If there was ever any question that congregations and the General Assembly live in different worlds, the 2014 divestment decision has decided the issue. On the national and international level, the divestment action by the 2014 General Assembly has been met by a torrent of critical media articles pointing out the contradictory nature of the GA’s actions, angry op-eds and toughly worded press releases from major Jewish organizations. On the local level, many congregations are reporting that their long-standing relationships with synagogues “down the street” continue to be strong and vital. From Birmingham, Alabama to Larchmont, New York, from Houston, Texas to Alexandria, Virginia, Presbyterian congregations are telling us that the divestment decision has actually brought them closer to the synagogues and rabbis with whom they have worked for decades.
Dr. Ed Hurley, senior pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, wrote to his congregation, “I attended Shabbat services last Saturday at Temple Emanu-El, where I was warmly greeted and spoke briefly with profound regret over the action of my own Church. And Rabbi and Mrs. Jonathan Miller attended our services here Sunday and told me they felt loved deeply by South Highlanders who expressed sorrow over the action taken. It seems to me the PCUSA General Assembly chose a divisive path following the Mission Responsibility through Investment divestment recommendation — instead of a path that, like the recent initiative of Pope Francis in inviting leaders of Palestine and Israel to the Vatican for prayer and conversation, could lead to healing.”
In response, the Birmingham Jewish Federation wrote to its members, “We at The BJF thank Rev. Hurley for his letter and his leadership. It is comforting to know that even while the national PC USA organization has taken such a misguided and biased action, our Presbyterian friends in Birmingham remain committed to supporting Israel and pursuing sincere efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Why such a different response between the national and local levels? In contrast to the GA’s symbolic action of divestment, the actions of Presbyterians and American Jews in their communities are concrete. Congregations work together for social justice, feeding the hungry, building habitat for humanity homes, and in many other projects. As they work for justice, Jews and Presbyterians build bonds of trust. Bonds of trust lead to meaningful dialogue about tough issues; issues such as how together we can work for the peace and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The symbolic GA action to divest has had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of creating trust and dialogue, it has cut off discourse between the GA’s leadership and prominent American Jewish leadership, with no timetable for it to resume. Of course, divestment also eliminated a possibility for GA leaders to speak truth directly to the power of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, an offer extended by Rabbi Jacobs directly to the GA in Detroit. Do we really think the PCUSA is in a better position to help bring about peace in the Middle East without trusting dialogue with the American Jewish community and Israeli government officials who can now ignore us?
In another contrast between congregational and GA life, the Jewish Voices for Peace activists, who were omnipresent during the nine days the GA met have now melted back into the much larger American Jewish community where they are without influence. In their place are the synagogues with whom our congregations work, not for nine days every two years, but for 365 days a year, every year. Instead of the twenty-nine American Rabbis affiliated with Jewish Voices for Peace, most Presbyterians return to work with the thousands of Rabbis across America in our communities.
Yes, these are different worlds, congregations and the General Assembly. Part of our work ahead is to bring the two worlds together. Divided, we are wounded and weakened as a church. Together, we can be peacemakers globally and locally.