A Misunderstanding Between Friends

23 December 2004

Mending the rift between Presbyterians and Jews.

By Ben Daniel

This November I received a disturbing e-mail. Presbyterian pastors like me were being alerted that the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had received an anonymous letter threatening arson attacks against Presbyterian churches. “You bet your ass this is a terrorist threat,” the would-be arsonist wrote in closing. Re-reading the sentence in my email, I was struck that my seminary education, excellent though it was, never taught me how to defend my congregation against crazy people.

The arson threat was only the latest expression of anti-Presbyterian rhetoric since last June, when the Presbyterian General Assembly took actions that The Wall Street Journal called “anti-Semitic” and that Alan Dershowitz called “immoral, sinful, and bigoted denigrations of the Jewish state.” Dennis Prager said we Presbyterians were “morally sick” and “infested with a particularly virulent strain of moral idiocy,” and the B’nai B’rith, citing the “hostile, aggressive, and profoundly insulting” actions of the Presbyterian Church, called for an end to interfaith dialogue.

In just six months, the historically strong relationship between Presbyterians and the American Jewish community has been pushed to the brink of absolute enmity. Sadly, much of the disintegration of friendship and goodwill is the result of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and anger over something that never happened.

There were four separate Presbyterian votes that caused concern in the Jewish community, but most of the furor has been focused upon the issue of divestment from Israel. Both secular and religious media have reported that the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from all companies doing business in Israel, calling to mind the broad economic boycotts of South Africa that helped to bring about the end of Apartheid. Even the Presbyterian church’s own news service described the General Assembly’s action as a “divestment from Israel” and likened the action to the Church’s participation in the South African boycotts.

American Students Call
for Divestment from South Africa

But no such action was taken by the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. The assembly’s peacemaking committee did consider an overture, or resolution, that would have resulted in a broad divestment from Israel when it called on our Board of Pensions to divest itself from companies receiving one million dollars or more in annual profits from Israeli investments, or that have invested one million dollars or more in Israel.

But the overture’s divestment language was rejected and rewritten in committee before it was sent to the General Assembly for a vote. The revised motion that was sent to and adopted by the General Assembly, “referred to Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) with instructions to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance with General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for future action.”

The new language calls for the church to use its considerable investment portfolio as leverage to affect change in the policies of companies that are profiting from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with divestment from those companies being used as a last resort, but you might not catch this unless you are fluent in the subtleties of Presbyterian jargon and happen to be familiar with the Presbyterian “Mission Responsibility Through Investment” program, the phases of its process and the criteria it uses to “carry out the General Assembly policy on social investing” by targeting selected corporations for potential divestment.

While there is no excuse for the kind of mean-spirited and reactionary diatribe that has been served up by Alan Dershowitz, Dennis Parager and others, and while it is a shame that so many otherwise reputable news organizations failed correctly to report what actually took place, the actions of the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly this last summer were easy to misunderstand and the Presbyterian Church must bear a significant portion of the blame for the misunderstanding. While the original overture calls for a general divestment in plain English, the revised version calls for a much more measured action using vocabulary that is not always understood by non-Presbyterians. Such jargon is best avoided whenever possible.

Two of the denomination’s top elected officials — Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase and Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick — released well-written explanations of the church’s actions and the church’s website also contains several pages dedicated to explaining the process of selective divestment, but the leaders’ statements and the webpage explanation often seem to contradict the reporting in the church’s news service, and while the original language of the overture requesting a broad divestment from Israel remains accessible on the denominational website, the resolution that was adopted, with its less inflammatory language, remains available only as a PDF file and can be found only by those familiar enough with the workings of the church to know where on the website to look.

Laguna Presbyterian Church partnership
with Mar Elias Educational Institutions,
Ibillin, Israel, 1996

All this is evidence of a denomination that is unused to having people pay attention to its actions. In the twenty years that I have been following the work of Presbyterian General Assemblies, this is the first time a significant number of non-Presbyterians have really cared about what Presbyterians have to say. Historically, there has been little need to communicate beyond the bounds of our denominational reality.

Hopefully we Presbyterians can do better next time one of our actions is found to be newsworthy. In the meantime, damage to the relationship between Jews and Presbyterians is beginning to mend. All across the country Jews and Presbyterians are beginning to talk through the issues raised by the Presbyterian Church last summer. I helped to initiate one such talking group in the San Francisco Bay Area, and already our coming together has borne fruit. When news of the threat against Presbyterian Churches became public the messages of goodwill and support that I received from my Jewish partners in dialogue were prompt and powerfully kind, thus strengthening my faith in the notion that friends can disagree and that disagreements can be overcome by the power of friendship.

A graduate of Westmont College and Princeton Theological Seminary, Ben Daniel is the pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose, California. His writing has appeared in many local, regional and national publications. His last contribution to The Revealer was “Questions of Faith.”