On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to the Presbyterian Divestment from Israel

Lovers of irony might savor the fact that the vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three US companies doing business in Israel came exactly a week after news broke of the kidnapping—apparently by Hamas terrorists pledged to the destruction of Israel—of three teenage yeshiva students on the West Bank. It came at the very same time that a rival Islamic terrorist faction, likewise pledged to the destruction of Israel, was sweeping through Iraq in the wake of its capture of Mosul, leaving death, destruction, and untold cruelty in its path. Some might savor such irony, but irony requires distance, dispassion, the equanimity of a club chair by a fireplace. And that is not what most of us—Jew or Gentile—are feeling these days, as the sacrifice of countless Americans in Iraq seems for naught, the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has ended with no progress toward peace, and the lives of three kids who could have been ours hang in the balance. I’d love a little irony now. Instead, eyes open to the world, nerves on edge, heart open to those teenagers and the suffering on so many sides this week, my feelings are a mixture of sadness, pain, and acute worry for Israel, for the Middle East, for the world.

The Presbyterian vote is a minor rather than a major addition to that mix. In the larger scheme of things, I doubt it will have much effect, but it certainly did not help matters. I can understand why people who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians are frustrated right now, after years of a peace process that seems to go nowhere. I get why they feel driven to drastic action intended to accomplish what John Kerry and numerous negotiators before him could not. However, I believe that we must not let hope die: not now, not ever. That’s why I am prepared to assume that the majority of the Presbyterians who voted for divestment did so without malice. It is worth noting that the decision to divest was made by a narrow margin of 310–303 after what the New York Times called a “passionate debate”; the Presbyterian community is clearly divided on this issue.

Most, and even the best-intentioned, individuals sometimes do things that justly prompt reproach, because they should have done better. In a noteworthy sin of omission, the Presbyterian Assembly chose not to withdraw from their website the study guide issued by a Presbyterian advocacy group earlier this year, one-sided in the extreme, which is cleverly entitled Zionism Unsettled. Failure to disavow the study guide leads one reasonably to infer that some of those who voted for divestment would probably be just as happy to see the Jewish State disappear, in the hope of “un-settling” Jews not only from the West Bank but from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Zionism includes the entire enterprise of Israel. Regardless, delegates supporting the divestment resolution—perhaps the majority—fell victim to two mistakes that, to my mind, are glaring and reprehensible.

First, they apparently believed that their vote to divest was fully compatible with the other principles affirmed in that very same resolution: Israel’s right to exist, “positive investment” in endeavors that advance the cause of peace, and careful distinction between their action and the global boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. That distinction is not credible, and cannot be maintained; witness press coverage of the event and the glee of opponents of Israel who feel their cause has been boosted by the Presbyterian decision. All of us, at times, particularly when faced with difficult choices, want to have things both ways. We try to separate acts from consequences, or use the same words others use, but want them to mean something different. In this case, divestment is not supposed to mean divestment. Sanctions against Israel—and only against Israel—are not meant to signal particular animus against Israel, despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has not proposed, let alone adopted, sanctions against China, say, or Russia, or Iran—all nations widely accused of human rights abuses that far exceed those leveled against Israel.

The second problem I have with the resolution is its accompanying declaration of love for the Jewish people. “In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.” This despite the pleadings of rabbis and organizations who have long worked closely with the Presbyterian Church; despite awareness by the delegates that many thoughtful Jews of their acquaintance—including many who, like me, are not proponents of West Bank settlement—firmly opposed their resolution; despite knowledge by the assembly that it is condescending in the extreme to act against the stated wishes of people you profess to love, claiming to serve their best interests better than they can, and then dress up your behavior in the language of love. I certainly don’t feel loved by this resolution, any more than Jews felt loved when Christians over the centuries forcibly converted them, or when any group tells Jews, or the only sovereign Jewish State we have—one set up because our people believed that homecoming to Zion was needed not just for our fulfillment but for our very survival—that they know better than we do what is right for us, and are prepared to help us see the light by causing us suffering.

I imagine that the “us” in that sentence causes the Presbyterian Church (USA), and others too, a good deal of consternation. As I’ve just declared, I have issues with West Bank settlement, and certainly expanded West Bank settlement that has the effect and perhaps the intention of precluding a two-state solution. Many other Jews, in Israel and America, share my concerns. What is more, for religious Jews like me, the meaning of life is bound up in commitment to God’s commandments, pursuit of justice, and the increase of compassion in the world. We cannot deny that Israel is causing suffering to Palestinians right now (as Palestinians continue to inflict suffering on Israel). So why do I group “us” Jews together collectively? Why is it important not to separate Jews like me, of whom the divestors apparently approve, from Israel’s government and settlers, of whom they do not?

