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Facing confrontation on Israel, Presbyterian Church manages a compromise

WASHINGTON – U.S. Jews and Presbyterians say they have salvaged a fragile unity of purpose from an assembly that was poised to create a rift between the two faiths.

The outcome of last week’s General Assembly in Minneapolis of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was remarkable in that all sides in the contentious debate — Jewish groups and the authors of a controversial report on the Middle East that had alarmed the Jews — agreed that the outcome was better than any side had expected.

Rather than adopt the report’s recommendations, including sanctions against Israel and divestment, the assembly revised the report’s recommendations and adopted an amended resolution that both camps applauded as evenhanded.

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Katharine Henderson, the president of the Presbyterian Church USA’s Auburn Theological Seminary, was key to facilitating a compromise resolution on the Middle East July 9 at the church’s assembly. Courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary

Ron Shive, who chaired the Middle East Study Committee, released a letter to the assembly prior to the vote urging endorsement of the changes that incorporated some of the concerns raised by Jewish groups.

“A week ago, it looked as if the Presbyterian Church (USA) was going to enact a version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its own body, so divided were we on all sides,” the letter began. “Today, we still have disagreements on items in the report, on methods we should pursue, on arguments we should make. But today, by God’s grace, we have discovered that together, we may actually be more faithful and effective in seeking peace with justice for both Palestinians and Israelis than separately.”

The president of the church’s Auburn Theological Seminary, Katharine Henderson, who was key to facilitating the dialogue on the resolution, said the Presbyterians who favored the Palestinian cause had been unaware of the prominence within the Jewish and Israeli communities of groups that took Palestinian needs into consideration.

Conversely, Jewish groups had not internalized the degree to which Presbyterians, and other Christians, are moved by the plight of the diminishing numbers of Palestinian Christians who have been squeezed out because of the conflict. Those sympathies often lead to broader sympathies for the Palestinians.

“I think that people came from very polarized places supporting the narrative that they had been persuaded by, so there was a pro-Palestinian camp and a pro-Israel camp,” she said.

She co-authored the letter Shive sent before the vote. The letter anticipated a more healthy dialogue.

“Beyond any expectation, we find ourselves discovering a new model of ministry together, a model committed to seeking, hearing, and responding to the fullness of narratives and commitments with the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” it said.

The culmination was that in votes last Friday in Minneapolis, the assembly rejected sanctions and divestment as a means of protesting Israel’s Jewish settlements in the west bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as theological critiques of Zionism that Jewish groups said bordered on the anti-Semitic.

The assembly resolution that eventually passed recognized both Israeli and Palestinian claims in the conflict.

The consensus encompassed the church’s most strident critics of Israeli policy and an array of Jewish groups including organizations that often lean conservative on pro-Israel issues, such as CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It was critical to maintain that consensus in the coming months, the sides said, in order to keep positions from hardening down the road.

Ethan Felson, the director of domestic concerns for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish public policy umbrella organization, credited Henderson for facilitating dialogue rather than confrontation between the two sides.

“Many people who are passionate on all sides live in echo chambers,” Felson told JTA on Monday after hosting Henderson on a conference call with JCPA constituent groups. “When you develop genuine relationships with people with contrasting views, oftentimes you recognize that it’s possible for our narratives to overlap rather than conflict.” Felson also attended the assembly.

Henderson said the challenge was the devolution of the argument into pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps within the church. At an assembly with the sides setting up competing booths, she and others endeavored to get the sides to communicate.

“Over the course of the General Assembly, as people began to listen to each other, they realized the importance of the other narrative and really began to learn why people felt the way they did,” she told JTA.

A coalition of 12 national Jewish groups signed a JCPA statement welcoming the rejections of the problematic recommendations on Israel prepared by the church’s Middle East Study Committee.

“Rejection of overtures calling for the use of divestment and labeling Israeli policy as apartheid demonstrate a desire for broader understanding in the quest for peace,” the statement said. “The General Assembly has modeled a more inclusive voice on the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

There were qualifications: The JCPA statement noted with disappointment that the assembly deferred for further consideration a paper recommending improvements in Presbyterian-Jewish relations that has been long in preparation.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a separate statement that was sharper in its disappointment. Though the ADL credited the assembly for actions that “averted a rupture,” it slammed the conference’s recommendation that the U.S. government consider withholding aid as a means of pressuring Israel.

