Inroads are being made to repair what has been a fraught relationship between Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and the Presbyterian-run Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty.
The rift — which had been brewing for years as some members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) joined in promoting several anti-Israel resolutions passed at the church’s national assemblies — came to a head last May when the founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Rev. Naim Ateek, spoke on the PTS campus.
Ateek has been criticized for utilizing virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric in advocating on behalf of Palestinians. Friends of Sabeel North America appears on an Anti-Defamation League list of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in America.
Efforts by representatives of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to explain their concerns about anti-Semitism coming from Ateek were unsuccessful then. At the time, Josh Sayles, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, was told by leadership at the seminary that, “We don’t see it the same way.”
As a result, the Federation ceased “publicly partnering” with the seminary, according to Sayles.
Last week, though, the seminary welcomed Israeli speaker Yossi Klein Halevi to address its community, adding an Israeli perspective to the discourse about the Israel/Palestinian conflict, as well as insight into forging common bonds in the region.
Halevi was in Pittsburgh at the invitation of Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai, who has been working with administrators at the PTS to bring an alternative voice to its campus.
Halevi’s talk at the PTS was met with respect by the more than 100 attendees — which included many members of the Jewish community — and a question-and-answer portion of the program remained nonconfrontational.
“I am gratified to have forged such a strong working relationship with Dr. Helen Blier of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in bringing Yossi Klein Halevi to speak to our larger community,” said Gibson following the program. “His views on increasing understanding between Israelis and Palestinians give us a way forward beyond blaming and name calling. I appreciate the willingness of [PTS President] Dr. David Esterline and the PTS community to hear Yossi’s perspective on how to show and honestly present strongly conflicting narratives and remain in caring relationship with each other.”
Blier, director of continuing education and special events at PTS, agreed.
“I too am grateful to have been able to work with [Gibson] as well as diverse Christian leaders to create an educational event around Yossi Klein Halevi’s visit to Pittsburgh,” she said. “PTS recognizes that if we are going to be one Pittsburgh, if we are going to move beyond the politics of positionality and soundbites, we have to provide opportunities where everyone can listen and be heard in respectful and constructive ways. Following the lead of our favorite alumnus, Fred Rogers, we believe that being a good neighbor doesn’t mean always agreeing, but it does require respecting the humanity of others.”
Halevi felt “a great deal of good will,” coming from the PTS administration, he told the Chronicle following the event.
“There is a real commitment to a reset with the Jewish community, and I think that my presence there was a signal there of something,” he said. “And it wasn’t easy for them to do that.”
There was opposition within the faculty to Halevi’s appearance at the seminary, which he said he learned “very candidly” from the administration.
“There also was some opposition among students, but the administration held firm and felt the need to bring a mainstream Israeli voice to campus, and I hope that the Jewish community will take note of that. It was a gesture of outreach.”
Although he had “concerns” about speaking in a Presbyterian seminary, Halevi realized that “the lay of the land is more complicated” than it seemed to him in Israel.
“We do have allies in the Presbyterian church, and my sense is there are a fair number of people who recognize that the discourse was hijacked by anti-Zionists who made it impossible for there to be a Jewish-Presbyterian relationship,” he said. “And there is a fair bit of regret about that. And so I don’t know where this will go. I think one has to realize that the Presbyterian church is not going to give up its commitment to the Palestinians, and I don’t think the Jewish community should expect them to. But I think we have the right to expect balance, and when support and concern for the Palestinians segues into delegitimization of Israel that is obviously a red line. And I think there are people at the Seminary who understand that.”
Although the Federation continues not to partner with the PTS, representatives from both organizations have been speaking privately, according to Sayles.
“We are making progress,” he said. “They are making an effort to bring alternative speakers. Their leadership has acknowledged to us that there is anti-Semitism and racism on Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s campus, just like there is at any institution. But they have made it clear to us that they are working on addressing it.
“We are still in conversations about partnering publicly,” he continued. “We have been talking for a long time, and we have had good conversations with their leadership about the Jewish community’s concerns, and our concerns about anti-Semitism.”
The Federation “was not in a place to help bring Yossi Klein Halevi to their campus,” Sayles added, “but we are thrilled that Rabbi Gibson stepped in to bring that voice to campus.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at