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Meeting of Presbyterian & Jewish Leaders: Comments

Press Release

Meeting of Presbyterian and Jewish Leaders
September 28, 2004

Opening Comments by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism

I am a religious leader and not a politician or diplomat…. I can only respond to your Overtures in religious terms. I see them as a religious document; it seems to me that they constitute a religious statement with political implications, and not a political statement with religious implications. And it is precisely as a religious statement that I find them to be so distressing.

I am grateful to Rev. Kirkpatrick for his positive response to our invitation to convene this meeting, and for his willingness to discuss together with representatives of the Jewish community some implications of the Overtures adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Richmond. We see this meeting as a gathering of great importance. The Reform Movement in particular and the Jewish community in general have a long history of fruitful dialogue with the Presbyterian Church on both the national and local level, and we see our meeting today as an opportunity to continue and advance that dialogue. While some have called for burning bridges, we call for building them, and we are confident that we can discuss the most difficult issues without the inflammatory rhetoric that has been heard too frequently in recent months.

At the same time, we will of course be honest and direct with you, as we know that you will be with us. Since the adoption of the Overtures in Richmond, a number of local Jewish-Presbyterian meetings have taken place throughout the United States. In reviewing the reports that I have received on these meetings from Jewish participants, the common denominator seems to be that Presbyterian representatives, whether or not they support divestment, were surprised by the intensity of Jewish reaction to this Overture and to the other proposals concerning the Jews. Despite our past contacts, it seems apparent that we do not yet know each other well enough. My hope is that our discussion today will begin to break down some of those barriers that still exist.

It is important to emphasize that I speak to you today as a rabbi and as President of the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. I am a religious leader and not a politician or diplomat. While political issues will inevitably enter into our discussions, I can only respond to your Overtures in religious terms. I see them as a religious document; it seems to me that they constitute a religious statement with political implications, and not a political statement with religious implications. And it is precisely as a religious statement that I find them to be so distressing.

Because what is the religious premise on which Overture O4-32 is based? It is the declaration that “the occupation (is) at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people…” This is a stunning declaration. An evil act is an act that is contrary to God’s will, and evildoers are those who defy God’s law. In your Overture, Israel’s occupation is evil, as are, by implication, those who carry it out. And yet the word “evil” appears nowhere else in the Overture. No Palestinian action, no matter how horrific, is categorized as evil. True, there is a sentence condemning attacks on innocent people, including those of Palestinian suicide bombers. But it is important to note that you do not refer to these acts as “evil,” and, incredibly, neither do you characterize them as terrorism; but if the blowing up of Israeli children on a Tel Aviv bus is not an evil act and a terrorist act, then what is it? Furthermore, you equate suicide bombings with acts of the Israeli military, as if to suggest that military actions directed against terrorist targets in which civilians are accidentally killed are no different from the intentional slaughter of innocents by Palestinian bombers.

The use of theological language in this way has fearful consequences, which are all too apparent from other sections of the Overtures. If the Israeli occupation – and the Israeli occupation alone – is the root cause of the ongoing conflict, and if the Jews – and the Jews alone – are guilty of “evil acts,” then what emerges from the Overtures, even if this is not your intention, is a moral hierarchy of responsibility. Root causes are more important than secondary causes, and evil acts are more significant than other acts, however unfortunate. By this reasoning, therefore, it becomes possible not only to understand but even to excuse Palestinian terror and murder by referring back to the Israeli occupation that is ultimately the cause of it all.

When Palestinian terrorists murder Israeli civilians, Palestinian leaders have taken to responding in a particular way. First they offer a pro forma condemnation of all terrorist attacks directed against civilians, and then they make reference to the Israeli occupation as being responsible for such occurrences. This is the context in which we read your resolutions. Jews see them as a variation of this standard Palestinian response to the killing of Jews: they are a condemnation of terror that does not really condemn, and that ultimately excuses by pointing a finger of responsibility at the “Jewish occupiers.”

It is not easy for me to say this, but I must share it with you nonetheless. Jews who have read the Overtures are reacting so forcefully because the plain sense of the text leads them to ask two questions: Do the authors of these Overtures value Jewish lives and Palestinian lives equally? Do they mourn the death of Israeli children in the same way and with the same intensity that they mourn the death of Palestinian children?

I find it interesting, by the way, that your call for divestment is embedded in a resolution calling for support of the Geneva Accords. While the Geneva Accords were not endorsed by all segments of the Jewish community, they were unquestionably produced by honorable people sincerely devoted to peace. But it is important to note that its authors did something that you did not do: they avoided blaming either side for the current impasse; seeing responsibility in both camps, they argued that only by being scrupulously even-handed could they hope to advance the cause of a negotiated settlement.

I wish to make it clear that the Reform Movement believes that territorial compromise and rolling back the occupation are essential if peace is to be achieved. As a religious movement, we understand that the government of Israel, like all governments, is an imperfect, human creation, and that granting absolute loyalty to any government is an act of idolatry. We do not hesitate to criticize Israel’s actions when we believe them to be wrong or improper. Furthermore, we are appalled by the deplorable conditions in which the Palestinian population finds itself. And we know that without dignity for the Palestinian people, there can be no dignity for Israelis, just as we know that without peace for the Palestinians, there can be no true peace for Israel.

But we refuse to jump from there to the conclusion that Israel’s occupation is the root of all evil. Such a conclusion strikes us as both simplistic and absurd.

