Embroiled over Israel, Presbyterians invite a rabbi to the pulpit

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

(RNS) In a sign of the precarious state of Presbyterian-Jewish relations, the rabbi who heads the largest branch of Judaism in North America will appeal directly to the Presbyterian Church (USA) to step back from a series of critical resolutions aimed at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Invited to address the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit, which begins next week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs said the Presbyterians have the choice of making things worse, or better.

“It’s a critical moment,” said Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing about 1.9 million Jews. “Much is at stake.”

At issue are a handful of proposed statements on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that will be considered at the biennial meeting of the 1.8 million-member Presbyterian denomination.

Some of the resolutions are new, and some have come before the General Assembly for years. All seek to highlight Palestinian suffering under Israel, which has occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank since 1967, against international law.

But even to many Jews who are critical of Israel’s occupation, the measures that will be debated in Detroit are an attempt to vilify the Jewish state, question its very existence, and blame Israel alone for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is fear that passage could spur similar movements in other Christian denominations.

A 2012 resolution to pull church investments in three American companies doing business with Israel — deemed abettors of Israeli violence against Palestinians — failed by just two votes after a passionate debate at the last General Assembly.

“In 2012, we got within a whisker,” said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a PCUSA-chartered group that is supporting the measures. He hopes delegates in Detroit are moved to make a strong statement this year.

“This is oppression, and Christ tells us what to do in the face of oppression — and that is not to put ourselves in the position where we are appeasing the oppressors,” DeYoe said.

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, whose church has long debated divesting from certain companies that do business with Israel.  Photo courtesy of Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, which has long debated divesting from certain companies that do business with Israel. Photo courtesy of Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Jacob’s invitation to address the delegates came directly from the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the Presbyterians’ stated clerk, or top elected official. While it’s not unusual for a Jewish leader to speak to delegates, Jacob’s stature is particularly high, and he has been outspoken against what he considers unfair attacks on Israel.

And though Parsons said he takes no position on any issue before the group, and will carry out whatever decision it makes, he is nonetheless keenly aware of rising tensions between Jews and Presbyterians on Israel. He attended a March meeting between Christian and Jewish leaders to revive the Christian-Jewish Roundtable, a group that had fallen apart after Christian members of the group urged Congress in 2012 to give greater scrutiny to U.S. aid to Israel.

Parsons’ invitation to Jacobs also comes in the wake of the January publication of “Zionism Unsettled,” an IPMN booklet on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sold in the church’s online store.

“Zionism Unsettled” infuriated Jews and some Presbyterians, who criticized it for painting the Jewish state as inherently racist, and failing to consider the Holocaust, Palestinian attacks on Israelis and Israeli efforts toward peace. The document rejects the idea of a two-state solution — one for Palestinians and one for Israelis — a goal endorsed by the U.S., Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the PCUSA itself.

The alternative to a two-state solution, its Jewish supporters say, would be no safe homeland for the Jewish people, or haven from anti-Semitism.

On Wednesday (June 4), Parsons reiterated the church’s support for a two-state solution, adding: “It’s a false statement to say you either have interfaith relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters or you can have peace and justice in Israel/Palestine.”

“I think you can have both,” he said.

In addition to the divestment proposal, the biennial General Assembly this year (June 14-21) will consider a proposal to boycott Hewlett-Packard products because the company sells equipment used by the Israeli military. Other measures ask the delegates to agree that legal definitions of “apartheid” apply to Israel, and call for a study on whether PCUSA’s support for a two-state solution should stand.

The proposals reflect the goals of the larger “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement, which seeks to pressure Israel out of the Palestinian territories. The movement, which has an active base of support within many mainline churches and among Presbyterians in particular, has come under criticism for demonizing Israel and tolerating anti-Semitism within its ranks.

“I am certainly one to criticize Israeli policy,” said Jacobs. But the resolutions to be considered by the Presbyterians are part of a very different conversation, he continued, one “about the very legitimacy of the state of Israel.”

Jacobs said Pope Francis, in his May visit to the region, modeled a different approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“He said so clearly that love and compassion for both peoples is the Christian response,” Jacobs said. “How can that not be the bar?”

DeYoe advised Presbyterians to focus on those who are suffering. “The occupation is illegal,” he said. “The occupation is breaking a people.”

“We have divested from other places in the world,” he said. But with Israel, “we are somehow turning a blind eye from the same kind of conditions we have divested from before.”


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • “All seek to highlight Palestinian suffering under Israel, which has occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank since 1967, against international law.”
    Judea and Samaria belong to the Jews, It is not occupied land.
    12 Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you.
    2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great;
    And you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates—
    Perhaps Presbyterians don’t believe the Bible, kind of looks like it.

