Jews up in arms over Presbyterian report, conference

Well-organized activists within the Presbyterian Church are pressing forward with what Jewish leaders say is an anti-Israel agenda that could lead to a breach in interfaith relations.

Two serious developments took place this month. At the national level, a committee of the Presbyterian Church USA issued a report that Jewish critics condemned as a one-sided, anti-Israel diatribe.

And locally, a Marin County Presbyterian church hosted a conference two weeks ago that featured an array of speakers, some of whom were charged by a Jewish community monitor with using harsh, anti-Semitic language.

The report was issued March 11 by PCUSA’s Middle East Study Committee. Titled “Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page document immediately drew harsh Jewish reaction.

In a statement, the ADL claimed the report legitimizes doubts about Israel’s right to exist, calls on the United States to consider withholding military aid to Israel and attacks aspects of Jewish religious identity (such as God’s covenant with the Jewish people and the promise of the land of Israel).

Jewish groups also say the report endorses the so-called “Kairos Palestine” document, a manifesto by Christian Palestinians that calls for an end to Israel as a Jewish state and uses terms such as “evil” and “sin” to describe Israeli actions.

ADL Executive Director Abe Foxman called the report “an affront to Americans, the Jewish people, Israel” and said its release “raises serious questions about PCUSA’s credibility as a partner in interfaith dialogue with the Jewish community.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs described the report as “blatantly anti-Israel” and says it “reduces the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a caricature of right and wrong.”

The report will be submitted for adoption as official church policy at the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in July. One local pro-Israel Presbyterian minister believes it will be voted down.

A photo exhibit at a conference at the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo compared images of the Holocaust with images of Palestinians. photo/art altman

“The people who go to the G.A. will realize this is the ultimate statement of our denomination’s inability to deal constructively in the arenas of foreign policy and foreign affairs,” said the Rev. Doug Huneke, head pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. “They will vote it down. They are tired of this continually being tossed in their faces.”

Huneke’s colleague, Pastor Ben Daniel of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose, said that the language of the report might be changed before the conference and maybe even again before a vote.

“These [Jewish] responses are premature,” Daniel said. “The report will go to a committee. The committee will change it, then it goes to the floor of the G.A., which may or may not change it. It may not pass. It’s pretty far removed from the final outcome.”

Daniel expressed concern about rhetoric from one Jewish group in particular, the Los Angeles–based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which said in a press release that the Presbyterian report is “nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel.” Daniel said: ”I’m worried about the reaction of the lunatic right, ramping up the language against Presbyterians.”

Presbyterians reportedly ramped up their language at a March 5-6 conference held at the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo and co-sponsored by a group that Jewish leaders classify as anti-Israel, Friends of Sabeel–North America.

The weekend event — titled “A Time for Truth, A Time for Action: Palestine/Israel and the U.S. at the Crossroads” — featured speakers such as Naim Ateek, an Arab Israeli Episcopal pastor and founder of Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian organization.

In his remarks, Ateek excoriated Israel, Jews, Judaism and Jewish interpretations of the Torah, according to Yitzhak Santis, director of the Middle East Project for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Santis attended the conference uninvited, taped the proceedings and later transcribed them.

According to Santis, Ateek also said certain texts in the Torah relating to God’s promises to the Jewish people “represent a tribal understanding of God, which we don’t have today.”

According to Santis, Ateek also said that Zionism “was worse than colonialism … Whereas the colonialists exploited the people they colonized and their natural resources of the countries they colonized, they kept the people on their land. But the Zionists’ … objective was the expulsion of the indigenous. This was the original sin.”

“[Ateek] set the tone when he called the founding of Israel an original sin,” said Santis. “He uses theologically explosive language in casting Israel as cosmically evil. Every speaker gave a one-sided, anti-Israel perspective, with themes of demonization, [calling Israel] oppressor, powerful colonialists, perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, abusers of the memory of the Holocaust, willfully committing massacres.”

Another speaker, Jewish psychologist Mark Braverman, a noted anti-Zionist, labeled Israel “a rogue state that is responsible for the longest-running violation of human rights in modern history,” adding that Jews have to “get over the exceptionalism, isolationism and the paranoia and the sense of being special and apart. We have to get over that… And there are psychological issues in there and we are in big trouble.”

This is not the first time elements within the Presbyterian Church have agitated against Israel.

At the church’s 2008 General Assembly in San Jose, 13 of 31 resolutions brought before the international affairs committee had to do with Israel, and 10 of those were inarguably anti-Israel, according to the JCRC.

 “There is a Palestinian-Christian population in our denomination primarily centered in the Southeast part of the country,” said Huneke, “and what happens is, that group has inordinate power.”

The ADL’s Bay Area regional director, Jonathan Bernstein, has worked for years with the local Presbyterian Church, with mixed results.

“We put a lot of time and resources into this,” Bernstein said of the ADL’s efforts. “We found [local church memebers] were going to individuals that weren’t part of the mainstream Jewish community and getting information from them. So they had a very slanted view, one that saw Israel as the oppressor, occupier, violator of human rights.”

Bernstein noted that the Presbyterian Church was especially susceptible to such views because of its democratic organizational structure, in contrast to the more hierarchal Catholic Church. The former structure permits out-of-the-mainstream views to get a hearing at the regional and national levels.

“We had many hours of meetings to share the historical connection of Jewish people to Israel and why some of these resolutions were hurtful,” Bernstein said. “We felt we made some headway, but there is still a small vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that’s pushing for these things, and because it has this flat structure it gets these things through.”

Santis believes the anti-Israel forces will not give up. He fears Sabeel’s alliances with the PCUSA and other mainline denominations will tear away at longstanding ties between Christians and Jews.

Which is why he worries about the report at this summer’s Presbyterian G.A. The report’s national  passage would put the imprimatur of the church on what Santis sees as a slippery slope of Christian anti-Israel sentiment.

Said Santis: “I believe the obsessiveness of these Christian activists about Israel is a symptom of the unfinished work on anti-Semitism that remains to be done in these churches.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.