A past chair of JCRC of Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, with the group for the last 40 years, I have been deeply involved both in interfaith relations and in fostering better understanding of Israel’s struggle for recognition, of its right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
For me, the decade-long debate within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that culminated in the decision to divest from investments in three companies that do business in Israel was a hurtful blow to a half century of interfaith relations. In the aftermath of this action the question remains: How should we as a Jewish community respond?
One gut reaction that I am sure many of you share with me is to take this action as a confirmation that anti-Semitism is imbedded in the communal DNA of the Presbyterian church as well as in many, if not all, of its sister churches. Therefore, dialogue and cooperation are a waste of our limited communal resources. A corollary response is to note that the Presbyterians and other so-called mainline Protestant churches are becoming an ever-decreasing minority in America, and although intergroup relations should remain part of our communal Jewish agenda, we should redirect our efforts to those whose support for Israel’s right to exist is unquestionable and public.
As I write this column, one week after the Detroit conference, I realize that while this gut response is understandable, it is not the best strategic approach for our Jewish community, It is also not right for me to characterize all Presbyterians – let alone others of my neighbors – in this way. Rather, I suggest we view the vote to divest as a wakeup call to you and me to become more active in outreach on behalf of Israel.
While this decision will not have any significant economic or geopolitical impact upon Israel, the anti-Israel, BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) is a real long-term threat to Israel, which we American Jews have both the opportunity and the responsibility to fight.
Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, a one-time speaker of the House of Representatives, once said “All politics are local!” I believe that is true as well for interfaith relations. In order to counter the efforts of those who seek to delegitimize Israel and to weaken the American-Israel alliance – and bond that is critical to both nations – we must re-engage rather than disengage with our neighbors of other religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Here in northern New Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, through our Jewish Community Relations Council, has developed many ways by which our non-Jewish neighbors can understand Israel better. Our Hope for Peace presentation, which is aimed at giving its viewers a balanced understanding of Israel as a modern democratic state, seeking to live in peace with security with its neighbors, is a terrific tool to use in countering the hate-filled distortions of Israel’s enemies. Hope for Peace can be effective, however, only if each of us reaches out to civic groups to which we belong, and urges them to invite the JCRC to make a presentation. We can and should also reach out to our non-Jewish neighbors, friends, and relatives, asking them to open doors for us to engage their faith communities in conversation about Israel.
Another new JCRC initiative is piloting a program of the Israel Action Network, a national initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which involves developing a cadre of Israel advocates who will engage in outreach to the African-American, Korean, and mainline Protestant communities through specific community relations projects. The goal is to strengthen existing coalitions and foster new relationships, and thereby build allies for Israel. The effectiveness of both these programs is limited only by our individual commitment. I therefore call upon all of us to reach out to Joy Kurland, our JCRC director, at Joyk@jfnnj.org, and volunteer to work on one or both of these efforts.
The Presbyterian vote on divestment was a disappointment and a dangerous omen. While we have a right to feel angry and disappointed, I hear in the midst of my despair the challenge posed by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot. I recognize that the time is short, the task is great, and even if we may not see Israel’s place in the world universally accepted by all faith communities and all nations, we are not free from the responsibility of working toward that goal.