Is the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s endorsement of possible divestment from certain companies doing business in Israel an act of anti-Semitism? You don't have to be Presbyterian or Jewish to be drawn to the question. You don't even have to be steeped in the history of the Middle East or be a person of faith.
It's enough just to be concerned about the cohesion of our country, especially during a time of war. The question should concern us all, because the divestment issue is not a struggle waged between fringe groups. This is a fight that's straining relations between two American pillars that are historical allies on basic social and humanitarian causes and political issues: the national bodies of mainline Protestant churches and key Jewish groups.
The fissure became more apparent this week when Paul S. Miller, president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in a letter to the New York Times that "these 'divestment' efforts must be seen for what they are -- anti-Semitism." That label, once applied, is hard to remove.
Should it stick to the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the Virginia and New England conferences of the United Methodist Church? They are among the congregations weighing questions related to their investments in companies involved in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. One denomination, the 150-year-old Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has gone so far as to adopt a resolution that called for Israel to stop construction of the barrier fence, tear down the walls already erected, and compensate Palestinians who have lost property and homes.
"Functionally anti-Semitic" was the way Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, described those church actions.
Israel's supporters maintain that it's wrong to single out the sovereign state for blame in the Middle East -- that besides being one-sided, casting Israel as a tyrannical occupier without acknowledging the reign of Palestinian terrorism that has taken more than 1,000 Israeli lives is as absurd as it is unfair. Whatever the churches' motives, the divestment movement, they declare, works against Israel's interests. I agree.
The churches, for their part, say they aren't out to delegitimize or economically weaken Israel. They maintain that they are committed to the state of Israel but are opposed to activities that contribute to the Israeli occupation, such as investment in companies that profit from the occupation by selling equipment or materials used to tear down Palestinian structures. Churches, they contend, are using their economic leverage as a moral tool for peace. But what if the effect will be just the opposite?
Here's an additional thought. In another professional incarnation, I traveled to the Middle East several times (but not to the Palestinian territories or Israel). Take it from me, my brothers and sisters of the New Testament, when it comes to Israel, the milk of human kindness does not flow freely through the bosoms of her Arab neighbors. Israel-bashing is a cottage industry among Islamic nations, some of which would just as soon see the Jewish state pushed into the sea. To pretend otherwise is foolish.
From where I sit, the Israel divestment debate is one of those wedge issues that the leaders of the mainline churches and the organized Jewish community need to dispose of quickly. If this divestment fight is allowed to percolate down into the pews and at the grass-roots level, it could precipitate a rupture in Christian-Jewish relations that will set back the interfaith movement for years to come.
How bad is it? Nancy T. Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at the Boston University School of Theology, told the Boston Globe last May, "My sense is that the relationship between liberal Christians and American Jews is as strained right now as it has been since 1948," the year the state of Israel was created. Would that the drift was limited only to Christian liberals.
A complete break would be in neither side's interest. In fact, there's every reason to continue to strengthen the dialogue, especially in light of the challenges this country faces from radical Islamic extremists. Besides, what's the alternative?
It simply isn't enough for the organized Jewish community to look to the evangelical Christians for an alliance, as some observers are suggesting. Yes, the evangelicals truly and deeply love Israel. They also have, high up in their ranks, the congenitally insensitive Rev. Jerry Falwell, national chairman of the Moral Majority Coalition, who mailed his followers a bumper sticker warning "I Vote Christian." He also touted a message that urged Americans to "Vote Christian in 2008" -- that is, until he was called on it by the Anti-Defamation League, at which time Falwell apologetically lifted his skirts and stepped back up on the curb.
If Jewish leaders want to embrace the evangelicals with their pro-life, pro-school prayer, etc., agenda, so be it. But it would be a serious mistake to shut off communication with the still-influential mainline local churches, where recognition of Israel's legitimacy as a sovereign state has been and remains rock solid.
There's also a lesson to be learned by leadership of these mainline churches. They need to switch the talk from unilateral divestment to a strategy of investment in companies and groups that are contributing to the betterment of Israelis and Palestinians. A ministry of justice and reconciliation should choose investment over divestment every time. Besides, all the divestment buzz at this critical moment, when Israel is pulling out of Gaza, makes little sense.
Here's a taste of what all of us are really up against: According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, on Monday, the day after the death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government-controlled channel Saudi 1 aired an interview with Abd Al-Sabour Shahin, an Egyptian professor and head of the sharia faculty at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In it, he referred to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and declared: "There is no doubt that not a single Arab or Muslim had anything to do with these events. . . . I believe a dirty Zionist hand carried out this act. Zionism has taken the opportunity to escalate the war in Palestine, killing hundreds of thousands."
Now, warring parties, that ought to concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Whenever I want to know what African Americans are really up to -- who's moving up, blazing trails and achieving new heights, who's making us proud or doing us dirt, who's making a significant contribution to the community -- I pick up Ebony and Jet magazines. I've done it my entire adult life and I will do it until I die. No other mainstream publication, including the major dailies, does that or even comes close to telling real stories about black people without resorting to tales of pathology and woe. For all that and more I thank John H. Johnson -- founder, publisher and chairman of Johnson Publishing Co. -- who died Monday at age 87.