Presbyterians of the World, Unite!

May 30, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: See also

The Letter

1 May 2006

Dear Commissioner or Advisory Delegate,

Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Norman G. Finkelstein. I teach political science at DePaul University in Chicago and am the author of many publications on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I am Jewish. Both my late parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Every member of their respective families was exterminated during the war. The most important lesson they taught me and my siblings was not to be silent in the face of other people’s suffering.

In the spirit of this legacy I have devoted most of my adult life to achieving a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine. Like many others I was moved and elated by the resolution taken at the 216th General Assembly (2004), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to consider a phased, selective divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation. Recently I have been informed that, in various Presbyteries of the PCUSA, pressure has arisen to rescind that bold initiative at the forthcoming 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PCUSA – pressure coming from organizations both within and outside the church, some claiming to speak for the Jewish community.

I believe that rescinding or weakening this resolution would be a terrible mistake. A moral enquiry would pose two questions: Do Israeli human rights violations warrant your church’s initiative, and is such an initiative the best tactic to achieve the desired goal of ending these violations? In my view, the answer to both these questions is an emphatic yes.

Israel’s real human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is barely known. This is primarily due to the formidable public relations industry of Israel and its uncritical defenders abroad as well as their tactics of intimidation, such as labeling dissenters from Israeli policy anti-Semitic.

Israeli human rights violations, many rising to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the opinion of human rights organizations, include:

  • Illegal Killings. According to the most recent figures of B’Tselem, the leading and most authoritative Israeli human rights organization, three times more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed and up to three times more Palestinian civilians than Israeli civilians. Israel’s defenders maintain that there’s a difference between targeting civilians and inadvertently killing them. However, B’Tselem disputes this: “[W]hen so many civilians have been killed and wounded, the lack of intent makes no difference. Israel remains responsible.”
  • Torture. “From 1967,” Amnesty International reports, “the Israeli security services have routinely tortured Palestinian political suspects in the Occupied Territories.” B’Tselem found that 85 percent of Palestinians interrogated by Israeli security services were subjected to “methods constituting torture.” Already a decade ago Human Rights Watch estimated that “the number of Palestinians tortured or severely ill-treated” was “in the tens of thousands – a number that becomes especially significant when it is remembered that the universe of adult and adolescent male Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is under three-quarters of one million.” In 1987 Israel became “the only country in the world to have effectively legalized torture” (Amnesty). The Israeli-based Public Committee Against Torture reported in 2003 that, despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that seemed finally to ban torture, security forces continued to apply torture in a “methodical and routine” fashion. A 2001 B’Tselem study documented that Israeli security forces often applied “severe torture” to “Palestinian minors.”
  • House demolitions. “Israel has implemented a policy of mass demolition of Palestinian houses in the Occupied Territories,” B’Tselem reports. Since September 2000 it “has destroyed some 4,170 Palestinian homes.” Until just recently Israel routinely resorted to house demolitions as a form of collective punishment. Israel also continues to routinely demolish “illegal” homes that Palestinians built because of Israel’s refusal to provide building permits. According to Amnesty, the motive has been to maximize the area available for illegal Jewish settlers. Israel has also destroyed hundreds of Palestinian homes on the pretext of security but both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty agree that Israel’s extensive destruction is not justified by military necessity. Amnesty says that “(s)ome of these acts of destruction amount to grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are war crimes.”

Apart from the sheer magnitude of its human rights violations, the uniqueness of Israeli policies merits notice. “Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality,” B’Tselem has concluded. “This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the apartheid regime in South Africa.” If singling out South Africa for economic sanctions was defensible, it would seem equally defensible to single out Israel’s occupation, which uniquely resembles the apartheid regime.

Although the PCUSA’s initiative can clearly be justified on moral grounds, the question remains whether quiet diplomacy might be a more constructive alternative. The basic terms for resolving the conflict are embodied in U.N. resolution 242 and subsequent U.N. resolutions. They call for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state in these areas in exchange for recognition of Israel’s right to live peacefully with its neighbors. While each year the overwhelming majority in the United Nations vote in favor of this two-state settlement, Israel and the United States (and a few South Pacific islands) have consistently opposed it.

