With its decentralised governance and rebellious spirit, Presbyterianism has always been fissile and unpredictable; it can evolve in any ideological direction and is prone to splits over points of theological or even political principle. The Presbyterian Church (United States of America) (PCUSA) is among the most liberal of the country’s large Christian churches; the rival Presbyterian Church of America is much more conservative. And a group linked to the former denomination has just stirred up an almighty row by publishing a “study guide” to the Middle East which is critical not only of Israeli policies but of Zionism, the belief in a Jewish homeland which inspired Israel’s creation.
The book, which sets out to describe the establishment and subsequent history of Israel, stresses that in the early 20th century not all Jews agreed with the idea of a creating a state; it adds that even now there are Jews around the world who dissent from the idea of defining Israel as a “Jewish state”. It dwells at length on the suffering of Palestinians in the fighting which attended Israel’s creation and in the present-day occupied territories. It also traces in some detail the story of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, as well as the improvement in Christian-Jewish relations in the late 20th century. But to the fury of its critics, it has relatively little to say about violence against Israel by Palestinians or the country’s Arab neighbours.
Steve Gutow, an American rabbi who heads the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is quoted as calling the book “worthy of a hate group, not a prominent church”. Others objected to the space given to Jewish Voices for Peace, an American organisation which campaigns against Israeli policy. As well as the study’s content, there have been arguments over the status of its authors, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA; the PCUSA itself has somewhat distanced itself from the document by saying the network “speaks to the church and not for the church”.