“The Presbyterian-Jewish Divide that Need Never Be,” By Joshua Stanton

Posted on December 10th, 2010 | Filed under Faith and Politics, InterViews

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Simon Wiesenthal was an inspiration to me as a Jewish kid growing up in America. Who in my place wouldn't have been inspired by him? My large European-based family lost something on the order of fifty members during the Holocaust, and Wiesenthal hunted their killers -- or at least those who had gotten away.

When I learned about the center that bears his name, I was equally impressed. How couldn't I support an organization "that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations"? It brought together the hard-nosed fight for justice with a love for teaching and an investment in the future of Judaism.

I still profoundly admire Wiesenthal and the Wiesenthal Center. But I worry that a recent op-ed written by two of its leaders, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, goes against the very pursuit of justice that the center so firmly embraces. Entitled "Presbyterians Against Israel: Liberal Protestants are engaging in historical revisionism concerning Jews and the Holy Land," its strong suit is certainly not understatement. But by labeling an entire Christian denomination "anti-Israel," it may prove far more damaging.

The Presbyterian Church has over 2.3 million members in the United States. Its members are diverse, as are its leaders. To claim that "Presbyterians" -- and all the more so "liberal Protestants" more broadly -- are "against Israel" is provocative, unconvincing, and even ironic.

One of the worst dichotomies propagated by Israel's critics (and an unfortunate number of its supporters) is the very idea that you can be "anti-Israel." Besides undermining any hope for nuanced discussion, it suggests that you can be against the very existence of a country, rewrite history, and should devote time to counterfactuals rather than peace-building.

If there is a lesson to be derived from problematic and disproportionate criticism of Israel, it is not to oversimplify. It is appropriate to criticize the policies of a given country and support alternatives; it is unacceptable to tarnish the image of an entire country based on policies that only some support.

Something similar may be said of denominational bodies and their policies, as well.

Most tragically, we find that Israel's staunchest supporters within the Presbyterian Church are those most hurt by Hier and Cooper's piece. They are now seen as being in bed with true opponents of the Presbyterian Church -- rather than simply holding different aspirations for its internal policies. By contrast, those most critical of Israel in the Presbyterian Church -- some of whom may even venture into the self-defeating ether of counterfactual history -- will gain momentum and political stature from this article.

Just last summer, the Wiesenthal Center and its representatives witnessed the Presbyterian Church vigorously reaffirm its historic commitment to Israel's right to exist, turn down divestment proposals and amend many other proposed Middle East policies. By criticizing an entire denomination, rather than a particular faction therein, Rabbis Hier and Cooper can expect more, not less, criticism of Israel.

Israel stands to lose from a lack of nuance on all sides. So does the future of Presbyterian-Jewish relations in America.

(Full Disclosure: While I am primarily a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, I also serve as Program Director of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary, an institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church -- notably one whose leaders have opposed divestment.)

7 Responses to ““The Presbyterian-Jewish Divide that Need Never Be,” By Joshua Stanton”

  1. Viola Larson says:

    I think a lot of what you are saying in this posting is true, but I also think there is a big misunderstanding by both the Jewish community and Presbyterians.

    The biggest problem at the moment is the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA. They are an official organization of the church, meaning their staff is helped by the church, etc. They are constantly irritating the situation. Today I have a posting up with just one example. http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2010/12/israelpalestine-mission-network-getting.html
    In the summer before GA they offered a letter which was attached to an overture that stated that Jewish organizations in the USA had perhaps sent a bomb to the Presbyterian headquarters and had burned down a church. Much earlier they posted a video by a radical Muslim that was a retched example of anti-Semitism.
    The Jewish people and in particular the SWC do not make a distinction between this group and the Presbyterians. If the leadership of the Presbyterian Church will not put a stop to this perhaps they should not make a distinction. On the over hand Presbyterians sometimes do but should not.

  2. Robert Campbell says:

    I would add to what Viola says. this same group, the IPMN calls for the end of Israel as a state. Specifically it agrees with the Palestinian demand for a right of return and calls for one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. I was not offended by the articles you mentioned. I know that this group and others in my denomination teach lies and seek the destruction of Israel.

