Letter to the Presbyterian Leadership (Jul 22 '04)

Jul. 22, 2004

Enclosed please find a letter that I and Rabbi Paul Menitoff are sending to Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in response to the recent adoption of anti-Israel resolutions by their General Assembly. We write to the Presbyterian leadership to express our dismay at their offensive policies as well as to request a meeting between our leadership and theirs. Unlike some in the Jewish community, we feel that cutting off dialogue would be destructive and that in a spirit of friendship – though strained – we should reach out to the Presbyterian Church to address their problematic positions.

This letter has not been officially released to the press in order to give our Presbyterian colleagues a chance to respond to us personally. However, we want our congregations to be aware of what actions we are taking. We are also developing resources to aid congregations in reaching out to Presbyterian Churches on the local level to engage in interfaith dialogue; these materials will be ready by the middle of next week.

We ask for your assistance in a measured yet firm response to this crisis, which has the tragic potential to drive a wedge between old interfaith allies. If you have any questions, please contact Mark Pelavin, Director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs, at (202) 387-2800 ormpelavin@rac.org.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie

July 22, 2004

Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick 
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly 
Office of the General Assembly 
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) 
100 Witherspoon Street 
Louisville, Kentucky 40202

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 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 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 20 th 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)

Copies to:

Rabbi Janet Marder, President, CCAR 
Robert Heller, Chairman, URJ 
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism 
Mark J. Pelavin, Director, Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism 
Judith Hertz, Co-Chair, Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism 
Rabbi Michael Signer, Co-Chair, Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism 
Jay Rock, PC-USA, Louisville 
Elenora Giddings Ivory, PC-USA, Washington