Presbyterian leaders: US should end Israel aid unless nation backs off Palestinian settlements

By Patrick Condon, AP
Friday, July 9, 2010

Presbyterians: End Israel aid over settlements

MINNEAPOLIS — Presbyterian leaders strongly backed a proposal Friday that included a call to end U.S. aid to Israel unless the country stops settlement expansions in disputed Palestinian territories.

But they said the 172-page report, which details their church’s approach to issues in the Middle East, was a sincere effort to mend long-standing fractures between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Jewish groups.

It earned qualified praise but also criticism from pro-Israel organizations, which have long taken issue with various Presbyterian statements on Middle East peace.

Church delegates approved the report by an 82 percent vote during the church’s general assembly in Minneapolis. It’s meant as a comprehensive guide to the denomination’s more than 2 million members on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We feel we’ve brought together people who previously had trouble talking about some of these issues together,” said Rev. Karen Dimon, pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in North Syracuse, N.Y., and chairwoman of the committee that produced the report.

Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he still took issue with major aspects of the report, but said it contained “important signals” that could lessen long-standing tension between Presbyterians and pro-Israel Jews. He said it strengthens support for Israel’s right to exist and removes comparisons of Israeli policy to apartheid.

“Concerns remain, but I have hope that authentic dialogue and better relations can come of this,” Felson said.

The Anti-Defamation League said the report managed to “avoid a rupture with Jewish people, but bias against Israel continues.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center said the report “takes definite sides in a complex struggle.”

But the Rev. J.C. Austin, director of the Center for Christian Leadership at New York City’s Auburn Seminary, disagreed.

“We are refusing to designate a winner or loser,” said Austin, who helped prepare the report.

The denomination’s relationship with Jewish groups took a hit in 2004, when the church’s general assembly voted to authorize “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” because of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. That stance has since been softened, and this year convention delegates voted down an amendment to the Middle East report that would have put divestment back on the table.

Despite the strong convention vote, some delegates expressed concern that the Middle East report remained too slanted toward a Palestinian perspective.

“There are many longtime friends in the Jewish community who believe this report misstates Jewish theology and misquotes the Jewish voice,” said the Rev. Susan Zencka, pastor at Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church in Stevens Point, Wis. “We have come to a position of Palestine good, Israel bad. Life is not that simple.”

But supporters stressed that the overarching goal of the report is to encourage activism toward peace in the Middle East.

“I fully support a state of Israel, but I also believe Israel’s peace will not come until they seek peace with Palestinians,” said Dottie Villesvik, a church elder from Everett, Wash.

The church’s annual convention is scheduled through Saturday. It began July 3.

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