This is where Jews need to remind the Presbyterian Church (USA) that our covenant established and requires not only a faith but a people, a people called to follow God’s direction not only in the private sphere of home and sanctuary but in the public sphere of business, policymaking, and the court system. Zionism marks a return to a Land—and a State—to which Jewish hopes and obligations have been attached since our very beginnings. Modern life has in many cases driven a wedge between Jewish faith (always a complex matter, not given to easy dogmatic formulation) and Jewish life. But even the most “secular” of Israelis know they are caught up in forces too large for comprehension inside conventional empirical categories. History and transcendence intrude whether we like it or not, one reason that many who call themselves “secular” are now exploring new and vibrant connections to the traditions of their ancestors. Whether personally “religious” or not, Israeli Jews—and many of us here in America—know there cannot be Judaism in our day without Jews—and no Jews without some form of Judaism. We know too that there can be no survival or flourishing for Jews in our day without Israel. The Jewish people requires Israel. Judaism requires Israel.

Does that mean it requires the retention of the entire West Bank? I hope not. The commitment to democracy that is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence means that I will always strive for a just settlement with Palestinians that allows them to have a homeland alongside mine, and allows Israeli Jews to preserve the democratic character of the State of Israel. Has the Israeli government in my view made mistakes, including serious ones, in its pursuit of peace? I think it has, following in the footsteps of previous Israeli governments that have made mistakes on this score, not to mention US governments no less culpable of error. I hope that Israeli voters will use the ballot box to pressure their elected leaders to move more decisively toward peace and be more resolute in the defense of democracy. But I doubt the worldwide BDS movement, singling out Jews once again with the stigma of sin, and now joined by the Presbyterian Church (USA), will do anything to advance the cause of peace. It strikes a blow against mutual respect among religious communities in America, not a blow for mutual respect among national communities in Israel or Palestine.



  1. Dr. Bonita Leeds says:

    Thank you so much!

  2. Nahma Nadich says:

    Thank you for this eloquent and incredibly incisive piece,which totally nails the hypocrisy and condescension of people who truly believe that their actions reflect nothing more than a passion for justice rooted in their faith. And have no understanding of the implications of their action on the neighbors they claim to love. This will be enormously helpful in the trenches where I do my work.

  3. Bruce Egert says:

    Pharaoh once said: “Come, let us deal wisely with them.” The Presbyterian Church is no different in their insensitivity to the Israeli government as was Egypt toward the Israelites in ancient times. Fortunately, divestment will do little to influence the Israeli government. Given the penchant for violence and homicide that now abides in the Arab mid-East, any trade of land for “peace” will be a disaster for Israel and Jews throughout the world. When a large church fails to see this they must have an ulterior motive.

  4. Lebele says:

    Please do emphasize that while PC(USA) is the largest Presbyterian group, the denomination is split several ways.

    The Presbyterian Church in America has a large number of more traditional congregations, especially across the South. That branch is not part of the divestment.

  5. Dr David Senesh says:

    As an Israeli I find this (that is the PC’s declaration) to be a proper response that the current discourse is often lacking. Sometimes with the best intentions the automatic support we get from Jewish communities in the US negate the basic Jewish values and Zionist premises on which our state was established.

  6. Rabbi Abby Cohen says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful, wise words. Your post eloquently treads complex, difficult ground and lights on both wisdom and holiness. Shabbat Shalom.

  7. henry cohen says:

    This is indeed a very ” eloquent and incredibly incisive piece “. However ,it does not reflect the pain , anger and anguish that many of us feel .

  8. Mel Aranoff says:

    Brilliant and eloquent. However, it leaves open two major holes that the PC(USA)’s supporters of this vile decision can use to respond: 1. Stating your opposition to the settlements and hopes that the Israeli electorate shared your view that the Israeli government should make greater concessions suggests that the PC(USA) has some type of moral high ground on the settlements and that the boycott is limited to companies that enhance the settlements; and 2. Stating that Israel inflicts pain on Palestinians concedes another moral point unnecessarily: any pain, such as from checkpoints, is only a result of Israel stopping terror against its citizens. I fear the marvelous argument of the Chancellor will therefore fall on deaf ears.

    • Rabbi Sheldon Kirsch says:

      Absolutely on target. Why do we always have to begin self defense with “ashamnu”?
      The writer is a very foolish man in a very prestigious position, which spells double trouble for our people.
      Thank you for writing what I was thinking.
      -Sheldon Kirsch
      Woodland Hills

  9. Eric Weis says:

    Eloquent piece.

    I find it ironic that the Presbyterian movement was born amidst a long, bloody civil war which echoes to this day, as Scotland debates removing itself from the 1707 Acts of Union. What’s more, the symbol of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the burning bush.

