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Op-Ed

Why are the Presbyterians at it Again?

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in Jewish News Weekly of Northern California on June 20, 2008

There are many unknowns as to what might happen when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convenes its General Assembly in San Jose next week. But for American Jews concerned about the welfare of Israel, there are troubling signs that, once again, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

The latest indication of trouble came in the form of two conflicting statements issued within weeks of each other by the leadership of the Presbyterian Church on the eve of the biennial church confab.

The original statement, issued only a month ago, was seen as a step in the right direction. It called on Presbyterians to reject anti-Jewish themes found in church writings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statement recognized that when the Presbyterian Church discusses Zionism, it is often distorted, inaccurately portrayed and blamed for the plight of the Palestinians.

Titled "Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias," the statement acknowledged that Christian theologians grounded in liberation theology tend to describe the Israeli-Palestinian situation in ways that "can easily resemble 'supersessionism' by seeming to replace the Jewish people in their own story." And it recognized that applying the Passion narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can result in "a troubling and terrifying demonization of Israel and the Jewish people."

Prominent national Jewish groups hailed the document for admitting the anti-Jewish language and teachings that exist within the church.

All this honest self-reflection was purged from a revised statement, issued without warning or explanation June 13. Here, the Presbyterian Church inexplicably substituted its positive statement about Jewish relations with a new version that was infused with the very bias that the original statement condemned.

The revised statement added policies against Israel, including the one-sided targeting of corporations that do business with Israel. It contains a troubling interpretation of the biblical promise of land to the Jewish people, misrepresenting the biblical text of God's vows to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ignoring Jewish self-identification.

What we are left with is an offensive statement that functions as a how-to guide for promoting anti-Israel actions while avoiding accusations of anti-Semitism.

We can only guess what prompted the Presbyterian leadership to make such radical changes. But the release of two such contradictory statements again raises serious questions about the credibility of the church and its profession of good will toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

What did the Presbyterian leadership hope to gain by employing what some critics have labeled "bait and switch tactics?" We haven't a clue. But if the history of Jewish relations with the church is any guide, there is plenty of room for speculation.

We know all too well of the Presbyterian Church's troubling track record regarding its policies toward Jews and Israel.

We know that the General Assembly, the legislating body of the church, will be asked again to consider several resolutions, known as "overtures," that are unbalanced and biased against the state of Israel and further threaten Presbyterian-Jewish relations. For example, one report calls for divestment against companies doing business with Israel because of Israeli actions against Palestinians, while ignoring Palestinian terrorism.

We know of other overtures on the table that are more nuanced in their bias against Israel. A seemingly neutral resolution about travel and education in the Middle East can be damaging if it supports Holy Land trips and study guides that provide only a Palestinian perspective.

Such unbalanced and unfair proposals damage the credibility of the church as a voice for peace.

In 1987, the church failed to approve a landmark report about Christian-Jewish relations that says Jews are already in a covenantal relationship with God and affirms God's promise of land to the people Israel. The church has never officially adopted these positions. In 2004, the General Assembly adopted several anti-Israel and anti-Jewish resolutions.

After much hard work and dialogue, delegates to the 2006 General Assembly overwhelmingly backed away from a policy targeting Israel for "phased, selective divestment." But there still remain outstanding issues that separate the church and the Jewish community.

I can only hope that the Presbyterian delegates in San Jose will be able to see through the fog of misdirection and misrepresentation and pursue a balanced, nonpartisan approach toward the difficult issues surrounding the Middle East conflict.

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