Attempts to reconcile: Southern Presbyterian churches reach out to Jewish community following divestment vote

The vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest itself from holdings in companies they say profit from Israel’s administration of the territories has caused a great deal of concern in the Jewish community — and among the rank and file of PCUSA.

The 310-303 vote, held at the PCUSA General Assembly in Detroit last month, calls on the church to divest its holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard, because those firms are said to profit from Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians.

Jewish groups across the spectrum condemned the vote as counterproductive and an unfair singling out of Israel among all nations of the world as it attempts to protect itself from terrorist actions. Presbyterian officials countered that many Jews in attendance favored the move, but they were actually from a far-left fringe group.

Over 1700 rabbis from all 50 states had signed an open letter to PCUSA calling on them to reject this move.

Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich, clerk of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley in central Alabama, wrote that “this action is not divestment from Israel, as it is often described, but rather divestment from specific companies who have shown no interest in dialogue with the PCUSA about their business practices.” She noted that “PCUSA is explicit in affirming the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign nation and advocating for the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace, free from the threat of violence.”

Rev. Ed Hurley of South Highlands Presbyterian Church in Birmingham stated that the vote “overturns the will of the last four General Assemblies which repeatedly rejected divestment in favor of investing in positive peace-promoting businesses in Palestinian territories, an effort that has produced significant positive results.”

The first of those four General Assemblies was in Birmingham in 2006, when a group of churches from Mississippi helped spearhead opposition to a similar divestment move that had been made in 2004.

Hurley wrote that “this action deeply wounds the Jewish community worldwide including our neighbors at Temple Emanu-El and Temple Beth-El… (and) at least one family member of SHPC members who works for Hewlett-Packard, a company now deemed unworthy of being underwritten by Presbyterian funds.”

The Saturday after the vote, Hurley visited Emanu-El and spoke briefly about the vote. The following day, Judy and Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Emanu-El attended the service at South Highlands.

Hurley and Rev. Conrad Sharps of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham issued a statement that they “deeply regret” the vote and believe it “removes our voice, the voice of our Church as an unbiased mediator and spiritual witness to the suffering on all sides of the conflict” by placing “the blame on the stalemate on one side only, Israel, without a fuller and more meaningful appreciation of the complexities involved and the responsibilities that all parties have in the ongoing nature of this conflict.”

Also on the Presbyterian agenda at the General Assembly was a measure that did not pass — changing the language in hymnals so that the term “Israel” is not used or is referred to as ancient Israel. Instead, there was the recommendation of having a sticker placed on hymnals to explain that when Israel is mentioned, such as “God’s covenant with Israel,” it refers to ancient Israel and not the modern-day state.

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans said he received an immediate call after the vote from Rev. Don Frampton of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, “who was terribly embarrassed and disheartened by this decision of his denomination.” They agreed to hold a program at Sinai for both congregations on July 8 at 6:30 p.m. The event will be a potluck supper and the community is invited. After dinner, Cohn and Frampton will discuss what happened, “share our hearts and thoughts… and where we should go from here in our interfaith dialogue.”

In its weekly bulletin, Temple Emanu-El in Dothan noted their congregation’s “good relationship with Evergreen Presbyterian Church” and that “Rev. Joseph Johnson does not agree with the vote.” He contacted Emanu-El and volunteered to speak to the congregation, which he will do at Shabbat services on July 11 at 7 p.m.

Conversely, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke of Louisiana praised the Presbyterian move against “the ultra-racist, Jewish supremacist, murderous, ethnic cleansing, terrorist state of Israel.”