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Pro-Israel Advocates Downplay Presbyterian ­Assembly, But Are Still Wary of BDS Vote

June 11, 2014 By:
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Presbyterian minister Cindy Jarvis (right), who, with fellow minister Nancy Muth, traveled on a Jewish Community Relations Council trip to Israel, will attend the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Detroit.

Presbyterian minister Katie Day is not alone in her denomination as a supporter of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. She is also not alone in downplaying how much individual churches seek guidance from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which has voted on divestment measures for the last decade and has been a source of significant consternation for pro-Israel advocates.

The group’s biennial assembly, slated to take place June 14 to 21 in Detroit, is set to consider at least five resolutions, or “overtures,” that would advance divestment from companies that deal with Israel’s military and one that would reconsider wheth­er the church supports a two-state solution.

In 2012, a divestment measure by the group narrowly failed by a 333-331 vote. 

“I’m often baffled that the Jewish community seems to take our general assembly more seriously than the rank-and-file Presbyterians do,” said Day, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia who described herself as “open-minded” on Israel and said she supports BDS not “as a punitive measure, only as a diplomatic measure.”

“Most people in the pews don’t know so well the social stands that our denomination takes,” said Day, who plans to travel to Israel on an American Jewish Committee-sponsored trip next month. She said she hopes that the church divesting from companies that do business in the West Bank would encourage Israel to end “the occupation” and move toward her goal of a one-state solution with­out an official religion.

Although Day is not going to Detroit, it’s church members like her whom pro-Israel groups — Jewish and not-Jewish — worry about. Organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and pro-Israel members of the Presbyterian Church are taking the upcoming assembly seriously and rallying opposition to the anti-Israel measures.

Still, even Israel’s supporters say that the assembly’s action will not have a great impact on the church.

“I’m concerned that something might pass that would embarrass me as a Presbyterian more so than anything they would do” that would make an impact one way or another, said Pastor Todd Stavrakos, who has served as moderator for the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s peacemaking committee. Even so, Stavrakos authored a letter opposing BDS that was signed by nine local Presbyterian clergy and sent to the 10 local commissioners who will vote at the assembly.

Part of the concern among pro-Israel advocates comes from the fact that votes on divestment measures have come closer to passing each year.

“My national colleagues are more worried because they feel that every time this happens, we see mainstream leaders becoming more accepting of the language” of divestment, said Adam Kessler, director of the local JCRC. 

The church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network also caused outrage in the Jewish community last year with the publication of “Zionism Unsettled,” a congregational study guide that blamed the Israeli-Arab conflict on ”pathology inherent in Zionism.”

Kessler says “the majority of Presbyterians are not happy with these BDS overtures and most of them are not even aware that they are taking place,” but the general assembly potentially approving such measures “is symbolic” and “something we have to take very seriously.”

“It’s a little bit of a ‘slippery slope’ argument,” he said. “Today it might represent 5 to 10 percent of the Presbyterian Church, tomorrow it’s 25 to 30 percent and then we have to ask ourselves, ‘What were we doing years ago when these overtures were being offered?’”

To combat divestment efforts, JCRC held a meeting in April at Congregation Or Ami with Protestant and Jewish theologians in hopes of presenting a clearer picture of Israel’s place in Christianity as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Local rabbis have also reached out to the 10 Presbyterian leaders from the area who will vote at the assembly, Kessler said. 

And a letter with signatures from more than 1,500 Jewish leaders across the United States, including at least 90 from the Philadelphia area, encouraged Presbyterian leaders to reject the BDS movement.

“The role of peacemaker is irreconcilable with positions that promote economic coercion through boycott, divestment and sanctions, and consequently discourage, rather than encourage, constructive engagement,” the letter states.

Some Presbyterian leaders are also trying to educate those who think that by supporting divestment against just a few companies that do business in the West Bank they are not actually supporting the BDS movement, said Cindy Jarvis, minister of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, who has traveled to Israel on two interfaith trips.

Jarvis suggested that the “Zionism Unsettled” publication might actually hurt Presbyterian BDS supporters because if “reasonable people” look at that, they will find it “outrageous.” 

Jarvis will address a committee on Middle East issues at the assembly and said she will discuss “the need to maintain our freedom of conscience by not allowing ourselves to be used as a movement whose underlying agenda is for Israel not to exist.” 

Stavrakos, who will not attend the assembly, said no matter what happens in Detroit, “the average churchgoer” will still want “to support the Jewish community and Israel.”

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