Claiming the Center Presbyterians USA and the BDS movement

by | May 2, 2014 | Torah Thought

Of the many things at Ohef Sholom Temple of which we are proud, the greatest of them might be the words of the prophet Isaiah inscribed above the Stockley Gardens entrance to our Sanctuary: Our House shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples. This principal underlies everything about our congregation. We cherish all of our member families and the differing faiths that comprise them; we have wonderful relations with our neighbors, as is evidenced by an 80 plus year history of Thanksgiving services with Freemason Street Baptist Church; our annual partnership with Ghent United Methodist Church in our hosting of the NEST program; and the many times we have hosted Iftar dinners, Muslim break the fasts marking the end of Ramadan. I have even spoken from the pulpit, on the High Holidays no less, of our gratitude to those parents of other faiths who have committed themselves to raising Jewish children. When I say, we love all of our members for who they are, as they are and where they are on their religious journeys, I really mean it.

So it is with great sadness that I write about a recent event that occurred in the community of our friends, the Presbyterians. Like most religious denominations, their congregations and clergy attend annual conventions of their governing bodies and most Presbyterian Churches belong to the Presbyterian Church USA and attend its annual General Assembly. Like the U.S. Congress, various pastors are assigned to different committees with the chairs of those committees appointed by the General Assembly moderator.

The hot button issue for the last few years has been the state of Israel—specifically whether or not to boycott, divest or sanction Israel for its ongoing struggle with the leadership of the Palestinian people. As many of you know, BDS, the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement, is hardly unique to the Presbyterians USA. It is the latest war on Israel, heavily financed and organized by enemies of the State of Israel, to discredit her in the eyes of the media and the law, governments world-wide as well as in academic institutions and bodies, and even through organized religions. In the Christian community, BDS has been most successful in rallying Presbyterian and Methodist adherents.

While it claims to be a campaign, which uses economic and political pressure on Israel for the benefit of the Palestinian people, it is really just anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Zionism—its ultimate goal to deny Israel’s right to exist and to make the case legally, politically and economically, for its eradication. In response, the Jewish community has been working with our Presbyterian friends, which includes the vast majority of pastors and parishioners, to educate them about the truth of Israel’s reality, it’s failings, but also its circumstances; it’s contributions to all of humanity and its humanitarianism toward the world, including the Palestinian people and many Arab nations.

Last year, the Middle East Issues Committee of the General Assembly of Presbyterians USA defeated a motion to divest from Israel by just one vote. This year we were delighted that our friend, and host of our beach services, the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Virginia Beach, Al Butzer, was named as moderator of this critical committee. Reverend Butzer was found well-qualified and chosen because he has visited and listened to all sides in the Middle East, including Palestinian-led trips to refugee camps in the West Bank; he has established a reputation for fairness on controversial issues and polity expertise that spans his career in Chicago Presbytery, National Capital Presbytery and the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia; he was nominated to be a committee moderator by numerous Presbytery executives who have worked with him over the years; and because he stands in the center of the church on issues, not in alliance with interest groups lobbying for a particular outcome on issues.

Writing just after his appointment, Reverend Butzer wrote in the Presbyterian Outlook, “I began to wonder how to handle my leadership burden. And a real burden it would have been, since the Jewish- Palestinian struggle has been one of the most contentious and polarizing issues at recent General Assemblies. What could I say to the commissioners assigned to the committee, most of whom would come to Detroit filled with energy and hope, but were not as yet lobbied to death or poisoned by Presbyterian politicking? How could I earn their trust? How could I transform them from strangers brought together by random selection into true friends in Christ, who could listen to one another with the kind of loving respect that the Apostle Paul wrote about to the contentious Corinthians? I began to pray that the Holy Spirit would bless these commissioners with grace and wisdom so that they would stake out some common ground to help the church move forward.”

He decided to adopt a strategy first to earn their trust, saying: “So I planned to tell them about myself, my 34 years as a pastor and the numerous times I’ve been asked to mediate controversial situations. I would have told them of my four trips to the Holy Land, the two recent interfaith trips when I got to experience the Middle East through Jewish eyes, as well as two earlier trips when I saw the Middle East through Palestinian eyes.

“I would have told them about the day we met Father Elias Chacour, a true blessing, and how he told us the terrible story of the day in the late 1940s when an Israeli tank commander rolled into the little town of Biram in Galilee, arrested Chacour’s father and dragged him away from the land his family had farmed for 500 years.

“I would have told the commissioners about my trip to a Palestinian refugee camp in the Kingdom of Jordan where we met children as well as parents who claimed with pride their Palestinian heritage but who had never set foot in Palestine. Instead, they were born in Jordan and had lived there for two generations as refugees.