  • This is a pathetic misrepresentation of the upcoming General Assembly. This article makes it sound like the Jewish voice is monolithic on divestment and it is NOT. Jewish Voice for Peace and Rabbis for Human Rights work closely with Presbyterians working for divestment. Quit making this into something it is not.

  • A footnote from the edited Scofield Reference Bible from 1967 reads “God made an unconditional promise, a blessing through Abraham’s seed to the nation of Israel to inherit the specific territory forever” but the passage doesn’t say anything like this: God orders Abraham to go to a land that God would show him using first person familiar “thee” meaning Abraham and no one but Abraham. The passage does not say that God is giving any piece of land to anybody forever it doesn’t say anything about Israel. We know that Abraham had no children when this happened, and not for quite a while, so there was no person or nation named Israel when this promise was made. There was no state or nation named Israel, the man Israel did not even exist in Abraham’s imagination when God spoke to him. How else could Scofield – or the Oxford University press – interpret that God was promising the land to the state of Israel forever? Where did the state of Israel get into this? When Abraham was spoken to by God the man known as Israel had not been born yet he was two generations in the future and he was not a state he was a person that eventually had a tribe. Then 3000 years later along comes a bunch of Europeans who named a state after him. Imagine 70 million people who are taught this everyday from footnotes in a Rothschilds funded Bible!


    1. Jews would have no claims. No reason for Zionists to steal other people’s land
    2. Christians would have no claims. No second coming once the temple is rebuilt.
    3. Muslims would have no claims. No reason to beat back the infidels.

    But that would create peace.
    God doesn’t want that:

    “The only true faith in God’s sight is Islam.” (Surah 3:19)
    “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (Surah 2:216)
    “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends.” (Surah 5:51)

    “Cursed be he who does the Lords work remissly, cursed he who holds back his sword from blood.” (Jeremiah 48:10)
    “Seize all the non-believers and execute them before the LORD in broad daylight…” (Numbers 25:1-9)

    “To those who would not have me as their king,
    bring them to me and EXECUTE THEM in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    “The Master shall cut him to pieces” – Jesus (Luke 12)


    NO!!!! 🙁
    “I have come to bring FIRE…AND What constraints I AM UNDER!
    I am impatient!
    — JESUS (Luke 12:49-51)


    Who but a fool would need this barbaric nonsense!?

  • Yes, and they’re a rather small minority compared to those who are against the BDS movement.

    If you’re going to target Israel, you had better include the other side, there are no unsoiled hands here.

  • Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ comment about the choice facing Presbyterians at its upcoming General Assembly, that we can make things “better or worse” begs the question, better or worse for whom? Throughout the struggle of making and maintaining interfaith relationships between Christians and Jews, a process in which our denomination has participated, the focus has always been on what Christians can do to maintain this interfaith relationship. One subject that has been off the table for discussion has been the oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, while at the same time the State of Israel has continued to confiscate more Palestinian land both in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel proper and build more and more illegal settlements. Any mention of this is treated as anti-Semitic and a threat to the existence of the State of Israel. The overtures before this year’s General Assembly do not threaten the existence of the State of Israel; its continued existence is taken for granted. What is questioned, and has been questioned repeatedly in overtures adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly on many occasions, is the continued illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Overtures seeking divestment from, or promoting the boycott of products of, companies that profit from the ongoing violation of human rights by the Israeli government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories simply make the point that our opposition to the illegal occupation cannot be in word only, but require actions that follow the policy stances taken by previous General Assembly. The overtures are really more about who we are as a denomination – do we speak and act with integrity – or do we speak and act in disparate ways?

  • The problem is that actual genuine concern for the Palestinians gets co-opted by people who really do have antisemitic motives. Those who make existential arguments against Israel.

    The Palestinian leaders are thoroughly corrupt and beholden to foreign powers which have done more to prevent peace than Israel has ever tried. Siege and occupation actually help Fatah, Hamas and their financial backers because it excuses them from proper governance and gives excuses for avoiding peaceful resolution.

    A perfect example is the Gaza strip. There are no Israeli settlements there anymore. However with Iranian financial and military support, Hamas still feels the need to launch rockets at Israel. Rather than work peaceably to create a powerful maritime economy the region, Hamas prefer to keep their people in terror. So fat lot simply uprooting the settlements does.

    Until the Palestinians can lose the jokers they claim as their leaders, nobody is ever going to take them seriously. Israel certainly has no impetus to seek peace under those conditions either. It gives excuses not to consider your position.

