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Prebyterian Church (USA) Interfaith Coordinator Addresses ADL National Meeting Concerning Divestment from Israel and Evangelism of Jews

Rev. Dr. Jay T. Rock, Interfaith Coordinator, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Remarks to the Anti-Defamation League National Executive Committee Meeting, February 12, 2005

Posted: February 12, 2005

Greetings from our Moderator, Mr. Rick Ufford-Chase, and from our Stated Clerk, The Rev. Cliff Kirkpatrick.  Thank you for this opportunity to be with you.

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, every Thursday afternoon the weekly Jewish paper arrived in my house.  My mother was a Presbyterian, and also a faithful member of Hadassah.  My father was a physician, the son of a Jewish Arbeiter Rung-er who came to the United States in 1902 from near Vilna, Lithuania.  His mother, Jenny Rudinsky Rock, came in 1905.  Her younger brother emigrated some years later to the Yishuv in Mandate Palestine, but did not like the life he found there and returned to Europe, where he perished in the Holocaust. 


There are not many with my background in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but let me assure you that the Presbyterian Church did not take these actions out of hatred of the Jewish people.  In fact, many Presbyterians understand why most Jews have found the recent action of the Presbyterian Church (USA) troubling and hard to understand.  It is precisely because we have learned enough to know, at least a little, why the Jewish community has reacted as it has, that I am especially pleased to talk with you today.


In our offices, we have over 7,500 yellow postcards that people sent to us at the urging of B'nai B'rith.  In its letter of appeal containing these cards, B'nai B'rith described Presbyterians as people engaged in a multi-faceted campaign against Jews, consisting of an attack on the security and economy of the state of Israel, as well as a new attempt to convert Jews.  This letter states that the church adopted "a series of hostile, aggressive and profoundly insulting resolutions aimed directly at the Jewish people and the State of Israel."  It suggests that Presbyterians are no longer friends, and that we have left behind our commitment "never again" to "participate in, contribute to, or … allow the persecution or the denigration of Jews" (from the 1987 Statement on a Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews").  We are thankful that the Jewish synagogue and rabbinic bodies, and major Jewish agencies such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have chosen to follow a different course, and to open dialogue with Presbyterians, based on amore accurate picture of things.


My aim this morning is to try to move us beyond the fog of mis-representation that has characterized so many descriptions of what Presbyterians are doing, and to provide you a basic description of our actions, and some information about the perspectives that lie behind them.  I hope that this will allow us to begin to talk about the substantial issues that are at stake, especially in light of the new, tentative possibilities for movement toward peace in the region that are just now emerging.


What is the Presbyterian Church doing about evangelism among Jews?  What is the purpose and scope of the actions of the Church in relation to Israel and Palestine?


This last Monday and Tuesday, Presbyterian staff held a small meeting with Reform and conservative Rabbis of the National Council of Synagogues, to plan a series of consultations that will be part of the study requested by the last General Assembly, or national governing body, of our Church.  This study is to "review and strengthen" our understanding of Christian-Jewish relations, with particular attention to the implications of this understanding for any form of evangelization among Jews.


This study comes out of serious and widespread concern among Presbyterians that we not engage in deceptive forms of evangelism, and that we rightly understand our particular relationship with the Jewish people.  As Reformed Christians we are part of a tradition that views Christians and Jews as two people bound together in one covenant of grace (hesed), both "elected by God for witness to the World."  The study will build upon this basic understanding to address questions about how Presbyterian Christians and Jews can best be in relationship.  It will clarify and expand on affirmations of the 1987 Statement, "A Theological Understanding of the Relations Between Christians and Jews."  In that document the church affirmed that "Jews are already in a covenantal relationship with God," and therefore, "dialogue is the appropriate form of faithful conversation between Christians and Jews."  This study will say much more about what is appropriate and not appropriate in regard to witness in relation to the Jewish people.


Let me be clear: Presbyterians are not launching a campaign to convert Jews.  Rather, we are at the beginning of a process with the intent to build further understanding and better inform our practice of living as faithful Christians side-by-side with our spiritual siblings – you, our Jewish neighbors.  The General Assembly will receive an interim progress report when it meets in 2006.


Let me turn then to the actions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that have generated by far the most mis-information, anger, fear, pain and concern within the Jewish community – and also among some Presbyterians: the Church's actions related to the Israeli-Palestinian situation and what will make for peace.


One of the most consistent misperceptions is that the Presbyterian Church does not care about terrorism – not about the horror and devastation of it, nor the threat it poses to any possibility for peace.  The actions and words of some Presbyterians, and an inconsistency in the language of our own resolutions have not helped convey an accurate picture of our position on this.  I want you to hear me clearly on his point:  The Presbyterian Church (USA) views terrorism with revulsion, and as a particularly ugly obstacle to peace.  We join Christian leaders in Palestine and decent people everywhere in speaking out against suicide bombings and other acts of terror committed by Palestinians.