    One would think (hope) that three hundred years later, modern Presbyterians can discriminate between the righteous and evil-doers. Building a settlement house is NOT the moral equivalent of kidnapping, rocket launching or murder.

    My response to the PC-USA decision is to return the favor and boycott New York Presbyterian Hospital. I can just as well spend my health dollars at Mt. Sinai, Montefiore or even Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck.

    My personal boycott has no moral basis, but neither does the PC-USA, no matter how close the vote was.

  10. Chancellor Eisen is right on target with his insightful and eloquent comments. He brilliantly summarizes why this is neither the right time, nor the right method the Presbyterian Church should have used to voice its criticism of Israel’s policies. It will have more of a destructive and divisive impact in terms of uniting Christians and Jews in the cause of peace, justice, and fairness towards all.

  11. Mack Rosenbaum says:

    Well said Chancellor. You reflect the opinion of most of us Jews and I hope Gentiles.

    • Alex Borinsky says:

      Please don’t speak on the behalf of “us Jews.”

      I consider myself a committed Jew, attend weekly Shabbat services at a Conservative congregation, and was raised in a Schechter school.

      But I find myself feeling great sadness and shame over the Israeli government’s policies, it’s doublespeak, and the American Jewish community’s unwillingness to listen to non-dogmatic voices on Israel.

      Where is the Jewish voice calling out for treating the stranger in your land as ourselves, of applying the same laws equally to all Israelis, since we were strangers in Egypt?

      I will happily “stand with Israel,” once its policies reflect the basic ethical precepts that are so integral to Jewish theology.

  12. Harvey L. Miller says:

    I consider the action of the PC to be insignifcant. It will not change anything, except maybe the return on their investments. Israel will not be effected at all; the Arabs, Muslims, and other Jew haters will continue to hate; and my life and that of all other Jews in the world will not notice or experience any changes because of this action. The PC will have to live with their short sighted, misaligned thinking.

  13. Ian says:

    Mr. Eisen, sometime, perception is reality. True, Israel has significant security issues which most other nations do not have in kind. As a Zionist and a lover of the State of Israel, I understand the dynamics with regard to the occupied territories. But as a Jew, there appears to be a complete spiritual disconnect between the current Israeli government and the basic obligations which Jews have to their fellow human begin; whether Jewish or not. Being open to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for autonomy or nationhood and, on the eve of the negotiations, authorizing the construction of new settlements in area under dispute, has a certain ungodly and a most decidedly un-Jewish quality to it. If Jacob and Esau were able to bury the hatchet, why not Israel and Palestinians. And to the extent that Israelis would have to give up more in the negotiation than the Palestinians, heck, they have so much more and the Palestinians, due to quite a number of reasons wholly alien to the occupation, as well as some that aren’t, have, basically, squat. To be a light unto the world takes a whole lot more than turning the West Bank into a piece of geographic Swiss cheese between Arab and Jewish enclaves, arresting Arabs for no more than looking cross-eyed at an IDF soldier, depriving Israeli Arabs of their rights as citizens of the state, walling out neighbors, both physically and economically. While the Presbyterians may not understand the fundamental “tribal” nature of Judaism, to the extent that the people and our land cannot be separated from our religious beings, they do know right from wrong, the precept that people must treat other people as they want to be treated and that one must love his neighbor as one would love one’s self. It is not a time for Jews in Israel or the Gallut to circle the wagons as if being attacked; rather, the divestment should be a message that it is time to reflect and determine whether we, as Jews, are behaving as God commanded us to behave with regard to the Palestinians.

  14. Jeremy Fine says:

    While we do not agree on all of this, I do agree that its important to seek to understand and that this is unacceptable stance. This Shabbat Temple of Aaron is going to hear from Rev David Colby. I’d be happy to share his reflections and my congregations response. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p63huTrtzic&feature=youtu.be

  15. KZ says:

    The action by the Presbyterian Church is anti Semitism pure and simple.Muslims are killing hundreds of innocent people every day thru out the Arab/Muslim world. Gays are hung routinely in those same countries. Girls genitalia sre mutilated and women stoned to death for being Christian. And this “holy”church divests from Israel. The same Israel that grants citizenship to thousands of Arabs and even has Arabs as members of the government. Christians are being slaughtered and hundreds of Churches destroyed and these “righteous Christians” don’t say BOO! GET THE JEWS!!

  16. Warren Rubin says:

    We have been alone in the world since Sinai thousands of years ago. Nothing has changed. We are fortunate to have what we have: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Talmud, Rambam, Rashi, etc., responsa, our collective sanity, and wonderful leaders like you, Dr.Eisen. It’s likely that these problems will never go away. I’m lucky to be an American. And, more fortunate to be Jewish!

