On the “Expanded” Presbyterian statement on “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias in the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace.”

Mark Braverman
June 16, 2008

The revised version of the original document by this name authored by Jay Rock of the Presbyterian Church is a significant improvement over the first effort.  The author (or authors) of this revised piece have responded to the criticism leveled against the original document and have produced a thoughtful piece that brings the discussion forward much more effectively.   Indeed, the document deserves to be renamed from its original title, “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias,” because it corrects the fundamental problem with the previous piece, which was to put concern about anti-Semitism before the actual issue, which is justice in Israel-Palestine.  This shift in focus is reflected in the very opening of the statement, which states, clearly and simply that Presbyterians “must stand unwaveringly for Justice and Peace.”

Indeed, what is most important about this new statement is that it leads with just that – a principled stand on the injustice being perpetrated against the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.  And it very clearly differentiates between criticism of the State of Israel and anti-Jewish feeling or statements.  The author stands his ground on the central importance for Presbyterians of opposing against any statements or positions that might partake of anti-Jewish feeling, and of the equally central importance of preserving the respectful relationship between Presbyterians and Jews.  But he is respectful of this without backing off from a principled stand on the Israel Palestine situation.  

It is a very careful document.  And that’s a good thing, because for Christians this is a complex issue, raising highly conflictual and conflicting feelings.  As such, it requires care.  It also requires clarity, and this revised document achieves clarity on several key issues, issues that are often blurred and which create considerable confusion and distress as a result.  There are two critical issues that the document covers well, correcting the problems with the first one:

1.    First:  it makes a clear distinction between the responsibility of the Israeli government and the citizens of Israel for their policies, and the Jewish people as a whole.  Indeed, the Jewish establishment would do well to study this example, as Jewish organizations deliberately confuse Israel and its interests with that of all Jews.
2.    Second:  the statement presents a much more balanced and considered statement about Palestinian Liberation Theology.  Although the author continues to insist that  “most Jews” see in Palestinian Liberation Theology an “echo” of the accusation of Christ killing -- a statement that I strongly challenge, and further challenge the author to provide evidence to support this claim -- the author has presented a much more sensitive and sympathetic picture of Palestinian Liberation Theology.  This is important because it represents a significant backing off from the specious and destructive argument relating Palestinian Liberation Theology to the ancient charge of deicide.

So this is a great improvement, one that is likely to be more helpful to Christians confronting the challenge of deciding what kind of action to take in pursuit of justice than the first version was.  It is also more likely -- if not now, then perhaps in the future --to promote positive dialogue with the Jewish community.  Jews and Christians alike must grapple with the difficult, painful process of deciding on how to confront injustice and evil.  They will not get there by focusing on the false issue of anti-Semitism.  The issue here is not anti-Jewish feelings, but the injustice being perpetrated by the Jewish state.  To make anti-Semitism the issue is to confuse the discourse -- it leads nowhere.  We must focus not on the sins of the past, but on the crimes of the present.
This statement is not the last word on these issues.  What is important here is that in finding a way to grapple with these issues and the conflictual feelings they evoke, Christians do not yield to the temptation to allow the feelings to cancel one another out:  “On the one hand, we abhor the actions of the State of Israel -- on the other, we honor the desire of the Jewish people to overcome millenia of oppression.”  The way the conflict is all too often resolved is to avoid the issue altogether, to dilute the criticism, or, as in the case of the original document, to miss the point entirely in eagerness to establish pro-Jewish credentials in the interests of “interfaith” reconciliation.  When that is allowed to happen, the Presbyterian commitment to justice is betrayed.  So this is a good process.  Given the complex feelings raised by the situation in the Holy Land, and the history that it is freighted with, an iterative process is to be expected.   This process should be honored and allowed to go forward.  And it should not be allowed to degrade into shouting.

