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Reform Leaders Criticize Presbyterian Church (USA)

Emily Grotta


New York, July 27, 2004 - Responding to the recent actions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly regarding Israel and the Jews, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis are asking every Reform rabbi to initiate dialogue with the Presbyterian clergy in their local community.

"These are dark days for Jewish-Presbyterian relations, but this sad chapter only reinforces the need for enhanced, deeper, and more sustained dialogue," said URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie. "I have no illusions that this work will be easy, but that makes it all the more important that we get started right away."

The 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted 431-62 to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel" and also failed to pass a motion that would end the funding of messianic congregations that target Jews for proselytization and conversion.

The Union, which launched a major effort to promote interfaith dialogue called "Open Doors, Open Minds" less than a year ago, and the CCAR are calling on the 1,800 Reform rabbis across North America to reach out and meet with local Presbyterian clergy.

"We are hopeful that the local clergy, who in so many cases already have strong personal relationships, will be able to help each other understand this difficult situation," said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, Executive Vice-President of the CCAR. "Understanding, however, will only be helpful if it results in movement away from the blatantly anti-Israel position taken by the Presbyterian Church General Assembly."

In a letter sent last week to the Reverend Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of PC-USA's General Assembly, Rabbis Yoffie and Menitoff criticized PC-USA's new policy statements and invited Reverend Kirkpatrick to meet with the leadership of the Reform Movement. The letter concluded, "We are committed to trying to find ways - such as the Union for Reform Judaism's "Open Doors, Open Minds" program - to work together, but, in candor and in friendship, we must tell you that the actions of your General Assembly make it harder and harder to find common ground."

Reverend Kirkpatrick has already responded to the Yoffie/Menitoff letter, accepted their invitation, and asked his staff to find a mutually convenient date.

The full text of the letter to Reverend Kirkpatrick follows:

Dear Rev. Kirkpatrick,

As longtime allies in the progressive faith community, it is with deep disappointment and alarm that we write concerning the "Overtures" adopted at the recent Presbyterian Church USA's General Assembly.

We would like to request a meeting of the leadership of the Reform Jewish Movement, the largest segment of North American Jewry, with you and the PC-USA leadership to discuss these issues.

We are especially concerned about PC-USA's formal endorsement of divestment from Israel. Now eleven years past Oslo, we agree with Rev. Mitri Raheb's assertion, included in your press release "Assembly Endorses Israel Divestment," that issuing statements is simply not enough to ensure real progress towards peace. But singling out Israel, while it faces an unending wave of Palestinian terrorism, not only threatens the wellbeing of the Jewish state but of Presbyterian-Jewish relations here in North America.

Surely you know that over 1,000 Israelis have died and thousands more have been injured in acts of Palestinian terrorism since the fall of 2000. Terrorism pervades every element of Israel's culture and society, making it dangerous to ride on a bus, sit in a café, or even walk down the street. We are pleased that your Overture includes support for an end to Palestinian suicide bombings and recognizes that such acts are "abhorrent and inexcusable by all measures." Nonetheless, though you purport to present a balanced picture of the situation, in fact you single out one party for economic and political sanction. Where is the PC-USA Overture on holding the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism accountable for the misuse of Palestinian funds, including international humanitarian relief funds? Where is the PC-USA Overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority?

Your support of divestment from Israel creates a worrisome double standard. Are human rights violations by Israel greater than those committed by the Palestinians? By the Syrians? By the Iranians? We have to ask ourselves - and we encourage you to ask yourselves - why this attack focused on the only democracy in the region? Not withstanding her faults and missteps as she wrestles to deal with legitimate security concerns, Israel has been and remains a far more open, tolerant, and democratic nation than any other in the Middle East. Surely one can be critical of specific policies of the Israeli government, as we ourselves have been from time to time, but this blatantly anti-Israel affront stymies legitimate criticism born of a true love for Israel and peace.

It is sadly ironic that this effort comes in the context of an Overture on supporting the Geneva Accords. The success of the Accords, and of any effective peace process, is intrinsically linked to the cessation of terrorism, the economic health of Israel, and popular support for progress towards peace within its borders, all of which are undermined by divestment.

Additionally, it is difficult to reconcile your Overture supporting Presbyterian-Jewish dialogue with this one-sided attack on Israel which is such a central facet of Jewish identity. It was just this past June that you met with Colin Powell along with Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of our Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the Executive Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to discuss real actions that the U.S. should be taking to support peace. That spirit of cooperation is now put into question with this Overture.

Our concerns are only exacerbated when the Overture on Israel is read together with the continued funding for messianic congregations which falsely advertise and target Jews for proselytization and conversion. As you know from the meeting you had with Jewish leaders in Washington this spring, this - like Israel - is a survival issue for our community.

We are further dismayed by a separate Overture, also passed at your recent General Assembly, "On Calling for an End to the Construction of a Wall by the State of Israel." Yet again, this one-sided approach, which fails to recognize the barrier as a defensive mechanism against terrorism, calls into question your genuine concern for Israel's security. We too have been critical of the route of the barrier (though you misleadingly imply that it is a wall for the majority of its path, when in fact, it is a wall for only approximately five miles). But, by opposing the wall in its entirety without consideration for Israeli life and security, just as by endorsing divestment from Israel, you have singled out Israel unfairly and unjustly.

As we were preparing this letter, we found your statement of July 20th on the PC-USA website. We certainly welcome your attempt to explain the General Assembly's action and your insistence that "these actions are rooted in a longstanding commitment to the secure existence of Israel and the Israeli people." We believe, however, that the statement makes all the more apparent, and more urgent, the need for a face-to face meeting. For example, your statement (at #4) notes that "the assembly authorized exploration of a selective divestment" (emphasis added). That claim is simply not supported by the language of the Overture, in which the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee is instructed "to initiate a process of phased selective divestment" (emphasis added). We note, as well, that the Presbyterian News Agency's story on the Overture is headlined simply "Assembly Endorses Israel Divestment." As you are surely aware, one of the criticisms we have often made of some Arab leaders is that they say one thing (in English) to the West, and another (in Arabic) to their own communities. It appears that here PC-USA is availing itself of this same tactic.

We urge you to reconsider these positions and hope we can meet soon to discuss the delicate balancing between peace and security that these matters require. We are committed to trying to find ways - such as the Union for Reform Judaism's "Open Doors, Open Minds" program - to work together, but, in candor and in friendship, we must tell you that the actions of your General Assembly make it harder and harder to find common ground.


Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)

Rabbi Paul Menitoff
Executive Vice President
Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)


The Union for Reform Judaism is the synagogue arm of the Reform Movement in North America, and represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 congregations in the United States and Canada. The Union services include youth camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, adult education programs, and the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC.


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