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Last updated: Wed. Jun. 25, 2014 - 02:38 pm EDT

No local voice given in Presbyterian church vote

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FORT WAYNE — When delegates to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s biennial General Assembly last week controversially voted to divest from three American companies selling products said to be used by Israel against the Palestinians, none who voted was from the Fort Wayne area, denomination officials say.

But local Presbyterian leaders say opinions here are as divided as the 310-303 vote, which has been denounced by national Jewish organizations as anti-Israel.

The Rev. Jeffrey Lehn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, 300 W. Wayne St., said the vote should be seen in the context of 10 years of talks between church leaders and the companies, including Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions.

He said denominational entities have about $21 million in the companies' stocks and had been negotiating on the issue as shareholders.

“Over the years, we have divested from many companies that we felt were not in line with our socially responsible investment positions,” he said.

“These three are ones the denomination has tried to talk with over the past 10 years, and conversations have broken down lately, which is what led to the vote.”

Nonetheless, Lehn said he is unsure whether he would have voted for the measure, which also affirmed the right of Israel to exist and a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

He said his objection and fear was that the vote would “harm our relationship” with local Jewish communities, which is cordial.

“They're wonderful people and fine religious leaders,” Lehn said, adding he sent emails to that effect to Rabbi Javier Catapan of Achduth Vesholom and Rabbi Mitchell Kornspan of Congregation B'nai Jacob, both in Fort Wayne.

Neither returned a telephone call seeking comment.

Jaki Schreier, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, would not comment on the Presbyterians' move.

She referred questions to a statement issued by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Israel Action Network, a national Jewish Federation initiative.

Leaders called the vote “outrageous,” “troubling” and “tragic.”

“This decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups and the national Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” said Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish council and a rabbi in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism.

“We hold the leadership … accountable for squandering countless opportunities, not only to act responsibly to advance prospects for Middle East peace, but also to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination,” Gutow said in a statement.

The Rev. Kevin Boyd, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, 9600 St. Joe Road, said he would have voted for the resolution, which called for gradual divestment over the next five years.

He called it balanced and fair.

“It's not aimed at the Jewish community,” he said. “The Presbyterian Church feels strongly that we don't support companies that support violence, and we feel these companies have used their products in ways that don't promote peace.”

Boyd said the vote does not mean all Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations or members must support the decision.

He said it added leverage to discussions with the companies and brought public awareness to the issue.

He and Lehn pointed out that a similar measure failed by two votes in the denominational assembly two years ago.

The vote could be overturned at the next general assembly, they said.

Lehn also said the vote did not imply an embrace of the greater Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement against Israel, as has been the case with other religious bodies. He said he considers that movement “anti-Israel.”

Officials with the Whitewater Valley Presbytery, the denomination's regional body, confirmed that none of the six voting delegates to the assembly in Detroit was from northeast Indiana.

Officials said delegates were from Indianapolis, Greenwood, Avon, Shelbyville and Zionsville and voted their consciences by secret ballot.

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