An ecumenical group of 14 House Members led by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) implored the Presbyterian Church (USA) this week to scuttle a July resolution calling for “phased, selective” divestment in companies that do business with Israel, characterizing the religious organization’s action as “irresponsible, counterproductive and morally bankrupt.”
In a letter to the Rev. Clifton Kilpatrick, who presided at the church’s national meeting two months ago, Berman’s group charged that the document “leads us to only one conclusion: the Presbyterian Church has knowingly gone on record calling for jeopardizing the existence of the State of Israel.”
The letter represents a rare foray by Members of Congress into the internal affairs of a mainstream religious group, though Berman said the lawmakers do not intend for the letter to be interpreted as a threat of Congressional retaliation against the group, which represents three million Presbyterians nationwide.
“I was so angered,” Berman said in an interview. “I just wanted to challenge their position.”
The letter’s signatories spanned ideological and religious affiliations. They included three Presbyterian Members: Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), John Linder (R-Ga.) and Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). Five Jewish Members — Berman, plus Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — also signed.
Other lawmakers who signed the Berman letter included House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), as well as Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Lamar Smith (R-Fla.).
Berman said that a couple of Members he approached declined to sign on because they considered the wording “too strong.”
According to the U.S. Congress Handbook, 52 Members of Congress identify themselves as Presbyterians, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Frist’s office said the leader would not have any comment on the action taken by the church.
Members of Congress do occasionally weigh in on positions taken by mainstream religious groups, primarily when those positions bear directly on policy debates. Criticism of Catholic Church orthodoxy on abortion, for instance, is not uncommon among liberals and moderates.
But lawmakers typically avoid actions that could be interpreted as intrusions on religious practice — and policies that harmonize with beliefs, such as divestment, do not typically attract Congressional interest.
“I think the idea of some form of Congressional action in commenting on the internal issues of a religious denomination is a slippery slope,” said Mark Pelavin, a director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has strongly urged the Presbyterian Church to reconsider its position.
Pelavin said his group plans to sit down with Kirkpatrick this week to try to iron out differences. “We’re working directly with the Presbyterian Church,” he said.
Pelavin said his group is concerned about indications that other mainstream Protestant organizations are considering whether to follow the Presbyterians’ lead on Israel. Many Christian denominations closely follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of the primacy of some of the region’s sites, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to their religious missions, Pelavin noted.
Lawmakers who signed the letter contend that the policy laid out in the resolution would endanger Israel by weakening the country economically and emboldening those who seek to destroy the Jewish state. Citing a second resolution passed by the church that calls for Israel to tear down a security fence it has been building along the West Bank, the church’s critics argue that the Presbyterians are essentially punishing Israel for trying to defend itself.
“I hope that the key message they would have received is that this is an issue that is much more complex than the people who wrote the resolution might believe,” Feeney said. He added, “I stay out of theology. They ought to stay out of politics.”
Bill Somplatski-Jarman, a senior official with the Presbyterian Church, said details of the resolution have been largely “distorted” by critics. The resolution, he said, calls on congregations to first “engage” companies that do business with Israel and urge them to seek changes in that country’s policies toward the Palestinians. Divestment would be considered if no “positive traction” results.
Somplatski-Jarman said the Presbyterians “welcome input from anybody,” but chided lawmakers for not speaking with church officials before acting.
“You ought to ask for a discussion and for information before making a judgment — that’s what we tend to do,” Somplatski-Jarman said.
The divestment resolution emerged in early July from the church’s 216th General Assembly, where it passed 431-62. By an even more lopsided vote — 471-34 — the delegates passed a separate resolution that said Israel’s security fence “ghettoizes the Palestinians and forces them onto what can only be called reservations.”
On a separate matter that is also controversial, the delegates voted 260-233 to continue funding for churches that are geared toward winning converts to Christianity — a practice that Jewish organizations universally consider to be offensive.
The resolutions — but particularly the one on divestiture — elicited an anguished response from Jewish groups, one of which called the church’s statements “hostile and aggressive.”
Since that time, many religious leaders, including Kirkpatrick, have called for new “dialogue” to bridge disagreements and what the church has cast as “misunderstandings” between the faiths.
“The commissioners acted not out of anti-Semitism or ignorance, but to pursue deeply held convictions regarding the foundation for long-term peace and stability in Israel/Palestine,” said Rick Ufford-Chase, a senior church official who responded to criticism of the resolutions on the organization’s Web site.
The site (www.pcusa.org) includes a section devoted to informing parishioners about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of the articles published in this area contain controversial or one-sided views regarding Israel.
According to a “primer” on Zionism provided for the site by The Middle East Research and Information Project, the politics of the Jewish return movement were “influenced by nationalist ideology, and by colonial ideas about Europeans’ rights to claim and settle other parts of the world.” Adjacent to the article is a photo of Orthodox Jews in Israel holding placards bearing expressions such as “Zionism is the main cause of anti-Semitism in the world” and “Israel is a cancer for Jews.”
Another article, called “challenging myths with facts on the ground,” refers to a peace proposal put forward at Camp David by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak as the leader’s “final solution” — a seeming reference to Hitler’s program to exterminate European Jewry.
A third article, concerning “media bias” toward Israel, says the word “terrorism” has been used in American media as “a racist term that demonizes any aggressive action against Israel’s occupation.”
“Think about that the next time you listen to Daniel Schorr and those reports from Jerusalem on National Public Radio, or read Thomas Friedman and William Safire in the New York Times,” the author of the article writes. “These journalists have a worldview, and it is not a Palestinian worldview.”
All three commentators are Jewish.