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WASHINGTON - The Presbyterian Church's 216th General Assembly caught American Jewish organizations off guard and by surprise. The Presbyterians have never concealed their criticism of Israeli policies in the territories, but years of dialogue between Jews and Presbyterians had created an impression of an understanding between the communities.

Hence U.S. Jewish leaders were astonished to find that the Presbyterian Church has adopted the most censorious decisions ever embraced by any Christian denomination in the United States against Israel.

The Presbyterian Church has three million American members and is one of the strongest denominations in the country. This time it did more than issue declarations condemning Israel's occupation of the territories. In a precedent setting decision, it took practical steps to halt investments in Israel, and to discourage contacts with companies that do business in Israel.

Divestment decisions regarding Israel have in the past three years been reached by academic and research bodies in the U.S., but these have mostly been small institutions with limited economic clout. Their calls for divestment have had a marginal economic impact. Now, for the first time, a significant religious entity that controls large sums of money and commands the beliefs of millions of followers has called for the imposition of economic sanctions on Israel.

"By reaching this decision we want to make sure that we are not investing in activities of the kind we are trying to prevent. We see so much violence, and we want to assure ourselves that we have nothing to do with it," said Jay Rock, coordinator for Interfaith Relations at the Presbyterian church. Rock said the new divestment policy is motivated by more than a desire to insulate and detach Presbyterians from the violent Israeli-Palestinian dispute - his church also has an affirmative desire to "make our voice heard about the direction of Israeli policy."

The Presbyterian General Assembly convenes once every two years. The recent meeting was held in Richmond, Virginia. As is customary, a human rights survey was presented at the assembly and the report accused Israel of human rights violations in the territories.

The divestment proposal was forwarded by a Presbyterian delegate from Florida. The assembly's Peacemaking Committee confirmed the proposal, and brought it to the floor of the assembly plenum for a vote. The decision to divest from Israel was passed by a resounding majority of 431 to 62.

Tracking Caterpillar

Israeli delegates were not invited to speak at the Presbyterian General Assembly. Rev. Mitri Raheb, from Bethlehem, appeared before the delegates. This Bethlehem cleric urged the Presbyterians to sever economic ties with Israel. He singled out the tractor manufacturer Caterpillar, saying its products are used to raze Palestinian houses on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sources in the Presbyterian Church said this week that they do not know whether their church has investments in Caterpillar.

The Presbyterian decision is economically significant. Well-informed sources say the Presbyterian Church commands more than seven billion dollars worth of financial instruments and pension funds. Most of this money is invested in companies and now, in keeping with the divestment decision, Presbyterian delegates will review each company's records to ascertain whether it has ties with Israel.

According to the General Assembly decision, any company which earns more than $1 million annually as a result of investments in Israel, or which invests more than $1 million a year in Israel, will be entered on a blacklist prepared for the church's leaders - the Presbyterians are likely to divest from any company that appears on this list.

While the Presbyterian decision's likely economic impact is not negligible, the American Jewish community is more concerned about the principle inherent in the policy. "This is a new phase of aggressive behavior in the expression of their feelings toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Interfaith Director for the Anti-Defamation League.

He said that while the ADL and other American Jewish organizations maintain contacts with the Presbyterian church, the denomination's leaders did not inform the American Jewish leadership about preparations for the divestment policy - nor did the Presbyterians give the organized American Jewish community a chance to respond to the developments at their General Assembly.

Along with ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor sent a strongly worded letter to the leader of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, saying that they feel hurt by the General Assembly's divestment decision. They criticized the Presbyterians for drawing a comparison between the situation in Israel and former apartheid South Africa. The letter also attacked a call by the Presbyterians for an end to construction of the separation fence.

Despite the Presbyterian divestment decision in Richmond, many American Jewish leaders point out that there has been productive cooperation with this church, particularly in the realm of human rights. "Up to 1967 they were Israel's best friends, because they always support the underdog," says Bretton-Granatoor. "After that they started seeing Israel as a superpower."

Directed divestment

In the aftermath of the storm over the divestment decision, the Presbyterian church plans to issue a clarifying statement soon, saying that it will not boycott every company that has investments in Israel, or earns profits from business with Israel.

The intention is to provide boycott exemptions to companies or entities which deal in education, social welfare and construction in Israel. The Presbyterians want to direct the divestment policy toward "companies that might cause damage and hurt the peace process," as Jay Rock phrases it.

In parallel, an effort will be made to mend breaches with the Jewish community. Up to now, American Jewish professionals complain, Presbyterian replies to objections about the new divestment policy have been evasive and unsatisfactory.

"We need to engage and think together how these two communities, which both want to bring peace to the region, can think together about ways to do it," says Rock. He said: "It's clear that tension exists right now, but I hope that an opportunity for dialogue will emerge from this."

Yet, the thrust of statements made by Rock's counterpart, ADL Interfaith director Bretton-Granatoor, casts doubt on this hope of future dialogue. "It is accepted that reasonable people will ask questions and be critical - but they have proposed drastic measures and a blanket approach, without trying to balance or consult with the other side," Bretton-Granatoor says.

Unlike other denominations in the U.S., the Presbyterian church does not have a mass membership. Yet it is considered a highly influential church, largely because its members include people with clout in spheres such as politics and economics.

In recent years, the pro-Israel community in America has come to rely increasingly on the support of the Evangelical church, which has a mass following of some 50 million believers and whose leaders are outspoken proponents of Israel's right to occupy the territories, at least until the Second Coming. This "Christian Zionism" approach was criticized at the Presbyterian General Assembly which concluded that it has no clear theological foundation.

Will the Presbyterian decision encourage other denominations to adopt divestment policies? American Jewish leaders do not seem concerned about such a falling of dominoes. The Catholic Church, the largest Christian group in the U.S. and the world, is currently drawing closer to Israel. Various Protestant denominations in the U.S. periodically criticize Israeli policies in the territories but do not seem to have divestment decisions on their agenda.

Another decision reached by the Presbyterian General Assembly has little to do with Israel, but has incensed the American Jewish community. By a 260 to 233 vote, the assembly authorized continued funding and support for the Avodat Yisrael church in Philadelphia, which tries to convert Jews to Christianity.

Jewish activists have in the past demanded that this missionary group, which describes its purposes as "messianic," desist from its activities - they have objected that Avodat Yisrael uses duplicitous tactics - among other things, allegedly posing as a Jewish institution.