Like virtually all Jewish leaders, I am not too happy at the moment with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for its profoundly unfortunate and mistaken decision to divest from three companies that it claims “further the Israeli occupation in Palestine.” But I am not any happier with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small Jewish activist group that was only too happy to help the Presbyterians along.
I could see their success on Sunday morning, June 22, when Heath Rada, the church’s moderator, appeared on CNN with Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism. When Rabbi Jacobs noted that the church’s vote had caused pain and dismay among American Jews, Mr. Rada insisted that, based on his conversations with American Jews, many of them supported divestment.
Excuse me? Who exactly has Mr. Rada been talking to?
The answer is, apparently, Jewish Voice for Peace. According to press reports, including in the New York Times, young Jews from Jewish Voice for Peace appeared at the convention throughout the week wearing black T-shirts with the slogan “Another Jew Supporting Divestment.” One should not fault them for their campaign, I suppose. They were invited; it is to be expected that they would lobby for their point of view.
Still, there is something unsettling and dishonest about how all of this played out. While it is surely true that most American Jews do not support Israeli settlements, it is also true that they do not support divestment in any form. Rabbi Jacobs, the leader of the largest branch of American Judaism, made this clear in his speech to the delegates. It was also clear from an open letter opposing divestment sent to Presbyterian leadership and signed, in an unusual act of Jewish communal unity and common purpose, by 1700 rabbis and cantors from all the Jewish religious streams.
To be sure, the Rabbinical Council of the Jewish Voice for Peace also organized an open letter supporting divestment. But as of the day before the vote, it had been signed by 8 rabbis, 4 rabbinical students, and a cantor—a pretty good reflection of the organization’s actual strength.
The Presbyterian leadership is not naïve. It has been working with the Jewish community for decades on a range of issues and has been engaged in dialogue with Jews on divestment concerns since 2004. It knows how the Jewish community is organized. It knows who has a grassroots presence and who does not. And any suggestion that there is significant Jewish support for divestment or that Jewish Voice for Peace represents any more than a tiny sliver of Jewish opinion is simply preposterous.
My view is that the church desperately wanted Jewish backing as cover for their pro-divestment position and Jewish Voice for Peace became the instrument for providing that backing—or, perhaps, a means for church leaders to delude themselves into thinking that Jewish backing really exists.
Either way, none of this would have worked without the collusion of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has a tradition of cloaking extremist principles in ambiguous language.
Consider the disparity between the church's resolution and the views of Jewish Voice for Peace. The church wanted to pass a “selective divestment” resolution without seeming too extreme. The Jewish community, to say the least, was not convinced; it concluded that the church’s action suggested anti-Israel attitudes. Nonetheless, the final resolution passed by the general assembly called for selective divestment in specific companies while also reaffirming Israel’s right to exist, endorsing a two-state solution, and refraining from aligning with the global BDS movement.
Jewish Voice for Peace, wanting to play the hero and stay in the good graces of the church leadership, had nothing to say about these three points; an uninformed observer might think that it supports the church in the final wording of the resolution. But it doesn’t. As anyone who has read its mission statement and literature knows, it supports BDS, does not endorse a two-state solution, and while it does not call for Israel’s destruction, does not affirm her right to exist either.
In short, those young people in black T-shorts represent a radical anti-Israel position that goes far beyond the “selective divestment” that the church professes to call for. My suggestion to Presbyterian leadership: Get your information about the Jewish community and the Jewish tradition from a source other than Jewish Voice for Peace. And if you want, as I do, to see a reconciliation between the church and the Jews, put an end to an alliance that is leading you astray and generating resentment in the Jewish world.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.
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