I am known as a progressive in the Presbyterian Church (USA). That’s why Presbyterians for Middle East Peace — a grassroots group of lay and clergy volunteers committed to being effective peacemakers in the region — asked me to cut short my vacation in Maine to speak against the church’s proposed divestment of its holdings in companies that do business with Israel at the denomination’s biennial General Assembly in Detroit.
What I encountered — in the committee dealing with Middle East issues, in the process on the floor of the assembly and among the pro-divestment advocates seemingly everywhere in the convention center — was an orchestrated “solidarity with the oppressed” narrative that insisted that the only way to stand with Palestinians was to stand against Israel by divesting.
The pro-divestment argument simply overwhelmed the average, moderate attendee who arrived in Detroit knowing nothing about the BDS movement or the church-sanctioned, anti-Israel publication, “Zionism Unsettled,” or the difference between a one-state vs. two-state solution. I share this not to excuse but to exegete the decision to endorse divestment — a decision that passed by a vote of 310-303.
The strategy of the pro-divestment advocates was brilliantly engineered to mask its negative intentions. The overture that passed included a statement about Presbyterians’ unwavering commitment to the existence of the state of Israel, a two-state solution, positive investment in Israel and Palestine, positive engagement in interfaith dialogue, and the importance of study trips to Israel and Palestine.
In other words, those in favor of divestment were at the microphones “perfecting” the final statement so that it included everything a moderate could ever want to stand for, thereby making divestment just one small part of a mostly positive witness.
Then, in a subsequent action that gave anyone paying attention mental and moral whiplash, the assembly voted to revisit the church’s commitment to a “two-state solution,” handing the responsibility of a two-year study on the issue to the same committee that had just orchestrated the vote for divestment.
In the words of the Rev. Dr. Christopher Leighton, Presbyterian minister and executive director of The Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, “How does the GA affirm the two-state solution while simultaneously setting up a commission to determine its viability? How does the GA declare its commitment to interfaith relations while hosting the expression of an anti-Israel screed under the guise of a congregational study guide?
“Our words are not simply contradictory but dishonest. In a desperate effort to conceal the offensive character of our words and deeds, we may imagine that the Church has taken into consideration the legitimate concerns of both sides. Yet the effort to toss a sop to the Jewish community and critics of the BDS movement renders our church’s position incoherent, disingenuous and inept.”
As ashamed and angered as I was by the behavior of my church’s leadership, I was humbled, heartened and brought to tears in the presence of the unwavering encouragement given by Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Rabbi David Sandmel of the Anti-Defamation League to those volunteers and commissioners standing against divestment, and by the presence of the Detroit Jewish community donning “Love Us, Don’t Leave Us” T-shirts on the day of the vote.
Then there was the privilege of meeting Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He graciously and courageously invited — pending the proposal’s rejection — the Rev. Heath Rada, the church’s newly elected moderator, and the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s parliamentarian, to stand with him in the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu next week, so that together, we could voice our commitment to peace and a two-state solution, as well as our opposition to settlements and occupation.
By saying yes to Rabbi Jacobs’ invitation and no to divestment, we would have demonstrated the power of a truly broad-based interfaith coalition to challenge the status quo. But instead of clasping Israel’s hand in partnership, with the divestment vote, we withdrew our hand and, in effect, used it to slap Israel even as we remained silent about the deadly threats posed to Christian communities in every nation of the Middle East save Israel.
If, because of the Assembly’s action, it should happen that Presbyterians and Jews stop working, talking, studying and traveling together, then the BDS movement will have won by many more than seven votes. Already, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace are raising questions at the highest levels of our church about the bias and behavior of our leadership.
They also are identifying Presbyterians throughout the country who are committed to working in partnership with the Jewish community to forge relationships resilient enough to withstand frustration and disappointment. I believe an informed Presbyterian public can overcome the bias of the current Presbyterian leadership if local congregations embark on bold educational initiatives with our Jewish colleagues.
As a Presbyterian minister who has traveled to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council and has, with Rabbi David Straus and the Rev. Dr. Nancy Muth, helped lead a 2012 study tour there comprised of members from my congregation, Main Line Reform Temple, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church and the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, I have witnessed the power of interfaith engagement. To borrow a line from the Broadway musical Kinky Boots: “You change the world when you change your mind.”
So if, on a Friday night, you notice a Presbyterian minister sitting hopefully on the back pew of your synagogue wearing a T-shirt that says, “Love Us, Don’t Leave Us,” that would be me.
Cynthia A. Jarvis serves as minister of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.