Jews and Presbyterians Working Best at the Grassroots

  • July 6, 2018

For some years now, the Jewish community has actively sought dialogue with members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) about Israel. While the national Church has traditionally been supportive of Israel, in recent decades, official policy has been marked more by increasingly strident and extreme criticism. Since 2004, Jews and Presbyterians have been meeting at local levels to learn from each other about approaches to peacemaking. I can share from personal experience that at the grassroots, conversation has been rigorous, but respectful. Dialogue has been energetic and fruitful, as everyone at the table has a personal stake in the outcome.

When it comes to the leadership of the Church, however, the rhythm has been strikingly different. Last month, the church’s General Assembly met in St. Louis.

The “GA” gathers every two years to determine policy on a wide variety of topics including social justice issues from same sex marriage to fossil fuels, to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Commissioners from more than 170 presbyteries are chosen to serve in representative capacities and assigned to dozens of different committees. They study hundreds of pages of background on proposed policies. These policies, called overtures, arise from any congregation, regardless of size. There is debate, voting, discussion, and more debate until the decisions of the Committees come to the floor of the General Assembly. More debate ensues, and votes on these final resolutions define Church policy for the next two years. To say that participants are passionate is a vast understatement.

There have been notable and highly problematic overtures related to Israel, particularly the 2004 vote to divest from three companies deemed to support the occupation. In the 14 years since, decisions have been marked by a “1 step forward and 2 or 3 steps back” paradigm, with some decisions encouraging dialogue and supporting a two-state solution,  others promoting one-sided, anti-Israel approaches to this complex conflict .

I had an opportunity to attend this year’s General Assembly for ADL. It featured both moments of inspiring goodwill as well as streaks of bigotry and hatred.

First the negative: Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, was invited to the GA as a guest of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  Eid takes a centrist approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one which acknowledges problems on both sides of the table, but seeks meaningful approaches for a two-state solution.  On June 18, after completing a presentation to the Middle East Committee, he was threatened, “I know who you are. I’m going to kill you,” yelled the attacker, who I will not identify. He followed Eid through the Convention Center as Eid attempted to return quietly to his hotel. The aggressor cussed at him, called Eid “a collaborator with the Zionists” and threatened him, all while filming, and then posted his harangue to Twitter.

Presbyterians for Middle East Peace wrote to Church leadership, expressing concern for Eid’s safety, and calling for the attacker to be barred from entering the building and harassing Eid again. The response was hollow. Church leaders responded by referring to the strong feelings that Presbyterians have in the “the search for peace in the Middle East”, and acknowledged that when “that passion boils over, we have to deal with the results”. But they noted that the attacker perceived Eid as “representing an advocacy group often seen as slow to criticize Israel”. The message was loud and clear. Death threats, stalking and cyber harassment are acceptable for someone connected to a group “slow to criticize Israel”. What a disappointment. In the midst of a number of articles about the incident in past weeks, Church leadership is still silent.

They failed to express strong governance in the most significant international challenge facing people of faith at this time. They needed to condemn threatening behavior occurring in their midst. They needed to step up to provide greater security. They could have shown Commissioners and congregational membership that uncivil approaches serve no one. It was one very large step back.

In addition to the incident with Eid, there were problematic resolutions passed by the General Assembly, including one that advocated a boycott of Re/Max real-estate agents who sell and rent property to Israelis in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On a more promising note, members of the Middle East Committee worked hard at their task, expressing the kind of thoughtful and respectful deliberation that Presbyterian leadership chose to ignore. Hard-core anti-Israel resolutions were marginalized and re-written to highlight opportunities for reconciliation and support of people-to-people Israeli-Palestinian initiatives. Several of these were favorably voted on by the entire Assembly after full floor debate.

In hindsight, the meeting was not a complete success, but the value of person-to-person learning and relationship-building can enable the Presbyterian Church USA to be a positive force for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and will foster stronger Presbyterian-Jewish relations. We need to fight the good fight for community together.

Karen Aroesty is regional director of ADL’s Heartland Office