Wed, Sep 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Presbyterian-Jewish talks concern divestment plan


Leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA and the country's largest Jewish groups were meeting in New York yesterday to discuss a rift touched off by resolutions that the church adopted this summer regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- notably one that calls for selective divestment in companies doing business in Israel and the occupied territories.

Protestant leaders believe that no other US churches have taken such a step. But others are considering similarly stringent measures, according to a Presbyterian spokesman and representatives of other Protestant churches.

"There have been some expressions of interest for finding out more about what we've done," said Jay Rock, coordinator for interfaith relations at the Presbyterian Church USA. "Some of the American Protestant churches have talked to us about this and indicated that they may be beginning to consider doing the same."

Recent news reports have indicated that international Anglican groups are considering not only divestment, but also an active boycott of Israeli products and those of companies doing business there.

The possibility that the Presbyterian decisions could inspire others is among gravest threats that Jewish leaders see, coming at a time, they contend, when Israel has become more isolated internationally.

The controversy stems from policy statements that the Presbyterian Church USA's general assembly passed at its biennial meeting in June and July in Richmond, Va. One called for Israel to halt construction of its security barrier in the West Bank, which has been widely criticized as illegal by international organizations. Another statement authorized the church's investment committee to initiate possible divestment in companies "whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli," according to Clifton Kirkpatrick, the church assembly's clerk.

A third resolution not related to Israel upset Jews because it continued the national church's financial support for a church in Philadelphia, Avodat Yisrael, that Jewish leaders say evangelizes among Jews under false pretenses.

Other Protestant churches have condemned the security barrier at their national conferences over the last two years. And there has been friction with the Presbyterians and others over Israeli policy in the past, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Union for Reform Judaism president.

While the church has about $7 billion in investments, Yoffie said he did not think the amount affected by the divestment moves would be significant.

"When they ask me what I'm concerned about, part of it is that it will be creating a momentum that will not be good for anybody," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an association of about 800 congregations nationwide.

"Our people were deeply appalled by the message," Yoffie said.

The Presbyterian decision to explore divestment may be the starkest example so far of the frustration among many Protestants with the Israel's policies in Palestinian areas and the crumbling of peace efforts. Matters were worsened by Israel's decision to build the barrier in the West Bank, Protestant leaders said. Interfaith dialogue between Jews and American Protestants has waned over the last few years, in great part because of objections to Israel's policies, said Antonios Kireopoulos, assistant general secretary at the National Council of Churches, which numbers 36 denominations.

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