On June 15, Presbyterians across the country will convene in Birmingham, Alabama for their biennial assembly. When they do, they will once again take up the hot-button issue of divestment, embodied in a resolution the church passed at its 2004 assembly, in which it called for "phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel."
The issue, which continues to strain the relationship between the Jewish and Presbyterian communities, has been on the front burner for Ethan Felson during much of the past two years.
As assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) in New York, the 40-year-old Felson represents the voice of the organized American Jewish community. As such, it is up to Felson to coordinate the community's response to the Presbyterian divestment initiative.
Before joining JCPA in 2001, Felson, a native of West Hartford, was the executive director of greater Hartford's Jewish Community Relations Council.
The Ledger recently asked Felson for perspective on the upcoming Presbyterian general assembly and its possible implications for the Jewish community.
Q: What could happen regarding divestment when the Presbyterians convene their general assembly later this month?
A: There are four possible scenarios: One is that they vote to rescind the 2006 divestment process. At this point that's less likely. The second is that they vote to affirm it along the same path. At this point, that's not likely. The third is that they opt to study it. And the fourth - which we're hoping will happen - is that they opt to study it, but suspend the process until the study is complete.
Q: What are you hoping will happen?
A: I hope they will rescind it. But that failing, I hope - and believe it is imperative - that they at least suspend this misguided process.
Q: How did we get to this place?
A: A significant segment of the people in this church who concentrate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are informed both by liberation theology and closely related adherence to pacifism. They see power as evil, even in self defense, because Jesus said turn the other cheek. They see Palestinians as profoundly weak. They don't understand that Palestinian terror is power, and Israel has a sacred obligation to use self-defense to protect her citizens.
Q: Where do the other churches stand on this issue?
A: The Episcopal church will be meeting at the same time as the Presbyterians. Two years ago they had a process that included the option of divestment and after a period of study, they took it off the table. It doesn't look at this point like they'll return there, but we've learned that anything is possible. The Lutherans have outright rejected divestment. The Methodists have continued to kick the ball down the field and it is most unlikely that this third largest American denomination would choose this course. The smallest guys in the room are the Congregationalists. They've passed a resolution that in theory backed divestment among other options, but they did not initiate any process and the leadership of their pension board and others in the church have said that no process is planned. So two years later the Presbyterians still stand alone.
Q: Why are the Presbyterians different than the other denominations?
A: The Presbyterians have a 150-year history in the land we each consider holy. They are deeply concerned about the status of their co-religionists. Their professional who deals with the Middle East is clearly the most stridently anti-Israel of any of the American churches. In addition, the Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists have a bicameral process, meaning they have a house of bishops that in some ways serves as a check on a broader general assembly that might gather every year or two. Another reason is that most of the people who will make these decisions on behalf of the church have never attended a general assembly in the past, and the people who will serve on the committee that is charged with this issue are randomly assigned. Meaning they are more dependent on the flow of information that is provided them in advance of the general assembly and at the assembly itself.
Q; In that case, how will the you deal with what happens at the general assembly?
A: I'll be spending a week in Birmingham while the general assembly is going on, hoping to have as many calm and productive conversations with decision makers as possible and continuing to work in very close coordination with the broad range of Jewish and pro-Israel groups that share in our profound concern about the path the church has chosen. Because we all know that divestment is not linked to the pursuit of peace.
Q: Why is that so?
A: Those who support divestment believe the Israelis are enormously powerful and that Israel is a satellite of the world's only super power, the United States, a country they see being run by their nemesis - evangelical Christians. We need to help them understand that while Israelis are grateful that they have an adept military, the psyche of the Israeli is to feel a sense of threat from their neighbors, isolation by the United Nations, and condemnation by many world leaders. And so divestment is just another fly in the ointment. The corporations they've identified - Caterpillar, ITT Motorola, and UTC - we know dismiss their process out of hand. They see the complexities in the conflict that seemingly elude divestment supporters.
Q: Do we have allies in the church?
A: The silver lining on this cloud is that we discovered just how many friends we have in the church. A poll the Presbyterians did themselves indicated that, to the extent their faithful even knew where the church was going, they disagreed, and the grassroots mobilization by friends of Israel who are, to a person, friends of peace, has dramatically increased the ranks of those in the church who would want a different path.
Q: What can and should American Jews and other friends of Israel do?
A: We need to check our history lectures at the door. We need to check our anger at the door. To moderates in the church there is nothing that happened in 1948 that instructs why a Palestinian child should suffer today. To them, the occupation causes the conflict. What we can do is help them to understand that the story doesn't begin or end with the Palestinian who dies in an ambulance at a checkpoint. The use of ambulances to transport bombs and weapons is a tool of devious power and it would be suicide for Israel to sit idly by and allow Israeli men, women and children to be killed as a demonstration of pacifism.
Regardless of what happens in Birmingham friends of Israel need to remember that we need to step outside of our own frames of reference and the messages that resonate with us, and understand that it's not always the case that a position in support of Palestinians is a position against Jews. Where it is, our voices must be clear - but understanding the themes of pacifism and power dynamics that inform this conversation is as necessary as any other tool in our pro-Israel advocacy kit.