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JCRC meeting addresses BDS within Christian denominations and on campus

The May 24 meeting updated JCRC member groups about the latest BDS battles within Protestant Christian denominations and on local college campuses.

The latest iterations and impacts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement within denominations of Mainline Protestant Christianity and on local college campuses were the focus of Tuesday's meeting of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council.

Led by JCRC Chair David T. Brown, the meeting included information and insight from Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, JUF Rabbinic scholar in residence; the Rev. Robert Cathey, professor of theology at McCormick Theological Seminary; John Lowenstein, JUF vice president for campus affairs; and Rachel Zucker, a second year student at the University of Chicago and an Israel intern with JUF's Israel Education Center.

Poupko began the meeting with an overview of relations between Jewish leaders and the leaders of various Christian denominations in Chicago. He provided some context for the BDS efforts taking place within the national mainline Protestant churches including four BDS resolutions that were defeated by the United Methodist Church at its general conference in Portland, Oregon last week.

"It's very important for all of us to distinguish local reality from national headlines because it is exceptional events that too often shape our attitudes," Poupko said. Through JCRC, he noted, there is ongoing, positive dialogue between Jews and Protestants in Chicago.

Jews and Presbyterians are one such example of improved Jewish-Protestant relations. Local Jewish and Presbyterian leaders began meeting regularly after the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed its first divestment resolution in 2004. Poupko was part of those meetings, as was Cathey, a Presbyterian minister who has participated in seminars in Israel with Jewish colleagues.

Cathey presented the findings and reactions to a report about the Church's commitment to a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The report was recently circulated to Presbyterian leaders in advance of its general assembly in June, where two years ago it adopted three Israel divestment resolutions.

Cathey called the report "negative" in its outlook and proposed several steps to rebuild the relationship between Presbyterians and Jews and provide Presbyterians with more perspectives and information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"As I speak with Protestants around Chicago and in northern Indiana, what I often discover is what influences people's perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is which organization they made their first trip to the region with," Cathey said.

Cathey proposed Jews and Presbyterians study Hebrew and Bible together, and said that seminary students, who are required to study Hebrew, could be doing it while living in Israel for a semester.

The meeting then shifted to a report and discussion of the climate on college campuses for Jewish students, who continue to feel marginalized and unwelcome for their support of Israel.

"Students come to campus to be intellectually challenged, not to be intimidated because of their support for Israel or because they are Jewish," Lowenstein said.

Lowenstein then introduced Zucker, who shared her experiences on campus and the hostile environment for Jewish students that support Israel.

"The reason I chose the University of Chicago is I wanted to be challenged in every way imaginable, but I didn't want my identity to be challenged," Zucker said. "That's really the biggest issue we see … no longer are we challenging people's ideas and opinions, but we're challenging the very fiber of who they are."

Zucker was one of the Jewish students on her campus to stand up against a divestment resolution that ultimately passed the UChicago student government last month. An amendment to that resolution that would have supported the Jewish right to self-determination and the continued existence of the state of Israel was rejected.

"The BDS campaign is more than just a campaign to divest from Israel; it's to make sure that [pro-Israel] students feel unsafe and insecure," Zucker said.

JCRC continues to partner with the Israel Action Network, an Israel advocacy initiative created by the Jewish Federations of North America, to aid those on the front lines in the fight against BDS in Chicago and across the country, as well as the Israel Education Center .

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