The Presbyterians got it wrong, but its our job to mend bridges

Earlier this month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytizing and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel. One of the rabbis I spoke to last week observed that, when taken together, their refusal to suspend funding for proselytizing Jews and their statement opposing the security barrier suggest that the church believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.” 

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and the U.S. Presbyterian Church. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians, and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC (USA), like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, it ignores the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government, or of specific terror-fighting tactics, without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. The Presbyterian Church has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions. Where is the church’s overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran? 

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security. Although I know that many within the Presbyterian Church earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process. 

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels. On the national level, we need to reach out to the PC (USA) leaders and explain to them – without rancor or disdain – that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress towards a lasting peace. On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC (USA)’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing its endorsement of divestment, PC (USA) clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment, and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.” While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace in the region. And it is our job to ensure that PC (USA) lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in its words but in its deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved. 

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.

Mark J. Pelavin is the director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.