As Protestant divestment drive heats up, Jewish express their ire
- FOCUS ON ISSUES
As Protestant divestment drive heats up, Jewish express their ire
By Rachel Pomerance
NEW YORK, May 2 (JTA) - As a growing number of Protestant churches consider
imposing economic sanctions against Israel, the Jewish community is
threatening to abandon interfaith dialogue with mainstream Protestant groups.
"Any Protestant denomination that would consider the weapon of economic
sanctions to be unilaterally and prejudicially used against the State of
Israel, or those who would hold the State of Israel to a standard different
from any other sovereign state, creates an environment which makes
constructive dialogue almost impossible," mainstream Jewish defense groups and
the three main religious streams wrote in an April 22 letter to Protestant
The letter is considered the strongest language that Jewish groups have used
to date on the issue.
The letter "signals a change in the tone and the tenor of our discourse," said
Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public
The missive comes after a flurry of recent activity by churches considering
divestment some nine months after a Protestant group first made it a prominent
That was last summer, when the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution
considering a "selective, phased divestment" of companies that do business
The resolution shocked Jewish officials, who in reaction scurried to step up
interfaith relations. But it also created a point of departure for other
Protestant denominations to mull divestment as a way, they believe, to promote
In November 2004, the board of the Episcopal Church voted to consider
divesting from companies that "contribute to the infrastructure of Israel's
ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," along with companies
that "have connections to organizations responsible for violence against
Two weeks ago, the board of the United Methodist Church voted to conduct a
yearlong study to consider divestment. Last week, the United Church of Christ
released resolutions it will consider at its annual conference in Atlanta in
July; two suggest divestment, while one urges Israel to dismantle its West
Bank security barrier.
In a move Jewish groups consider positive, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America voted last week for "constructive investment" to partner with Israeli
and Palestinian organizations that promote peace.
The Protestant pursuit of divestment is not limited to America: The
Geneva-based World Council of Churches, a predominantly European consortium,
passed a resolution in February encouraging churches to follow the initiative
of the Presbyterian Church USA and consider divesting from Israel.
The council has member churches around the world. Many of the North American
groups considering divestment are affiliated with it.
Many Jewish observers have been stunned by the swirl of activity.
"I think it's one of the stranger things I've seen," said David Elcott, U.S.
director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. "I don't
understand why this issue would come up now," when Israel is taking steps for
peace with the Palestinians.
Elcott said the Jewish community has been "incredibly consistent" in
maintaining interfaith dialogue since the Presbyterian move.
Jewish officials cite several reasons for the divestment trend in the
. Protestant churches are responding to Palestinian Christians and their
supporters, who believe sanctions will force Israel to make concessions and
will help the Christians' standing with Palestinian Muslims.
Churches in the region have sent representatives to American churches to tell
of Israel's alleged injustices against Palestinian Christians. Meanwhile, U.S.
church groups that have visited the region hear a primarily anti-Israel
. Some feel Jewish groups have lagged in their maintenance of interfaith work.
While Palestinian supporters are advocating their view, "we have not done a
very good job of going into churches and advocating a counter point of view,"
said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the
In addition, interfaith dialogue has focused on what binds the faiths, not
what divides them, said Bretton-Granatoor. As a result, Protestants and Jews
have not fully explored each other's views on the Middle East.
"We have never stopped thinking about Israel as the very center of our faith,
but the Christians don't understand it," he said. "To them, our attachment to
Israel is 19th-century colonialism."
. Many mainstream Protestant churches, which skew to the left, subscribe to a
world view called "liberation theology." They aim to uplift the "weak and the
downtrodden" and they believe that the Palestinians fill that role, said Rabbi
Irving Greenberg, president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.
Other Christian denominations have a different perspective. Evangelicals
subscribe to a Christian Zionist ideology, which calls for the ingathering of
Jews to Israel as a precursor of Armageddon.
Because Catholics are represented by the Vatican, they have diplomatic
relations to make their case, and Catholic-Jewish relations are relatively
strong. Last year, the Vatican issued a joint statement with Jewish officials
calling anti-Zionism anti-Semitism.
Jewish groups aim to continue engaging the Protestant community on grass-roots
and national levels and are seeking voices within the churches to oppose
A coalition of Jews and Protestants will meet May 13 in Washington, and an
interfaith mission to Israel is planned for September.
"We have had our fingers crossed and we had done our work pretty well, I
thought," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center
of Reform Judaism. But "it appears that we're going to have to have a broader
conversation, denomination by denomination."
According to the JCPA's Felson, "the divestment conversation casts such a
shadow that dialogue on other issues really becomes secondary."
Jewish groups are stressing their unified opposition to divestment, as
indicated in the April 22 letter.
The move is, in part, a response to the Presbyterian Church USA, which several
Jewish officials said excluded Jewish groups from observing national
The only Jewish representative at such events has been Jewish Voice for Peace,
a far-left group that supports divestment from Israel, Jewish officials said.
The Rev. Peter Pettit, a Lutheran and the director of the Institute for
Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College, expressed gratitude for
the April 22 letter.
"I appreciate the fact that the Jewish leadership felt they could write such a
letter and not have it become an explosive sort of initiative," he said. "I
really don't see it as a threat," but as a "mark of maturity" in expressing
the potential impact of the divestment drive.
He hopes, he said, that the Protestant community will "take seriously the
perspective that the Jewish community has on the divestment issue."
Katharine Rhodes Henderson, a Presbyterian minister who is executive vice
president of the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, said it's still not
clear how widespread the divestment move will become.
Henderson is one of 25 Presbyterians involved in Presbyterians Concerned for
Christian-Jewish Relations, and is part of a New York City-based
Presbyterian-Jewish group geared toward reconciliation.
Henderson says she and others are working on investment initiatives and
discouraging other churches from divestment.
Now, "when there is movement on the ground," is precisely the time to invest,
"What's happening on the ground is giving people pause," she said, citing the
Methodist desire to study the issue further as a signal of such
Even the Presbyterians have yet to take any concrete steps to divest from
companies that do business with Israel.
For its part, the Jewish community is speaking with one clear voice.
"There are certain issues that are red lines for communities," said the
AJCommittee's Elcott. "For us, supporting divestment is an answer to the
question, 'Do you want to have a relationship with the Jews?' "