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ALLENTOWN, Pa. (January 28, 2005) — The board of directors of a prominent institute for Jewish-Christian relations urged the Presbyterian Church (USA) to reverse its recent action to divest from companies operating in Israel. Noting the "concern" and "offense" that the Presbyterian action has triggered, the leaders of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College took the side of those within the Presbyterian denomination who are calling for reversal of the divestment strategy.
"We are concerned that the Presbyterian action expresses a serious misrepresentation of the situation that nevertheless is widespread," said the Institute's director, Peter A. Pettit. "Using the political and economic influence of their church to try to move the Middle East closer to peace with justice is a worthy effort on the part of the PC (USA). Our concern is that the imbalance in their effort will prove to be counterproductive. We are also concerned that it has driven a wedge between a leading Protestant denomination and the Jewish community."
At its General Assembly in Richmond last summer, the PC (USA) referred to its Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment a directive to initiate a process of phased selective divestment from multinational corporations operating in Israel. Recently the committee released the guidelines it proposes for identifying such corporations, which will now include those "in Israel and Palestine." In its action, the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding board of directors criticized the Presbyterian initiative as unbalanced, saying that it "seeks to coerce concessions from Israel without proposing concomitant pressure on the Palestinians to desist from using terror as a political tool."
The Institute's resolution takes account of the fact that there is dissent within the Presbyterian ranks over the divestment action. Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations is a group that is seeking to prompt reconsideration of the action, while also interpreting the General Assembly vote to the Jewish community. "We know the General Assembly action does not represent all Presbyterians," Pettit allowed. "The local Presbyterian leadership has engaged in education and dialogue around this issue in a very helpful way. Our resolution is meant as counsel to the national leadership in a decision that Presbyterians must make for themselves."
David Vaida, a local political activist and lawyer who drafted the IJCU resolution, pointed out that "this doesn't mean the IJCU is against Presbyterians." He said that the resolution is directly specifically against a particular action of the General Assembly. "They stepped into the political arena with their action, and it is important to respond in a way that takes them seriously. As long as they debate principles and values, it is their own conversation. But divestment is a powerful political tool and they shouldn't be trying to leverage only one side in this conflict."
According to the PC (USA) web site, phased selective divestment is a multifaceted church mechanism for affecting corporate activity that was first developed twenty years ago in relation to companies doing business in South Africa. It involves education, interpretation and public advocacy along with shareholder resolutions and the possibility of divesting church funds of stock holdings in companies whose policies do not accord with church positions.
In the same era as it developed the divestment policy, the PC (USA) issued a statement on Jewish-Christian relations that rejects Christian anti-Jewish teachings and affirms Israel's continuing connection to the promised land. "Some of the ideas implicit in the Presbyterian divestment action run counter to their admirable affirmations on relations with the Jewish community," said Pettit. "It suggests that Israel is more blameworthy for violence in the conflict. It implies there is no need to pressure Palestinians to stop violence aimed at destabilizing Israel or dislodging Israel from its land. That seems to be a retreat from prior affirmations by the church, and could do real damage to Jewish-Christian relations. Our Institute is committed to fostering understanding and this is a case where understanding has taken a real hit."
The Institute's resolution looks beyond the Presbyterian church to others that have indicated they may follow the Presbyterian lead on divestment. The Anglican communion, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the United Church of Christ both have developments underway that could lead to divestment resolutions over the next year. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which Muhlenberg College is related, has its biennial churchwide assembly in August and may, in Pettit's opinion, see some initiatives to act on the divestment front. The Institute's resolution would encourage these churches to consult with and act together with Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, rather than formulating their approaches unilaterally. "Those who are directly involved in the situation on a daily basis understand better than we do just how complicated the choices are," he said. "When we try to move the peace process forward, they can help us develop strategies that embody our expressed concern for both Palestinians and Israelis who are hurt by the conflict."
In addition to its resolution on the issue, the Institute has been facilitating dialogue in the local area between Jewish and Presbyterian clergy. "Although we believe the PC(USA) would do well to rescind this action, it has been a catalyst for more intensive encounters among Jews and Presbyterians, and we have supported those enthusiastically since the issue surfaced," Pettit indicated. "We see both steps, facilitating dialogue and advocating reversal of the action, as consistent in supporting mutual understanding."
January 28, 2005
For more information, contact
Peter A. Pettit, Director
Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding
2400 Chew Street
Allentown, PA 18104-5586
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