Local Presbyterian visit with Hezbollah is confounding, disturbing

Last summer, relations between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian Church (USA) were frayed when its national General Assembly passed a series of one-sided anti-Israel resolutions, including one calling for a “selective” divestment from companies doing business in Israel. Since then, intense dialogues between Jewish community leaders and Presbyterian officials have been organized, both locally and nationally, to express our deep concerns about their actions on Israel and the Middle East. 

Yet, a new development has emerged that is as ominous as the double standard against Israel contained in these resolutions. Just last week news reached the Jewish Community Relations Council that the San Francisco Theological Seminary sent a delegation of faculty and students to the Middle East and met with a senior official of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Until now the visit had been kept quiet by the seminary.

The meeting occurred last June, and is reported by the Lebanese English-language newspaper the Daily Star in an article that just recently surfaced. The SFTS delegation met with a Hezbollah general named Nabil Qaouk at the former Israeli detention center at Khiam, now a Hezbollah-run museum. According to the Daily Star, the secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches accompanied the SFTS delegation.

Charles Marks, the SFTS faculty member who led the delegation, told the Daily Star that the trip to the region was aimed at getting “to know the nature of Christian-Muslim co-existence and preparing a study about it.'” The report also had Marks praising Hezbollah: “I am certain that my positive image of Hezbollah is different from that pictured in the West.  I am happy to meet Hezbollah officials and listen to what they have to say.”

This is not, however, the first time such a Presbyterian-Hezbollah meeting has taken place. Last October the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy visited the same “museum,” met with the same Hezbollah leader and a Presbyterian delegation organizer made similar gushing tributes for Hezbollah. 

Hezbollah’s satellite TV station reported on that visit, quoting Elder Ronald Stone as saying, “We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people … As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”

This is the same Hezbollah that has killed hundreds of Americans, hijacked American airliners and fired thousands of Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli towns over the years. This is the same Hezbollah that was behind the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, killing 95 people. 

This is the same Hezbollah, which, at its rallies, routinely aligns its “fighters” in rows, their hands uniformly raised in a perfect Nazi salute. This is the same Hezbollah which issued a statement in 1992 declaring “an open war until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth.” 

And this is the same Hezbollah that is teaming up with Hamas to undermine the emerging efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace.

To its credit, the national office of the Presbyterians condemned the October meeting, calling the remarks by Stone “reprehensible.” Further, two staffers at the Presbyterian Church (USA) were reportedly fired because of their role in organizing that Hezbollah meeting.

With the revelation of these Hezbollah visits, we have apparently tapped into the thinking underlying the one-sided anti-Israel resolutions passed at the Presbyterian General Assembly. In their zeal to prosecute Israel, some members of this denomination have lost their moral compass, and in so doing have made common cause with an organization that seeks Israel’s destruction and the genocide of Jews. Focusing squarely on this mindset is key to repairing Presbyterian relationships with the Jewish community

While there is naturally a temptation to want to cut off relations with the Presbyterians, this would be a serious mistake. Now is the time to intensify our discussions with Presbyterian leaders, to present vigorously our community’s anger and disappointment by these actions, and to make the strongest possible case for an end to bias in its Middle East activities.

Thankfully, we are not alone. We are enormously gratified by numerous local Presbyterian ministers who are incensed by their own Church’s demonstrated bias against Israel. As we prepare to meet with officials at the seminary to press our concerns about their meeting with Hezbollah, we are heartened to learn that increasing numbers of Presbyterians are openly challenging their church’s one-sidedness and to demand an introspective look into the moral issues raised by their denomination’s actions.

Yitzhak Santis is director of Middle East affairs of the S.F.-based Jewish Communty Relations Council.