middle East crisis.

Meanwhile, a major governing body recommends that the church pull its investments in three corporations linked to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

The two actions, while taking place separately in recent weeks, drew praise from advocates for Palestinians but have combined to roil already-tense relations between Presbyterians and Jews, both locally and nationally.

Representatives of Pittsburgh Presbytery -- one of the denomination's largest regional bodies in the nation -- met with local Jewish leaders late last week to talk over the controversies.

"We rediscovered what we already knew, which is our fundamental agreement on the two-state solution to the problem, and our fundamental agreement that the Palestinian situation is intolerable as it is and needs to be corrected," said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the presbytery.

The study guide, "Zionism Unsettled," while not an official church declaration, represents the work of a group created by the denomination 10 years ago. The illustrated 72-page guide, produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decries what it calls years of fruitless talk over a two-state solution, saying Israel has effectively been creating a single state with apartheid-style oppression of Palestinians. It decried Israel for "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians from hundreds of communities in 1948 and said the state resulted from a "toxic relationship between theology and politics."

Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he realizes the study guide "isn't something that is emanating from the grassroots." But he called it "a crash course to advocate for an end of the Jewish state."

He said it reads "as if there were no wars waged against Israel, no campaign of terror by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah and ... ignores the reality that Israelis ... and the American Jewish community support a two-state solution."

Among national Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League said the study guide may be the "most anti-Semitic document to come out of a mainline American church in recent memory," while the Jewish Council for Public Affairs' president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, called it "worthy of a hate group, not a prominent American church."

The leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has also distanced itself from the publication, emphasizing the decentralized nature of the denomination. While produced by an official church entity and sold through the denomination's in-house distribution network, the report is a statement to the church rather than on its behalf, said Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which oversees most of the national offices in the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination.

Church policy "calls for a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine and the right for each to exist within secure and recognized borders," Ms. Valentine wrote. "The church has condemned acts of violence on both sides of the conflict, as well as the illegal occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlements. Our church has categorically condemned anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the refusal to acknowledge the legal existence of the State of Israel. At the same time, we believe that condemnation of injustices perpetrated in the name of the State of Israel, ... does not constitute anti-Semitism."

'A chronic imbalance'

Martha Reese of Illinois, one of the editorial team members that produced "Zionism Unsettled," said in an interview the guide attempts "to correct a chronic imbalance in the way the conflict is understood."

She said many Americans have not understood the impact Zionism has had on Palestinians and hopes Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations use the study guide "as a tool for starting hard conversations."

Ms. Reese said the network does not have an official stance on whether the ultimate solution is for one or two states but said it stands for "self-determination and equality."

She said the Presbyterians' official endorsement of a two-state solution needs to be seen in light of the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "We need to be sure our official positions are actually realistic given changing realities."

While some conservative Protestant groups are known for fierce support for Israel, more liberal Protestant denominations have long been critical of its occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. For Presbyterians, the debate ramped up in 2004 when its General Assembly approved moves toward pulling investments in Israel linked to its occupation.

That prompted a fierce backlash from both Jewish leaders and many Presbyterians, who saw it as giving moral weight to the wider movement on college campuses and elsewhere to apply economic pressure on Israel. Subsequent assemblies have pulled back from that process while calling for investments that promote peace in the region, and several other Protestant denominations have also considered but balked at such divestment.

In 2012, a Presbyterian assembly defeated by just two votes a proposal to pull church funds from Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar due to their supplying products for Israeli forces and Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. It did, however, recommend a boycott of products manufactured in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Earlier this month, the Presbyterians' Mission Agency recommended yet again that the next General Assembly, to be held in June 2014 in Detroit, divest from the three corporations after a church report found them "entrenched in their involvement in non-peaceful pursuits."

The Rev. Randy Bush, pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, said he hadn't read the study guide and couldn't comment on it. But he said divestment could help curb the expansion of Israeli settlements and its separation barrier on Palestinian lands. "We have seen an entrenchment of policies that makes peace harder," he said.

While pro-Israel groups have criticized the divestment proposal, they're paying more attention these days to "Zionism Unsettled," which they said goes beyond calling for Israel to withdraw back to the borders before its 1967 occupation of the West Bank.

In fact, the study guide challenges the legitimacy of the Zionist project itself, saying it's rooted in the belief in "exceptionalism" -- that one's own religious group is more important than anyone else's.

"The theological and ethical exceptionalism of Jewish and Christian Zionism ... have been sheltered from open debate despite the intolerable human rights abuses rooted in their core beliefs," it says. "The challenge of interfaith relations is to find a way to respect theological differences and the historical experiences that gave rise to them while preventing them from becoming excuses for injustice."

A section written by the Rev. Naim Ateek -- an Anglican minister and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center, an influential Palestinian Christian advocacy group in East Jerusalem -- added: "Zionism is the problem." He calls it a heresy that "commits theological injustice by its appeal to God, history and race."


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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