Not only has Israel stubbornly rejected this two-state settlement, but the policies it is currently pursuing will abort any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It has been constructing a wall deep inside the West Bank that will annex the most productive land and water resources as well as East Jerusalem, the center of Palestinian life. It will also effectively sever the West Bank in two. Although Israel initially claimed that it was building the wall to fight terrorism, the newly elected Israeli government has explicitly acknowledged that the wall will serve as Israel’s future border. In addition Israel has signaled its intention to retain the Jordan Valley within the eastern border of the West Bank as well as a settlement bloc in the north which will sever this territory yet again. Palestinians will be confined to half the West Bank in a multitude of tiny and isolated communities.

The current policies of the Israeli government will lead either to endless bloodshed or the dismemberment of Palestine. “It remains virtually impossible to conceive of a Palestinian state without its capital in Jerusalem,” the respected International Crisis Group recently concluded, and accordingly Israeli policies in the West Bank “are at war with any viable two-state solution and will not bolster Israel’s security; in fact, they will undermine it, weakening Palestinian pragmatists…and sowing the seeds of growing radicalization.”

In the face of diplomatic paralysis the moral burden to avert the impending catastrophe must be borne by individual men and women of conscience. A nonviolent tactic the purpose of which is to achieve a just and lasting settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict cannot legitimately be called anti-Semitic. Indeed, the real enemies of Jews are those who debase the memory of Jewish suffering by equating your church’s conscientious initiative with anti-Semitism.

I am enclosing with this letter a copy of my recent book Beyond Chutzpah which documents both the misuse of anti-Semitism by Israel’s uncritical supporters as well as Israel’s sad human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Should you find the time to read it, I am sure you will be convinced that the 216th General Assembly (2004) of the PCUSA made the right decision and that its reaffirmation by the upcoming 217th General Assembly (2006) will best encourage and promote, in the long run, a just and lasting peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel and Palestine.

Sincerely yours,

Norman G. Finkelstein

[Finkelstein decided to post this article although a Presbyterian activist warned him: I think it is full of half-truths as well as outright lies. The Zionist groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are trying to separate the laity from the church leadership. Note the use of quotation marks around ” the occupied territories”, a poll not cited, General Dynamic helicopters used to destroy terrorists with nothing said about “collateral damage”, how “insulted ” Jewish people feel not to have been consulted, Sabeel not recognizing the Israeli “right to exist”, etc., etc. All of this kind of reaction proves undoubtedly how correct the GA resolutions have been.]

By Rachel Pomerance

Jewish Telegraphic Agency
May 11, 2006

Atlanta, May 11 – As Presbyterians across America gear up for their
biennial assembly next month, the legacy of the last such meeting
is still roiling the Jewish community and the church’s own members.

Two years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution
calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational
corporations operating in Israel.” Those who long have followed
Jewish-Protestant relations weren’t surprised. “It was the
culmination of decades – not years, but decades – of hostility
toward Israel and Zionism, not by the rank-and-file members of
these churches, but by some of the leadership,” said Rabbi A. James
Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish
Committee, where he staffed the interfaith department for 38 years.

The passion ignited by the divestment resolution at the last
General Assembly is likely to erupt again at the June 15-22 meeting
in Birmingham, Ala.

What happens there will have a lasting impact on the already
strained relationship between Jews and the entire Protestant
community. The estimated 3 million Presbyterians in the United
States influence the other white mainline Protestant churches in
this country, whose members number more than 20 million.

Presbyterians are considered the “conscience” and reason of the
Protestant community, serving as something of a “swing vote,” Rudin

Indeed, after the Presbyterians’ 2004 resolution on divestment,
several other Protestant communities took up the issue. The
Methodists decided to study their options; the United Church of
Christ, also known as the Congregationalists, endorsed divestment
but did not create a process to enact it; the Episcopalians
considered but rejected divestment; and the Lutherans rejected a
divestment resolution, and instead passed a resolution to invest in
cooperative ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.

