Officials of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are scrambling to do damage control. At issue are two actions that have angered Jewish groups and disrupted PCUSA-Jewish relations: proposed financial recriminations by the PCUSA targeting Israel, and a meeting of 24 PCUSA representatives with the Palestinian terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon where some of them criticized Israel.
Delegates to the PCUSA general assembly adopted a resolution last summer calling on the denomination to dump its share holdings in selective companies doing business with Israel. Proponents said it was aimed ostensibly at prodding Israel to move toward reconciliation with the Palestinians. Critics claimed the divestment measure was passed hurriedly with little study or discussion -or thought.
Many PCUSA clergy and other leaders now call the action a disastrous mistake and are clamoring for it to be rescinded. Among other things, it disrupted years of good ecumenical relations between the PCUSA and Jewish groups and raised allegations of anti-Semitism. PCUSA top executive Clifton Kirkpatrick and other church executives have sought to patch the rift but have been unsuccessful.
Inspired by the PCUSA, other denominations now are considering similar action, including the Episcopal Church. Mr. Kirkpatrick cautioned them to discuss the issues thoroughly with American Jewish leaders before making any decisions, something the PCUSA failed to do.
"Divestment is wrong and skewed," Rev. William Harter, a PCUSA pastor who heads Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations, told WORLD. "It won't accomplish what they say they want to accomplish. And it will be the Palestinians who suffer the most." He cited published financial data to back up his contentions.
No decision to start divesting can be made until the 2006 general assembly. The PCUSA reportedly has about $7 billion in pension and trust funds, much of it invested in stocks. Analysts say "fiduciary responsibility" considerations will make it difficult for stock-portfolio managers and trustees to agree to move funds out of profitable companies.
One targeted company is Caterpillar. The PCUSA owns $2.7 million of its stock. Pro-divestment activists say the firm sells armor-shielded bulldozers to Israel that are used to level Palestinian homes and build security fences. They want the company to stop selling to Israel.
Members of the PCUSA Advisory Committee on Social Witness helped to shape the divestment resolution. Members of the same committee met on Oct. 17 with Hezbollah leaders. During a news conference with Palestinian TV reporters following talks, committee member Ronald Stone, a retired Pittsburgh Seminary professor, said: "Relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealing and dialogue with Jewish leaders."
Committee chairman Nile Harper said the fence Israel is building defensively to seal off the border is "unhelpful." He said products made by U.S. companies "are being used destructively against the Palestinians. The occupation by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza must end because it is oppressive and destructive for the Palestinian people."
Outraged by the meeting with what American government officials call "the 'A-Team' of global terrorists," some Jewish and Christian groups protested loudly. The American Jewish Congress called the meeting and remarks "a blow to peace efforts in the region."
PCUSA chief executive Kirkpatrick immediately fired off a news release. It said the statements by committee members "do not reflect the official position of the [PCUSA] on peace in the Middle East." Mr. Kirkpatrick earlier had asked the committee to call off the meeting. (PCUSA church funds, however, paid for the committee's trip.)
PCUSA spokesman Jerry Marter said the Stone and Harper statements "cannot help but worsen relations between the [PCUSA] and Jewish groups."