The head of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has doubled down on earlier comments suggesting the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories was comparable to slavery.
PC(USA) Stated Clerk Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II garnered outrage from Jewish groups when, as part of a statement released in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day last Monday, he declared that the “continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately.” He called on the Jewish community in the United States to “influence the call to join the U.S. government in ending the immoral enslavement.”
Nelson maintained that “no one who is informed regarding the use of military power and racial bias to control the lives of Palestinian citizens can honestly avoid the truth of this situation.”
“I made special reference to the injustices currently suffered by the Palestinian people under Israeli domination, marked by confiscation of rich land they have farmed for generations, destruction of their crops, barriers to access their holy places of worship, lack of access to certain types of employment and other forms of economic opportunity,” he said.
“For us in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) these realities make it imperative that we, as Presbyterians, find ways to have the necessary conversation with Jews who will talk with us about the real tragedy of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle.”
Nelson stated that his denomination “has a long, clear policy of abhorrence of anti-Semitism,” but contends that “we must also be linked with the refusal to give Israel a ‘pass’ in the face of injustices done to Palestinians in Israel-Palestine.”
Nelson said that a policy enacted at the 221st PC(USA) General Assembly in 2014 calling for “equal rights for all inhabitants of Israel and Palestine” was the “basis” for his statement.
“If we are to be able to work toward a just and equitable future for both Israelis and Palestinians, we must honor all involved as children of God and we must learn to seek peaceful, just resolutions to the complex histories faced by both parties,” Nelson stated. “May God give us the wisdom, courage and persistence to join in this quest for justice for all.”
Critics of Nelson’s earlier remarks include the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The organization said in a statement that it was “dismayed” and labeled the prelate’s assessment of Israeli foreign policy “dangerous and false.”
“The antisemitic nature of his statement is made even more clear by his failure to mention serious human rights abuses occurring elsewhere in the world, such as the ongoing genocides against the Uyghurs and Rohingya,” stated JCPA.
“As Jews, we reject those who callously use the tragedy of the Holocaust to make political points, so we were saddened that Rev. Dr. Nelson trivialized the suffering, torture, and murder of millions of slaves as a tawdry rhetorical device.”
The organization Presbyterians for Middle East Peace also decried Nelson’s statement, saying that he “seems to blame all Jews as the culprit, ignoring the many reasons why Americans support Israel.”
“The Rev. Dr. Nelson’s actions in lashing out at the U.S. and global Jewish community is beyond the pale. Gratefully, his actions and words do not match the work of local PCUSA and Jewish congregations in communities across the nation,” the organization stated.
“We hope the Stated Clerk will spend more time talking and working with American Jewish community leaders and less time writing blasts filled with reprehensible misrepresentations of our Jewish neighbors.”
The Jewish nongovernmental organization Anti-Defamation League sent Nelson a letter last Wednesday, arguing that his Jan. 17 statement is “nothing less than antisemitism.”
“Your demonizing language towards Israel appears to question the validity of Jewish statehood, and the morality of Jews and Judaism,” the letter reads. “By your formulation, unless they act against Israel, Jews (specifically American Jews) are implicated and judged guilty.”
“This not only holds all Jews accountable for Israeli policies, but essentially demands that Jews deny an integral aspect of their Jewish identity, that of a connection to Israel, their historic homeland, and to Jewish self-determination,” the ADL letter continued. “It must be noted that support for the existence of Israel is affirmed by the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. and around the world, and is not synonymous with supporting policies of a particular government, nor is it synonymous with opposing self-determination, and a viable and secure state for Palestinians.”
In 2014, the PC(USA) General Assembly voted 310-303 to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions due to their reported business ties to Israel. The move was criticized by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Union for Reform Judaism.
The disputed territories are those in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Israel has controlled those territories for over five decades but sovereignty over those territories has long been debated by the international community. Many, including the United Nations, have opposed Israel’s plans to annex the West Bank, claiming it would do serious harm to a two-state solution.