This is why, to me, the response of Rabbis Yoffie, Rabbi Epstein and Dr. Sheingold, the heads of the Jewish Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, is so shocking and disappointing.  They do not like this revised statement, calling it “a  new low point in Presbyterian-Jewish relations.”  No – they liked the first one, the one that shouted about anti-Semitism, about the need to, above all, hold the mere suggestion of anti-Jewish feeling as a clear and present danger, a value that supersedes all others.  They preferred the first statement, which promoted the specious argument that support of the struggle for Palestinian dignity and self-determination somehow leads to the charge of Christ-killers.  Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein and Dr. Sheingold do not value the difficult and honest struggle of the Presbyterian Church to grapple with the issue.  Rather than engage in the process so painfully entered into by the Presbyterians, they apply litmus tests, take statements out of context, and imperiously demand a kind of rectitude.  Rather than honoring the process, and indeed entering in the dialogue so earnestly sought by the Presbyterians, they sit in judgment.  With regard to Palestinian Liberation Theology, they preferred the first statement, the one that slandered Sabeel.  We liked that one, they say, not this second version which attempts to understand the struggle of Palestinian Christians to maintain a non-violent, dignified stance in relation to their oppression.  

But here is the real shocker:  as all who have followed the story know, the history of this “dialogue” between the Presbyterian Church and the American Jewish establishment on the question of Israel and Palestine is the story of the enormous pressure exerted on the Church not to pursue divestment from companies involved in the illegal occupation of Palestine.  Indeed, the Church has encountered what can only be characterized as a juggernaut of opposition to any notion of divestment.  It was to a large extent due to pressure from Jewish establishment groups that the Presbyterian Church in 2004 removed the word “divestment” from their resolution and replaced it with a notion of “constructive engagement.”  The revised Presbyterian statement makes reference to this issue by referring to the need to pursue dialogue with these companies -- the word “divestment” is not mentioned -- as one of several actions that should be considered as part of a principled stand against injustice.  But the Rabbis and the Dr. will have nothing to do with nuance, or with principles.  Ever “vigilant” about the suggestion that a church could take a principled stand through their investments, the letter – shamelessly - actually puts words into the mouth of the authors, characterizing the statement about “constructive engagement” as “veiled threats of divestment.”  They want it both ways:  they bully the Church into removing the word “divestment” from its resolutions, and into seeking more conciliatory (and, to some, ineffective) measures, and then accuse the Church of making “veiled threats” when it replaces the “hot button” term with an alternative strategy aimed at preserving a positive and respectful relationship with the Jewish community.  How shameful, wrong, cynical and treacherous.  

In closing, I address you directly, Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein and Dr. Sheingold:  As a Jew, I am shamed by your letter.  You want it both ways?  You want it all ways? What are you after?  Certainly not interfaith dialogue.  To your shame, you are keeping alive the despicable notion of Jews as Christ killers, the charge that has caused such suffering for us over the ages, because it serves your purpose now in seeking to intimidate Christians from taking a principled stand against the shameful and self-destructive policies of Israel.  Shame on you.  You want to encourage American Christians to besmirch the noble work of Sabeel, work supported on a wide-ranging basis by Christian leaders here in the US.  You want to hold progressive Christians hostage to the sins of the past -- women and men, laypersons and clergy -- who are trying to find a way to move beyond the horrors of Church anti-Semitism.  You want to drag them back into this archaic theology through a degradation and abuse of the Israel-Palestine issue. You don’t want dialogue – you want to preach and to intimidate.  For shame.

To the people of the Presbyterian Church:  I honor your struggle.  You may not have found the answer yet, but you are grappling with the issue.  And the issue is justice.  The issue is right and wrong.  Do not allow yourselves to be distracted.  Are there anti-Semites in your midst?  Perhaps.  But surely they are not steering the ship.  This is a false issue, a distraction, a bullying tactic.  Do not be distracted.  Injustice is injustice.  Wrong is wrong.  Go, as you have, courageously, despite the bloodying you received in 2004, back into the fray.  I applaud and support your persistence.  I pray that someday the so-called “leaders” of the American Jewish community will become deserving of the dialogue you seek with them.  In the meantime, continue to do the right thing:  Seek justice, struggle to find your way.  Rabbis Yoffie and Epstein and Dr. Sheingold do not speak for me, nor for tens of thousands of Jews who are with you in this journey.  God bless you on your way.

Mark Braverman
Member, Jewish Voice for  Peace