By Presbyterians for Middle East Peace
The Presbyterian Church, USA has always been known for its strenuous debates of controversial issues. It has never been known for ideological purges. That changed a few weeks ago.
On April 1, 2014, after a thorough vetting of his abilities to be moderator of the GA committee on Middle East Issues, GA Moderator Neal Presa announced that Rev. Al Butzer, the widely respected senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, VA, was appointed as the committee’s moderator. The appointment was hailed by centrists in the church who seek a more reasonable debate of the issues. Throughout his long career, Rev. Butzer has been found standing on the center ground in the church’s controversies, searching for consensus viewpoints between the extremes. He is also known for his ability to moderate a meeting in a fair and ethical manner, making sure that all voices are heard and all sides of a debate are treated equally.
However, advocates of the Israel-targeted Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement did not share the widespread approval of Rev. Butzer’s appointment. Instead, they questioned Rev. Butzer’s personal integrity by saying that he was incapable of leading a fair hearing on Middle East issues and demanded that he be replaced as moderator of the committee. Less than a week after his nomination, Rev. Butzer was forced to step aside when the GA’s Moderator and Stated Clerk succumbed to the lobbying from the BDS proponents.
During the week of April 1-6, BDS leaders told Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa that Rev. Butzer should be disqualified because he and Jewish clergy led two trips to Israel with congregants from Christian and Jewish congregations in Virginia. The trips were not political. They had the goal of helping participants discuss the places where Judaism and Christianity are similar and where they are different. As is not unusual in trips in which clergy act as leaders, none of the three clergy paid their own expenses. Clergy expenses were paid by the Jewish Federation of Richmond, VA.