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Committee recommends rejection of making distinction between modern and ancient Israel

June 17, 2014

Despite a general consensus that recent military actions by the present state of Israel are a grave concern, the Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations chose Tuesday to recommend rejection of a proposal that the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) make a distinction between "ancient" and "modern" Israel.

The issue came to the Assembly from the Presbytery of Chicago, prompted by the heading “God’s Covenant with Israel” in Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal.

After hearing a host of decidedly opposing views, the committee voted 39-22 to recommend disapproval of the overture, which called for the Assembly to distinguish between the biblical terms that refer to the ancient land of Israel and the modern political state of Israel. It also requested the development of educational materials regarding the distinction between ancient and modern Israel to be distributed to presbyteries and congregations.

A minority report was submitted with the committee’s recommendation.

Tuesday's committee session began with an open hearing, allowing 16 speakers, equally approving and disapproving of the overture, to share their views with the committee.

Among those disapproving of the recommendation, Teaching Elder Mark Achtemier of John Knox Presbytery said the overture would “undermine the tradition of careful theology.”

“We cannot make a categorical distinction between ancient and modern Israel,” he said. “That would only make sense if God has abandoned his promise. The gift of calling of God is irrevocable. Approving this overture is to proclaim that God’s promises are untrustworthy.”

Cynthia Campbell, pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, was one of several speakers who characterized the recommendation as “a solution looking for a problem.”

Two rabbis spoke in opposition to the overture. David Sandmel urged disapproval of the recommendation, saying it would “sever my people from their history.” Noan Marans said, “asterisking of the word ‘Israel’ would be interpreted by many as an attack on the Jewish people.”

Those in favor of the recommendation were just as adamant.

Melinda Thompson of Laurel, Maryland, said it is necessary to distinguish ancient Israel from the “the one that oppresses Palentinians.”  

“Israel, once a David, has now become Goliath,” Thompson said.

Jan Orr Harter said making the distinctions was necessary so that the PC(USA) could not be “mistaken for our supporting the military occupation of one people by another.”

The open hearing ended with 17-year-old Amani Zayed speaking in favor of the recommendation and comparing Israel to a “boy picking on people weaker than him.”
She said Israel’s actions are “not an example of holy peace.”

Before voting, the committee heard from overture advocates Pauline Coffman from the Chicago presbytery and Nahida Gordon from the Synod of the Covenant.

Coffman said the overture addressed “insensitivity” toward the Palestinian people and was “a matter of justice.”

Gordon said, “Use of the heading can be misleading to people” and that “we do not want people to think that the poor treatment of Palestinians by Israel is justifiable by God.”

Moderator Jihyun Oh explained the financial cost of creating and distributing the recommended educational material was estimated at $4,000. She also referred to the comment by the Committee on Theological Education, which notes that Presbyterian-affiliated schools are independent entities whose activities cannot be directed by General Assembly action.

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