Robert Ross, center, and fellow supporters celebrated after the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from companies associated with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories on June 20.

Joshua Lott • New York Times,

Presbyterians' vote tests Jewish ties

  • Article by: Amy Brittain and Michelle Boorstein
  • Washington Post
  • June 22, 2014 - 8:21 PM

Members of the Presbyterian and Jewish faiths have long been considered allies across the U.S. religious patchwork, forging bonds in local communities over shared viewpoints on many social issues.

Now, some are warning that their alliance is on shaky ground after the Presbyterian Church narrowly voted in Detroit on Friday to divest in three businesses that supply products and technology used in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The move elicited wide-ranging responses from across the religious spectrum, with leaders from several national Jewish groups immediately denouncing the vote, while some interfaith leaders raised concerns about the long-term consequences of the decision.

Israel’s prime minister on Sunday criticized the decision, saying the vote was misguided and unfair.

In an address to an international gathering of Jewish journalists, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel as a rare bright spot in a turbulent region.

“When the Middle East is fragmented in this horrible war, this savage, savage war between militant Shiites and militant Sunnis … the only place where you have freedom, tolerance, protection of minorities, protection of gays, protection of Christians and all other faiths is Israel,” he said.

Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) convened its voting body, the 221st General Assembly, in Detroit to tackle a number of issues. The church, with approximately 1.8 million members and 10,000 churches across the United States, made headlines on Thursday after members voted to reword its constitution to recognize gay marriage.

In the lead-up to the divestment vote, lobbyists on both sides converged on Detroit.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to the delegates twice in an effort to get them to vote against divestment.

“In the past two centuries, we Jews and Presbyterians have become more loving brothers and sisters, but we are at a crucial junction in our relationship,” Jacobs said. “I pray that the decisions of this General Assembly will bring us closer.”

On Friday, the legislative body voted 310 to 303 to divest the church’s interest in three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

The American Jewish Committee, based in New York, called it “a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations,” saying in a written statement that a group within the Presbyterian Church was “driven by hatred of Israel” and had led a campaign of misinformation within the denomination.

A subgroup of the Presbyterian Church, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, started a divestment movement a decade ago. In 2004, a pastor in Gainesville, Fla., went before the church’s General Assembly to raise the issue. The assembly then approved an overture to create the group “to advocate for Palestinian human rights and to educate Presbyterians about their plight,” according to a written release.

The Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, a member of the network’s steering committee, said the movement created “a conflict in the liberal side of the church” as members felt torn between loyalty to their Jewish brothers and sisters and a need to push for social action.

“Presbyterians like to be in relationships with people of other faiths,” said DeYoe, of Fort Meyers, Fla. “But the church has a tendency to also stand with people who are being oppressed.”

The Presbyterian Church’s holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions were estimated at $21 million, a church spokeswoman said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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