- Tensions are re-emerging between Jewish organizations
and some mainline Protestant churches in the wake of a renewed drive for
churches to divest from companies doing business with Israel.
- The United Methodist Church opened discussions last Friday
on a resolution calling for divestment from Caterpillar, the tractor manufacturer,
because the company supplies Israel with bulldozers used in building the
separation barrier and in demolishing Palestinian homes. The divestment
resolution comes only months after the publication of a church-sponsored
report referring to the creation of the State of Israel as the "original
- Relations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) are also
strained, following remarks by church officials criticizing Israel because
of the Gaza closure. A recent study by an affiliate of the Presbyterian
Church called on American Jews to "get a life" instead of focusing
on defending Israeli policies.
- "This reflects a very disturbing trend in these
churches," said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the
Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "These developments are a result
of work of several very wicked forces that play in the church."
- The divestment campaign, thought by many in the Jewish
community to be dormant, is still active among mainline Protestant churches
and is re-emerging as a main issue on the agenda of Jewish groups. Attempts
to block the divestment drive, which began four years ago, have proved
only partially successful. Interreligious dialogue efforts and public
pressure managed to mute some churchwide calls for divestment, but other
initiatives are still gaining support.
- The Methodist meeting, held on January 25 in Fort Worth,
Texas, was an initial orientation meeting for delegation heads who will
lead their groups at the church's quadrennial conference in April. Delegation
leaders were presented with speakers both supportive and opposed to the
draft divestment resolution, which calls for removing all Methodist pension
fund holdings from Caterpillar. "The United Methodist Church holds
$141 million of pension funds in companies that sustain the occupation,"
said Susan Hoder, a member of the church's Interfaith Peace Initiative.
"This has to stop. We have to cut our ties to the occupation."
- Hoder, who strongly favors passage of divestment measures,
went on to claim that American taxpayer dollars are used to fund Israeli
military. "A lot of this money goes into the pockets of Israeli military
leaders and politicians who get rich while the population of Israel suffers,"
she said. With 11 million members, The United Methodist Church is the largest
mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. The upcoming April general
conference, the church's main forum for making policy decisions, will first
discuss the divestment resolution in a subcommittee. Afterward, the panel's
recommendations will be put to a general vote to make them official policy.
- A spokesman for the United Methodist Church did not return
calls from the Forward seeking comments on the divestment drive.
- Arrangers of the pre-conference meeting last Friday in
Fort Worth allowed a representative of the organized Jewish community to
speak on the issue. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the American Jewish Committee's
director of interreligious affairs, told the Methodist delegates that the
Jewish community was concerned about the resolution. "I told them
that while they may think it is not anti-Israel and not anti- Jewish, for
us it feels anti-Israel and feels anti-Jewish," Greenebaum told the
Forward after the meeting.
- At the same time, Greenebaum warned the Jewish community
against overreacting to anti-Israel sentiments in the church. Protestant
churches, he said, "care very deeply about their relations with the
- What prompted Jewish activists to take action was not
only the renewed divestment drive but also a report from the women's division
of the Methodist church, which addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The 225-page report, compiled by the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, attempts
to outline the historical and current contours of the conflict, but according
to Felson, the report amounts to "the most egregious thing that has
crossed my desk that was not put out by an overt hate group."
- Among the statements in the report that irked Jewish
community activists are a reference to the founding of the State of Israel
as "the original sin," a passage calling Israeli founding father
David Ben-Gurion an "extremist" and a passage defining Israeli
actions as acts of "terror." Discussing the impact of the Holocaust
on Israeli society, the Methodist report claims it has been the cause
for "hysteria" and "paranoiac sense" among Israelis.
- "Are we not called to testify when oppressors use
their identity as the oppressed with stories of sixty years ago but through
some failure of perception cannot see what transpires now in the shadow
of the Holocaust?" the report goes on to ask.
- After letting four months pass without a formal response,
last week four Jewish women's groups sent a letter to heads of the Methodist
church, calling the report "inflammatory, inaccurate, and polemical."
Hadassah and women's groups affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Reform
Judaism and United Jewish Communities signed the letter.
- Another expected step by Jewish organizations is the
launching of a new Web site that will call for a "return to civility"
and condemn anti-Israeli voices among Protestant churches.
- The Presbyterian Church, the first to come up with resolutions
calling for divestment, has so far avoided taking action on this issue,
but it still supports a line seen by Jewish activists as anti-Israel. In
recent weeks, a heated exchange of letters took place between Jewish
community leaders and heads of the Presbyterian Church, following the church's
criticism of Israel over the situation in Gaza. In a letter to the Rev.
Clifton Kirkpatrick, head of the church's general assembly, 12 Jewish organizational
leaders complained that "the anti-Israel tone of your statement calls
into serious question whether the season of mutual understanding we welcomed
in July 2006 has yet arrived."
- Kirkpatrick responded with a letter asking the Jewish
organizations, "Do you not share our concern that such regular violent
responses by Israel, despite their intent to safeguard security, and no
matter how carefully conducted to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties,
only lead to continued violence in return?"
- This exchange came shortly after a presentation of the
Israel/ Palestine Mission Network, a group chartered by the Presbyterian
Church though not formally speaking for it. In a slideshow presentation
calling for "reframing the debate," the group argued that the
"Jewish community in the Diaspora must get a life," referring
to Jewish reactions to Christian groups' calls for changes in policy toward
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.