Rev. John Wimberly, a leader in Presbyterian-Jewish relations, said Wednesday that the Presbyterian divestment push is anti-Semitic, that it singles out Jews and Israel and that, ultimately, it will be defeated.
Rev. Wimberly, in town for the Presbyterian Church USA (PC USA) General Assembly starting in Birmingham today, made his remarks at a meeting of the Birmingham Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) where he was guest speaker. Presbyterians are expected to further consider their anti-Israel divestment proposal while in Birmingham.
He said that when he first learned of the push by PC USA, the nation's largest Presbyterian group, to divest itself from holdings in companies that divestment proponents feel assist Israel's "occupation" of the Palestinians, he knew the American Jewish community would go "bonkers."
Presbyterians "don't get" the connection between American Jews and Israel, he said. Rev. Wimberly, from Washington, DC, is co- chair of a group called Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations.
While describing himself as being on the left politically, he nonetheless said that he thinks attitudes by some on the religious left toward Israel are "sick...there is stuff going on that is anti-Semitic."
He believes that the divestment effort is part of a broader strategy to delegitimize Israel and the stakes at the Birmingham gathering are "very high."
At the same time, Rev. Wimberly believes that though divestment may not be defeated at the Birmingham meeting -- a series of interim measures could be adopted -- that ultimately it will be defeated by PC USA. He said rank and file congregants are against it.
CHRISTIAN LEFT VS. CHRISTIAN RIGHT
Rev. Wimberly thinks that Israel has become a lightning rod in the battle in Christian life today between the liberal left and more conservative Christian Zionists on the right, who base their unflinching support for Israel on the Bible. He also said that those on the left are against Israel in part because Israel has chosen to align itself with Christians on the right.
Nonetheless, the divestment push in Rev. Wimberly's mind reeks of anti-Semitism. "A double standard is being implied," he said, noting that there is no talk of PC USA divesting itself from holdings in companies that do business with countries that have despicable human rights records. He also said that while the American Jewish community sees the Palestinians as Moslems, many PC USA members see them as fellow Christians.
Rev. Wimberly also observed that that boycotts and being singled out punitively resonate negatively with Jews and Israel, because of the way such measures have been used against Jews and the Jewish State in the past. Presbyterians who want to have a constructive voice in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should look for more positive ways to make their views known.
Reiterating that it might take some time over the long haul to fully defeat the PC USA divestment measure, Rev. Wimberly, looking out at his mostly Jewish audience, said, "We ask for your patience -- though we shouldn't expect it."
NATIONAL JEWISH OFFICIAL ALSO SPOKE
Prior to Rev. Wimberly's remarks, Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which works with local Federation JCRCs, also spoke. He also is in town for the PC USA meeting.
He talked about a series of measures that PC USA has considered recently that relate to Jews and then focused specifically on divestment. He, too, said divestment is a manifestation of a "battle" between more liberal "mainline" Protestant groups, such as PC USA, and more conservative Christians, many of whom are Christian Zionists. "Divestment," he said, "is all about symbolism."
At the meeting, volunteer Maury Shevin was reelected for a second year to serve as Chair of the BJF's JCRC. The Birmingham Jewish Federation's JCRC is made up of Birmingham's Jewish organizations and serves as a bridge between the Jewish community and broader community. JCRC is funded by dollars raised through the BJF Campaign.