Clearly stung by the strong reaction of Jewish leaders to their General Assembly’s support of selective disinvestment in firms operating in Israel, a leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA) promised yesterday a more even-handed approach.
“If there are companies promoting terrorism on the Palestinian side, they would be considered in the disinvestment process,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the General Assembly’s chief executive officer.
And the meeting also produced a clarification of another contentious resolution passed by the General Assembly - the decision to continue funding missionary activity aimed at converting Jews to Christianity.
Rick Ufford-Chase, another church leader, said that the church’s decision was to give it time to do some “soul searching” about the church’s whole approach to messianic congregations.
“We have deep reservations about how we will respond to them,” he said. “We were a divided Assembly and we agreed on the need for thoughtful study of this. I want to make sure the Jewish community is included as part of that dialogue.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he believed the meeting had a “positive impact” on the church leaders’ approach to messianic churches.
“They are committed to seriously studying [it],” he said.
Rabbi Gary Gretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, said Jewish leaders had discussed the issue of messianic churches with Presbyterian leaders in February and were caught off guard by the resolution at the General Assembly.
The General Assembly’s resolution demonstrates that the Presbyterians must still decide where they stand with respect to their mission to “spread the good news” to the Jewish community, Rabbi Gretton-Granatoor said.
“Until they resolve that issue, who are we in their eyes?” he asked, noting that church leaders said they would take the next two years studying the issue.
Although another committee is expected to take two years to study the issue of disinvestment, Rev. Kirkpatrick said one company that might be included for disinvestment is Caterpillar Inc. That Illinois-based firm sells Israel armored bulldozers that are used to destroy Palestinian orchards in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel says the destruction is needed because the groves are used as cover by Palestinian terrorists bent on killing Israelis.
Rev. Kirkpatrick’s comments came at a press conference following a 2 ½-hour meeting with Jewish representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“I do not leave this meeting feeling that the actions of the General Assembly should be changed or reversed but rather shaped,” he said.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism who convened the meeting in his Manhattan offices, called the session “difficult in some ways but very productive.”
Although the Jewish leaders said they conveyed their displeasure with the June General Assembly’s resolutions on missionary activities as well as its call for the dismantling of Israel’s security barrier, most of the meeting was devoted to the issue of disinvestment.
“We felt [the church’s divestment plan] would not be effective and would be seen as a boycott and … would be counterproductive” to the church’s efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, Rabbi Yoffie told reporters, adding that it generated “echoes of what happened in South Africa [with apartheid] and the Arab boycott.”
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American [Reform] Rabbis, said it was “hard for the Jewish community to understand the lopsided resolution.”
He said that were New York under attack, he would expect the United States to respond to protect its citizens just as Israel is doing with its security barrier. “It seems to me, there’s a lack of reality” with the resolution, Rabbi Menitoff said.
Rev. Kirkpatrick stressed that the General Assembly had not called for a “blanket” boycott of firms doing business with Israel, but rather “phased, selective” disinvestment of companies whose businesses cause harm to innocent people - Palestinians or Israelis. He said that disinvestment would be used as a “last option” after other measures aimed at seeking change fail, and that it would not happen until at least the next General Assembly in two years.