U.S. Presbyterians urge government to end Israel aid over settlements

Presbyterian Church publishes report on Middle East issues that was approved with 82% of the vote during the church’s annual general assembly in Minneapolis.

By The Associated Press

Presbyterian leaders strongly backed a proposal Friday calling for the U.S. government to end aid to Israel unless the country stops settlement expansions in disputed Palestinian territories. The move was immediately criticized by Jewish groups.

But other aspects of the report on Middle East issues adopted by delegates of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) earned qualified praise from pro-Israel organizations, which have long taken issue with various Presbyterian statements on Middle East peace.

The report is meant as a guide for the denomination’s more than 2 million members in many facets of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. It was approved with 82 percent of the vote during the church’s annual general assembly in Minneapolis.

“We feel we’ve brought together people who previously had trouble talking about some of these issues together,” said the Rev. Karen Dimon of Northminster Presbyterian Church in North Syracuse, N.Y., and chairwoman of the committee that produced the 172-page report.

Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he still took issue with major aspects of the report, but said it contained important signals that could lessen long-standing tension between Presbyterians and pro-Israel Jews. He said it strengthens support for Israel’s right to exist and removes comparisons of Israeli policy to apartheid.

“Concerns remain, but I have hope that authentic dialogue and better relations can come of this,” Felson said.

The Anti-Defamation League said the report managed to avoid a rupture with Jewish people, but bias against Israel continues.

The Protestant denomination’s relationship with Jewish groups took a hit in 2004, when its general assembly voted to authorize phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel because of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. That stance has since been softened, and this year convention delegates voted down an amendment to the Middle East report that would have put divestment back on the table.

Despite the strong convention vote, some delegates expressed concern that the Middle East report remained too slanted toward a Palestinian perspective.

“There are many longtime friends in the Jewish community who believe this report misstates Jewish theology and misquotes the Jewish voice,” said the Rev. Susan Zencka, pastor at Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “We have come to a position of Palestine good, Israel bad. Life is not that simple.”

But supporters stressed that the overarching goal of the report is to encourage activism toward peace in the Middle East.

“I fully support a state of Israel, but I also believe Israel’s peace will not come until they seek peace with Palestinians,” said Dottie Villesvik, a church elder from Everett, Washington.

The church’s annual convention began July 3, and is scheduled through Saturday.

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