What made the outcome extraordinary, participants said, was that the drafters of the report saw its effective rejection as an improvement as well. The assembly endorsed the positive elements of the report — promoting hope, love, and reconciliation. But instead of disseminating the report, the assembly tasked the committee with coming up with eight representative, authentic narratives — four Israeli, four Palestinian — for consideration.

Shive told the Los Angeles Times that he did not see the changes to the recommendations arising out of the report as weakening the Middle East Study Committee’s argument pressing for greater consideration of the Palestinians.

“I don’t think that’s watering down,” he said, referring to language recognizing Israel’s security needs. “I think that’s listening to our Jewish partners and saying, ‘This is something that needs to be in the report.’”

Dexter Van Zile, the Christian media analyst for CAMERA, a pro-Israel monitoring group that often sharply hits back at Israel criticism, said it was incumbent on Jewish groups to recognize the depth among Christians of sympathy for the Palestinians.

“One of the things I have learned in the past few years is that there really is a genuine concern on the part of the activists; it’s genuine,” said Van Zile, who attended the assembly. “People who ignore that concern and dismiss it aren’t going to get anywhere.”

Conversing with pro-Palestinian activists has the potential of introducing pro-Israel concerns about burgeoning anti-Semitism in the Middle East, he noted.

“You have to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and you have to talk about some of the underlying causes of hostility to Israel.”

Henderson pressed the case for follow-up at the local level, perhaps extending to joint Jewish-Presbyterian projects such as investment in the west bank economy, and face-to-face encounters between Jews and Palestinians such as those organized by her seminary.

Letting the good will engendered by the dialogue at the assembly lapse, she warned, might harden positions two years from now at the next assembly.

“It’s incumbent upon those of us who were there, myself included, and all of us in this coalition,” Henderson said, “that we are accountable to each other to continue the work with each other in the church and with our Jewish and Palestinian partners.”

JTA

 
 

Palestinians gain ground in PR, diplomatic war

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, hosting a luncheon for Israelis in the west bank city of Ramallah, on Dec. 19. Issam Rimawi/FLASH90/JTA

In the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, score some recent victories for the Palestinians.

It’s not that Israel has given an inch in the territorial dispute over the west bank, or that the Palestinians in Gaza have achieved new military victories against the Israelis, despite increased rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip in recent weeks.

Rather, the Palestinians have scored a series of diplomatic and public-relations successes against a Jewish state weakened by fraying relationships and a declining reputation internationally.

On the diplomatic front, Palestinian leaders announced this week that 10 European Union countries were upgrading their ties with the PLO. Earlier this month, three Latin American countries — Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia — issued formal recognitions of the state of Palestine.

On Sunday was the much-publicized lunch hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for Israeli politicians and activists in Ramallah. Numerous Op-Eds followed in the Israeli media and overseas, saying that there is a Palestinian partner for peace even if there isn’t an Israeli one.

Then there was the early December decision by the Obama administration to drop its effort to persuade Israel to agree to an additional 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the west bank. Commentators cited Israeli intransigence as the primary reason.

“Israel,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Dec. 11 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Over the last few months, Israel’s declining international reputation has given the Palestinians and their allies an opening they have exploited by effectively casting Israel as the bully and the unyielding party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is a message that is promoted relentlessly by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to make Israel an international pariah, and it is reinforced by negative assessments of Israeli actions such as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two years ago, the deadly Turkish flotilla incident of May 31, and Israel’s daily treatment of west bank Palestinians.

If the goal is to increase pressure on Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state, a strategy that focuses on diplomacy and PR appears to have a greater chance of success right now than the Palestinians’ decades-long strategy of terrorism and war.

That strategy — call it the violent one — was snuffed out in recent years by Israeli military operations, Israel’s erection of the west bank security fence, and a recognition by leading Palestinian figures that the violence was doing more harm to the Palestinian national cause than good.

“We tried the intifada, and it caused us a lot of damage,” Abbas told an interviewer with the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat in September.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would not revert to violent uprising even if peace talks collapsed.

With relative moderates like Abbas in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the west bank — the primary public face of the Palestinians — there is a greater understanding that to achieve statehood the Palestinians must win the world to their side. That, after all, paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to recognize a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now the Palestinians are setting their sights on a similar goal.

