Criticism continues over statements Presbyterian stated clerk made about Israel

A dispute continues to simmer about two public statements that J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has issued characterizing the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel as “21st century slavery.”

Most recently, a group of more than 80 pastors and other Presbyterians signed an online petition expressing “deep concern” about Nelson’s January 17 statåement, saying that it “has caused great pain for our Jewish sisters and brothers and has done great damage to the interfaith witness of our denomination.”

Relationships between Jews and Presbyterians have been strained over the last decade by disagreements over divestment, Zionism, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — and Jewish groups and some Presbyterians have condemned Nelson’s recent statements as antisemitic.

The issue of Presbyterian-Jewish relations is almost certain to come up at the 2022 General Assembly — and a critique of Nelson’s statements may fuel the intensity of that debate. Among the items coming to the assembly:

  • The General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations is expected to present new statements denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia for the assembly’s approval, although those statements have not yet been posted on PC-Biz, the PC(USA)’s website that tracks General Assembly business. That committee also is presenting a statement on the theological rationale for interreligious and interfaith relations.
  • An overture from Grace Presbytery asks the assembly to “recognize that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices regarding the Palestinian people fulfill the international legal definition of apartheid.”
  • An overture from New Castle Presbytery calls on the U.S. government to exhort the government of Israel to end the siege of Gaza and military attacks defined as “collective punishment” under international law, including military attacks on non-military targets. It also calls for “the government of Gaza and all Palestinian militias within Gaza to cease and desist all hostile activities against Israel and its citizens that are defined as ‘collective punishment’ under international law. This includes the launching of unguided rockets into civilian areas of Israel.”
  • A study paper called Jerusalem 3,2,1: Three Faiths, Two Peoples, and One Human Family, along with recommendations about peace in Jerusalem, from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

Nelson released his original statement on Martin Luther King Day, in which he spoke of the continuing “ravages of racism, sexism and militarism” in the United States. Nelson also wrote that:

“The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately. Given the history of Jewish humble beginnings and persecution, there should be no ambiguity as to the ethical, moral, and dehumanizing marginalization and enslavement of other human beings. The United States of America must be a major influencer of calling this injustice both immoral and intolerable.

I would also hope that the Jewish community in the United States would influence the call to join the U.S. government in ending the immoral enslavement. Dr. King continuously preached a Gospel of justice, so that all people could live in dignity.”

That statement drew immediate criticism from a range of Jewish groups, who condemned the language as antisemitic. Among those responses:

  • The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 53 Jewish groups, released a statement both criticizing what Nelson said and the fact that he released his statement shortly after an incident of violence at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, in which a gunman held a rabbi and three congregants hostage for hours.
  • The Jewish Council for Public Affairs wrote that “his accusation against Israel is both dangerous and false,” that his statement ignored human rights abuses happening elsewhere in the world, and his effort to hold “all Jews accountable for the actions of the Israeli government is profoundly antisemitic.”
  • Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer and national director of the Anti-Defamation League sent Nelson a letter saying his statement was antisemitic and destructive, presenting Israel as “the epitome of evil.” Greenblatt called on Nelson to retract the statement.

Instead, Nelson responded with a second statement, issued Jan. 24. In that, Nelson wrote that the General Assembly of the PC(USA) has condemned antisemitism. He did not back down, writing:

“While my reference to these injustices as ‘slavery’ may seem extreme to many and, of course, offensive to most Israelis, no one who is informed regarding the use of military power and racial bias to control the lives of Palestinian citizens can honestly avoid the truth of this situation.”

Presbyterian groups also began to weigh in both in public statements and on social media — their comments reflecting the longstanding disagreement within the PC(USA) on some of these issues.

  • Presbyterians for Middle East Peace offered prayers for the Jewish community in Colleyville, saying “as Presbyterians, we are deeply saddened that the Jewish community has once again been targeted, and we are deeply embarrassed that even after four days, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has made no statement about this atrocity.” The group’s co-conveners wrote that “Nelson’s actions in lashing out at the U.S. and global Jewish community is beyond the pale, and do not reflect the efforts of Presbyterians and Jews to work together for justice in their local communities.
  • The Israel-Palestine Mission Network wrote in its statement of the importance of working for justice, stating that “seeing the injustice and apartheid system that Israel has codified into law, is a cruelty that once seen, cannot be unseen.”
  • A group of Presbyterians, including pastors and mid council leaders, signed the online petition stating that Nelson’s words “created anger and anguish,” and urging PC(USA) leaders to “change their approach and seize this moment to rebuild trust between our denomination and the American Jewish community.”