The average temperature in Detroit for June 20 varies from 61 degrees to 79 degrees, and is rarely below 53 degrees or above 88, according to WeatherSpark.com. But in the early evening of June 20 this year, the temperature was sweltering inside the COBO Center at the gathering of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There were heated exchanges of views and a subsequent vote whether to approve divestment from three companies that do business with Israel: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola.
The General Assembly voted 310-303 to divest from these companies’ products on the grounds that they aided and abetted Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And while the tally was close, it is clear that this decision will cast a shadow on the relationship between the Jewish and Presbyterian communities. Adding salt to the wound was a pamphlet created by members of the General Assembly called “Zionism Unsettled,” which labeled Zionism as racism.
It was reported that after the vote, moderator Heath Rada made the following statement: “In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.”
With all due respect to Rada, one of the members of the presbytery, James Owens, refuted that statement in comments left on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website:
“To my Jewish friends: I am terribly sorry about the vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church – my church – to divest from companies performing work in the West Bank and Gaza. I believe this is an act of actual or symbolic anti-Semitism, for the church has not taken a similar stand on investments in other non-Jewish states whose sins against their own citizens, or the citizens of territories they have occupied, is far worse.”
Another comment followed, saying: “There is no other way to interpret this vote as anything but a full endorsement of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) and a slap in the face to our Jewish friends. All the sugar coating in the world will not change what this vote really represents. We will soon regret this outcome. We are not an anti-Semitic church – but now the world will think we are.”
While it is comforting to read those consoling words, they are of little consolation. Even though the vote was close, the fact that so many leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest created a breach between our two faith communities that will be difficult to repair.
It appears that we have entered an era where being anti-Israel is clearly the new anti-Semitism. One might call me paranoid, but when someone singles out Israel’s government (the only one in the Middle East that is a true democracy) as a uniquely immoral and racist entity, it makes me wonder.
The difficult part of this is that my friends who are Presbyterian are not people who walk around with any hostility for Jewish people or Israel. But Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s actions and its public criticism and animosity toward Israel are indeed representative of their religious faith. And their association with a denomination that takes on such polarizing political issues may very well be personally conflicting and challenging.
I share the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s desire to see the Palestinians successful in their quest for self-determination. And I sincerely hope that the leadership of the Palestinian people will finally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and sit down and hammer out a peace agreement, as did Egypt and Jordan when they made peace with Israel.
I only wish those who advocate for boycotts, divestment and sanctions might think about the massive contributions that Israel is giving to the world, including the Palestinians – and to all of us, in science, medicine, communications, technology, health, the environment, security and so many others. With a population of 7.4 million people, Israel is making a huge contribution to the world. Just go to ISRAEL21c’s website and you will see the achievements of a small country the size of New Jersey and its impact upon hundreds of millions of people.
I conclude with the words of one of the leading Palestinian academics in the Arab world, Sari Nusseibeh, who recently retired as president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Years ago he said, “It is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved. The reason I don’t believe the boycott is the way to go is that I believe peace must be built on the bridge between two civil societies.”
For the moment, that bridge between Presbyterians and Jews has been damaged. I hope and pray that the regrettable vote in Detroit will not be an impediment to continued dialogue and understanding between our two faith communities. And may we see the day when that bridge will be not only repaired, but strengthened.
Rabbi Reuven H. Taff, a past president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, is the rabbi and spiritual leader of Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.