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Walled In: Lutherans Get Into the Act

August 25, 2005
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie (left), president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rev. Randall R. Lee, director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America''s Department for Ecumenical Affairs
Jewish communal leaders walked away from the mid-August national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America victorious: The church body, eschewing the tactics of the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church USA and the United Church of Christ, handily defeated a proposal to divest its funds from corporations that do business in Israel.

But the victory came with a defeat of sorts. Although the Lutheran Church declared divestment to be off-limits in its quest to bring peace to the Middle East, it also isolated Israel''s security barrier for criticism as an impediment to normalized relations between the Jewish state and the Palestinian people.

Meeting in Orlando, Fla., the assembly decided in a 668-269 vote on Aug. 13 to implement a campaign titled "Peace Not Walls: Stand for Justice in the Holy Land." The vote came just days after Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed the convention, urging those in attendance not to single out Israel.

"Please don''t minimize the impact of terror," said Yoffie, according to a transcript of his speech. "And do not demonize or isolate Israel, as if, somehow, she alone were responsible for the current conflict."

Nevertheless, the body found that the security fence, which largely follows Israel''s pre-1967 international borders but at some spots snakes into the West Bank, is "an imminent threat … to the future of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and other Christian Churches in the Holy Land."

Among other policies, the resolution calls for church members to steward "financial resources - both U.S. tax dollars and private funds - in ways that support the quest for a just peace."

''Still Biased Against Israel''
Such language, while not explicitly calling for divestment, struck some in the Jewish community as in poor taste.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week on Aug. 19 that the resolution "still singles out Israel. It is still biased against Israel."

But Bishop Roy G. Almquist, who heads the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA and was a delegate to the convention, explained from his Norristown office on Tuesday that the ELCA simply wants a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I would not have given the name they gave to it," said Almquist, referring to the "Peace Not Walls" campaign. "The wall for the Israeli people right now is their security."

When pressed further, however, Almquist, who in May visited Israel and Palestinian villages in the West Bank, revealed that in his view - and the viewpoints of many of his Lutheran colleagues - "the wall cuts right through Bethlehem."

It was a position he said he shared with Israeli Consul General Uriel Palti and Burt Siegel, director of community relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, one week before the assembly.

"There''s absolutely nothing in the resolution but support and appreciation for Israel''s need for security," he said. "Our concern with the wall is the placement of the wall."

According to Siegel, the action taken by the Lutheran Church stings, especially following the win on the divestment issue.

"On the issue of divestment, [Almquist] felt it was punitive and wouldn''t do any good. So he assured us that he would do everything he could to oppose divestment," explained Siegel. "But on the issue of the fence, we don''t see eye to eye."

Turning specifically to the vote, Siegel characterized it as "disappointing, certainly."

"From my considerable discussions with mainline Protestants, it is much harder" to get them to budge on the fence, he added. "Where [Almquist] is is not atypical."

Optimistic for Future
Palti likewise expressed disappointment at the Lutheran resolution, but said he was optimistic at the prospect of future conversations with Almquist and his constituents.

"I was very sorry to hear about the decision on the security fence," he said. "Right now, there''s a new window of opportunity in the region, and I asked [Almquist] to deliver this message.

"The meeting itself was a very interesting meeting," he continued. "He was very reflective. Obviously, we spoke about our security stance."

At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, associate director Mark Pelavin, struck a similar chord.

"I think it''s important and interesting that they didn''t come with anything supporting divestment," he said of the Lutheran Church. "But they''re still deeply troubled by the wall. There''s no expectation that we''re going to agree with these folks all the time."

 

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