Criticism from Jewish groups prompts ‘clarification’ of Presbyterian Church

LOUISVILLE — Responding to widespread public criticism from a number of Jewish groups, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), has issued a statement to “clarify the actions of (the recent 216th) General Assembly” on Israel and on the PC(USA)’s commitment to dialogue with people of other faiths.

Most of the criticism has concerned the Assembly’s condemnation of the “security wall” being constructed between occupied Palestinian territoriesand Israel; its call for selective divestment of stock in companies doing military and security business with Israel; and its decision not to suspend funding of a controversial “Messianic” Jewish congregation in Philadelphia Presbytery.

The full text of Kirkpatrick’s July 20 statement:

A Statement from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) concerning actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) regarding Israel and Palestine and outreach to Jewish people

One of the deep and abiding commitments of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is to reconciliation and good relationships with people of all faith communities. In light of this, some people have raised concern about certain actions taken by the 216th General Assembly, held June 26-July 3 in Richmond, Virginia, related to both outreach to Jewish people and Israeli and Palestinian relations. Therefore, I am sending this message to both Presbyterian leaders and to ecumenical partners and colleagues from other faith communities with the hope that it will clarify the actions of this assembly and the ongoing commitments of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

As Christians, we experience the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we do not hesitate to make joyful witness to the hope that is in us, and to work and pray for the restored and reconciled creation to which we and all people are called. We make every effort to discern God’s presence in the world and to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It is out of this faith and commitment, and with careful reflection, that the commissioners to the 216th General Assembly took a number of actions concerning our relations with the Jewish community, as well as the situation of Israel and Palestine.

Presbyterians’ concerns about appropriate forms of Christian witness to Jewish people in general and to the new church development project, Avodat Yisrael, in Philadelphia in particular led to a two-part action.

First, in response to overtures from four of our presbyteries — regional governing bodies — the General Assembly mandated a study to “examine and strengthen the relationship between Christians and Jews and the implications of this relationship for our evangelism and new church development.” The focus of this action is to re-examine our theological understanding of Christian-Jewish relationship and to discern whether this particular form of outreach contradicts that understanding or violates our intention to do evangelism in a spirit of respect, openness, and honesty.

Second, the Assembly did not adopt a proposal to suspend the availability of national funding for any other such projects. Here it is important to note that primary decisions regarding the funding of new church developments are made at the presbytery (regional) level of our denomination; in nearly all cases, national funding for such work is made only to complement funds already committed by presbyteries and synods with the understanding that presbyteries take the lead in determining the appropriate projects.

The Assembly declared that Christian Zionism is not consistent with the basic values of Reformed theology because it makes use of idiosyncratic interpretations of scripture to undergird a certain reading of current events, and to generate support for specific political goals that do not bolster work toward peace and potentially endanger Palestinian and Israeli people.

The assembly called for an end to Israel’s construction of the “separation barrier.”

While fully aware of our interest in Israel’s security, the major reason for this action was the Assembly’s concern of the impact of the structure on the economic, social, and religious life of Palestinians.

The Assembly action used the word “wall” because it has become a general reference for the physical structure being put in place.

It raised legitimate questions, corroborated by Israel’s Supreme Court and the International Court of Justice, regarding the route of the wall.

In previous Assemblies, the church has called for an end to the occupation, as the principal cause of the conflict.

Presbyterians are calling for an end to this barrier in the belief “that the best hope for security for both Israelis and Palestinians may be found in laying down all forms of aggression on both sides, ending the Israeli occupation, and finding ways to build bridges of peace rather than walls of separation. Good neighborly relations, rather than mutual isolation and suspicion, are urgently needed between Israel and its neighbors in Palestine and the Middle East.”

The Assembly authorized exploration of a selective divestment of church funds from those companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli. It did not approve a blanket divestment from companies that do business in Israel, as is being reported in some places. This action was taken in response to an overture from the Presbytery of St. Augustine, representing the churches in northeast Florida.

The Assembly asked the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, the denomination’s permanent committee that develops socially responsible investment guidelines, to initiate a process to look into companies investing in Israel and to bring recommendations re: phasing in selective divestments to the General Assembly Council for action in March 2005.

Although the decision to “initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” may be presumed by some to invite comparison of Israeli policies with those of apartheid South Africa, the Assembly has not asserted any moral equivalency between the two. The two situations are distinct. The focus of this action is to explore use of a proven tool of economic pressure to motivate real change in Israeli policies and movement toward peace.

Again, the Assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment, and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being where these do not inflict suffering on Palestinian or Israeli people.

These actions are rooted in a longstanding commitment to the secure existence of Israel and the Israeli people, in a similar commitment to the security and existence of Palestinians in their own state, and in a passionate vision of negotiated peace as the only viable way forward. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has consistently supported the existence of Israel within legitimate and secure borders, and prayed for its security and well-being. It is, however, the conviction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that “the security of Israel and the Israeli people is inexorably dependent on making peace with their Palestinian neighbors, by negotiating and reaching a just and equitable solution to the conflict that respects international law, human rights, the sanctity of life, and dignity of persons, land, property, safety of home, freedom of movement, the rights of refugees to return to their homeland, the right of a people to determine their political future, and to live in peace and prosperity.”

It should be noted that this action was taken as part of a larger commitment of the PC(USA) to human rights and social justice all around the world. It should be further noted that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not singling out Israel and Palestine alone for observation and critique. The PC(USA) regularly publishes an annual report regarding human rights around the world, and has spoken specifically about issues of justice related to North and South Korea, Rwanda, Taiwan, Central American states, and many others, including the United States. Assembly actions regularly make comment on issues of religious liberty in many countries, including other Middle Eastern countries. The PC(USA) believes that, through such actions, important perspectives and informed glimpses of difficult situations are made available to the church and the wider community to inform responsible engagement with the world.

All of these actions are consistent with the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made in 1987 in A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews, “never again to participate in, to contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews.” That document also reminds us “both Christians and Jews are called to wait and to hope in God. While we wait, Jews and Christians are called to the service of God in the world.” This calling includes “ceaseless activity in the cause of justice and peace.”

As I made clear in a statement of May 28, 2002, “Palestinians are called, once and for all, to cease striking terror in the hearts of Israeli Jews by stopping attacks on noncombatants while they are carrying out the activities of their daily lives or the celebrations of their peoplehood. Israelis are called, once and for all, to cease striking terror in the hearts of Palestinians by stopping military operations that assault harmless people and disable Palestinian infrastructures. It is time to stop activities that increase hatred and mutual recrimination and that destroy hope, security and trust. … Acts of hate and terror inflicted on innocent children and youth, women and men of Israel and the larger Jewish community must be unequivocally condemned and vehemently abhorred. This is in no way inconsistent with speaking out about the political and military violence of the Israeli government or the militant activities of Israeli settlers.”

I encourage Presbyterians to maintain their relationships with people of other faiths, with sensitivity to the fragility of trust in the present climate of violence and terror. I also encourage all of us to seek opportunities for respectful conversation with Jewish neighbors about disagreements regarding Israeli policy and forms of public policy advocacy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Related Links

  • Assembly Presbyterian Church endorses Israel divestment, Alexa Smith (2 July 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: Aid, Boycotts & Divestment
  • 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)