What will happen in Birmingham is anyone’s guess, though both
Presbyterian and Jewish officials predict that no immediate action
on divestment will be taken.

According to Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the
Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “the prevailing wisdom” is that
a recommendation proposed by the General Assembly committee to
appoint a committee for continued debate on divestment, without
halting the divestment process, will pass.

Soon after the resolution was passed, the group’s committee charged
with assessing the church’s stock portfolio for potential
divestment expanded the criteria of companies to include companies
that support Israel’s presence in the West Bank; its separation
barrier; settlement building and violence to either party in the

The committee is still in its investigative stages. It has already
begun initial talks with three of the five companies in question.
The Presbyterian Church says it has targeted the following
companies for these reasons: . Caterpillar, because the Israeli
military uses its equipment to demolish Palestinian homes and
construct roads for Israeli settlers in “the occupied territories”;
. Citigroup, due to charges that it has transferred funds to
Palestinian terrorist groups; . ITT Industries, for supplying
communication devices to the Israeli military used in “the occupied
territories”; . Motorola, because it also supplies the Israeli
military with communication devices, and takes “advantage of the
Israeli government policy of delaying or prohibiting the
importation of modern equipment into Palestine”; and . United
Technologies, for providing helicopters to the Israeli military
that have been used in attacks against suspected Palestinian

More than $65 million is at stake – the combined shares of
Presbyterian Church stock in the aforementioned companies. The MRTI
committee has made no requests for action by the companies, said a
church press officer. The meetings were about “fact finding” and
“information sharing,” she said.

The more immediate question is whether the church will continue to
go down the divestment path or reverse course.

To some extent, the issue can be viewed as a struggle between the
denomination’s ministers and laity. According to an internal
Presbyterian USA poll taken in November 2004, more laity – some 42
percent of members and 46 percent of elders – oppose divestment,
compared with 28 percent of members and 30 percent of elders which
favor it. Meanwhile, pastors favor divestment by 48 percent to 43
percent and specialized clergy favor it by 64 percent to 24

Furthermore, the church said that the poll showed that “despite
widespread media attention,” most Presbyterian laity were not even
aware of the decision of the 216th General Assembly to “begin a
process of phased, selective divestment” of companies profiting
from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

But it would be hard to imagine that anyone heading to Birmingham
could miss the subject, given the sheer number of overtures, or
proposals, on divestment submitted to the church by regional
presbyteries for the upcoming assembly.

Nearly one-fifth of the 137 proposals to be considered at the
assembly address divestment. Some want to press forward with the
divestment process, many others aim to rescind the original
resolution and express serious concern about the damage the issue
has done to Jewish-Presbyterian relations and the church’s

The overtures come before a committee, which will condense them
into a single resolution or propose an alternative to present to
the assembly.

Some 3,000 clergy and lay people are expected at the assembly. Of
these, 534 individuals – half clergy, half laity, are eligible to
vote on the overtures.

Given the wave of overtures to reject divestment, “one would hope
they would see that as the will of the people,” said the Rev. John
Wimberly, pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington.

Wimberly is on the steering committee of Presbyterians Concerned
for Jewish and Christian Relations, a group that has pushed hard to
further overtures against divestment.

However, “this issue has become the ‘in’ issue,” Wimberly said.
“It’s the issue of the left today in the Presbyterian Church and it
gains a kind of life of its own.” Asked about the issue by JTA,
Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief ecclesiastical officer of the
Presbyterian Church, said it has been “very painful that in our
effort to secure peace and justice for all,” the church has hurt
members of the Jewish community, for which the church has “deep
respect.” The Presbyterian Church is committed to both good
interfaith relations with Jews and Muslims while pursuing “peace
and justice in the Middle East.” Some devoted to Jewish-Christian
relations have made overturning divestment a priority. They include
the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, a network
that long has worked with Jewish and Christian supporters to
promote Israel’s cause.

The group is hosting a May 18 conference on divestment at the
Central Presbyterian Church in New York City and coordinating a
Presbyterian mission to Israel later this month.