At the Richmond General Assembly last summer, unnoticed in many reports, the Church adopted a strongly worded statement on Religion, Violence, and Terrorism, in which we make it clear that terrorism is immoral and unacceptable.  This Resolution states that "terrorism whether state, group, or individual" is "immoral because it wrongfully and deliberately attacks innocent civilians."  There is no justification for terror in any form.


As our Stated Clerk said in 2002, following a number of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and the horrible Passover bombings, "None of these actions can be supported as acceptable expressions of anger and frustration, retribution, tactics in a political struggle, or the acceptable reactions to human wrongs, new or old.  No matter how these acts are rationalized, they are not justifiable."  "Acts of hate and terror inflicted on innocent children and youth, women and men of Israel and the larger Jewish community must be unequivocally condemned and vehemently abhorred."


But Rev. Kirkpatrick goes on to say, "This is in no way inconsistent with speaking out about the political and military violence of the Israeli government or the militant activities of Israeli settlers.  It is possible to speak with Jewish neighbors and fellow citizens about Israel in ways that do not diminish their hope, their security, or their trust.  This can only happen when people speak and act with respect for those with whom they disagree."


We as a church believe terrorism is one source of the lack of security and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  We also believe that another source of the problem is the occupation.


Do Presbyterians see a "moral equivalency" between the blowing up of Israeli children on a bus, and the violence of occupation?  Not at all.  Hear me clearly on this point also: We see absolutely no equivalency between a suicide bombing and the loss of a job, or the economic distress of a farmer prevented from harvesting his fields.  Like any one else, we are revolted by the images and reality of human beings blown into pieces and scattered around the shattered wreckage of a bus.  Nonetheless, we must add that the occupation has caused the death of babies and mothers, unable to get to the hospital in the case of difficult births.  Children and others have been killed by rockets fired into buildings in the military reprisals that have been a regular feature of occupation.  People have watched their homes and orchards bulldozed in reprisal for actions of distant relatives or strangers.


Our view is that there is a moral problem with terrorism, and there is a moral problem with occupation, and we need to discuss them both.  And so we speak out against terrorism.  And we speak out for an end to the occupation and the forms of violence that go with occupation.


It is for this latter reason that our General Assembly last summer called for an end to the construction of the separation barrier.  While the security barrier has cut down the number of civilian deaths in Israel by as much as 95% since its erection, there has been no reduction in the number of deaths of Palestinian civilians in that same period.  Presbyterian delegates to the Assembly concluded that the barrier will not contribute to the lasting security of Israelis or Palestinians.  It contributes to the mutual suspicion, and monumentalizes the violence, that divides Israelis and Palestinians.  It also involves further confiscation of occupied territory.  Israelis and Palestinians and the international community question its proposed route.  It further divides the Palestinian community and further restricts their economic possibilities.  In some cases it prevents Christian pastors from being able to reach their people, and disrupts the ministry of the churches.


Presbyterians called for an end to this barrier in the belief "that the best hope for security for both Israelis and Palestinians may be found in laying down all forms of aggression on both sides, ending the Israeli occupation, and finding ways to build bridges of peace rather than walls of separation.  Good neighborly relations, rather than mutual isolation and suspicion, are urgently needed between Israel and its neighbors in Palestine and the Middle East."


Also and now famously, or infamously, it was also in response to the problems of occupation that the Presbyterian Church took the action often characterized as "divesting from Israel."  This action does not, in fact, call for removing money from any corporations BECAUSE they operate in Israel.  Nor is it a policy of blanket divestment, as some still believe.  It would be better named "Divestment from Obstacles to Peace," or something similar, because it calls for engagement with corporations and the possible divestment from corporations because they are involved in activities that we think stand in the way of peace.


The decision begins by re-affirming statements that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has made many times before, and in particular the statement of the Assembly of 2003.  It re-affirms Israel's right to live in safety within secure borders, and a two-state solution.  It expresses abhorrence of acts of terror by any party that maim or kill innocent people.  It reiterates the call to Arab states to cease any funding that might be supporting terrorism. It calls on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to give leadership for peace between their peoples.  The action of the Assembly then asks the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee of the church to begin "a process of phased selective divestment" from certain corporations operating in Israel, based on our policies for socially responsible investing.


You have heard me speak about the Presbyterian Church's position on the immorality of terrorism and the occupation.  The church's policies on socially responsible investing make it clear that the church should not profit from activities that it deems immoral.


Secondly, it is important for you to hear that these words – "phased, selective divestment" – name an already existing process, which begins with setting criteria through which to look at our investments.  These criteria were not developed until a full 41/2 months after the action was taken, leaving plenty of room for misinterpretation of what the Presbyterian Church intended.


The criteria have now been formulated, based on the policy stances of our Church.  These criteria make it clear that the Committee will identify and engage those corporations whose activities fall into one of the following categories:


·         Those corporations that provide products or services for use by the Israeli police or military to support or maintain the occupation.

·         Corporations that provide products, services or technology of strategic importance to the maintenance of the occupation.

·         Corporations that have established facilities or operations on occupied land.

·         Corporations that provide products or services, including financial services, for the establishment, expansion or maintenance of Israeli settlements.

·         Corporations that provide products and services, including financial services, to Palestinian or Israeli organizations that support or facilitate violent acts against innocent civilians.

·         Corporations that provide products or services, including financial services, that support or facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier.


These criteria will be used by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee to look through the investment portfolio of the Presbyterian Church and to develop an initial list of companies, out of which a small number will be identified for engagement.  The first step of this process of engagement is the initiation of conversations with management of the corporations in question, to bring our moral concerns to their attention.  We want to engage in a dialogue with these corporations to make clear to them the basis of our objections to their practices.


The next step would be to initiate shareholder resolutions that give visibility to the church's concerns; these resolutions might be made over a number of years.  If none of these steps change a particular corporation's activity, then only would the Committee recommend to the General Assembly that this corporation be placed on list for divestment.


At this point, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee is still researching corporations in the portfolio of the church.  This step will probably be completed over the summer.  The earliest date at which a General Assembly could approve an actual recommendation of divestment would be June 2006.


As Vernon Broyles, Associate for Corporate Witness of the PCUSA has said in the Feb. 8th edition of Christian Century magazine,


The church recognizes that suicide bombers have taken numerous innocent Israeli lives – acts that the General Assembly has deplored as unconscionable.  There are periodic acts of violence on the part of some Palestinians against innocent victims.  Palestinians have often been poorly served by leaders who have been guilty of serious corruption and violence against some of their own population.


The divestment recommendation in no way ignores the responsibility of Palestinians to work toward a peaceful future.  It does express the conviction that until the Israeli occupation and other aspects of Israeli encroachment are ended, that peaceful future will remain in jeopardy.


This decision by the General Assembly of our church is not taken as an action against the Jewish people.  Its aim is not to harm the economic vitality of Israel, for we are quite clear that peace requires strong stable partners.  It is not aimed at Israel, but at specific activities of certain corporations.  It is not intended, nor does it in fact, exclude appropriate investment in the region. This is certainly desirable.  And it is not offered as the one strategy for achieving peace, but as a specific strategy to address the problems of occupation.  Much else remains to be done to help Israel and the Palestinians come to a lasting and secure peace.


We are aware that many Jews oppose this action.  We know that Presbyterians are divided about these actions.  And we are encouraging Presbyterians to be in conversation with Jews and each other in order to discuss the issues frankly and openly.


The dialogue that is taking place today between Jews and Presbyterians is certainly something for which we can all be thankful.  I thank you again for this opportunity to speak to you.  It is through such conservations that we can continue to be engaged with one another, and together to engage the many issues of injustice and violence that all of us face in today's world.  May we talk frankly, and openly address the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine that have caused tension between us many times over the last 30+ years.  And may we join forces, especially as new political possibilities seem to be emerging, to provide politicians and statesmen the impetus they need to forge a lasting peace in which Israelis and Palestinians can sit secure beneath their vines and fig trees, and no longer be afraid.


Response by Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director:


Jay, you are a good person.  You are a fair person.  You are a person that has dedicated his life to bring truth, faith, and  respect to your people; but more so you have spent much time trying to establish respect between the [Jewish and Christian] communities.


We asked that you come to address us and you came, because you see it as your mission.  You see it as your obligation to communicate to us that which you believe.  And we felt it was important that our leadership from around the country hear you; not hear us say what you say, believe and articulate, but for them to hear what it is that we encounter, that we hear, that we understand.


Something I learned this morning, which sort of surprises me, maybe even shocks me, but all of a sudden gives me an understanding.  You used the term several times, "We need to hear and understand each other's narrative."  I didn't know that the Palestinian narrative is the Presbyterian Church's narrative.  Well, if that's the case, we're in a different ballgame.  Fine.  God bless you.  You're entitled.  But say so.  Say that the Presbyterian Church has adopted, has accepted the Palestinian narrative.  That is your prerogative.


We don't hide the fact that the Jewish people supports the state of Israel, believes in its right of existence, believes in its righteousness and its moral obligation to protect and to provide for the safety and the security of the Jewish people.  Fine.  And so we are at two opposite ends.


But no, Jay, that's not what you do.  You tell us here we have to understand each other's narrative.  No, the narrative that I thought we were dialoging about is your vision of truth, of God, of faith, of this world, of values.  I didn't know that what we're dialoging about is you having accepted the Palestinian narrative and we should therefore -- no, I have enough listening to the Palestinian narrative from the Palestinians.  They are the real source.  That's who makes a difference, not you, nor us.  It's the Israelis and the Palestinians, it's their narrative that has to be -- but all of a sudden we're in dialogue with you about the Palestinian narrative?  What for?


But what galls us is that it's based in morality.  You wrap it into moral truth and it is moral hypocrisy.  You're entitled to your moral view, but say this is the Palestinian position which you have adopted and you give it morality.


But you come here and it's almost, for someone that I know and respect, sophistry just to say it.  This is a disinvestment.  Disinvestment comes out of South African experience.  By saying it isn't so, you can't make it not so.


And then, then you list A, B, C, D.  You can engage corporations.  You have nothing else to do on the moral plane, on a spiritual plane, and what society needs in terms of better understanding?  It's beyond me. 

So either it's the ultimate of naiveté, or it's bias.  And you know what?  We feel it's bias.


If this is your agenda, it means this is so important to the Presbyterian Church to establish a different world, this is it?

Jay, I know what's in your heart.  I know the respect that you have, I know the respect.  And you come here a year later and you say basically the same thing.  You defend it as if it was the same then, now, after a year of dialogue, and then you end up "Well, we need to understand the narrative"?  No.  We haven't gotten anywhere.  You come here, respectfully so, but you defend exactly the same things you defended when we first encountered.  So where is dialogue going?  And why are we dialoguing -- forgive me again -- on the Palestinian-Israeli narrative?


Why is a Jewish group and a Presbyterian Christian group, why are we doing this? Especially when there are enough forums of Palestinians and Israelis to discuss narratives and debate their narratives, to adjust their narratives, to resolve their narratives.  Why has this become our battle, our conversation?


I apologize, I have very little to do with B'nai B'rith.  I apologize for that language.  I apologize.  In the same way that we apologize, the church receives threats from some Jews.  We're not responsible for our community, but we know enough to stand up when somebody in our community crosses that line and we apologized and spoke out.  So the language there is inappropriate, not respectful, exaggerated.  I apologize.


And I hope you don't feel that what I say to you today is offensive.  But it comes, Jay, out of respect.  We have respect for faith and faith institutions.  We have respect for moral values and judgments.  And if we came together here to disagree on a political, international issue would be one thing, but to hear it said in moral terms, Jay, you keep -- it's that balance list, my God, listen to it, listen to it.


You believe in original sin, I think, I don't know, I'm not an expert.  I think Christianity believes in original sin.  The original sin was forty-seven, forty-eight, fifty-six, you name it, sixty-seven, the rejection of a state of Israel, the rejection of the being of the Jewish people.


To this day the people's whose narrative you have embraced reject existence of the Jewish people, of Jewish history, of a Jewish state.  That's the original sin.  That's what has maintained occupation for years and years and years.

And I don't care.  Nothing, nothing justifies terrorism.  That should be the moral position.  Not to equate terrorism, suicide bombers, and occupation. You justify it by putting it like this.  You justify it.  Morally justify, because you speak in the name of a church.  How can you?


And then you want us to understand?  How can we understand?  You morally justify it by saying one balance is the other.  And it is an original sin.  And the original sin is in your narrative.  Because it was the Palestinians and the Arab states who rejected and rejected and rejected and rejected and we're not sure now they're ready to accept it.  Where is your sanctioning of them?  Where is your divestment of Arab states who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish people?  Where is your sanctioning or talking to corporations who support those? Are you talking to those who have the materials for the suicide bomb chemicals?  Are they on your list?  Where are the corporations? You want me to find them for you?  Do you have a panel meeting with them?  No, because that's not in your narrative.


I would be the last one to say that we shouldn't dialogue.  I would be the last one to say that good things cannot come from talking to each other.  But Jay, I'm not sure from the time that we met a year, year and a half ago, whether or not we have been talking past each other.


I can't demand that you understand our pain, but I find it difficult to understand why you don't.  I understand why you feel the pain of the Palestinians, for we feel the pain of the Palestinians.  But to have such a skewed view and to so defend it with the face that you defend it is very, very painful.

Having said all that, we're privileged to have the good human being that you are who wants to continue.  But I have to say to you I'm a lot more saddened, a lot more pessimistic.  I'm a lot more optimistic what's going on in the Middle East, and a lot more pessimistic on how little progress we have made in understanding each other and each other's pain.


But thank you, thank you for your courage.  Thank you for your desire to communicate with us.


Thank you.



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