Editorial, The Jerusalem Post, Jul. 25, 2004

ISRAEL AND PRESBYTERIANS

Last week, delegates representing the three-million-strong American Presbyterian Church voted, by a margin of 431-62, to study the idea of divesting itself from Israel -- that is, refusing to invest church moneys in companies that do over $1 million annually in business here.

Furthermore, they voted 471-34 in favor of a motion condemning the separation fence for "[ghettoizing] the Palestinians and [forcing] them onto what can only be called reservations." And they voted 260 to 233 to continue to fund a Philadelphia congregation, Avodat Yisrael, which missionizes among Jews.

As enthusiasms go, the Presbyterian one is a bit behind the curve: Divestment mania pretty much peaked in 2002. Partly it was a victim of its own excess; its less militant advocates found themselves feeling a bit queasy as (left-wing) Israeli academics were forced off the boards of scholarly British journals simply for being Israeli.

But mainly divestment was stopped because of the words of one man, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. In September 2002, Summers noted that "where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities.

Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." Among the examples he listed were calls "to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university's endowment to be invested."

"The university," he added, "has categorically rejected this suggestion."

Summers's statement was significant because it issued from the high temple of American high culture. It was courageous because it put collegial niceties aside to take direct aim at members of Summers's faculty. And it was important because it marked in a very clear way the spot where anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism converge.

This is very close to the spot where the Presbyterian Church -- generally a "progressive intellectual community" in its own right -- has now planted itself. It claims to have taken the vote "as part of a larger commitment... to human rights and social justice all around the world."

In fairness, the church has divested itself from an oil company doing business in Tibet. Over the years, it has issued reports on "issues of justice related to North and South Korea, Rwanda, Taiwan, Central American states, and many others." And it insists its interest is merely in "selective" divestment, from companies "whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli."

These caveats aside, it defies common sense that the church did not know exactly what kind of message it was sending (and message-sending is what these votes are about) by targeting Israel this way. We will not argue with the assembly's interpretation of events here, which sees the occupation as "the principal cause of the conflict."

This may be an erroneous view, but it's a legitimate one. What is not legitimate is to single out Israel for special opprobrium, when fewer Palestinians have been killed over the past four years of fighting than the Janjaweed militia murdered last week in the Darfur region of Sudan.

On this current human-rights and social-justice issue, however, the Presbyterian delegates were silent.

For many years now, mainline Protestant churches have taken an increasingly hostile stance toward Israel, while evangelical churches have tilted strongly toward Israel. If there is a consolation for Israel, it is that the mainline denominations are in decline while the latter are flourishing. The reasons for these patterns probably have little to do with their views vis-a-vis Israel.

But it ought to be of some concern to American Jewry that the very people with whom they might otherwise make common cause on domestic issues have taken such a hostile position on Israel.

More broadly, it is of great concern to Jews everywhere that this slide toward outright anti-Semitism is taking place in the very quarters from which one might expect sympathy or at least nuance in judgment. With its vote last week, the American Presbyterian Church showed neither.