An open letter to top Presbyterian theologian

An open letter to top Presbyterian theologian

To David Esterline, incoming president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: First, congratulations on your appointment, as reported in The Jewish Chronicle. I wish you all success in your new endeavor.

I take a special interest in your support for the divestment resolution at last year’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), as highlighted in the Chronicle story. On that subject, allow me to bring to your attention our report, “The Role of Anti-Semitism in the Presbyterian Church’s Decision to Support Divestment.” 

The accusation of anti-Semitism is a highly charged one, and is something I generally avoid unless there is well documented evidence to support it. I am hoping you will read the report, as it fully documents clear instances of a strong undercurrent of overt anti-Jewish bigotry within the Presbyterian Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, as expressed on the group’s Facebook page. The IPMN is a primary advocate within the church on behalf of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS), whose goal is to delegitimize the State of Israel and lead to that country’s dissolution.

Numerous postings uploaded to the IPMN Facebook page by organization members over a period of two years demonstrate an ongoing pattern of expressions of anti-Semitism. More disturbing is that the site, administered by five IPMN leaders, includes members who are senior staff of the church, theologians, clergy and laity. At no point did any of these site administrators or any of the church’s staff or clergy take any overt action such as speaking out against the blatant anti-Semitism, rebuking members for their intolerant statements or removing them from the site’s membership. 

Last year, I shared this report with the leadership of the Presbyterian Church and received no response.  

I note your service on the church’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, indicating to me your sensitivity to the power of words, especially bigoted speech, in the formulation of actions. I leave it as an open question for you and other members of the church to consider if the documented anti-Semitism within IMPN served as an important factor in that group’s internal advocacy for divestment and if your church’s General Assembly unknowingly followed this group’s agenda unaware of all the motivations behind it. 

The bigotry expressed by IPMN members and tolerated by IPMN leaders and church staff is a moral failing of the church. Serious steps must be taken by the church to remedy this situation, including an apology to the Jewish community, for the church to be able to claim any moral standing on the Middle East.

Yet, to date, the IPMN is still functioning within the Presbyterian Church and, to the best of our knowledge, still able to use the church’s nonprofit status to raise funds. The church’s silence on our report is most troubling. I am hoping that as the incoming president of a theological seminary that trains people to be both spiritual and moral leaders, you will be more receptive to the issues raised by our report.

By way of background, NGO Monitor is an independent Jerusalem-based research institution that provides information and analysis, promotes accountability, and supports discussion on the reports and activities of non-governmental organizations claiming to advance human rights and humanitarian agendas.

I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yitzhak Santis is the Jerusalem-based chief programs officer and project director of BDS in the Pews for NGO Monitor.