  17. Margie CJ says:

    I have been living in Israel for the last 30 years and was born in Cleveland, where I was educated in a multicultural atmosphere from a young age.

    I don’t think that the Presbyterian Church realizes how destructive this decision is, for several reasons:

    1) As Lebele mentioned above, this church is not monolithic and the denomination is split several ways.

    2) Their (PC-USA’s) religious beliefs are based on the idea that suffering in and of itself is not bad, In fact, it is bringing the coming of the Messiah. So suffering for a larger cause is not necessarily bad in their minds.

    (Your comments were made from a Jewish point of view, as of course they needed to be.)

  18. Jerry Blaz says:

    I don’t believe that the BDS movement in general is going to be an effective incentive for change in Israeli attitudes toward the Arabs prior to a peace settlement. At the same time, we should take note that France and five other nations are on the verge of preventing commerce by specific sectors of their economies with the settlements or settlement enterprizes.

  19. Martin Sinkoff says:

    This commentary speaks for me to a word. Thank you! Shabbat shalom.

  20. Phil Harden says:

    Well said sir.
    I left the Presbyterian church because of a previous study paper that was clearly antisemitic.
    I now attend Torah study instead
    Thanks for your views

  21. Yosef Leibowitz says:

    You suggest that the “settlements” on the West Bank and Israel’s refusal to give them up is one of the reasons there is no peace. I live in Israel. Most Israelies are willing to give up parts of the West Bank. The issue has to be negotiated. There is no partner for this negotiations. The question of Jerusalm is crucial. We must remember that the division of Israel along the lines of today was done by the same European countries that divided up the rest of the Middle East and brought the tensions to Lebanon, Syria Iraq etc. today. Israel , for example, had once suggested that the area in Israel called “the triangle” which borders on Jordan and is almost 100% Arab be part of a Palistinean State, and Gush Etzion which os predominantly Jewish and was Jewish before the war for independence be part of Israel. The Arabs living in Israel objected to it. They preferred ebing in Israel than being in a Palistinian State.

  22. Yosef Leibowitz says:

    You state in your article “I hope that Israeli voters will use the ballot box to pressure their elected leaders to move more decisively toward peace and be more resolute in the defense of democracy.” Is it possible that the problem lies not with Israel but with the Palistinians. They refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, refuse to talk about the adjustment of boundaries and continue to teach their children that ther should be no Jewish State. They also make it clear that no Jews can live in their country.

  23. Rabbi Doug Weber says:

    Once again I am reminded why cooler tempered, diplomatic folk such as Prof. Eisen are appointed to positions such as Chancellor and overly candid ranters like me are not. The Presbyterians are an odd amalgam of mushy brained knee jerk northern ideologues who see the Arabs as victims of apartheid and southerners who still quietly lament the end of slavery. A pox on all of them. May the Israeli stock market rocket to new highs(a somewhat self-serving wish as I have quite a bit sunk into an Israel ETF) the day after their last equity positions are sold off. May all of their clergy whose pensions depend on the performance of their funds live out their retirements in well deserved penury. We all ought to buy up more Israel based stocks on any resulting dip. BTW, it would be nice if the JRB included an Israel focused fund in its menu. Thank you, Dr. Eisen, for your forceful yet tactful statement.

  24. Buddy Goldberg says:

    I read Arnold Eisen’s response at a time that millions of Israelis are racing into shelters from Palestinian rockets. With our mainstream media blaming Israel for simply defending her citizens, while refusing to hold Hamas responsible for its obvious war crimes. Israel is once again being subjected to unreasonable double standards, (an indicia of anti-semitism), similar to the Presbyterian’s vote.
    Chancellor Eisen’s bonding with the Presbyterians in opposing settlements, criticizing the Israeli government’s policies, fault finding with Israeli democracy, insisting on a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel and attributing the vote to “mistakes”, misses the big picture and today’s realities.
    Unfortunately, Israel still has a powerful lineup of enemies out there working to destroy her, whenever they can with violence and terrorism, but mostly with delegitimization, defamations, BDS, etc. – the PR war.
    As Chancellor, we need Arnold Eisen to lead the Seminary and the Conservative Movement in fighting this nasty PR and media war right here in the U,S. – which as we are seeing, Israel is losing – irrespective of policy differences.

  25. Martin Blazz says:

    Chancellor Eisen is right on target with his insightful and eloquent comments. He brilliantly summarizes why this is neither the right time, nor the right method the Presbyterian Church should have used to voice its criticism of Israel’s policies. It will have more of a destructive and divisive impact in terms of uniting Christians and Jews in the cause of peace, justice, and fairness towards all.

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