While a full political discussion is neither feasible nor wise in the time that we have available, permit me one political excursus that has special relevance to our discussion. Your Overture urges the vigorous participation of the United Statesin efforts to bring peace, a position with which we are in full agreement. And in a recently published book, Ambassador Dennis Ross reviews for us the talks at Camp David in 2000, the last time the Americans were fully and intimately engaged in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The agreement ultimately presented to the Palestinians was as much the Clinton plan as it was the Barak plan; endorsed by the Europeans and supported by many of the Arab states, it involved the return of the Gaza Strip and 95% of the West Bank to Palestinian sovereignty. Not a perfect plan but the best attainable, and involving difficult compromises by both sides, Israelis accepted the deal while the Palestinians did not. In a poignant passage, Mr. Ross describes the plea he made to Chairman Arafat to seize this historic opportunity to end the occupation and create a state for his people. But it was not to be. As Mr. Ross recounts, the Palestinian leader “said no to everything,” and did not present “a single idea or single serious comment in two weeks.” Soon thereafter, the Palestinians did present an answer of sorts—by initiating a wave of terror and ruinous violence in the form of a second intifada, which has yet to abate.

Until this moment, many Israelis believed that if only their government would offer a few additional concessions, Palestinian moderates would assert themselves and peace would materialize. But even when Clinton and Barak made a more generous offer than anyone anticipated, it evoked no Palestinian response, leaving Israelis and many American Jews to conclude that there is no partner at the moment for a fair and just peace. Much of what has subsequently happened on the ground is a result of this perception. If it is not possible to negotiate an agreement to end the occupation, then Israel must take steps to reduce the occupation unilaterally, as it is doing in Gaza. If it is not possible to have the security that results from a negotiated peace settlement, then Israel must build a fence to provide at least a measure of security until such a time as a settlement can be reached.

As this account attests, it is my firm belief that while Israel has frequently been wrong on specific aspects of policy, responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict rests primarily with the Palestinians. Still, in reviewing the events at Camp David, it is not my intention to convince you of my point of view. I understand that there are other ways to see these matters. But I do hope that you will appreciate our radically different perceptions, and reconsider the assumption that the intricate complexity of the Middle East conflict can be reduced to the single idea that the occupation is the root of all evil. Surely it is more complicated than that. Surely it is true that just as occupation can be responsible for terror, terror can be responsible for occupation; had Arafat said “yes” in 2000, the occupation would be long since concluded. Surely when Palestinians are running “kill the Jews” summer camps in Gaza, and bombers target Jewish children in pizza restaurants and school busses, we should not resort to sweeping and one-sided assertions on what constitutes the source of evil in this terrible conflict.

And what of divestment? The theology of the Overtures, I have said, is one-sided, and so too is the approach to sanctions that we find therein. You present divestment as a club held over Israel’s head to compel it to end the occupation; yet no club is held over the head of Palestinians so that they will stop their killing of innocents. Is not the message, once again, that acts of terror are somehow less significant in your moral calculus? Is not the message that Israel will be pressured into far-reaching concessions without the need for their Palestinian neighbors to change their conduct in any way?

I agree that it makes no sense to call for divestment in the Palestinian Authority. But there are other things that could have been done. You could have announced your intention to meet with Palestinian leaders and demand, clearly and unequivocally, that terrorism must stop because it is an offense against God and all humankind. You could have called upon the European Union to cut back its funding to the Palestinian Authority until it put an end to terror and agreed to comprehensive financial and political reforms.

We understand from your statements that you see divestment as a partial and limited step, aimed only at those companies causing harm to innocent people. While we acknowledge that this is your intention, we believe that it is not a weapon that can be wielded with the precision of a scalpel; it will become instead a cruel and unwieldy club that will be seen as a latter-day version of the Arab boycott of Israel or of the international boycott of South Africa. The ultimate result will be to impose collective punishment against all Israeli citizens – Arab and Jew – and to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. And by its very unfairness it will make Israel less likely, not more likely, to be politically conciliatory.

But must we not do something? Perhaps we must. Yet the role of religious leaders, it seems to me, is to support the moderates on both sides, and not to support one side against the other. There are a number of non-profits in Israel and Palestine that do the everyday work of promoting Palestinian-Israeli coexistence under the most difficult conditions imaginable. Perhaps we should collectively identify these organizations and support them together. And if we were really ambitious, perhaps we could create and support a Palestinian-Israeli school or camp that would teach the lessons of social justice and mutual respect that are central to both our traditions; or even create a small radio station that would broadcast a message of cooperation and peace directed to both sides of the border.

Our agenda is clearly a long and difficult one. And I have not even covered all of the items on our list, including the very important issue of support for messianic churches that we will turn to during our discussion.

What might come of our meeting today? We did not arrive here with an expectation that you would readily accept our views, but we do hope that you will be willing to hear them and to listen carefully to our deeply-felt concerns; and we, in turn, shall listen carefully to the concerns that you bring to our common table. We hope that we shall be able to find points of agreement, just as we know that differences and incompatibilities will remain. At the same time, we think that we can both learn from each other and teach others in the process.

Precisely because the agenda is long, I hope and pray that this will be the beginning and not the end of our conversations. The issues are simply too weighty for a single session.

Is there a religious person anywhere who can ignore the truly abysmal plight of the Palestinian people? Is there a religious believer anywhere who can stand aside when Jewish children are murdered in the name of God or a sacred cause? The answers are self-evident, but the path that will enable us to resolve these injustices will be difficult to find. What we need to do, and what Israelis and Palestinians need to do, is to reach out to our neighbors and listen for God’s presence in their voice. I hope that that listening can begin today.



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