Leaders from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) warmly welcomed a “groundbreaking” document issued by the Presbyterian Church (USA), through its Interfaith Department. The document calls on Presbyterians to look critically at materials that discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to reject anti-Jewish themes that the church acknowledges reside in some of these writings, including some that are rooted in the application of liberation theology to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"This document is seminal, positive, and has the potential to open a new chapter in Christian-Jewish relations," said Rabbi Steven Gutow, JCPA Executive Director. These sentiments were echoed by Midge Perlman-Shafton, chair of JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and a JCPA Vice-Chair. “The PCUSA document calling for “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias” is testament to the value of hard work, faithful dialogue, active listening, and honest confrontation of difficult issues,” added Perlman-Shafton.
The process leading to the statement, according to JCPA Associate Executive Director Ethan Felson, was initiated in Chicago almost four years ago, by the Jewish United Fund and specifically its Judaic Scholar Rabbi Yehiel Poupko. This led to the creation of an ad hoc Presbyterian-Jewish group that studied writings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by a number of Christian writers who have been critical of Zionism, Israel, and Christian supporters of Israel. The group’s efforts led to a fuller national conversation that, in turn, helped inform the PCUSA statement.
“This statement demonstrates that churches can maintain close bonds with Palestinian Christians and remain faithful to their commitment to Palestinians, without embracing anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist ideas,” said Felson.
The statement reiterates the church’s “close spiritual ties with the Jewish people” and its belief that “Christianity can have no complicity in anti-Semitic attitudes or action of any kind.” It also acknowledges the church’s “long and deep complicity in the proliferation of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions” through the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism.
The statement recognizes that such anti-Jewish attitudes exist in the present time and acknowledges that recent dialogue has demonstrated that they inform some speech and writing about Israel, the Palestinians and the conflict between the two. One instance that is identified specifically is a 2004 resolution on Christian Zionism, from the Presbytery of Chicago, that uses authors who have suggested or declared that “the Jewish people are no longer in covenant with God” or have made “statements that echo the medieval Christian” charge of deicide against Jews. Such language clouds “complicated issues with the rhetoric of ignorance or subliminal attitudes, or the language of hate.” Further, such ideas undermine authentic advocacy for peace and justice, said the PCUSA.
The JCPA and JUF leaders specifically welcomed two areas identified by the statement in which the PCUSA acknowledged that anti-Jewish attitudes may inform church conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, the statement notes that when Zionism is discussed, it is often distorted, inaccurately portrayed, and solely blamed for the plight of Palestinians. Second, theologians, particularly those grounded in liberation theology, are said to describe the Israeli-Palestinian situation in ways that “can easily resemble supersessionism.” For example, “by seeming to replace the Jewish people in their own story” or by advancing a universal application of the Promise of the land “to the exclusion of a particular gift to the Jewish people.” Applying the Passion narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Church noted, brings “unique” problems with an “emotionally and theologically” loaded explication of the conflict that can yield a troubling and terrifying “demonization of Israel and the Jewish people”
The Presbyterian statement concludes with a call for Christians and Jews to “be vigilant in regard to our speech about and to one another.” In response Gutow stated, “We share this commitment and welcome this call for vigilance as we welcome the overall statement itself and the many positive commitments it represents.”