A Presbyterian disagrees with his denomination’s vote to divest

July 14, 2014

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Let me begin by saying that I am very disappointed with the decision of the General Assembly to divest from three U.S. companies doing business with Israel.

I have a great love and respect for the Jewish people, which began even before I was born! I grew up in a Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, N.Y., which had a wonderful relationship with the local synagogue. One day, tragically, Temple Beth Zion burned to the ground. Before the flames were extinguished, the minister of the church, The Rev. Albert Butzer (my grandfather for whom I am named), arrived at the scene, embraced his friend Rabbi Fink and offered the use of Westminster Church as a place where the Jews could worship until they were able to rebuild. Years later, long after those two clergy were dead and gone, the synagogue provided worship space for the Presbyterians when the church underwent a restoration. Those two congregations have made joint trips to Israel, have worked jointly on local mission projects and have studied together, celebrating the places were our two faiths agree, and talk honestly and openly about our differences.

My love for Jews does not diminish my sympathy for Palestinians. I first became aware of the plight of the Palestinian people when I traveled to the holy land in the late 1990s. We spoke with Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, who had been forced off the lands their families had farmed for many generations and driven into refugee camps. The tragic story of their displacement is one of the unintended consequences of the creation of the modern State of Israel.

In my judgment, the recent decision of the Assembly to divest will do little to bring about a peaceful, two-state solution that many people (Jews, Christians, as well as Palestinian Muslims and Christians) seek in Israel and Palestine. I oppose divestment for at least two reasons. First, the decision to divest is based on a biased analysis of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It casts Israel as the “oppressor” and the Palestinians as the “oppressed” when the reality is infinitely more complex. There is culpability on both sides: Israel’s settlement policy is profoundly problematic, as of course is Palestinian intolerance and terrorism. Secondly, divestment empowers the most extreme voices on both sides of the wall, encouraging Palestinians to imagine a onestate solution, and Israelis to imagine that since world opinion is so hostile to them, they can only ignore it.

I believe in a different approach. One of the Presbyterian Church’s statements of belief is “The Confession of 1967,” which describes the mission of the church in these terms:

“To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as God’s reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities, which separate people from God and from each other.”

I love the Presbyterian Church for its emphasis on peacemaking and reconciliation and wish that the recent General Assembly had remembered our mission as “God’s reconciling community.” Our denomination is very democratic. We elect commissioners from every geographic area (presbytery) in equal numbers, one half clergy and one half lay persons we call elders. Through discussion, debate and an ultimate vote, the commissioners determine what they believe God is saying to the church. Historically, much of the time our denomination has gotten it right. But occasionally, we get it wrong. Our General Assembly never speaks with infallible authority. Rather, as a denomination we have the humility to state, “Occasionally church councils can err.”

A significant number of Presbyterians across the country believe that the recent decision of the General Assembly to divest is an instance in which the church has erred. Even now, a group of Presbyterian ministers is preparing a statement, which will strongly disagree with the decision of the Assembly to divest. We will try to gather the signatures of like-minded Presbyterians who will affirm our desire to seek peace and reconciliation in Israel- Palestine through a two-state solution, with positive investments in Palestine (a strategy the Presbyterian Church has used for the last two years), and with an end to occupation and settlements, which will lead more quickly to peace. Additionally, 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.

Personally, I have responded to the General Assembly decision in this way. Even before the Assembly ended, I wrote from Detroit to two Jewish friends, a rabbi and a professional at the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, offering to speak to a gathering of Jews to try to explain the votes and begin to repair the rift caused by the decision. We have a date set for July 15 at 7 pm at the Sandler Family Campus.

Finally, I want to say a word about the biased study guide, Zionism Unsettled, which has caused great pain for Jews as well as many Presbyterians. The Israel-Palestine Mission Network, an advocacy group within the Presbyterian Church, published it and sold it through the denomination’s on-line bookstore. However, the recent Assembly voted that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the official views of the Presbyterian Church. Thankfully, it has now been removed from the denomination’s on-line bookstore. See this link: http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/6/27/zionism-unsettled-no-longer-sold-pcusa-website/

The Reverend Albert G. Butzer, III served as a commissioner to the recent General Assembly and voted against the motion to divest.

Join the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater as Reverend Al Butzer of First Presbyterian Church shares insight as a commissioner to the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly and their decision to divest from three American companies because of their sales to Israel, by a very narrow margin of 310-303. The resolution divests from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard. A similar resolution was narrowly defeated by a margin of two votes at the last biennial held in Pittsburgh in 2012. RSVP is requested to RMancoll@ujft. org or 965-6120.

by The Reverend Albert G. Butzer, III, First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia

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