Pope Francis boldly invited and warmly welcomed Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for prayers, conversations and planting a peace tree.
Barely a month later, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, followed the papal example with a stunning and unprecedented invitation. He asked the moderator and stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA to vote down anti-Israel overtures at our denomination’s biannual General Assembly and be his guest in Jerusalem for a face-to-face sit-down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “express our deeply shared concerns.”
Jacobs concluded: “You can choose partnership and engagement or you can choose separation and divestment.”
By a narrow margin, the General Assembly chose the latter, in spite of its hollow profession that it shared Jacobs’ objection to expanding settlements, his support of a two-state solution, and his gracious, genuine expression that the bond between Presbyterians and Jews is both sought and valued by the American Jewish community.
The vote to support divestment was the result of several years of behind-the-scenes networking, scheming and planning that culminated in several months of unusually intense lobbying.
There were few commissioners who were not already decided by the time the matter came to the floor. Leaders, beginning with the stated clerk, were intent on securing a divestment vote in spite of pleas from a beloved former moderator and an esteemed seminary president to honor Jacobs’ offer that, had it been accepted, would have been a game changer that led to reconciliation.
The leadership of the Presbyterian Church USA consistently prefers strategically expedient and politically impotent actions that divide and harm rather than welcome participation in the hard work of relationship building and genuine diplomacy.
Only Israel is targeted in these actions, never the terrorist atrocities and the intransigence of Palestinians.
We recognize that it is impolitic to use the label of anti-Semitism, but there are not many other ways to explain the willful rejection of the only democracy in the Middle East, or to explain the disregard for terrorist threats and actual attacks upon Israel, as well as the continued commitment to Israel’s destruction on the part of some of Israel’s neighbors.
The PCUSA fancies itself as siding with the “little guy,” but it sided with the neighborhood rejectionists.
We deeply regret the overture that was passed on June 20, not just because it was a divestment action, but also because the subtly contradictory content was intended to placate rather than to foster mutual efforts toward a just peace: Presbyterian words did not complement their action.
It is now incumbent on every Presbyterian clergyperson and local church board to reach out to neighboring synagogues and rabbis to try to explain this hurtful vote
and attempt to build back the bridges it destroyed. We do not envy those clergy who have yet to establish a relationship of trust with local Jewish leaders, because building that now will be nearly impossible.
It is important for the Bay Area’s Jewish and Presbyterian communities to understand that the majority of the denomination’s clergy and laity do not support the vote. They genuinely want two states, and peace for the Israeli and Palestinian people, and they care deeply about the innocent victims of the conflict. But as the vote showed and as recent surveys indicate, most of our clergy and laity across the country have not given much thought, if any, to the intricacies of the Middle East and do not have a deep comprehension of the issues.
Into that abyss of complexity and in the paucity of wisdom, the anti-Israel antagonists in the PCUSA expend their energy and animus on caustic overtures without a thought for the consequences to regional and national relationships between Presbyterians and Jews, without regard for the fate of the Jewish homeland.
Although these are sad but true realities, we continue to work with a like-minded cadre inside our tradition — and with our dear friends in the Jewish community — to fulfill the vision and possibilities put forward by Rabbi Jacobs.
Doug Huneke was the senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. Paul Watermulder, who attended the General Assembly, is the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame.