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Nephew of Famed Theologian Fights Back Against Presbyterian Divestment

July 2, 2014 By:
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Gustav Niebuhr, a journalist and Syracuse University professor, opposes the Presbyterian Church's decision to divest from companies that do business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank.

For Gustav Niebuhr, a former religion reporter with The New York Times, last month’s decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from companies that do business with Israel is an affront — both spiritual and personal.

The nephew of famed Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — once described by Barack Obama as “one of my favorite philosophers” — is fighting back against what he sees as a misguided take on Israel and an attack on his great uncle.

The Jewish community was also taken aback — and angered — by the national Presybterian organization’s approval of the divestment, which narrowly passed with a 310-303 vote after a decade of similar efforts and earlier this year, the release of a controversial document.

In “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide published by a national committee of the Presbyterian Church that blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on pathology inherent in Zionism,” the authors attack not only the Jewish state, but also its supporters — including Reinhold Nie­buhr.

Niebuhr was one of the most prominent theologians in America until his death in 1971 and a close friend of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish thinker. But the study guide casts him in a different light. It accuses him of “moral blindness” in supporting the Jewish state and ignoring the plight of Palestinians.

“To call him ‘morally blind’ is really just disgraceful,” said Gustav Niebuhr,  who is Presbyterian and a professor of religion at Syracuse University. Also, “it’s just not true.”

In response, Niebuhr is working with Presbyterian clergy and laypeople around the United States — including at least one minister  in Philadelphia — to mend ties with the Jewish community. He is also helping draft a full-page advertisement to run in The New York Times on behalf of Presbyterians who oppose the divestment.

Niebuhr was 16 when his great-uncle died, and remembered him as a “kind older relative” who lived on the Upper West Side. But much of his connection to the prominent theologist came later, reading his books and what others had written about him. Toward the end of Reinhold’s life, as his health declined after several strokes, he took almost daily walks with Heschel.

“These walks, ordered by the doctor for Reinhold’s health, when in the company of Abraham, became times of exchange and refreshment,” his widow, Ursula Niebuhr, said in a 1983 speech delivered at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. “It was no wonder to me that these two friends found each other so congenial, not only in this shared universe of discourse, but also in their dependence upon and reference to the Hebrew prophets.”

Niebuhr said his great-uncle placed great importance on interfaith dialogue at a time when it was much less common for Protestants and Jews to discuss their beliefs with one another. That’s why he sees the “Zionism Unsettled” claim that his uncle neglected Palestinian Arabs as “unfair” and “anti-intellectual.”

“He spoke about the need for a Jewish homeland, but at the same time he said any sort of arrangement made has to take into account the Arabs, who live there as well,” said Niebuhr, who spent a month studying in Israel as a graduate student.

At his church near Syracuse, Niebuhr organized a forum breakfast in May to discuss the study guide and the Israel-related overtures, as proposals in the church are called, that would be considered at the general assembly in Detroit.

“People were astonished because they weren’t aware of what had been going on,” he said. He then traveled to Michigan to speak out against divestment and in support of other measures aimed at a two-state solution.

“I said, ‘People are going to find out about this when they pick up their morning newspaper or turn on their TV and there’s going to be a lot of embarrassment if they get asked about the divestment and don’t have a way to explain it,’ ” he said.

Niebuhr said a lack of dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews contributed to the divestment, which the assembly narrowly approved by a 310-303 vote. But now that interfaith dialogue becomes even more difficult.

By producing the advertisement, the Presbyterian divestment opponents are trying to pressure national leadership to take different action on Israel, said Cindy Jarvis, minister of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill.

“We’re saying to them, ‘Your continuing on this one-sided crusade is not really wise in terms of the future of the church,’ ”said Jarvis.

The national Presbyterian organization, meanwhile, announced on June 27 that it would stop selling the study guide on its website, in response to feedback and after passing an overture at the general assembly declaring that it does not represent the views of the organization. But the divestment stance remains intact.

 “If I were to be an optimist, I would say that maybe something of educational value could come out of this,” Niebuhr said. “Presbyterians could learn that this is not the way to make peace — in the world or in the Middle East.”

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