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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


July 11, 2014  RSS feed
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Local Jews lobby Tampa Bay area Presbyterians prior to divestment vote

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Jonathan Ellis Jonathan Ellis Before the Presbyterian General Assembly’s narrow vote in favor of divestment from three U.S. companies doing business with Israeli security services, Jewish organizations in Pinellas and Hillsborough joined in lobbying efforts to persuade delegates not to support the measure.

Jonathan Ellis, president of the Tampa Orlando Pinellas Jewish Federation Alliance, said he was “awfully disappointed” in the results of the vote and questioned whether, in the future, local Jewish groups should participate in any interfaith activities with local Presbyterians.

Ellis wondered why, out of all the human rights abuses taking place worldwide, the Presbyterians chose to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then chose to “amplify what they perceive to be Israeli actions and take no heed of actions by Palestinians.”

He said a number of the positions taken by Presbyterians were based on inaccurate or untrue information.

Prior to the Presbyterians’ conclave, members of the Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) in Pinellas and Hillsborough were enlisted to contact potential delegates from the Tampa Bay area and present a case against divestment. Rabbis in Tampa also were involved in the effort.

In Pinellas County, JCRC co-chairs Stuart Berger and Steve Schwersky took the lead in the effort and enlisted others to help.

Schwersky said there were about five or six Presbyterian delegates in Pinellas and that several people were involved in contacting them. “The overall feeling was they were polite, listened and were tightlipped and gave no indication as to how they would vote. We really don’t know what their true feelings were, or how they voted,” Schwersky said.

He and others presented arguments against the vote. “The whole divestment movement is not really effective in working towards peace between Palestinians and Israel and it is effectively picking one side and blaming them and having no responsibility for the other side to live up to,” he said.

“They say it is a human rights issue,” Schwersky said, but said the assembly ignored how gays and women are treated by many Palestinians.

He and Berger both felt the assembly did not look at the larger picture of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. “It is one-sided, unfair and not helping,” Schwersky said.

Berger said he was asked to contact one delegate from Dunedin, and though he called and emailed, the woman apparently had left for the assembly. He never got a response to even know if she read his plea against the vote.

Berger shared his message to her, which read, in part:

“Personally, I feel very strongly about the need for a two state solution, two states living in freedom side by side and in peace. Israel, as the only state in the region that shares the democratic values of our country – where Muslims as well as Jews serve in the Knesset, where woman’s rights are taken for granted – is certainly not perfect, but we feel that this tiny state surrounded by enemies that seek it’s destruction should be supported rather than ostracized in this quest for peace.

“I encourage you to vote against anything like BDS or any resolution that labels Israel an apartheid state because, not only is Israel far from being an apartheid state, we feel it is unfair to single out one side in this, so far, intractable conflict. Like you, I just want peace to come to that area, and we should encourage reconciliation, investment and a negotiated solution, instead of boycotts and divestments.”

In Tampa, the JCRC also got involved and the Tampa Rabbinical Association (TRA) was recruited.

A letter from Rabbi Joel Simon, president of the TRA, and Rabbi Garson Herzfeld, liaison between the TRA and the JCRC, was sent to local Presbyterian delegates, asking for a meeting, according to Emilie Socash, director of external relations for the Tampa JCC & Federation. Efforts were also coordinated with JCRC chairs Brian Taub and Mitch Drucker and the local delegates, she noted.

The regional Anti Defamation League leadership also came to the Tampa Bay area independent of other efforts and reached out to the same delegates.

Mark Segel, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, said he is hopeful, given the close vote, that the issue will be reconsidered soon by Presbyterians. That may be unlikely, as their next general assembly is not for another two years.

“We need to have regular dialogue with representatives of the Presbyterian Church and to let them know – give them accurate information,” Segel said.

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