Pastor Comes Out Swinging
The Presbyterians’ recent vote to divest from three American companies doing business in Israel came as no surprise to the Rev. John Wimberly of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
What did come as a surprise, he said, was that given the one-sidedness of the presentations at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last month, the vote passed by such a slim margin.
“To me, it was surprising it passed so narrowly,” said Wimberly of the 310-303 vote. “The logical conclusion is that it would go the other way. It was amazing to watch. A very small group of people in the PCUSA has taken over our denomination on these issues.”
The anti-divestment contingent of the church “got literally minutes” to present its points, and “the other side got hours,” said Wimberly, a co-convener of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a grassroots group that for several years has been the leading opponent within the PCUSA of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
That there is a bias in the PCUSA fueled by those embracing an anti-Israel narrative was played out blatantly last April, said Rev. Al Butzer, who had been appointed to moderate the upcoming G.A. committee on Middle East Issues. He was soon asked to resign, he said, when certain church leaders learned he had traveled to Israel twice on interfaith trips with Jews and had attended a community Seder.
Butzer had also traveled twice to Israel on trips focusing on the Palestinian perspective.
“I was pleasantly surprised he was appointed,” said Wimberly. “I told people there would be a fair hearing. But the BDS guys realized that too.
“He was informed on both sides,” Wimberly continued, “and so, clearly, the pro-divestment people who wanted to manipulate the process realized it would be a fair hearing. They put pressure on the G.A. moderator, and once that happened, we knew we would face an entirely one-sided presentation at the G.A.”
Moderator Neal Pres, who had asked Butzer to resign his position as committee moderator just six days after his appointment, did not respond to a request for comment.
Resolutions to divest from companies doing business in Israel have been on the agenda at the PCUSA’s biennial meetings for years. At the last biennial, in 2012, the resolution was defeated by only two votes.
“One of the problems is that the process has been stacked against us,” Wimberly said, with a constant barrage of speakers presenting only the Palestinian narrative.
Another problem, he said, was the disproportionate show of members of the pro-divestment group Jewish Voice for Peace, who held themselves out as representative of the broader Jewish community, when, in fact, they are widely recognized as a fringe group.
Their constant lobbying was “most unfortunate,” according to Butzer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Va., who attended the G.A. as a commissioner, but did not sit on the committee on Middle East Issues.
“The Jewish Voice for Peace was very well represented,” Butzer said. “They were everywhere. They were wearing these black T-shirts that said on the back, ‘Another Jew for divestment.’
“One engaged me,” he continued, “and I asked, ‘What percentage of American Jews agree with your feelings about this?’ She said she didn’t know, but thought about 30 or 40 percent. My response was, ‘I’m guessing less than 5 percent.’”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was permitted to speak for only two minutes at the G.A., according to Wimberly.
“He said, ‘We’re the largest body of Jews in the United States, and we’re against divestment,’’’ Wimberly said.
But instead of heeding the words of Jacobs, many G.A. commissioners were swayed by the presence of JVP, he noted.
While the PCUSA took pains to add a clause to its divestment resolution attempting to distinguish it from the BDS movement, that distinction is disingenuous, Wimberly charged.
“The divestment vote absolutely equates with the BDS,” he said. “And now the global BDS movement claims it as its largest victory. Which it is.”
But Presbyterians who are not in favor of divestment — and there are many — have already begun to openly criticize the vote.
“In a way, this is backfiring on the pro-divestment crowd in a big way,” Wimberly said. “We’re getting calls from pastors all across the country. This has triggered a grassroots groundswell of anger that will be hard for leadership to ignore. The average pastor and the average Presbyterian do not agree with this resolution in any way, shape or form.”
Butzer, who has a longstanding, collaborative relationship with the Jewish community in Virginia Beach, is already working on damage control.
“Even before the assembly ended, I wrote from Detroit to two Jewish friends, a rabbi and an officer for the Jewish Community Federation in our Virginia Beach area, offering to speak to a gathering of Jews to try to explain the votes and begin to repair the rift caused by the decision,” Butzer wrote in a statement to The Chronicle. “We have a date set for July 15. Hopefully, there are Presbyterians in Pittsburgh (and all across the country) who will be willing to do the same.”
“Unfortunate damage has been done by the Presbyterian Church, and there are a lot of us who want to change that,” Butzer said in a phone interview. “My guess is that if you poll the rank and file Presbyterians, an overwhelming number of the people in the Church would say that the divestment decision was wrong. We can’t overturn the decision of the assembly, but we can raise our voices and say it’s wrong and stupid and short-sighted,” he said.
Despite the divestment resolution passed by the PCUSA, Butzer is optimistic that local Jewish/Presbyterian relations that have been strong will remain so.
“In communities where the relationships between Jews and Presbyterians have been positive, I believe those relationships and those congregations will survive this,” he said. “And maybe those groups will come together in even greater solidarity. I get it, that on the national level there will be letters and rhetoric. But I’m hopeful that the local relationships will endure because they are built on friendship and trust.”
A group of Presbyterian ministers is currently preparing a statement strongly disagreeing with the decision to divest.
“Additionally,” Butzer said, “we will encourage like-minded Presbyterians to begin a community-by-community effort to reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters to try to repair the damage done by our denomination’s vote so that Presbyterians and Jews can once again work together in a spirit of mutual respect. We also hope to initiate community conversations between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the spirit of reconciliation.”
Toby Tabachnick is a senior writer at The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, Pa.