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By Alan Wisdom
The position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding the modern State of Israel is not determined by the denomination’s theology. The PCUSA holds to a Reformed theology that emphasizes continuities between God’s covenant with ancient Israel and God’s covenant with the Church. The status of the Jewish people, modern Israel, and the promise of the Land are unclear.
In earlier centuries most Presbyterians would have said that the Church had replaced Israel as God’s covenant people. But in recent decades most Presbyterians have come to the conviction that God has a continuing covenant with the Jews. Yet they hesitate to claim clarity on biblical prophecies of the end times, and are not sure how modern Israel might fit into those prophecies. So Presbyterian sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are guided less by theology and more by a sense of common values and interests with one party or the other.
Presbyterians have a history of identification with Arab nationalism. When they first sent missionaries to the Middle East in the nineteenth century, they planted moderately sized Reformed denominations in Lebanon and Egypt. (There is no Presbyterian church among the Palestinians, as far as I know.) Their greatest achievement, however, lay in the establishment of prestigious educational institutions such as the American University in Beirut. These institutions became seedbeds of Arab nationalism, and their graduates assumed important roles in movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is the testimony of Arab Christian partners that many PCUSA officials cite in justifying their anti-Israel stance.
PCUSA General Assemblies in recent years have shown a distinct tilt toward the Palestinian side, with occasional lurches back toward a middle course. The most current PCUSA policy statement on the Middle East is a report entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” adopted by the 2010 General Assembly. The report singles out the Israeli presence in the disputed territories as “the major issue for a just peace” in the region. While affirming “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders,” the report criticizes a long list of Israeli policies and demands changes:
- “the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and diversion of water resources;”
- “an immediate freeze both on the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank” and East Jerusalem;
- “the relocation by Israel of the Separation Barrier to the 1967 border;”
- Israeli concessions allowing “a shared status for Jerusalem”;
- “equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel;”
- various measures “to extend religious freedoms … throughout Israel without discrimination and prejudice against non-Jews.”
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