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Middle Man: Rev. Ben Daniel of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose thinks dialogue groups can bring the two sides in the debate over Israeli-Palestinian relations closer together. But the Presbyterians' decision to study divestment options relating to Israel has thrown gasoline on the fire.

Stuck in the Middle With God

The Presbyterian Church has thrown itself into the Middle East crossfire. But have they gone too far?

By Najeeb Hasan

On a late, sunny Sunday morning in mid-February, Rev. Ben Daniel paces up and down the aisle of Foothill Presbyterian Church, on the eastern edge of San Jose. Foothill's congregation—about 75 worshippers are scattered in the pews—is a decidedly older crowd, a striking contrast with Daniel, who, at 36, is one of the youngsters in the church.

This particular Sunday, Daniel opens with the first of several verses from the third chapter of John. In the passage, Nicodemus, a member of the ruling Jewish council, approaches Jesus and questions Jesus not once, but twice about how a person can be "born again." For Christians, the passage climaxes at John 3:16, when Jesus, after admonishing Nicodemus for not believing, promises eternal life for those who believe in him.

"I think Nicodemus is very underrated," says Daniel after reading the passage. "We think of Nicodemus as a straw man, but I like Nicodemus. He came not as someone who liked everything Jesus had to say—we know that the religious establishment was not fond of Jesus. But, he came and talked to Jesus."

He takes a quick peek at the pews to gauge if the faithful are awed by his insight. "That's good," he continues. "It's a lesson for us to take when we have differences in religion. He's not afraid to ask questions. I like that because we should not be afraid to ask questions."

Daniel's interpretation of the gospel seems to be resonating in his own life over the past months. In July of last year, the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overwhelmingly voted, by a count of 432 to 62, to initiate the study of a "phased selective" divestment from multinational corporations that profit from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First (incorrectly) reported as a general divestment from Israel, the Presbyterian Church's action resulted in a flurry of national exchanges between leaders of both the Presbyterian and the Jewish communities, with liberal leaning Presbyterian pastors suddenly finding themselves on uneasy ground with their reformist Jewish counterparts, who have traditionally partnered with the Presbyterians on matters of social justice. It's also stirred an internal debate within the Presbyterian community itself.

Despite the Presbyterians' cautionary insistence that Israel was not morally equivalent to pre-majority-rule South Africa, the resolution seemed to invite comparisons from all corners to the divestment strategy that took on South African apartheid in the 1980s. Described by various commentators as "anti-Semitic," "sinful," "hostile" and engaging in "moral idiocy," the Presbyterians quickly found themselves swimming in an ocean of bad press.

Which is where Daniel came in.

He was on sabbatical from Foothill, blissfully unaware of the furor that the national representatives of his church had sparked, when a Jewish cousin sent him an email that included a commentary piece about the Presbyterian overture by Harvard law professor and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz.

"The article was using very hurtful language, calling us anti-Semites," recalls Daniel.

That's when Daniel took his own, personal action: He penned an article for Jeff Sharlet's religion-in-the-news website, The Revealer—to which he's a regular contributor about the issue—attempting to bring the two sides closer together.

First, though, Daniel followed the lead of Nicodemus; he decided to ask questions. He contacted Bart Charlow, Silicon Valley's director of the National Conference of Community and Justice, and asked Charlow to help organize an interfaith dialogue between the local Jewish and Presbyterian communities. Daniel may have encouraged his parishioners that Sunday to ask questions like Nicodemus, but he never told them how hard it can be to ask those questions.

Balancing Act

Instead of advocating a blanket divestment, the Presbyterians' peacemaking committee recommended that the church's committee on responsible investment study specific multinationals and make a recommendation back to the general body.

The Jewish community, meanwhile, remains concerned that the Presbyterians are singling out Israel for divestment.

"I grew up on the East Coast," says Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East Affairs for the Bay Area's Jewish Community Relations Council. "I was a victim of what we would call a hate crime today. As they were beating the shit out of me, they called me a Christ-killer and a kike. OK? They let it be known that because I was a 'Christ-killer,' I deserved the beating. So, to this Jew, that baggage comes to the fore. And now, here's this church, followed by the World Council of Churches, ganging up and beating up on the Jews. So, to me, this just looks like more of the same."

But Paul Masquelier, vice-chair of the national Presbyterian General Assembly Council and a resident of San Jose, hopes critics will note that the presbytery also called for an end to acts of violence by Palestinians.

"We've condemned terrorist acts and suicide bombings," says Masquelier, who is participating in the dialogue organized by Daniel. "I said to the [dialogue] group, 'You get me the names of U.S. corporations that are selling bomb-making equipment used against Israelis by Palestinian terrorists, and we will certainly put that up for divesture.'"

Not all Palestinian advocates support divestment (Noam Chomsky, for one, disapproves), but the strategy has been gaining ground as a way to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A growing number of major college campuses have ongoing divestment campaigns, while the city of Somerville, in Massachusetts, came close last year to becoming the first American city to divest from Israel. Just last month, the World Council of Churches, the largest global organizing body of non-Catholic churches, recommended divestment from companies profiting off the occupation to its member churches.