    While you try to help a people who are oppressed, you end up being the mouthpiece to the Arab League and Iran in their little proxy wars.

  • If you are arguing against the existence of Israel, you can forget any claim to a legitimate good faith discussion. No country in existence justifies its existence rhetorically. Israel is no different in that respect.

    You are just slinging antisemitic nonsense. The Rothschild reference is a dead giveaway. No reference to the great Zionist conspiracy is complete without one. 🙂

  • If there is a God which is more important?
    A. our peace
    B. His will

    Even though you are misinterpreting the “Prince of peace”, we cannot control the outcome. If there is a God, there is a God, and nothing you or I can do about it. So, “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em!” It actually worked for me.

  • “We are all, all children of God” is one phrase we should all keep in mind when proposing church policy, inviting interfaith speakers to GA, or in even in demonizing those who differ with us. The result of all our work should be in the light of a second phrase from Micah which calls us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God”. Do justice in my mind means where there is injustice, where there are clear violations of human rights, we should raise the question about what should be the Christian response to such conditions. Jesus faced such a society in his day, and responded to the needs of poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised.

    It seems that nearly everyone acknowledges in varying degrees the illegal nature of the Israeli government’s building of settlements on Palestinian territory, limiting the rights of people to move about in their own land, and denying right of a people to a viable economic system through 47 years of military occupation, all in the name of security. Whose security is at risk here? Does wrapping the Palestinian people within walls, separating their villages from the family lands, and exploiting their labor, make the Israeli people more safe? Fear feeds fear. Separation breeds contempt. Silence builds inaction. For the good of all peoples, we should act to oppose oppression, prejudice and alienation in all its forms, so that all God’s children are free.

    Limiting conversation and dialog out of fear, accusing people with a different perspective as being “anti-anything”, and inviting speakers to address our Assembly who claim to represent most American Jews is not the democratic society I fight for.

  • “It seems that nearly everyone acknowledges in varying degrees the illegal nature of the Israeli government’s building of settlements on Palestinian territory, limiting the rights of people to move about in their own land, and denying right of a people to a viable economic system through 47 years of military occupation, all in the name of security. ”

    “Seems” being the operative word here. Its always easy to say “look at the poor suffering Palestinians” and ignore the entire story. The Arab World has created a nice little media empire off of such things. Arab governments show more concern for the rights and liberties of those Palestinians than their own subjects. It is politically convenient for them.

    For their entire existence as an internationally recognized people, the Palestinian leaders have been in the employ of neighboring Arab states. Keeping an armed conflict going for as long as possible to create a “dirty” war with Israel those nations could not do otherwise after suffering various military defeats. This became very troublesome to Palestinians when their leaders gained a new benefactor who was at odds with their previous one. Iran started to create their own Palestinian proxy forces in the form of Hamas.

    At the point when peace was most likely, when a 2 state solution was practically there, the Palestinians started to engage in a civil war. A proxy war between the Arab League and Iran. Hamas seeking to derail all peace efforts, Fatah using suicide bombers as a negotiating tool with Israel. Even when the settlements were removed in Gaza, hostility did not cease.

    ” Does wrapping the Palestinian people within walls, separating their villages from the family lands, and exploiting their labor, make the Israeli people more safe? ”

    The sad truth is YES, it has. Walling the Palestinians in has reduced terror attacks and minimized the havoc Hamas perpetrates in its settlement free de facto nation. Viable Palestinian states require friendly relations with Israel. The West Bank is landlocked with a very very hostile border with Jordan (an attempted coup will do that). Without Israel, there is no chance of a sustainable economy there.

    There is no impetus for peace because there is no trust that the Palestinians are looking for peace. What you are seeing there now reflects a generation long cynicism borne of disappointment. The people with the most to gain from peace are not the ones in power in the PA or Gaza. Both Fatah and Hamas did a very good job in driving out moderates, people who wanted economic and political links to Israel, and democracy supporters. There are plenty of Israelis who want peace and 2 (at this point 3) states. The problem is nobody believes the Palestinians want it too.

  • Don’t waste your time quoting Scripture to presbyterians USA. That ship has sailed. They are a secular “do good-feel good” organization masquerading as a Christian denomination. Ichabod.

  • Blake didn’t you forget about another man in those 3000 years named Moses who also spoke with God and God told him “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” The people God was referring to were the Hebrews and HE did not take them out of Europe.

  • Mr Settle I beg to differ with you. Perhaps you have not seen the overtures being brought to this GA meeting. The very existence of the state of Israel IS in question. Perhaps you have not seen or read Zionism Unsettled which says exactly that. Perhaps you are not aware that one of the overtures is to teach Presbyterian congregations that when the reference is made to Israel it does not mean the state of Israel or the people who live there now.

