By Jennifer Lader
The First Presbyterian Church of Allentown has reaffirmed its ties with the Jewish community of the Lehigh Valley in anticipation of a recent vote at the Presbyterian Church USA’s [PCUSA’s] general convention. PCUSA voted in Detroit to divest from certain companies whose involvement in Israel the church finds problematic. The Allentown church is against such divestment. Representing the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown via the letter were the Reverend Dr. Tony Sundermeier, then lead pastor and moderator of session, and Elder Janet Ney, clerk of session. Leaders of the Jewish community expressed deep appreciation for the Allentown church’s commitment to mutual understanding and connection.
On June 20, the PCUSA voted on the issue of divestment at its convention in Detroit and singled out three international companies. The companies slated for divestment are Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar. The Huffington Post quotes the church as saying the three companies “supply equipment and materials used to destroy homes and construct and monitor Israeli checkpoints and settlements, which most countries view as illegal and an obstacle to peacemaking.”
Meanwhile, the companies have defended their record and, according to the Huffington Post, “Caterpillar has said it doesn't sell its equipment directly to Israel, but to the U.S. government.”
In announcing the vote, Church officials indicated that they are not fully aligning themselves with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks a blanket boycott of all Israeli goods and questions Israel's legitimacy.
Representatives of the church characterized the vote as “a compassionate and holistic approach to relationships in the Middle East” and likened the situation to PCUSA’s divestment from apartheid South Africa. No mention was made of the products employed by any other governments of the world.
Others expressed concern that the move would damage relationships with the Jewish community.
The Anti-Defamation League voiced its disappointment and said the resolution, which it said comes ”in the context of years of hostility by PCUSA leadership toward Israel,” was out of step with the views of the majority of Presbyterians in the pews and sends a painful message to American Jews.
In anticipation of the vote and even before knowing what the outcome would be, the First Presbyterian Church of Allentown sent a letter to Lehigh Valley Jewish community leaders affirming the friendships between the church and Valley’s Jewish community, saying in part, “We have deeply appreciated our longstanding collegiality and partnerships and we look forward to even better days ahead!”
The letter goes on to reference a second controversy, one that had developed over the preceding months with the January publication of “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide by PCUSA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network. The guide targeted what it called “the theological and ethical exceptionalism of Jewish and Christian Zionism, which have been sheltered from open debate despite the intolerable human rights abuses rooted in their core beliefs.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that even before the divestment vote, Jewish-Presbyterian relations already were strained severely following the publication by the church-affiliated group of the publication, which depicted Zionism as a false theology.
“The publication of ‘Zionism Unsettled’ by the very voices backing divestment in the PCUSA revealed an agenda that is not about church investments,” said Ethan Felson, the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “These backers of divestment want to return their church to a place of retrograde anti-Jewish theology, hostility to mainstream Jews and, of course, a blind eye to the responsibility of Hamas and Hezbollah on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the steps Israelis are forced to take to defend themselves.”
Of this, the letter from the Allentown church states, “This network does not speak for the entire denomination but is sanctioned by it. We are concerned about this document as some of its content creates dissonance, confusion, and a potential polarization between the Christian and Jewish communities. To be as clear as possible: We support peace, justice, prosperity and safety in the Middle East for both Palestinians and Israelis.” The letter goes on to state that “Zionism Unsettled” jeopardizes years of work toward mutual understanding and may in fact compromise the stated goals.
Weeks later at the convention in Detroit, PCUSA also passed a resolution declaring that “the booklet ’Zionism Unsettled’ does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church USA.”
Across the country, other local Presbyterian churches have likewise condemned the move by the national body regarding the divestment vote. The Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Churches have considered and rejected divestment.