by Robin Mancoll, director, Community Relations Council, United Jewish Federation of Tidewater
Earlier this summer, the Presbyterian Church USA (PC USA) voted by a very narrow margin (310-303) at its General Assembly in Detroit to divest from three companies who do business with Israel. It passed because of a well-organized, vocal minority allied with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement whose sole purpose is to undermine the existence of the Jewish State.
Despite this distressing news, many church leaders argued on behalf of Israel at the General Assembly and are heartbroken by their church’s decision. One of them is Reverend Albert G. Butzer, III , pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Virginia Beach. A dear friend of Rabbi Roz Mandelberg’s for the past nine years and a recent friend of the Tidewater Jewish community, Reverend Butzer’s concern for Israel and the Jewish community prompted him to organize a meeting prior to the General Assembly, which included all seven Southern Virginia delegates, me as the CRC director, and Rabbi Mandelberg as president of the Board of Rabbis and Cantors of Hampton Roads. As my colleagues across the country were also experiencing such meetings, we knew there was much work to be done. We feared the negative outcome, though we left the meeting hopeful that our efforts shed light on Israel’s extraordinary efforts to treat, with humanity, the Palestinian people who live within its borders.
Following the decision of the General Assembly on June 20, Reverend Butzer contacted Rabbi Mandelberg and me, expressing his sorrow and embarrassment. Disagreeing with the decision “with all of his heart,” Reverend Butzer believed the best way to do everything in his power to help to repair the damage was to explain the General Assembly’s process and decision; to reaffirm his affection for American Jews as well as the people of Israel; and to determine what positive steps the Tidewater community can take to prevail upon our Presbyterian friends and neighbors to work together to stop the BDS advocates from gaining further ground.
On Tuesday, July 15, more than 125 members of the Tidewater community, seemingly split down the middle, Jewish and Christian, joined together in friendship and in faith, as Rabbi Mandleberg welcomed her friend to the stage and Reverend Butzer shared details about the General Assembly, the process, the feeling during his time in Detroit, and more.
Reverend Butzer first spoke about the Presbyterian Church USA movement, which is sometimes considered more progressive and more influenced by secular society than other Protestant denominations. He also shared some important points about the Presbyterian Church USA bi-annual General Assembly in which 171 Presbyteries are represented by commissioners. Half of the commissioners are clergy members and the other half are chosen as elders of the local churches. He was very clear that the attendees of the conference are commissioners (they vote their conscience) vs. delegates (who would vote the desires of their constituents).
Reverend Butzer suggested a variety of reasons why he and what he felt the other 302 delegates that voted against the divestment based their vote on:
• Divestment will do little to bring about a peaceful, two-state solution that many people (Jews, Christians, as well as Palestinian Muslims and Christians) seek.
• Divestment will not alleviate the suffering of Palestinians.
• The decision to divest is based on a one-sided analysis of the conflict, which casts Israel as the “oppressor” and Palestinians as the “oppressed” when the reality is infinitely more complex. Both sides have contributed to the conflict: Israel’s settlement policy is profoundly problematic, as of course is Palestinian terrorism, violence and intolerance.
• Divestment strengthens extreme positions on both sides of the conflict.
• It smacks of defeatism, saying in essence, “There is nothing more that we as a church can do.”
One thing that Rev. Butzer felt led to the vote for divestment was the disproportionate show of members of the pro-divestment group Jewish Voice for Peace, who held themselves as representative of the broader Jewish community, when, in fact, they are widely recognized as a fringe group.
Their constant lobbying was “most unfortunate,” according to Rev. Butzer. “They were everywhere. They were wearing these black T-shirts that said on the back, ‘Another Jew for divestment.’
“One engaged me,” he said, “and I asked, ‘What percentage of American Jews agree with your feelings about this?’ She said she didn’t know, but thought about 30 or 40 percent. My response was, ‘I’m guessing less than 5 percent.’”
Fortunately, there are some people within the Presbyterian Church USA who are working for a different outcome. Even now, a group of Presbyterian ministers is crafting a statement that strongly disagrees with the decision of the Assembly, which states “We greatly regret the deep and unnecessary pain the action of our Assembly has caused our Jewish brothers and sisters. Only by working together can we find the true path to a just and lasting peace for both peoples; we need Muslims, Jews and Christians together; Americans, Palestinians and Israelis together.”
Their statement invites all Presbyterians to work together as they commit themselves to the following aspirations and goals:
• To reclaim the church’s role as peacemaker and “repairer of the breach” nationally and in our local communities among Christians, Jews and Muslims through deep and relational work that models peace and reconciliation with justice and compassion.
• To reaffirm the church’s commitment to a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, each with secure borders, territorial integrity, and a fair share of natural resources.
• To seek out opportunities in Palestine and Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians for investment in economic, educational and interfaith ventures that promote understanding across ethnic and religious divides.
Following the event on July 15, Reverend Butzer said, “I was very happy to speak to such a gracious audience, which received me so warmly and genuinely. I tried to suggest that there are many Presbyterians who strongly disagree with our denomination’s recent decision to divest. Although the official vote cannot be reconsidered until the next General Assembly in 2016, there is so much we can do in the meantime, sharing mutual respect, working to repair the damage done by the foolish and short-sighted vote, and modeling all this is possible in positive interfaith relationships. Members of my congregation and I look forward to meaningful relationships and sincere friendships with members of the Jewish community.”
The Community Relations Council looks forward to strengthening the relationship with Reverend Butzer, along with his congregants and the other Presbyterian Church USA members of the Tidewater community. We believe that after such a strong showing on July 15, where attendees of the Jewish and Christian communities listened respectfully and responded civilly, we know that there’s hope for even greater solidarity than before this vote took place.