WASHINGTON (JTA) — Presbyterians who engage in dialogue with Jewish groups are scrambling to undo what they say is the damage caused by a congregational study guide assailing Zionism distributed by a group affiliated with their denomination.
The guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” posits that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fueled by a “pathology inherent in Zionism” and rejects theologies — Christian and Jewish — that uphold Zionism.
Jewish groups expressed outrage at the guide released last month by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Rabbi Steve Gutow, called the guide “worthy of a hate group, not a prominent American church.”
Presbyterians involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue expressed dismay over the guide in equally strong terms.
“This document purports to be about love but it actually expresses demonization, distortion and imbalance,” the Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, the president of New York’s Auburn Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian-affiliated institution, wrote in an statement issued to JTA.
Some Presbyterians involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue say they are pressing the leadership of their church to renounce the study guide and plan to raise the issue at their mainline Protestant denomination’s General Assembly this summer.
The immediate task for members of their church, many Presbyterians reached by JTA said, is to reassure Jews that the guide does not reflect the broader church.
“My first response to my friends in the Jewish community with whom I associate on a monthly basis in a Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue group is to assure them that this does not represent even close to a majority opinion,” said the Rev. Mike Cole, a Houston-area Presbyterian leader.
One factor inhibiting a unified message on the issue is the non-hierarchical structure of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The church’s official response to the controversy has been to reaffirm its support for Israel’s existence and a two-state solution while distancing itself from the guide without repudiating it.
The church said in a Feb. 13 statement that the Israel/Palestine Mission Network “speaks to the church and not for the church.”
“The guide is intended to prompt discussion on the ever-changing and tumultuous issue of Israel-Palestine,” the statement said. “The IPMN booklet was neither paid for nor published by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
But Jewish groups have rejected the church’s efforts to disclaim responsibility for the guide.
Ethan Felson, a vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, noted that the Israel/Palestine Mission Network is not a separate tax-exempt group and that the church processes contributions to the network.
“They charter IPMN, they speak to IPMN, they speak at the IPMN annual conference, they recommend people get involved in IPMN, they take contributions to IPMN, and when they’re challenged, then they say it does not speak for the church,” he said, referring to the church leadership.
Kathy Francis, the church’s communications director, did not respond to an interview request.
Jan Armstrong, a Presbyterian church leader in Santa Barbara, Calif., said resolutions advanced by his Presbytery and one in Houston for consideration by the General Assembly this summer were more reflective of the broader church.