Presbyterian assembly demonstrates a need for more advocacy

“The Jewish diaspora must get a life.” That was the message several months ago on the Web site for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network.

After a well-deserved uproar from national Jewish groups, the offending line was removed from the site. Yet it is emblematic of the ongoing problem Jewish groups are having with a number of mainline Protestant churches that are looking to censure Israel.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently met in San Jose for its 218th general assembly. Of the 33 resolutions dealing with international affairs, no fewer than 12 focused on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Eight of these were hostile to Israel while four were balanced.

No resolutions were offered on the genocide in Darfur, the plight of Christians in Sudan and Lebanon, or the nuclear ambitions of Iran. There were six resolutions on the Iraq War, two on human trafficking, one calling for “peace with Iran,” and one each on the human rights situations in Zimbabwe, Colombia and the Philippines.

Fortunately, due in part to the very active work of Presbyterians concerned about the anti-Israel direction of their denomination, the Presbyterian Church took two important steps forward by rejecting several of the harshest resolutions. It also passed a key resolution calling for Presbyterians to become “nonpartisan advocates for peace,” to “avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality,” and to not “over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians.”

And as did the Methodists at their national gathering only a few months ago, the Presbyterians rejected divestment and a call to cut military aid to Israel.

These successes were the result of tremendous effort by national Jewish groups working in concert with Presbyterian allies. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center partnered with the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, the San Jose JCRC and the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, which directly engaged with the church.

Unfortunately, the Presbyterians also passed a resolution that included support for the Amman Call, a 2007 proclamation from the World Council of Churches. The resolution backs a two-state solution, but it also demands an unqualified “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Ironically, Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh has observed that these two demands are mutually exclusive. “Refugees should be resettled in a future Palestinian state, not in a way that would undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state,” said Nusseibeh, according to an Associated Press article. “Otherwise, what does a two-state solution mean?”

The adoption of the Amman Call should sound alarm bells in the Jewish community. This document is yet another means of assaulting Israel’s legitimacy. If the Presbyterian General Assembly is a measure of trends, the Amman Call may be attractive to other denominations, too. Next year Lutherans, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ will be holding their national gatherings, and the Amman Call may be on the agenda.

Presbyterian proponents of the anti-Israel resolutions argue that this disproportionate attention on Israel is justified since the Jewish state is the largest recipient of U.S aid. They also argue that Palestinian Christians are “suffering under the occupation” and Israeli policies are “eliminating the Christian communities in the Holy Land.”

This argument fails on multiple levels. First, the Christian population of Israel is growing, about 2 percent last year alone. Also, while Christians are indeed leaving the West Bank, the reasons are complex. None of the anti-Israel resolutions mentioned Palestinian Authority policies that favor Muslims over Christians.

Second, Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, yet no scrutiny is given by Presbyterians or other mainline denominations, to Egypt. If Christian suffering is truly the motivation for these denominations, then it is reasonable to expect them to bear witness to what the U.S. Copts Association calls the systematic “religious discrimination that prevails at all levels” of Egyptian society against the 15 million members of the Coptic Christian minority.

These misunderstandings speak to the vital need for Jewish groups to remain closely engaged with our Christian friends and neighbors.

We need to continue to offer them a fuller picture of affairs in the Middle East. We need to remind them that Israel, home to almost half of the world’s Jews, is threatened daily by terrorism and calls by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map.”

We also must remind the minority of anti-Israel activists in these churches that we Jews in the diaspora do indeed “have a life,” and whether they like it or not, it includes strong support for Israel as part of our core Jewish identity.

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