Revisions to “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias” unleashes criticism and support

In a letter to Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Vice President of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Dr Carl Sheingold, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation characterize the new statement as “a new low-point in Presbyterian-Jewish relations.”

More than a dozen other national Jewish agencies also have issued a statement criticizing the document. The revised document, they claim, “is infused with the very bias that the original statement condemned.”

In response to the criticisms, Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots peace organization, expresses his belief that “The current statement strikes a good balance between the two concerns of the church on this issue.” Those two concerns, are summarized in the revised document:

We Presbyterians are called, on the one hand, to work and speak out for justice and peace in relation to Israel and Palestine. On the other hand, we also embrace a second calling, which is to build positive and respectful relations with our neighbors of other faiths, including our Jewish neighbors, based on honest exploration of our faith traditions, and on our shared concerns for peace and justice.

The criticism came not just in response to the specific changes in the document but also the perception that these changes represent a turning away from the spirit of humility expressed in the original draft of the document, released in May, 2008, which was praised by many in the American Jewish community. “If we are to ‘build positive and respectful relations’ we need to do so in an atmosphere of trust and friendship, and in a spirit that truly encapsulates our prophetic duty to work together in honesty and in peace,” stated the letter to Kirkpatrick.

John Wimberly, co-chair of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish and Christian Relations and pastor of Western Church, Washington, DC (also a board member of the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation, Inc.) echoed these sentiments by asserting, “To release publicly a document on PCUSA-Jewish relations, have it widely praised by the Jewish community, and then re-issue a new, radically different document from the original is more than poor process. It is a betrayal of trust.”

In response to questions from the Jewish press regarding the letter to Kirkpatrick, Levy reaffirmed the JVP’s initial response to the statement stating, “Jewish Voice for Peace welcomes the efforts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to keep a vigilant eye against anti-Semitism while wrestling with the moral implications of investing in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”

“To me, the question is not whether the statement was changed from A to B, but whether B is good. The answer is unequivocal: yes,” stated Levy, in response to the critique. “Both the original and the expanded, changed statement reflect the commitment of the PCUSA to seek justice by rejecting anti-Semitism, and anti-Jewish ideas and bias,” Levy added.

The revised statement itself gives voice to this need for sensitivity. “All anti-Jewish ideas and bias must be rejected if we are to be faithful to our call to justice,” the revised statement asserts. Both the revised version and the original statement further stress,

When our analysis or critique of the Israeli-Palestinian situation employs language or draws on sources that have anti-Jewish overtones, or clearly makes use of classic Christian anti-Jewish ideas, we cloud complicated issues with the rhetoric of ignorance or subliminal attitudes, or the language of hate, and undermine our advocacy for peace and justice.

The three authors of the letter to Kirkpatrick were most distressed, however, not by what was added to the statement on “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias,” but by what was removed.

We think the most troubling revision to the entire letter is the deletion of one sentence: “We Presbyterians aspire to build positive and respectful relations with our neighbors in the Jewish community, based on an honest exploration of the close ties between our two faith traditions and our shared concerns for peace and justice.” While we still deeply hope that this spirit is alive and well in the Presbyterian Church, the elimination of this statement surely gives us pause.

Wimberly is less conciliatory in tone toward the changes. “If the Jewish community continues to engage in dialogue with such a partner as unreliable as the PCUSA, it will be an enormous act of grace on their part. I am appalled at what we have done and said,” he stated in response.

Levy expressed both surprise and disappointment regarding the letter to Kirpatrick. “Here you have the church giving thoughtful guidance to its members about how to be vigilant against anti-Jewish bias in the pursuit of Israeli/Palestinian peace and instead of getting support they get the exact opposite,” expressed Levy.

The statement itself provides a recommendation for all involved in this ongoing dialogue:

It is also our responsibility to read sources thoroughly and to speak carefully, in order to avoid denigration of Jews and the teaching of contempt for Judaism. All anti-Jewish ideas and bias must be rejected if we are to be faithful to our call to justice.

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