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At Presbyterian assembly, divestment advocates get narrow, but limited, victory

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressing the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) to urge the denomination to reject divestment, June 19, 2014. (Courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressing the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to urge the denomination to reject divestment, June 19, 2014. (Courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – There were amendments and amendments to amendments in a debate lasting for more than four hours. There were dueling T-shirts. There was a last-minute appeal for a joint pilgrimage to speak hard truths to Benjamin Netanyahu. And there was a plea to emulate Jesus and speak hard truths to Jews.

After it all there was the Presbyterian General Assembly’s vote, 310-303, to divest from three American companies that do business with Israeli security services in the West Bank.

In the immediate aftermath, Heath Rada, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), appealed to the media present to “affirm” the love Presbyterians have for Jews.

“In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers,” Rada said following the June 20 vote.

Their Jewish sisters and brothers were, for the most part, not buying.

“It signals a real separation from the Jewish community, which was unfortunate,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who flew in at the last minute to deliver an impassioned appeal to the mainline Protestant denomination to vote against divestment.

In his address, Jacobs said his Reform movement opposed West Bank settlements and was concerned with the “pain and hardship” that the Israeli occupation causes Palestinians.

And he made an offer: If the assembly rejected divestment, Jacobs said, church leaders could join him in presenting their shared concerns about Israeli policies in a joint meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his appeal ultimately was rebuffed.

“We simply cannot work with the Presbyterian Church on issues related to the Middle East,” Jacobs said in an interview from Israel, where he headed immediately after his June 19 appearance at the assembly.

The resolution divests from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. A similar resolution was defeated narrowly at the last biennial, in 2012.

Netanyahu, addressing a colloquy of Jewish journalists in Jerusalem, criticized the vote.

“The only place where you have freedom, tolerance, protection of minorities, protection of gays, of Christians and all other faiths is Israel,” he said Sunday at the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu suggested that American Presbyterian leaders “take a plane, come here and let’s arrange a bus tour in the region. Let them go to Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq.”

Jewish communal officials who attended the assembly said the tight vote suggested that the church’s rank and file did not buy into the church leadership’s hypercritical posture on Israel.

“If you take a look at the closeness of the vote and realize how stacked the decks were going in, reading between the lines, this is not a church that in its general membership is strongly anti-Israel,” said Rabbi David Sandmel, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of interfaith affairs.

The resolution, or “overture,” as it is called in Presbyterian parlance, was subject to a barrage of amendments — even amendments to amendments — when it reached the floor of the assembly in Detroit on Friday afternoon.

Many of the modifications sought to make clear that the divestment did not signal a split with Israel. One amendment that passed made explicit that the resolution “is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

The language of the divestment resolution as it passed also reaffirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions.”

Rachel Lerner, J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, said she was heartened by the amendment. Lerner had delivered a speech at the assembly pleading with the delegates to reject divestment.

“There were a lot of people who backed the divestment resolution who weren’t voting against Israel but Israeli policy,” she said. “There is a way forward to dialogue. I don’t think cutting off discussion helps.”

Other Jewish leaders who for years have engaged in interfaith dialogue with the Presbyterians said the last-minute qualifications could not mitigate a season of bitterness triggered by the publication in January of an anti-Zionist study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” by the Presbyterian Church’s Israel/Palestine Missionary Network.

Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said other mainline Protestant churches had engaged in pro-Palestinian advocacy “without trafficking in anti-Jewish tropes as that document did,” referring to the Presbyterian study guide.

“Several other mainline denominations have passionate pro-Palestinian programs that are not informed by the same kind of animus,” he said. “Does anyone believe the Presbyterians are more committed to Palestinians than Episcopalians or Lutherans — or could it be something else?”

The General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that the study guide “does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and directs all Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entities to express this statement in all future catalogs, print or online resources.”

But participants from mainstream Jewish groups also felt offended by what they said was, at the very least, tone deafness to Jewish sensibilities displayed by church leaders.

They cited an incident earlier in the week when Virginia Sheets, the moderator of the assembly’s Middle East committee, opened proceedings to consider divestment with a prayer in which she said that “Jesus had many Jewish friends, and he wasn’t afraid to speak difficult truths to Jews in his time.”

“We thought that this was a conversation of a bygone era in which Christian leaders were not careful in using the age-old tropes that demonized,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious Jewish relations. “And now they are back masquerading as anti-Israel sentiment.”

Divestment opponents said they felt the leadership stacked the odds against them, granting greater access to committee hearings to pro-divestment activists such as representatives of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Pro-Israel activists wore T-shirts that read “Divestment leaves me out” and “Love us and don’t leave us,” which at least one speaker during the debate decried as “manipulative.” Jewish Voice for Peace activists wore T-shirts declaring “Another Jew supporting divestment.”

Some were unsettled by the intensity of the lobbying. One woman during the debate remarked, “Even going to the bathroom there was someone lobbying for divestment.”

Pro-Israel activists accused the leadership of allowing Jewish Voice for Peace to create the false impression that it spoke for a substantial portion of the Jewish community.

“The Jewish Voice for Peace people were lobbying people all the time,” said Roberta Seid, the education director for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs. “They were saying, ‘You won’t offend Jews if you pass divestment. We represent a growing segment of the Jewish community. ’ ”

Sydney Levy, the director for advocacy at Jewish Voice for Peace, denied making claims that his group’s views were necessarily representative of the Jewish community. Instead, he said, its activists argued that the Jewish community’s resistance to debating divestment obscured the degree to which the community was divided on the issue.

“We never say we represent all Jews, we say the Jews are divided, that there are red lines because the mainstream Jewish institutions are not interested in finding out,” he said.

The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, spoke on the floor in favor of accepting the appeal from Jacobs, the Reform movement leader.

She told JTA that it was important for the Jewish community to maintain its partnerships with Presbyterians, and that those Presbyterians who had lobbied against divestment will stay active in espousing their position on the issue within the church.

“The body of Christ needs all voices represented,” Henderson said. “Change will only happen if we can keep people at the table.”