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From churches, a challenge to Israeli policies

Some may wield an old financial tool - divestment - to register concern about peace prospects.

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A vote by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to use economic sanctions against certain companies doing business with Israel - namely those that profit from the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza - has set off a quiet firestorm within the American religious community.

The Presbyterians' decision to consider divesting such businesses from its $8 billion portfolio, coupled with the prospect that the Episcopal Church and other churches might do the same, is adding to tensions that have risen over recent years between mainline Protestant churches and the American Jewish community over their differing views of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

It is also stirring Jewish groups to try to head off divestment - and to rebuild a rapport with these churches, with whom they have long worked to further civil rights and social justice.

"To call for divestment played into all the language of boycott, from earlier periods in Jewish history to the Arab boycott of Israel. It caused an explosion in the Jewish community," says David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

In some ways, last summer's divestment vote has forced a conversation about the Middle East conflict. It also raises the stakes for those who, earlier this year, launched a bid to renew the old coalition. Christian and Jewish leaders have met twice, hosted by AJC and the National Council of Churches. From discussions on the "theology of land" to the divestment issue, the religious leaders "spoke from their pain" and asked tough questions of one another, says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, NCC interfaith secretary.

Tensions rose when a Presbyterian delegation traveling in the Middle East in October met with members of Hizbullah, the Lebanese group on the US terrorist list. The church's national leadership disavowed the action. Then in November, the church received a letter threatening arson against Presbyterian churches unless it halted the divestment process. Jewish groups condemned the threat.

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