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February 15, 2022 12:18 pm

Is Anti-Israel Church Leader Trying to Get Fired?

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


PCUSA headquarters. Photo: Dexter Van Zile.

Does Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), want to keep his job? Or is he looking to go out in a blaze of glory from a job that he doesn’t like very much?

From the looks of it, a good case can be made that Nelson is trying to get fired, and then blame the American Jewish community for his ouster.

Nelson got himself into trouble on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when he accused Israel of “slavery,” and then called on American Jews to join efforts to bring the “enslavement” of the Palestinians to an end.

“The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st century slavery, and should be abolished immediately,” he said, adding, “I would also hope that the Jewish community in the United States would influence the call to join the US government in ending the immoral enslavement.”

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A few days later, Nelson made it clear that he wasn’t backing down despite the withering criticism that came his way, declaring, “While my reference to these injustices as ‘slavery’ may seem extreme to many and, of course, offensive to most Israelis, no one who is informed regarding the use of military power and racial bias to control the lives of Palestinian citizens can honestly avoid the truth of this situation.”

The truth of the situation includes a reality that Nelson didn’t address: jihadist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been attacking Israeli civilians for decades, both on their own, and with support from Iran. He also made no mention that almost all of the Palestinian people are governed by autonomous Palestinian rulers, and that polls show that Arab citizens of Israel would rather live in the Jewish state than under Palestinian rule.

Nelson’s outrageous comments, which were clearly intended to antagonize American Jews, were made in the aftermath of a hostage-taking at a synagogue in Texas that went ignored by the PCUSA.

Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP), a group within the church that seeks to promote peace in the Holy Land (without getting embroiled in the propaganda war on either side), called Nelson’s first statement “beyond the pale”; and, when Nelson doubled down, the group accused him of “a failure to lead.”

Just in case people didn’t discern PFMEP’s frustration with Nelson’s antics, the organization declared: “Presbyterians deserve better leadership from our Louisville leadership for the sake of the gospel and our common mission with Jewish congregations. An acknowledgement by the Stated Clerk that the words he wrote were harmful to the Jewish community and interfaith work is needed. Now.”

Another group, called Pathways for Peace in the Middle East, initially called for Nelson’s resignation, but then dialed it back, asking Nelson to “apologize immediately and take appropriate steps to root out similar language in PCUSA.”

Apparently, Presbyterians are asking what can be done with a Stated Clerk who keeps shooting his mouth off. And not just any Presbyterians, but the people who serve on the PCUSA’s Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA), an agency that has oversight authority over Nelson, whose term ends in 2024.

On February 9, COGA issued a statement that seems dry and mealy-mouthed, but upon close examination, indicates trouble is brewing for Nelson: “In response to questions and comments members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly have received about the Stated Clerk’s statement on the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, we offer our understanding of the authorities and responsibilities given to the Clerk and COGA by the General Assembly.”

COGA disclaimed any authority over the words that come out of Nelson’s mouth. “The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly trusts the Stated Clerk’s role and responsibility to make statements of this nature as the Clerk sees fit,” COGA stated, adding that it “does not have the authority to manage the work of the Stated Clerk as they carry out responsibilities entrusted to them by the General Assembly.”

What COGA did not say, however, is that it conducts regular performance reviews during the Stated Clerk’s tenure, including written annual and end-of-term reviews. When conducting end-of-term reviews, it is required to “include a recommendation whether the Stated Clerk should be considered for reelection.”

By issuing the statement it did, COGA sent a pretty clear signal that its members (and other people within the denomination) are listening closely to what Nelson is saying, and that they are paying attention to the concerns of local churches in the denomination who value good relations with Jews in their communities.

It’s unclear if COGA can or will dismiss Nelson for expressing his personal point of view, but there is ample reason to think that there is a case for dismissing him for deviating from the General Assembly’s position on the conflict in the Holy Land, which, as bad as it has been, hasn’t portrayed American Jews as complicit in the “enslavement” of Palestinians.

In any event, it’s unlikely that Nelson would seek a third term as Stated Clerk in 2024. Given that the denomination is shrinking, and suffering from declining revenues, one might think that a responsible leader would pay more attention to keeping the church afloat than looking for opportunities to make reckless, hyperbolic, and exaggerated statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A responsible leader might even think about setting the stage for a renaissance of a vibrant and effective denomination capable of connecting to the unchurched in the US.

But that’s not where Nelson is headed. The day after COGA weighed in, however innocuously, on the controversy, Nelson issued another statement about the Arab-Israeli conflict that is essentially a recap of what he’s already said. He affirmed the accusation of slavery, told American Jews they need to do something about it, and offered not one word of criticism of Palestinian incitement or terrorism, or the increase in antisemitic attacks in the US.

Is Nelson daring the folks in the denomination to push for his ouster before his term ends? Is he trying to generate controversy to distract from the continuing decline of the church he leads?

If Nelson were really that interested in altering the downward the trajectory of the PCUSA, would he speak in such a one-sided and divisive manner about such an emotionally charged subject?

Probably not.

There are signs that the folks who are left in the denomination are getting tired of the controversy. Rev. Brian Merrit, a longtime PCUSA pastor, resigned from his position on the denomination’s General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) in protest of what he interprets as “antisemitism in our Stated Clerk’s (Rev. J. Herbert Nelson’s) comment on Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.”

In his February 10 resignation statement, Merrit said he was not “willing to be part of a group that must work under [Nelson’s] public statement as denominational policy.” Merritt is no right-wing ideologue. He stood in solidarity with Muslims in the aftermath of a terrorist shooting in his community.

If Nelson is ousted, or finishes his term under a cloud, he can still mingle with the anti-Israel constituency in the denomination at General Assemblies, and blame American Jews and their friends in the denomination for his troubles. Nelson will be able to hide his lackluster performance as Stated Clerk behind the mantle of “speaking truth to Jewish power,” when in fact he was merely damaging the reputation and ministries of the PCUSA’s local churches that must labor under the weight of his polemics.

When Nelson goes, the hard work of trying to revive the PCUSA will fall onto the shoulders of his successor, while the realities of the conflict in the Holy Land will remain unchanged. The upshot is that it might be a good idea for Jewish organizations to let insiders in the PCUSA do the heavy lifting when it comes to dealing with the fracas Nelson has created. It’s their church.

More power to them.

Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).

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