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Presbyterians-Jewish Divestment Discussion Yields Little Change

“The conversations here put us on the road toward a more constructive pattern of dialogue. While nobody’s mind was changed, there was important progress in dealing with each other with respect … whil
( [email protected] ) Sep 30, 2004 08:43 PM EDT

On Tuesday, Sept 28, dozens of top-level Jewish and Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) member gathered to discuss the denomination’s decision to ‘selectively divest’ from companies operating and profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. However, despite three hours of debates, the New York meeting yielded little developments on the divestment issue.

“The Christian community tends to focus on the suffering of the Palestinian people. We in the Jewish community ten to focus on terrorism. Both are legitimate concerns. The suffering among Palestinians is deplorable. At the same time, there is a terrible terror against Jews in the Jewish State,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism who moderated a press conference following the discussion. “We need to focus our concerns to be more sensitive and aware of each other.”

The decision to “divest” was made by a majority vote from the delegates to the PCUSA’s 2004 General Assembly in early July. Essentially, the PCUSA would retract its investment to the companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation, should the company continue to work in the region after talks with the denomination; the PCUSA has an estimated $8 billion portfolio.

One of those “selected” corporations is Caterpillar, Inc. – a heavy equipment company whose bulldozers are being used y the Israeli Defense Forces to build the “separation barrier” between Israel and Palestine.

The hardest criticism thrown at the PCUSA’s decision alluded to the fact that the denomination did not look at the Palestinian side in resolving the ongoing conflict between the two states.

Numerous Israelis, as well as Christians and politicians, have mentioned that the separation barrier is necessary for security; the wall has drastically reduced the suicide bombings that killed thousands of innocent victims over the years.

Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, residents argue that the wall encroaches far into Palestinian territory established after the 1967 war. They also call the war a part of a larger strategy to grab Palestinian land and disputed territory.

With the surrounding controversies at hand, the New York meeting proved crucial.

According to Yoffie, the discussions did produce five “agreed upon actions” between the two groups.

The five actions, as summarized by the PCUSA news service, are:

• Encourage a study process in local congregations — called “Open Doors, Open Minds — that was already under way between Presbyterians and Reform Jews when the divestment controversy emerged in July;

• Create seminary-based programs for Christian and Jewish theological students to converse;

• Coordinate advocacy efforts on issues in the Middle East where there is mutual agreement;

• Develop a joint trip to Israel/Palestine between top-level Jewish and Presbyterian leaders to see the region “through each other’s eyes”; and

• Continue dialogue, nationally as well as locally.

Yoffie added that despite the discussion, Jewish leaders continue to see the PCUSA’s decision as an unbalanced “boycott” that will eventually undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

“Israel will not be more open. It will be less conciliatory,” said Yoffie. “There’s a fundamental unfairness in that there are no sanctions against Palestinian … terror or anything else. That fundamental disparity has brought a visceral response from the Jewish community.”

Thus, Yoffie said he believes divestment is an ineffective strategy, because it will eventually worsen the hostilities between the states. Additionally, Yoffie noted that the PCUSA does not have enough money invested in those companies to make much of an impact on corporate policy.

Meanwhile, Clifton Kirkpatrick, the stated clerk of the PCUSA, said he still agrees with the General Assembly’s decision to divest as a “last resort.”

“The core issue for us is the desperate situation of the Palestinian people. And if that’s not addressed, we believe there will be no security for either Israel or Palestine,” Kirkpatrick said following the meeting.

“Divestment is the last resort,” added Kirkpatrick. “But the way for it to not happen is for the injustice to end.”

Kirkpatrick added that while the dialogue did not produce immediate results, it was a necessary part of the divestment decision.

“The conversations here put us on the road toward a more constructive pattern of dialogue. While nobody’s mind was changed, there was important progress in dealing with each other with respect … while we continue to disagree about divestment.,” said Kirkpatrick. “The pain of our Jewish brothers and sisters is painful to us. That is not our goal. Our goal is peace with justice.”

According to the PCUSA, the specifics of the “selective divestment strategy” will not be determined until a November 6-8 meeting of its Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment.

Presbyterian members in attendance at the Sept 28 meeting included: Kirkpatrick, Ufford-Chase, Rock and the Rev. Robina Winbush, associate stated clerk; Sara Lisherness, director of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program; Catherine Gordon of the Washington Office staff; Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, MRTI staff; the Rev. Joe Small, director of the PC(USA)’s Office for Theology and Worship; and the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, former moderator of the PC(USA).

Jewish members in attendance were: Yoffie, Mark Pelavin, director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism; Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Jerry Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Mark Waldman, director of Public Policy, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive director of the National Council of Synagogues; Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Judith Hertz, co-chair of the Commission on Interreligous Affairs of Reform Judaism; Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbical Assembly; Rabbi David Elcott, U.S. director of the Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee; and Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Both sides said the national-level dialogues will continue, but no specific dates have been set.