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Divestment proposal gains momentum among Protestants opposed to Israeli policies

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2004

 

  Rabbi Eric Yoffie, right, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addresses the media as Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, top executive of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), looks on after a three-hour closed-door summit on the tensions between their faiths Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004 in New York. Jewish leaders are angered that Presbyterians are considering divesting from companies with business in the Palestinian territories. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, right, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addresses the media as Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, top executive of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), looks on after a three-hour closed-door summit on the tensions between their faiths Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004 in New York. Jewish leaders are angered that Presbyterians are considering divesting from companies with business in the Palestinian territories.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Now, the concept is gaining ground in the heart of American Protestantism, pitting U.S. Jewish and Christian leaders against each other as they argue about how to bring peace to the Mideast.

Leaders of both faiths say the trend is born of deep frustration, as the intefadeh enters its fifth year and prospects for a negotiated settlement seem dim.

''I think, in this point in time, the frustration is reaching such a high, that things like this get traction,'' said Antonios Kireopoulos, an international affairs officer at the National Council of Churches, which represents 36 Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is pursuing withdrawal of investments from some companies with ties to the territories, following a vote this summer by its General Assembly. Separately, the Socially Responsible Investment panel of the Episcopal Church is researching the idea.

Corinne Whitlach, executive director of the Washington-based Churches for Middle East Peace, said she knows some Methodist and United Church of Christ representatives who have fielded request from congregants that they consider divestment as well.

''The churches that I work with share the view that's very widely held that the very possibility of a two-state solution seems to be increasingly less possible,'' Whitlach said.

U.S. Jewish leaders have told the Protestants their approach smacks of bias, since the Christians have made no concurrent demand that the Palestinian Authority work to end suicide bombings against Israelis. That the divestment campaign borrows from the 1980s movement against South African apartheid is even more unsettling for Jewish leaders.

''Unless you think Israel represents nothing other than colonial imperialism, then there is no analogy to be made at all, and those who call Israel colonial imperialism that's a form of blindness, as if Jews have no relationship to the land of Israel,'' said David Elcott, national head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, based in New York.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, last month organized a meeting of Jewish and Presbyterian leaders, including the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian executive officer, to iron out differences, but they failed to reach any agreement on the issue.

New tensions arose this week when delegates from a Presbyterian policy committee on a fact-finding trip met in Lebanon with leaders of Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group. One delegate said ''relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.'' Kirkpatrick said the comments ''do not reflect the official position'' of the church, which he says condemns terrorism.

Relations between Jewish and mainline Protestant leaders were already poor when the divestment proposal surfaced at the Presbyterian national meeting.

The Protestants felt that some Jewish leaders had become so hawkish in their defense of Israeli policy that dialogue on the issue would not be productive. Many also were angry at being labeled anti-Semitic for expressing concern about Palestinians, some of whom are Christian.

Adding to the unease, conservative evangelical Christians increasingly embraced Israel, alienating liberal Protestants from American Jewish leaders. Just this month, thousands of conservative Christian pilgrims led by evangelist Pat Robertson gathered in the Holy Land to express support for the Jewish state.

As the chasm between Jewish and mainline Protestant leaders grew, they continued to work together on domestic issues, but largely avoided discussing Israel, said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

''For a very long time, we purposely ignored the 600-pound gorilla in the room, which was the Middle East,'' he said. ''We just didn't talk about it.''

Israel's West Bank separation barrier is giving divestment proposals even more momentum and further straining interfaith relations.

The complex of concrete walls, razor wire and trenches, which is under construction, has already disrupted the lives of thousands of Palestinians, who have been cut off from their lands and prevented from reaching other villages and population centers.

Israeli leaders say the barrier will slow suicide bombings, but the International Court of Justice ruled in July that the wall is illegal. Israeli Attorney General Meni Mazuz warned the ruling could lead to sanctions against the Jewish state.

Jewish leaders say divestment would only hurt the Palestinians, by hardening Israel against a negotiated settlement. Also, only a few companies have any ties to the Israeli territories, and it's unclear whether the churches can bring enough pressure on the businesses to persuade them to change. One company the Presbyterians are considering targeting is Caterpillar Inc.

''Churches that really want to make an impact on the situation need to look at both sides and be as firm condemning terrorism as condemning Israeli practices,'' said Lewis Roth, of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. counterpart of the Peace Now movement in Israel, which supports a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. ''The best moves that Palestinians can make to improve their standing in this country is to crack down on terrorist organizations.''



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