U.N. recognition would shift the conflict from one over “occupied Palestinian territories” to a conflict over an “occupied state with defined borders,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the international community to salvage the two-state solution by recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

While U.N. recognition of Palestine might make a diplomatic end run around Israel, it hardly would result in an immediate Palestinian state. The United Nations would have no way of enforcing its decision, and Israeli troops and settlers would remain in the west bank.

What it would do, however, is significantly ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.

“Widespread international recognition of Palestine’s legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote on his blog earlier this month.

That pressure isn’t just coming from outside Israel.

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer warned in October.

There is pressure even from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Likud veteran and cabinet minister Michael Eitan has proposed moving settlers willing to accept compensation and relocation out of the west bank and into Israel proper to signal to the world that Israel is serious about wanting peace with the Palestinians.

This week, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

“Almost no day goes by without some other country recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” Eldar wrote. “According to the WikiLeaks documents, even the Germans, Israel’s steadfast supporters in Europe, have lost their faith in the peaceful intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”

Whatever criticism there is inside Israel about the Israeli government’s approach toward the Palestinians, the criticism outside Israel is sharper.

The main holdout is the United States, where recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly favor Israel over the Palestinians, and Congress remains steadfastly pro-Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is aiming to change that. Using everything from campus activism to boycotts of stores that sell Israeli food products to bus ads promoting pro-Palestinian messages, the movement is hoping to sway public opinion.

Starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, a group called the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign will be running ads on the sides of Seattle buses featuring photos of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.”

At Princeton University in New Jersey, DePaul University in Chicago, and on the streets of Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian activists have campaigned to have Israeli brands of hummus removed from campus cafeterias or store shelves. In New York, boycott supporters demonstrated outside a store belonging to the Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner.

“The relics of the past boycotts — from Nuremberg to Damascus — are back,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed. “Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life.”

In the zero-sum game that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s good news for the Palestinians.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Amid rancorous debate, JCPA pushes civility

WASHINGTON – When disagreement among American Jews on Israel-related issues runs deep, how does an organization that bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community formulate policies and priorities?

By emphasizing civility in public discourse, for starters.

That was one of the main areas of focus at this week’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which drew delegates from Jewish community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American Jewish public policy priorities.

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Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addresses the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Washington on Sunday. Courtesy JCPA

Plenum organizers said the goal was to show that while differences within the Jewish community factions are substantive, particularly when it comes to Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.

“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations — it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s vice president.

That approach led to sessions featuring polar opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in a discussion on energy independence.

The liveliest session, delegates said, was when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Young Jews in Israel, he said, have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin with whom they serve in the army than with American Jewish college students.

Oren said it was critical to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.

“We are united at the heart, a rambunctious, often fractious people,” he said. “While the experiences of American Jews have made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and our disappointments, Israelis have become somewhat skeptical of peace.”

Despite his plea for dialogue, Oren was among those who boycotted the J Street conference last month after a campaign by mainstream and right-wing pro-Israel groups to keep centrist and Israeli figures away from the conference.

In a separate appearance at the JCPA plenum, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a J Street favorite, told a questioner who urged him to denounce those who describe Israel as an “apartheid” state that such rote statements are besides the point.

“We don’t need more cheerleaders for both sides,” he said. “We need more peacemakers for both sides.”

The applause for Ellison underscored the continued liberal bearings of a large segment of the Jewish community. So did the warm reception accorded Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish.

Jarrett went out of her way to suggest that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.

She referred to the March 1 meeting between Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying that the president “made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakeable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to delegitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”

The Presidents Conference participants described that meeting as friendly, but some were rankled by Obama’s remark that they and Israeli leaders should “search their souls” about whether Israel is serious about peace.

Most of Jarrett’s speech was devoted to the president’s domestic agenda and his efforts to push back against plans by the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash spending on education and infrastructure and assisting struggling families. She pitched legislative efforts to close the income gap between men and women.

“Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low-paying jobs, it affects the entire family,” she said.

Jarrett’s message of sustaining the social net resonated with a JCPA agenda that focused, in resolutions and in Hill lobbying, on alleviating poverty.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the conference’s most senior Republican speaker, recognized the community’s Democratic tilt in his address Tuesday morning, before delegates lobbied their representatives. Glancing through the JCPA’s agenda, Kirk noted that as a moderate Republican he supported much of it, including two initiatives against discrimination against gays.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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