(RNS) — A prominent Jewish organization has expressed “disappointment” over remarks by the chief executive of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that urged American Jews to help end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and described Israeli policies toward Palestinians as “enslavement.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 53 Jewish groups, strongly criticized J. Herbert Nelson II, the stated clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for the commentary, which the conference of presidents said amounted to antisemitism.
“To use the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make claims linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enslavement and then call on the American Jewish community to use its ‘influence’ with the American government is not only unfair, but it is also dangerous. It is a long-standing antisemitic trope about Jews,” the statement from the Conference of Presidents said.
In his reflection on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 17), Nelson said “continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately.”
He then added: “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.”
It is not the first time that the PCUSA, a historic mainline Protestant denomination with 1.2 million members, has angered U.S. Jews with its views on Israeli policies in the occupied territories.
U.S. Jews hold a range of views on Israeli politics, with some strongly defending and others strongly critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, according to surveys. They mostly agree on Israel’s right to exist.
In 2014, the denomination voted to divest from three companies that it says supply Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.
That same year, its Israel/Palestine Mission Network published “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide calling Zionism — the movement undergirding the founding of Israel as a Jewish homeland — a “pathology” and “a doctrine that promotes death rather than life.”
The latest reflection goes beyond Israel criticism. It appears to call on antisemitic tropes and conspiracies that Jews secretly control the moves of politicians and manipulate world events to their advantage.
That perception of “Jewish power” appears to be why a British citizen with a gun took four Jews hostage in a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue Saturday. According to the hostages, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, believed Jewish influence could help free a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison in Fort Worth.
Through a spokesperson, Nelson initially agreed to an interview with Religion News Service but then backtracked, saying he was unavailable.
The conference of presidents was also critical of the timing of the reflection, coming two days after the crisis at the Colleyville synagogue.
U.S. Jewish organizations have also taken other Protestant denominations to task, including the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.
Last year, a Jewish advocacy group condemned a resolution adopted at a meeting of the United Church of Christ that calls the continued oppression of the Palestinian people a sin.