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US Presbyterian Church Considers Sanctions Against Israel

One of America’s oldest Protestant denominations is holding its biennial assembly this week, and high on the agenda is a proposal to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

If approved, the Presbyterian Church USA would be the largest religious organization in the country to impose sanctions on Israel.

During Sunday worship at the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, interim pastor Beverly Dempsey offered a prayer for her Protestant denomination’s leaders gathering this week in Detroit.

“As the general assembly moves into full swing, there are many issues that threaten to tear the PCUSA apart,” she said from the pulpit.

“In the end, we may or may not wholeheartedly agree with the position that the denomination is taking on marriage equality, or divestment, or immigration reform, or the mandatory registration of guns, or any of the key issues of our day.”

Like many other mainline Protestant churches in America, this once influential denomination has been hemorrhaging members. It now has around 1.75 million. And, while the debates have divided those still in the pews, several proposals to sanction Israel for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process may prove to be the most controversial.

One calls for Israel to be branded an “apartheid” state. Another calls for the church to withdraw investments from three U.S. companies whose products are used by the Israeli military in the occupied territories. A similar measure came within a few votes of passing at the last assembly in 2012.

A vote on the divestment proposal is scheduled for later this week. If it goes through, it would be a major victory for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement. The movement wants to isolate Israel with sanctions like those applied to apartheid-era South Africa.

Reverend Susan Wilder of the Presbyterian Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which has backed the divestment motion, says the aim is not to delegitimize Israel.

“But we do need to shine a spotlight on Israel’s-on bad policies,” she says. “This isn’t about good guys and bad guys, or being against Israel, or wanting to isolate Israel or even punish Israel, this is about wanting to shine a spotlight on actions that are harming everyone.”

She says she doesn’t want to “profit from someone else’s pain.”

“For us,” she adds, “this is a matter of living out our faith and it's a matter of our stewardship of our financial sources. It's a matter of getting our investments in line with our values.”

Earlier this year, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network published a congregational study guide called Zionism Unsettled. Critics say it demonizes Israel by calling Zionism a “false theology” and blames it for the entire Middle East conflict.

Rev. John Wimberly, retired pastor of Western Presbyterian Church, says Christians should think twice before imposing sanctions on Israel.

“There is a 2,000-year history of economic sanctions being used by Christians aimed at Jews and it's a bloody, nasty history and that is kind of my bottom line opposition right there,” says Wimberly, who is now on the steering committee for Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.

He says he doesn’t agree with Israel’s settlement policies. But he argues that the BDS movement ignores Palestinian attacks on Israel, while the divestment proposal has been pushed by lobbyists from outside the denomination.

“This divestment thing has come up ever since 2004 and at every general assembly, and every general assembly the Presbyterian Church, which is kind of a progressive body, has defeated it,” he says. “So Israel has lots of friends in the mainline churches.”

But Israel’s supporters fear a "yes" vote could prompt other churches to follow suit. That could leave it with fewer friends among left-leaning Protestant Christians and more dependent on support from largely evangelical Christian conservatives.

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