The incoming president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a proponent of divestment from Israel, but what effect his views will have on future clergy who attend the graduate theological school of the Presbyterian Church (USA), located in East Liberty, remains to be seen.
David V. Esterline will succeed William J. Carl III, who is retiring as president of the Seminary in June after nearly 10 years of service. Esterline is currently serving as the director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Education at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Once in Pittsburgh, he will also serve as professor of cross-cultural theological education at the Seminary.
The PTS was founded in 1794. About half of its students are affiliated with the PCUSA, but other denominations are represented as well, including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Lutherans.
While Esterline admits that “he is not an expert” on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, he said he was in favor of the divestment resolution that passed the Presbyterian General Assembly in 2014 by a vote of 310 to 303. That resolution called for the divestment of church funds from three companies — Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard — that the PCUSA claims supply Israel with equipment used in the “occupied territories.”
There is a sharp division in the PCUSA on this issue. A similar resolution was rejected at the previous GA in 2012 by a vote of 333 to 331.
Esterline was one of a dozen members of the church’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns who signed on to an open letter in September 2014 to “applaud” the divestment vote.
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) call for the boycott of products made in illegal Israeli colonies and the action of divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories are but a small step in worldwide recognition that things must change in Palestine/Israel,” the letter reads. “The PCUSA General Assembly actions are a light onto nations.”
Esterline supports divestment from Israel, he said in an interview, because he believes “there are issues of justice here” but noted that he was caught off-guard by the question.
“Standing for divestment from Caterpillar and Motorola — companies supporting the activities and treatment of people I can’t support — is a way to make our voice heard,” he said. “This particular kind of violence should not happen.”
When pressed for examples of the acts of “violence” to which he objected, Esterline admitted that he “can’t remember the specific details on how the technology of Motorola is used against the Palestinians” but that Caterpillar was responsible for supplying equipment used in “the bulldozing of homes.” He was silent as to Hewlett-Packard.
Esterline said he was unsure why the PCUSA was focused only on calling out Israel for purported human rights issues when other countries — such as Syria — are responsible for much greater abuses.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said. “I would raise the same question, and I have raised the question.”
A growing disapproval of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza among faculty members of the PTS was beginning to form in the mid-2000s, according to Rabbi Mark Staitman, rabbinic scholar at Congregation Beth Shalom who taught a course in Jewish-Christian dialogue at PTS in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“In 2008 or 2009, I was asked by a faculty member to speak to a small group of faculty who were dialoguing around what they described as the treatment of the Palestinians, so I had a sense from that there was a growing antipathy to continued Israeli management of the West Bank and Gaza — or, as they would have put it, ‘Israelis’ continued occupation of Palestinian territory,’” Staitman said, adding that it was his impression that the dialogue had emerged from a “true commitment to human rights.”
“I do not think at the time there were any anti-Israel feelings to the sense of Israel having a state, and a Jewish state at that,” he noted.
In 2011, a year prior to the first divestment resolution being brought to the floor of the GA, Staitman met with three members of the board of the PTS.
“They were trying to understand what the effect would be on Jewish-Presbyterian relations if this were to pass,” he recounted. “I do not believe they were particularly supportive either for or against the resolution itself. I took it as a fact-finding conversation.”
But it is problematic, Staitman cautioned, that Esterline could not articulate in detail the reasons for his support of the divestment resolution.
“He’s either informed and committed, or functioning on the basis of emotion,” Staitman said. “If he’s functioning on the basis of emotion, he shouldn’t be in that position. It’s a matter of making a public statement with no intellectual basis.”
The PTS has a history of engaging faculty that is critical of Israel. In 2004, Ronald Stone, a former professor of Christian ethics at the seminary, was part of a Presbyterian delegation that traveled to Lebanon and met with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nabil Qaouk. Following that meeting, Stone was quoted in Arabic media as saying:
“As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that, according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogues with Jewish leaders. …We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill toward the American people.”
The PCUSA has been “hijacked by the social action fringe,” posited Rabbi Alvin Berkun, former chair of the National Council of Synagogues and a longtime member of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. Recent PCUSA activities, such as the divestment vote, “have really been hurtful,” he said. “There’s baggage in the church, and the Jewish community has a right to know where [Esterline] stands.”
Esterline said that, although he is a proponent of divestment, he “absolutely” would ensure that both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli issue are fairly presented in any classroom discussion of the subject that occur on his watch.
“I would feel we had not done our job well if a student learned one side of the truth and not the other side,” Esterline explained, adding that he also has an open mind on the issue.
“It has to be open,” he said. “With some embarrassment, I will say that I have done no new reading or thinking [on divestment] in the last year. There has to be openness. There always needs to be a continuous conversation on both sides.”
That willingness to be open on the issue may pave the way for dialogues with leaders in the organized Jewish community here, as a hard line on divestment would preclude any meaningful collaboration.
“We will not work with any organization, political movement or individual that supports the boycott, divest and sanction movement to delegitimize Israel,” said Gregg Roman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council. “This movement’s sole aim is to disrupt Middle East peace and aims to cease the Jewish and democratic nation of the State of Israel. BDS is a red line for Pittsburgh’s organized Jewish community.”
While Esterline’s first commitment when he arrives in Pittsburgh will be to attend to his duties at PTS, he said he is interested in getting to know and working together with leaders of other faiths.
“I look forward to meeting the Jewish leaders here,” he said, “and to have these conversations with them and to find out what kind of outcomes they hope for.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.