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On the face of it, you'd think they'd be the Jewish community's best friend.
But they aren't.
The Presbyterian Church USA is the sort of mainstream liberal Protestant denomination that many Jews instinctively see as being natural partners in helping to create an atmosphere of interfaith respect.
Indeed, the PC USA specifically endorses dialogue between Christians and Jews, and tells us that they think that "the God who addresses both Christians and Jews is the same -- the living and true God," and goes on to claim that "the church's identity is intimately related to the continuing identity of the Jewish people."
In contrast to conservative Christian groups that espouse views on social issues, such as abortion, that most Jews do not share, the Presbyterians seem to be a comfortable liberal fit as interfaith buddies. While many liberal Jews see fundamentalist Christians as stereotypical anti-Semites who would kill us all if they were only smart enough to figure out how to do it, upper-crust Presbyterians seem like exactly the sort of folks we'd love to have as neighbors.
But at some point on the path to interfaith understanding, something went terribly wrong.
At its national assembly the Presbyterian Church USA voted, in the words of its own Web site (www.pcusa.org) to "endorse Israel divestment" of the investments used by its $7 billion foundation and pension fund. That is to say it has charged a committee to study how it can "support divestment of holdings in multinational corporations doing business in Israel/Palestine [sic]."
The release helpfully adds that "divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and '80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa."
If that false and gratuitous slap to the State of Israel were not enough, the assembly of Presbyterians also voted "by large margins to condemn Israel's construction of a 'security wall;' disavow Christian Zionism as a legitimate theological stance." It went on to ask its Middle East and Interfaith Relations offices "to develop resources on differences" between Zionism and Protestantism.
All of which is to say that in their own buttoned-down, white-bread manner, the Presbyterians are telling the Jews to go to hell.
And if that wasn't bad enough, the same assembly also voted, albeit narrowly, not to halt church funding for a Montgomery County congregation of Messianics that targets Jews for conversion.
Looking at these pronouncements from our would-be dialogue partner, Jews should be forgiven for wondering, "If these are our friends, who exactly are our enemies"?
One cannot say, as the Presbyterians do in other contexts, that they support Israel's right to exist and condemn terrorism, while at the same time seek to delegitimize Israel and libel it with the tag of "apartheid state."
Israel is, as they well know, the only democracy in the region. Unlike South Africa, Israel is not a minority-run state. In Israel, Arabs are the minority, but they have full rights as citizens. Moreover, the dispute over the West Bank and Gaza is one in which the Jewish state has made numerous dangerous concessions in the name of peace, only to have the offers answered with a Palestinian terrorist war.
By endorsing divestment -- a tactic embraced by radical leftist academics as a tool to publicize their war on Zionism -- the church has placed itself alongside those who wish to destroy the Jewish state, lock, stock and barrel. And that is a position from which they can never hope to maintain a dialogue with any self-respecting Jew, as well as with the vast majority of American Christians, who, unlike the Presbyterian delegates, see no contradiction between their faith and support for Zionism.
Ironically, many Christian supporters of Israel in this country are treated with tremendous suspicion by many Jews. Though most such Christians embrace Israel without preconditions and with a whole heart, a few may predicate their support on a belief that the ingathering of the Jews will trigger the return of Jesus, which will be followed by a predicted mass conversion of the Jews. That's why many liberal Jews take the tack that any support for Israel based on the notion of such a hypothetical mass conversion is inherently illegitimate.
But even if we wrongly assumed that all Christian Zionists believed Israel will play some role in an eschatological "Left Behind" movie script, why would Jews -- who presumably don't believe such a thing will happen -- worry about it? And why would they worry more about this dubious scenario than the real-life opposition of liberal Christians like the Presbyterians?
If their conservative social stands disqualify conservative Christian supporters of Israel from acceptance by liberal Jews, then why shouldn't the Presbyterians be given the same cold shoulder for their despicable positions on Israel?
It should be noted that the Presbyterian debate on funding a Jews-for-Jesus front like the Avodat Yisrael congregation in Plymouth Meeting is one in which many leading figures within the local and national church have opposed. On this issue, many church activists have come to understand that interfaith dialogue must be based on mutual respect.
As much as many Jews worry about missionaries who prey on Jewish youth or immigrants, this is a question that should be approached with caution. Targeting Jews for conversion and using subterfuges such as the Messianics demonstrate insensitivity to the history of Christian persecution and forced conversion of Jews.
But if any Jews do convert, the fault lies with the failure of the Jewish community to adequately educate its children, not with the Presbyterians, who have every right to espouse their faith and share it with anyone they like.
But what Presbyterians must understand is that even if they are prepared to drop their association with Avodat Yisrael, their embrace of a policy that is, at best, neutral about the slaughter of Israeli Jews is still an impassable barrier to meaningful dialogue.
These upscale liberal Protestants may appear to be the sort of people Jews ought to want as friends. But while interfaith outreach remains a valuable goal, we need to enter into it with our eyes wide open.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent.
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