“Additionally, I would have told the commissioners about my two trips to Israel with Jewish groups and how those trips helped me better understand Israel’s claim of sovereign statehood and its desire to protect its borders and live in relative peace without the daily threat of suicide bombings on busses or in crowded marketplaces. I would have shared what I had learned—that Israel responds to terrorist force with force of its own, just as we do in the United States. I would have told them about our conversation with a Palestinian Muslim news reporter, a citizen of Israel, who chooses to live in Israel rather than Palestine because Israel, like America, grants him true freedom of the press, while everything he writes for Palestinian publications must pass through the censorship of Hamas. And I would have urged the commissioners to realize that any unilateral demonizing of Israel for human rights violations that ignores ongoing Palestinian terrorist activity, or any denial of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, seriously threatens long-standing relationships between Presbyterians and American Jews.

“In short, I would have suggested that my varied experiences in the Middle East help me to hear all sides of this complex conflict and then assist others to work for reconciliation and compromise.

“Next, I would have turned to the committee members themselves, typically most of whom would be first-time commissioners to a General Assembly, and said this:

“We Presbyterians believe that God speaks to the church through discussion and debate and ultimately through majority vote. So you have a sacred responsibility to listen to those on one extreme of this polarizing debate… but you do not need to agree with them. In the same way, you have a sacred responsibility to listen to those on the other extreme…but you do not need to agree with them either.

“Then I would have told them about seminary professor Jack Rogers and his important book, Claiming the Center.

“When researching his book, Rogers studied the history of American Presbyterian decision-making. He claims that in almost every major issue Presbyterians have considered some 10% of the people at one end of the spectrum and 15% at the other end monopolize the debate. But in almost every case, the large, mostly silent theological center of the church works for compromise and ultimately decides the issue.…”

Reverend Butzer concluded: “This is what I would have worked for with the Committee on Middle East Issues, had the commissioners been so inclined and had my appointment as Moderator not been challenged by those who are filled with fear rather than trust. “For you see, less than a week after his nomination, Rev. Butzer was forced to step aside when the General Assembly’s Moderator Neal Presa and Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons succumbed to the lobbying from the BDS proponents.

“He should be disqualified,” they said, “because he and Jewish clergy led two trips to Israel with congregants from Christian and Jewish congregations in Virginia.” Of course, the trips were not political. They had the goal of helping participants discuss the places where Judaism and Christianity are similar and where they are different. As is not unusual in trips in which clergy act as leaders, none of the three clergy paid their own expenses. Clergy expenses were paid by the Jewish Federation of Richmond, Va. He was also attacked by the BDS camp for attending a Virginia interfaith Passover Seder in which not only Jews but Muslims were present; (I can attest to this because, as president of the Board of Rabbis and Cantors of Hampton Roads, I, along with 10 other Jewish clergy, led the wonderful United Jewish Federation of Tidewater Community Relations Council sponsored Seder).

As you can imagine, friends of Rev. Butzer were dismayed at the BDS movement’s unfair criticism of his ability to moderate the Committee on Middle East Issues fairly and its failure to mention that he also took two subsidized trips to the Middle East in which most of his time was spent talking with Palestinian leaders, including the aforementioned Archbishop Elias Chacour and visiting Palestinian refugee camps.

Regardless of the lies told and injustices perpetrated against him, Reverend Butzer is a mensch and so he agreed to resign to help preserve “the peace, unity and purity of the church,” a promise all church officers make when ordained. However, in his email resignation to the moderator he also stated, “It is a sad day for the Presbyterian Church when there exists such distrust among brothers and sisters in Christ, especially among those who do not even know me or my commitments to reconciliation and peace.” “To be sure,” he said in his article, “those on the extremes will oppose any moderate strategy, preferring an “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” approach. But that, in my judgment, is the antithesis of the ministry of reconciliation to which the Apostle Paul calls the church.…” Indeed.

While not violent in nature, this whole hateful and hurtful episode, reminded me of another one which occurred just a week before in Overland, Kansas, where a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan took the lives of three faithful Christians whose only crime was that they were thought to be Jewish. In response, the national bodies of the two churches to which the victims belongs, the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (disciples of Christ) issued a joint statement expressing their solidarity with the Jewish community. It read, “The fact that all three of the victims were Christian, including the son and great grandson of a beloved Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, underlines both the indiscriminant irrationality of such acts of hatred and the deep connection between our Jewish and Christian communities. That which harms either of us, harms both of us. It is our prayer that God will deliver us from the slavery of anti-Semitism and from hatreds of all kinds, that life may triumph over death and we all may know the glorious joy of freedom.”

To which we could all say, “amen.” But, we know that anti-Semitism and hatred of all kinds does exist and manifests itself in so many ways in our world and that prayers alone, no matter how sincere, will not end them.

Let us pray that the mostly silent majority of the Presbyterian Church USA claims its center, speaking out, working for compromise and ultimately deciding this issue with love rather than fear, for justice, for righteousness and for peace for all God’s children.

—Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg serves as senior rabbi of Ohef Sholom Temple, as president of the Board of Rabbis and Cantors of Hampton Roads and as a member of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Community Relations Council.