September 20, 2014

​Yale Chaplain's Resignation Reflects Mainline Tensions Over Israel

©2014 Religion News Service

When an Episcopal chaplain at Yale University
seemed to suggest that Jews were culpable for Israel’s actions against
Palestinians and a related rise in global anti-Semitism, his comments not
only led to his resignation but rekindled a debate within mainline
Protestant churches about how to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a letter to The New York Times responding to an op-ed by
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt about rising European anti-Semitism,
the Rev. Bruce Shipman wrote that “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be
for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”

Several readers interpreted Shipman’s letter as
an attempt to hold all Jews across the globe responsible for the actions of the
Israeli state. Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 4, he resigned his post in
New Haven.

While the Episcopal Church supports a two-state
solution and advocates for peace and reconciliation between both sides,
Shipman's flare-up reflects ongoing debate within several mainline
denominations about divestment from Israel, sensitivities around anti-Semitism
and uneasy attempts to strike a balance.

Advocates for peace between Palestine and
Israel within the Episcopal Church see a growing divide, said Linda Gaither of
the Palestine Israel Network within the independent group Episcopal Peace

“There’s a gap between the leadership of the
church and networks within the church,” said Gaither, whose group has defended
Shipman's comments. “It is not anti-Semitism to raise the question of the
actions of the state of Israel. We must differentiate between the need for all
of us to stand firm against anti-Semitism (and) the need to continue the
Episcopal Church’s stance against occupation.”

The Presbyterian Church
(USA) voted earlier this summer to divest pension funds from
three companies that sell nonlethal equipment to the Israeli military. Jewish
groups denounced the move as biased against Israel and damaging to interfaith

“These denominations that used to be uniformly
pro-Israel are having significant pressure from groups to be critical of
Israel,” said Jeff Walton, communications manager for the Institute on Religion
& Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank that is frequently
critical of mainline denominations.

“This is most pronounced in the PC(USA), but we’re
seeing signs in the Episcopal Church, and Shipman's letter is an example
of that.”

Mainline denominations have been debating
divestment for a decade or more. In 2012, the United Methodist Church defeated
by a 2-1 margin divestment from companies accused of contributing to
"Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories" at its General
Conference. The same year, the Episcopal Church declined to
offload holdings in companies that sell nonlethal equipment to Israeli