The question for the Presbyterians, who have traditionally employed divestment as a means to ensure corporate responsibility, is whether or not the divestment resolution should be taken as a symbolic statement against the Israeli occupation, or as a statement against specific American corporations. There's a sharp difference of opinion within the Presbyterian community itself. Vernon Broyles, a corporate witness official for the church's general assembly council, took the symbolic view in an article he wrote for the Christian Century in February, calling divestment a strategy to address the behaviors of "an occupying power against a weaker population" and rejecting the notion that the church could affect the behavior of a specific corporation.

Not so fast, says Isaiah Jones, a pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto and vice-chair of the national Presbyterian committee charged with exploring the divestment options. "I know Vernon," he says with a grin of recognition. "And that's his interpretation. Any actions that we take are to change the behavior of a corporation."

Going Too Far?

Melanie Aron, a rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, is a veteran of dialogue groups. Having served as a rabbi on both coasts, Aron is not only taking part in Daniel's dialogue, but is also, along with Bart Charlow, a member of an ongoing Arab-Jewish dialogue group in the county. In 2001, Aron crossed religious lines to show up, along with 400 other women, to a post-9/11 talk in Santa Clara delivered by the local Muslim educator Ameena Jandali, with her hair—brown with tight curls—wrapped in a floral-print head scarf in solidarity with Muslim women.

Aron, though, is certainly not in solidarity with the Presbyterians in regard to their divestment resolution. "On our side, the divesture was a huge symbolic thing to us," she says. "It means cutting Israel off from the rest of the world. Palestinian Arabs are citizens. They vote. That's not apartheid." She goes on to explain, "Being an Arab citizen in Israel is a lot like being an African American in the 1950s."

She's especially critical of a recent trip to Lebanon by Presbyterian students from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In the trip, it was reported—and now acknowledged by the seminary—that the delegation met with, and even praised, representatives from Hezbollah at a former Israeli-run prison in southern Lebanon. (The seminary's explanation for the meeting is that its students were tricked into meeting with Hezbollah.)

"[The Presbyterians] said how wonderful Hezbollah is," Aron says with disbelief.

"It smacked of total ignorance, of being suckered into the situation. You may or may not have liked Arafat, but everybody agreed that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. They are not peacemakers. If you want to help work for peace, I can give you a list of 20 Palestinian organizations that work for peace. Not Hezbollah. Americans think the whole world is like America. That's an American attitude, and it's a naive attitude."

In an article that Sanits wrote in February denouncing the Hezbollah meeting, he connected the encounter to the Presbyterian divestment resolution, calling the resolution "one-sided" and "anti-Israel." He concluded that some Presbyterians had "lost their moral compass."

Daniel, meanwhile, remembers when he, as a chaplain in Newark, New Jersey, came across three Shining Path guerrillas from Peru who were stowed away on a ship that had docked at the port. "I found a Catholic priest to give them Communion," he says. He speaks carefully, calculating the effect of every word. "I said nothing, and I did nothing to repudiate the evils the Shining Path visited on innocent Peruvian civilians. And so, while I can condemn or feel disappointment with the students of the seminary for having met with a reputed terrorist organization, I can do so knowing in some way that I share their guilt." Again, as he does often when making a point, Daniel pauses. "But I have no remorse for serving Communion to those Shining Path guerrillas."

"Ariel Sharon is a condemned war criminal," Daniel adds. "It's a fact that the United States has supported oppressive and violent regimes throughout the world. If we only met with clean people, there would be few meetings—or, we would all be standing in line to talk to the Dalai Lama."

Time and Other Issues

When the participants of Santa Clara's Arab-Jewish dialogue invited representatives from the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, the MCA, the largest mosque in the South Bay, rebuffed the invitation, says Aron. (The MCA did not respond to a request for comment.) However, Maha ElGenaidi, a prominent Muslim activist and leader and founder of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, did participate in the dialogue.

"The goal of these dialogues, I think, should be to get mainstream Jewish and Muslim and Arab communities into the discussion," ElGenaidi says. "But I don't have any knowledge of any mainstream groups of Arabs or Muslims who are active or involved for too long in these types of discussions."

ElGenaidi quit the dialogue group in which Aron and Charlow were participating in about a year and a half, after helping found the group initially.

"It became a time issue because I felt I was wasting time," she explains. She adds that the group suffered because of a lack of "expert" facilitation. "I went into the group to build understanding and to deal with the tough issues that divide us. If I had felt there was genuine interest in developing real understanding and trust of the 'other,' I would have made the time. It seemed to me that members were more interested in publicizing the success of the group than in working to build trust between the two communities. Which is about the time that I checked out."

There are certainly opinions some local Presbyterians feel they can't express publicly. One pastor who insisted that his criticism of Israeli policy remain off the record shrugs his shoulders. "What is there to say?" Silence. "Right. You see how difficult it is."

Daniel, meanwhile, looks at the bright side. "One of the solutions is we talk frankly and try to base everything of friendships and relationships," he says. "That engenders trust. And if I say something that's different, the others could trust me enough to express their opinion."


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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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