There’s “a real groundswell of opposition that’s occurred within
the church, and it’s very widespread,” said Jim Roberts, a
Presbyterian from San Diego, who heads a committee of volunteers
and a Web site called “End Divestment Now.” Roberts’ group argues
that divestment is rooted in bias and flawed theology, and
considers the divestment push a breach of the church’s principles
of fairness and bottom-up governance.

Insiders say several sources gave rise to the 2004 divestment
resolution and the pro-Palestinian feelings among many

For one, Palestinian Christians have deeply influenced the church
by framing the Israeli-Palestinian issue in terms of “liberation
theology,” portraying the Palestinians as powerless victims who
must be freed from their ostensible oppressors, the Israelis.

The most influential group espousing this platform is the Sabeel
Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, which sponsors
conferences around the world and speakers at Christian gatherings,
and advocates divestment from Israel.

Jewish groups, and many Christians, call Sabeel a corrupting

Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East holds news
conferences about Sabeel nearly every time the group holds a
meeting in America, said the Rev. Roy W. Howard, an executive
committee member who is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in
Rockville, Md.

According to Howard, Sabeel is ambiguous about Israel’s very right
to exist: Its devotees speak about a “Greater Palestine” in which
there is no Jewish state, he said.

The Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America,
calls these charges a distortion. “There has never been a call for
the destruction of Israel or anything like that at all,” he said.
Leaders of mainstream Jewish groups are often invited, but don’t
respond, he said.

San Francisco, a presbytery that has presented an overture
affirming divestment, was influenced less by Sabeel than by
Presbyterians who visited Palestinian areas, said the Rev. Will
McGarvey, pastor of the Community Presbyterian Church, who will
present San Francisco’s proposal at the assembly.

Divestment is a last resort in a process that encourages
corporations first to act more justly, McGarvey said. Though it may
seem one-sided, “there’s only one side that has power right now,
and that is the” Israel Defense Forces, he said.

Jewish officials in San Francisco felt insulted that the local
presbytery never informed them of its overture. “That’s awful
hurtful,” said Jonathan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation
League’s Central Pacific Region. “I feel like they didn’t really
learn a lesson” from the uproar over the 2004 resolution about the
need to inform Jewish colleagues about their actions.

It also hasn’t been easy for Jay Tcath, vice president of the
Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago and director of its
Jewish Community Relations Council.

He has limited his interaction with the local presbytery since the
fall of 2004 because the group delayed addressing the divestment
resolution. Instead, he turned his attention to individual churches
in the area, which he said are more open to dialogue on the issue.
“Friends don’t allow slanders to stand against other friends,” he

Matters worsened when the Chicago presbytery’s Middle East task
force met with leaders of the radical fundamentalist group
Hezbollah in Lebanon last fall.

It was smoother in Atlanta, where Jewish officials got early word
of an overture for divestment because of their strong interfaith
relationships. They successfully called for its withdrawal in favor
of broadened dialogue.

Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue on the grass-roots level has
intensified since the divestment resolution passed in 2004.

Shari Dollinger, a former interreligious affairs officer for the
Israeli Embassy in Washington, launched the Coalition for
Responsible Peace in the Middle East after witnessing the heavily
pro-Palestinian current at the United Church of Christ’s July 2005
General Synod in Atlanta.

The coalition, whose founding members include The David Project,
American Jewish Congress and Stand with Us, is using a grass-roots
approach, disseminating information to Jewish and non-Jewish groups
at pro-divestment gatherings and on its Web site,

But some say Presbyterian leaders have sidelined Jewish voices on

It’s “downright embarrassing that the Presbyterians have not made
certain that they have multiple points of views and interpretations
of what’s going on,” said Christopher Leighton, director of the
Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Leighton cited a conference on divestment last year in Louisville,
Ky., site of the church’s national headquarters. The Baltimore
delegation walked out because of the lopsided pro-Palestinian
representation. “It was an appalling example of having a foregone
conclusion that you want to trumpet and so you know where you want
people to end up before they even start out,” he said. “It seems to
me that that’s symptomatic of how our leadership has handled this.”
Some Jewish officials suggest the church is again stacking the
deck. The day before this year’s General Assembly, for example, the
church has scheduled a Middle East forum with three representatives
– a Palestinian Christian, a Palestinian Muslim and a American Jew,
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of
Reform Judaism. Why, anti-divestment forces wonder, is there no
Israeli represented?