    I have a strong suspicion that the overwhelming majority of members of the PCUSA support Israel while not supporting all the policies of Israel. Unfortunately some claim to speak for the PUCSA and have no problem going against the decisions of General Assembly.

  3. David says:

    Naming His Grace, the blog of Viola Larson, is hardly a witness to the truth in this matter. She is one who refuses to repent of what the confession cal sin, namely of beraring false witness in violaton of the 9th commandment.

    • Kathy Sizer says:

      Whew! I was on the committee at PCUSA General Assembly this summer that reaffirmed our historic commitment to Israel’s right to exist, turned down divestment proposals and amended many other proposed Middle East policies. Members of our committee caucused repeatedly with both IPMN members and SWC members, along with other Jewish groups, that were present throughout our proceedings. ALL those groups signed off on the amendments we produced in our committee–yes, including SWC and IPMN. It was a process of peacemaking, not dividing. Bifurcating into sides was not our way forward, and it is not helpful now. There was much on which all “sides” could agree. Viola, how about working for how we can AGREE with one another, rather than how we DISAGREE? Maybe God’s shalom will break through if we don’t help the sides rub salt in the wounds.

  4. Viola Larson says:

    I just now saw your reply. I don’t know if you will come back and read this but I hope so. I want you to know that I applauded your work in committee feeling that you did some things that no one else could. I applauded when some others thought it was not enough.

    But IPMN is ignoring all that was done. They are not committed to a two state solution they are committed to a one state solution. They are not committed to a “Jewish” state at all. They are a part of the BDS movement, which the PCUSA is not. They are not aiding peace, they are hurting it.

    They link to James Wall constantly although he writes for an anti-Semitic web site and praises another one which is one of the vilest anti-Semitic site on the web. http://www.veteranstoday.com/ is the one he praises the other is My Catbird Seat.

    Here is a quote from the VT site,
    ‘The income tax is a Zionist extortion racket. It is the duty of every American to resist Zionist Power by non-compliance with this anti-American stealing of our wealth by the most treacherous and merciless aliens in history, the Zionists”

    How can one find agreement with an organization that continues with this? Noushin Framke of IPMN made fun of the J Street Jewish lady who spoke at the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace and yet Rachel and J Street want the same thinks that the PCUSA wants. The Settlements gone, the wall pulled back etc. See Framke’s blog posts on the IPMN site. http://israelpalestinemissionnetwork.org/main/index.php/community/blogs/2010-07-04-21-33-04.html/blogger/Noushin/ This is hatred of the Jewish people.

    There is a time to stand up for righteousness.

  5. Joshua: Thank you for this. I think you’re right that there needs to be more nuance in the discussion. The SWC paints with too broad a brush, as do opponents of Israeli policies. But Viola is, I suspect, also correct that the actions and statements of groups such as the IPMN give Jewish and other supporters of Israel who don’t know that much about the PCUSA the impression that the entire denomination thinks as they do. That’s why she and I and other voices have been calling for the PCUSA’s leadership to disavow the extremists in the IPMN.

    David: An accusation without evidence is simply an insult.

    Kathy: As I indicated on my blog during the General Assembly, I think that the committee did a good job of improving the report of the Middle East Task Force as it was submitted. The unfortunate thing is that while it may have signed off on the changes, the IPMN–by its statements, actions, and linkages since–has demonstrated that it doesn’t buy any of the changes that were finally approved, and continues to advocate for “remedies” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would essentially destroy Israel as a Jewish state. It has allied itself with and promoted some of the worst elements in the anti-Israel far left, and disgraced the PCUSA in the process.

  6. will spotts says:

    The title of this article -“Presbyterians against Israel …” was not selected buy the SWC or Rabbis Hier or Cooper. Apart from the title, the article itself was far less offensive or directed specifically at the PC(USA).

    I know of no instance in which Viola has not spoken accurately about the verifiable statements and actions of the IPMN. Her opinion of just how bad / harmful those actions and statements are is a subject for debate. But she is very clearly expressing her opinions. The facts she references are accurate.

    This makes the comment about “bearing false witness” puzzling. Its logic seems to be, “Viola is not a witness to truth because she bears false witness”. It would be a tautology (and not really need saying) if actual facts about which Viola has lied were provided.