  • @Think First,

    If all you are doing it hedging your bets
    1. You don’t have much respect for your God – He should be able to know the difference between faking it and truly believing.
    2. There is nothing to worship in a God who wants such a thing from you.
    3. Don’t call it ‘piety’ or ‘righteousness’ if hedging your bets is what you are doing.

  • Atheist Max.

    You know very little about Zionism. Modern Zionism was a secular movement. David Ben Gurion was an avowed agnostic. The purpose of Zionism was to give Jews a home their own after assimilation had so obviously failed to end antisemitism and keep Jews safe. Many of the Zionist Jews who settled in Israel were even anti-religious. Some were Socialists or Communists.

    Theodore Herzel, the founder of modern Zionism, was a secular assimilated French Jew. He was a reporter. He witnessed the French mob shouting `’kill the Jews” after Alred Dreyfus was sentenced. He went home and wrote that the Jews needed a state of their own.

  • @Susabn,

    I know everything about Zionism.

    And I know that Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all built on a charade. Because there is no reason to believe in any God.

    Israel’s function is to be a protectorate for Jews. Fine – history has shown that Jews do need such a protectorate state. Jews are falsely accused of being ‘Christ killers’ by Christians and Infidels by Muslims.

    It is you who missed the point!
    If there were no ISLAM, no CHRISTIANITY and no JUDAISM nobody would need to be protected FROM ANYTHING so stupid as a god claim!

    Meanwhile Zionists continue to steal land, paid for by American Evangelical Christians who are determined to force ‘the 2nd coming’ by rebuilding the TEMPLE!

    The foolishness of religion must end.
    There will be no peace in the middle east as long as religion is dominant because the Parties of God have their VETO!

    Don’t lecture me about Zionism.
    Do something productive and help end ALL religion.

  • @BiLL Plitt,

    Why can’t we just ALL BE CHILDREN OF HUMANS! Instead of ‘children of god’?

    What a huge advancement it would be if we could just jettison the stupid, divisive, fictitious, fatuous nonsense of ‘GOD’!!!

    What is it going to take? How many more centuries?

    The worst way to start a conversation is to bring up GOD!

  • Jews are a national and ethnic group as well as a religion. Antisemitism is not just based on religion. Jews are hated as a national group and as an ethnic group for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.

  • If no one believed in God and no one followed any religion, antisemitism would still exist. My father thinks that people have always hated Jews and they always will. The older I get, the more I think he has a good point.

  • Your father cannot be correct.

    The Cook Islanders of the Pacific have no reason to hate Jews. Their religion does not refer to Jews. Their religion does not know anything about Jews.

    If The Christians, Jews and Muslims could instead have been raised as Cook Islanders they would not hate each other at all. And nobody would hate Jews.

    Furthermore, Christians, Muslims and Jews should stop celebrating their traditions and stop believing in Gods. The price is too high – religion is the source of this misery.

  • I don’t buy it. Atheists can be antisemitic and some are. The Cook Islanders may be one of the few people without antisemitism, but human beings have a need to divide the world into us and them. They just hate someone else instead. There is always some group labeled “other” in every human society. The Cook Islanders practice their own religion and have their own Gods. Are you saying that it is only Western religions that are the problem?

  • @Susan,

    You claimed “people have always hated Jews and they always will.”

    Do YOU hate Jews? No? Perhaps because you were not TAUGHT to hate Jews.

    You claimed, “human beings have a need to divide the world into us and them.”

    Well, if you are throwing in the towel on your own ability to avoid racism then too bad for you.
    But the evidence shows that when people are NOT taught religion they are NOT taught to hate JEWS.

  • Presbyterians and Atheists and Muslims should think about what should be done with Israel and the Jewish people. What is their solution to the Jewish problem? What should be done with Christian’s who support Israel? What is their solution?

  • “What to do with the Jewish people”?

    First – discourage religion in all cultures. Religion is the problem.
    The God of Abraham is a disgusting theory, Jesus is disgusting and Islam is disgusting. None of it is true and believing in these philosophies leads to this inhuman behavior.

    Second – Israel needs to fend for itself. It is important that it survive because until secularism rises around the world Jews will need a protectorate and Israel should be able to be that state.

    However, if the secularist movement fails all bets are off. If Jews want to keep their Yahweh, and Christians follow Jesus and Muslims follow Allah – then we are all going to die.
    Religion will end humanity in a nuclear war over nothing.

  • Wouldn’t the world be a better place without the religions of Judaism/Christianity/Islam? Why not?