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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Presbyterians have double standard on State of Israel

A divestment policy that punishes one side in Mideast conflict won't bring peace

A. JAMES RUDIN

Religion News Service

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is facing a self-inflicted firestorm of criticism, much of it coming from the denomination's own clergy and lay leaders. This past summer the PCUSA's national policy-making body, the General Assembly, adopted a sweeping resolution calling for 'phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel in accordance' with church 'policy on social investing.'

But the PCUSA's top executive, Clifton Kirkpatrick, placed his own interpretation on the loosely worded General Assembly statement. He maintained that phased divestment is aimed only at 'those companies ... found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people.' He did not explain how his church would make such determinations. A report on divestment is due in early March 2005.

The possibility that the nation's ninth largest Christian body would embark on a project that could result in the withdrawal of hard-earned church funds from various companies doing business in Israel has drawn sharp negative reactions from a large number of irate Presbyterians.

The PCUSA Board of Pensions, which provides health and retirement benefits for ministers and church employees, has a $6.2 billion investment portfolio, while the Presbyterian Foundation, with a $1.1 billion portfolio, funds much of the mission program. The Pension Fund must provide benefits that plan members have earned. As a result, there are serious legal impediments to any divestment proposal that may harm fund participants. But there are other equally significant grounds to criticize the proposal.

Among the critics is Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations, a group committed to building mutual respect and understanding between the two faith communities. The organization's key leaders are Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and William Harter, pastor of the Falling Spring Presbyterian Church in Chambersburg, Pa. Harter is a past member of the National Council of Churches Committee on Christian-Jewish Relations and the World Council of Churches Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People.

Their group has publicly assailed the divestment resolution: 'We are deeply distressed by any suggestion that divestment policies of the church relating to Israel should uniquely target that country in ways that do not apply to every other country. ... We must be careful not to attack the economic life of the Israeli people, or to undermine Jewish survival in any way.'

But the criticism of the General Assembly's action went even further: 'We categorically denounce any equation between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (the former South African policy of) apartheid.'

Mark Brewer, pastor of the Los Angeles Bel Air Presbyterian Church where President Reagan was a member, was particularly bitter in his criticism: The General Assembly 'fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down. The idea that withholding funds is going to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is ridiculous.'

The PCUSA's Confessing Churches, a group of theologically conservative Presbyterians, is also highly critical of any divestment plans.

The PCUSA has once again used a double standard when it comes to Israel. The Presbyterians Concerned group correctly noted the divestment resolution is 'uniquely' aimed at Israel. Singling out Israel for special punishment is an unfair policy, one that runs counter to the PCUSA's oft-proclaimed attempt to be a genuine voice of Christian conscience and reconciliation.

But controversy within the PCUSA is nothing new. There has been continuing criticism on a host of issues coming from 'grass-roots' members, all aimed at the church's national staff in Louisville, Ky. But the divestment issue has created one of the most heated backlashes to date.

Unfair divestment aimed at Israel should be rescinded and replaced by a balanced PCUSA peace-making effort that does not punish Israel as if the Jewish state were the Middle East conflict's guilty party.

Divestment aimed at Israel alone will discredit the Presbyterian Church and will not hasten peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Those two peoples need something much better than a one-sided divestment strategy from a church that is so painfully and publicly divided.
Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.