Many Presbyterians “have been listening to the message that they
have heard from their Jewish brothers and sisters, but there are
still very powerful, intransigent leaders who believe that they are
serving their community by lifting up Palestinians and beating up
on Israel, and that’s sad,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the
ADL’s director of interfaith affairs. “In the last two years, what
has also shocked many people involved in this ongoing dialogue is
that all too often when the phrase ‘occupation’ is used, many
believe that they are not referring to 1967 but 1948” – in other
words, a rejection of Israel’s existence.

Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian chief ecclesiastical officer, rejects
that charge. “It has been the core commitment of every Presbyterian
leader I know” to ensure “peace and justice for both Palestinians
and Israelis,” he said.

For now, there is plenty of debate on all sides of the issue. And
many are just plain confused.

Presbyterians may need to “wait for the dust to settle before we
can make any real determination of the appropriate way to enhance
relations between Israelis and Palestinians,” Leighton said.

Presbyterians studying Middle East task force
The General Assembly Council unanimously approved a proposal to ask the General Assembly to establish a working group to seek Jewish, Christian and Muslim input

Monday, May 01, 2006
by Alexa Smith

The General Assembly Council unanimously approved a proposal to ask the General Assembly to establish a working group to seek Jewish, Christian and Muslim input as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) develops strategies to promote peace in Israel and Palestine.

Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase – and an ad-hoc group of council members -authored the proposal in order to defuse what otherwise promises to be a hot debate over whether to confirm or rescind an action by the 2004 GA instructing the church to apply shareholder pressure on corporations to change practices the denomination believes contribute to violence in Israel/Palestine.

If it adopts the GAC’s proposal, more than two dozen pending overtures on the issue of “selective, phased divestment” would be referred to the task force.

The targeted corporations either assist the Israeli military or support the infrastructure of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The GAC named Ufford-Chase its designated resource person to the Assembly Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues Committee, which will consider the overtures prior to Assembly action.

The moderator’s proposal will not stall the work of the PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI), which is already meeting with executives of some of the targeted companies, including Motorola, which provides cell-phone service to settlers and to the Israeli military.

MRTI makes divestment recommendations to the General Assembly, but has announced that it will not be ready to do so before 2008. The Assembly must vote on any MRTI recommendation to divest.

Ufford-Chase put a revised document before the council yesterday, altered only slightly from the four-page proposal he presented Wednesday. “We’ve not changed the sense of this, just tightened the language,” he said, referring to a group of GAC members who worked on the measure over the last two days.

The “advice and counsel” asks:

That the moderators of the 216th and 217th General Assemblies appoint a seven-member working group to “develop guidance” for the PC(USA) honoring the concerns of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the United States and in the Middle East.

That the group report its findings to the 2008 Assembly.

That any overtures or commissioner’s resolutions affecting the church’s divestment policy be referred to MRTI for possible consideration by a future Assembly.

That policy recommendations developed by the working group be referred also to the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

That the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation and MRTI explore new or existing investment opportunities to “promote peace and strengthen the economies both in Israel and the occupied territories,” and bring recommendations to the 2008 Assembly.

The GAC approved a language change proposed by Steve Benz, executive presbyter of East Tennessee Presbytery, striking a sentence suggesting that “most Presbyterians are united in their desires” for an end to the occupation and a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, substituting a statement that Presbyterians are concerned about “issues of peace and justice” in the region.

The rationale holds that the church would “benefit greatly” from “a serious effort to listen to one another and seek a solid consensus for our actions in this delicate task of peacemaking in this troubled region of the world.” It also says that the political situation in Israel-Palestine is changing “extremely quickly,” and merits careful monitoring.

The rationale concludes: “It is clear that, somehow, Christ calls us to stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers – Christian and Muslim – and our Jewish sisters and brothers. …We can stand with those bold and courageous leaders on both sides of this contentious debate who insist that there is a way to share the land of our forefathers and foremothers in peace and security with one another.”