There are scores of national and international groups whose opposition to the existence of the State of Israel — or even its efforts to defend itself from attack — is so extreme that they cross the line over to anti-Semitism. Sometimes that anti-Semitism is evidenced by the direct actions of those groups, and other times it can be inferred by their willingness to partner with others who are overtly anti-Semitic.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been guilty of both types of offences. Since 2014, it has passed a series of anti-Israel resolutions at its General Assemblies, including divestment, and formally referring to Israel as an apartheid state. In 2014, the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network published the inflammatory “Zionism Unsettled,” intended as a “study guide” for congregations. The Anti-Defamation League called out the publication as “the most anti-Semitic document to come out of a mainline American church in recent memory.”
Locally, things came to a head between the Presbyterian-run Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS) and the mainstream Jewish community when, in May 2018, the founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, Rev. Naim Ateek, spoke at the seminary. Sabeel has been on an ADL list of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America, and its founder’s rhetoric has been criticized as virulently anti-Semitic.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh ceased publicly partnering with the PTS after Ateek came to campus.
Members and clergy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), however, have never been monolithic in their views on Israel. The anti-Israel votes at the church’s General Assemblies are generally split, with a sizable contingent casting their ballots against those resolutions. The local Presbyterian community consists of lots of Jewish allies sensitive to anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well as those who are willing to listen to both sides of the debate on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Last week, the PTS — with the help of Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai — made great strides in mending the rift in the relationship between our communities by bringing Israeli speaker Yossi Klein Halevi to address an audience at its campus. Halevi is a moderate, but steadfast in his support for Israel as a Jewish homeland, and was able to present an Israeli perspective as well as begin a dialogue on how to create reconciliation in the region.
We applaud the PTS and its willingness to bring an alternative voice to its community, and we were pleased to hear there has been behind-the-scenes dialogue between leaders of Jewish Pittsburgh and PTS administrators working to repair the fissures in our relationship. We are cautiously optimistic that trust can be rebuilt based on thoughtful dialogue and open minds.
Was the willingness of the PTS to bring an Israeli voice to campus a consequence of sympathy engendered by the anti-Semitic massacre at Tree of Life? Does it matter?
Whatever the impetus for this seeming shift in attitude at PTS, we encourage our Jewish leaders to capitalize on the momentum that has been set, and to continue to work with the seminary’s administration in bringing nuanced and balanced speakers to its campus.
We look forward to a strong and enduring alliance with our Presbyterian