Presbyterian report on Mideast stirs controversy.

A report on the Middle East by the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is drawing criticism from major Jewish organizations and support from pro-Palestinian groups around the nation.

Major points of conflict include the report’s calling the Israeli occupation of lands claimed by the Palestinians the root of the Mideast conflict and urging an end to U.S. aid to Israel until it halts expansions of settlements in occupied territories.

The 172-page report by the church Middle East Study Committee, based on nearly two years of deliberations and travel to the region, was released piecemeal between March 5 and 10.

To become church policy, it requires approval by the denomination’s legislative General Assembly in July.

The denomination’s stances on the Middle East have stirred international controversies since 2004, when an assembly approved steps toward pulling church investments from Israel — a stance the church changed in 2006 with one calling for the use of church investments to promote regional peace.

“There is some attempt to be a little balanced, but I think it’s a failed attempt at balance,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. Director for Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “The overall blame is still placed on Israel and the occupation. … There’s a same old preoccupation with the same old occupation.”

But the Rev. Richard Toll, chair of the group Friends of Sabeel North America, which supports Palestinian Christians protesting the occupation, applauded the document.

“The Presbyterian Church in the United States has been a leader in confronting the issues of the illegal occupation of the Palestinian land by the state of Israel,” said Toll, who is based on Oregon. “It is important and timely … that Presbyterians stand up for their previous resolutions and challenge other churches and all Americans to nonviolently resist the occupation.”

The report emphatically proclaims “the right of Israel to exist.” But it also says this phrase causes “pain” to some on the committee “who are in solidarity with Palestinians who feel that the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.”

While the report calls on the United States to halt its billions in aid to Israel until the latter stops expansion of its settlements in Palestinian territories, it does not repeat the 2004 call for the Presbyterian Church itself to pull its investments in Israel.

But the report does recommend a letter of protest to Caterpillar Inc. for supplying heavy machinery used by Israel’s occupying forces.

The report is calling for an overall end to the Israeli occupation, a relocation of Israel’s separation barrier to spots outside of Palestinian territories, an end to violence on all sides and measures to support the dwindling Palestinian Christian population.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the interfaith director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center — the  Museum of Intolerance, an international Jewish human rights organization that advocates for Israel — said the report portrayed Israel as the historical villain.

He also noted that the report spoke positively — though did not explicitly endorse — a 2009 statement from Palestinian Christians that calls for boycotts of and divestment from Israel.

Adlerstein voiced confidence in the “fair-mindedness of the vast majority of members of this church.”

“We believe … by the time we get to the General Assembly, there will be enough point and counterpoint that we trust that something a good deal more balanced will come out of it,” Adlerstein said.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, applauded the Presbyterian report.

He noted that Vice President Joe Biden objected on Thursday to Israel’s announcement of new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem — part of the lands controlled by Israel since its 1967 war with Arab neighbors — while Biden was traveling in Israel.

Hooper said the “settlement issue is the key roadblock toward the forward movement of a just peace in the region. Anything that can show our nation’s displeasure with the booming settlement issue is useful.”

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.


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