BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The General Assembly of thePresbyterian Church (USA) met in Birmingham this week in part to discuss divestment from corporations doing business with Israel. While the full assembly was not expected to vote on the resolution until later this week, some very clear impressions appear to this Jewish observer.
To begin with, Jews have much to learn from how the Presbyterians operate their conventions. On the one hand, their rules and procedures - combining the most inane parts of Robert’s Rules of Order with James Madison’s rules of congressional procedure - should not even be considered by Jewish leadership. On the other hand, the decorum and respect with which they conduct their business is mind-boggling. There are no raised voices, no personal attacks, and no gesticulations. There is an enforced adherence to speaker time limits with nary an objection or protest, despite the fact that they are conducting discussions about very serious and substantive issues. Finally, as part of a commitment to the environment as well as a bow to technology, it was a virtually paperless convention despite the myriad proposals, resolutions, amendments, and rules. All delegates and observers operated from laptops and projected screens.
The Presbyterian Church is deliberating many internal and institutional issues including ordaining gay clergy, premarital chastity, and liturgical questions. It is the activity of the church’s Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues that is of the greatest interest to the Jewish and pro-Israel community, and it was the church’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians that dominated the committee’s time.
In reviewing almost 30 overtures on this subject, the committee recognized that the church had made a mistake at its 2004 convention by setting in motion a movement toward possible divestment from Israel by 2008. It explicitly acknowledged its failure to consult and to consider adequately the implications of such a resolution on the Jewish community and on the State of Israel. It also admitted that the previous convention also had erred in its failure to reflect a more serious consideration of the multiplicity of perspectives regarding the Arab-Israel conflict.
The tone and the language of the deliberations over the divestment issue made it clear that the Jewish community has a significant number of friends within the Presbyterian Church. They not only recognized the problems that had been created by the 2004 GA resolution but also understood the substantive issues and their subtlety. It was also abundantly clear from the comments that many of the most supportive friends of the Jewish community had visited Israel on a joint mission of Christians and Jews.
At the same time, there remain deep-seated pockets of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feeling among some of the delegates. Even though most of the anti-Israel language was rejected by the committee, the depth of the anger and hostility displayed in some of the debates was palpable. Many of these critics had also been to Israel, but in programs conducted under the auspices primarily of Christians or Palestinian-Christian groups. Many of these tours in fact had spent most of their visits in the West Bank and Gaza and had had little or no exposure to Israeli Jews, or even Israeli Arabs.
This suggests that Israel and American Jewish organizations have spent insufficient time and resources on interdenominational relations. Despite the growth of the fundamentalist churches, given the reality of where so much of the political, economic, and social power structure in the United States still resides - and thus globally as well - it is incumbent for Jews and especially Israel to conduct much more positive outreach to the mainline Christian community. It requires time and resources with no risk.
The 2006 showing and participation of Jews were certainly better than in 2004, but there were insufficient Jewish observers and only a handful of speakers who actually addressed the committee. Although representatives from the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center did attend, there was no other national Jewish organizational presence. Some local area rabbis were visible, but it was the very vocal fringe groups from the Jewish Left who had the most notable presence, far exceeding their minute representation within the organized Jewish community. The only national rabbinic or synagogue presence was a representative from the Union for Reform Judaism, who was only in attendance for the first days. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which spends much time reaching out to fundamentalist Christian groups, had no representation. It appears that some in the Jewish community clearly believe that the hard “in the trenches” work with the liberal mainline church groups is not worth the effort.
Particularly noticeable by their absence were representatives of the Israeli government. Even if they opted not to speak, a quiet, visible Israeli presence could have had a noticeable impact.
The political and international consequences of interfaith outreach are inarguable. Extended contacts, individual conversations, and joint trips to Israel invariably establish a much more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of American Jewish unease and, even more so, a much deeper appreciation of the needs and concerns of Israel.