Miami Beach

Bal Harbour church deal outrages residents against boycott of Israel movement

The original Church by the Sea adjacent to the Bal Harbour Shops was demolished in late 2015.
The original Church by the Sea adjacent to the Bal Harbour Shops was demolished in late 2015. Miami Herald File

An agreement allowing a Bal Harbour church to set up temporarily in the village’s luxury mall has outraged local residents opposed to an international boycott of Israel.

On May 17, the Bal Harbour Council approved a development agreement between the Church by the Sea and Bal Harbour Shops that would allow the church to operate out of the mall for five years. Now, because of the church’s affiliation with United Church of Christ, some residents say the agreement violates the village’s nondiscrimination ordinance and are calling for it to be struck down.

“We are not against the Shops, we are not against the Church by the Sea,” said Ree Kelly, a local resident who plans to protest the agreement at the council’s monthly meeting Tuesday. “We are against the anti-Semitic UCC.”

The Church by the Sea’s role as a voting member of the United Church of Christ was first called into question in April when the church and Bal Harbour Shops approached the council with the agreement. Bal Harbour Shops purchased and demolished the church’s original building in late 2015 as part of an estimated $300 million expansion, and the church was looking to set up temporarily in the mall until construction on a new location is complete.

Bal Harbour Councilman Gabriel Groisman said that before the council approved the agreement, he wanted to clarify the church’s involvement with the United Church of Christ, which in June 2015 passed a resolution asking affiliated churches to support the BDS movement, which calls for the divestment of companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and boycott of products produced in those territories by Israeli companies. Groisman, in summer 2015, had written an approved nondiscrimination ordinance that said Bal Harbour Village would not enter a contract with a business if the business was engaged in a BDS boycott of Israel. The Florida Legislature passed a similar law in March.

Following a meeting with Groisman, the church sent a letter to the council firmly rejecting the UCC’s resolution and announcing the withdrawal of nearly $3 million from United Church Funds, an associated investment fund that supports the boycott. Those non-pension investment funds, according to United Church Funds emails presented to the council at the May meeting, will be fully liquidated by the end of the June quarter.

“Whatever the national body may suggest, it is merely a suggestion,” said Church by the Sea Rev. Barbara Asinger, who signed the letter.

And for Groisman and the rest of the council members present at the meeting, the letter and emails from the church and the United Church Funds were enough to prove that the church would no longer violate the nondiscrimination ordinance.

“We were able to use the leverage of our resolution to get them to repudiate their parent church and withdraw every penny from the investment funds,” Groisman said. “This is a huge step forward for the anti-BDS movement and should be a sign for all UCC churches to follow.”

But for some residents, that’s not enough.

“Nothing’s been changed, except very few of their total monies were pulled out of their investment funds,” Bal Harbour resident Stanley Tate said. “It doesn’t change the fact that there’s a partnership with an anti-Semitic church.”

“I want them out of the town.”

He and Kelly, who is a member of the Stop BDS Movement organization in Bal Harbour, both said they are unhappy the church is still a member of the UCC and has pension funds invested with United Church of Christ. The UCC pension board, however, says it does not support a BDS boycott of Israel.

“The dues are paid to the United Church of Christ,” Kelly said. “I don’t care what division that it’s paid to, the payment is to the United Church of Christ.”

“If you’re a dues-paying member of an anti-Semitic organization, you don’t belong in the Bal Harbour Shops.”

But because the UCC pension board refuses to support the boycott, Groisman said he feels it’s not a violation of the nondiscrimination ordinance. He said the church’s affiliation with the UCC isn’t enough to constitute a violation.

“It really saddens me that individuals are marring the progress we’ve had against the BDS movement here based on their personal issues with the church,” he said.

For church leaders, the support of the council is what really matters. The pension funds, said Rev. Robert Asinger, are irrelevant because that organization has not participated in the boycott. The Asingers are married and both faith leaders at Church by the Sea.

“As a congregation, we are not anti-Semitic at all,” he said. “As religious leaders we hold in prayer those people who would say such false statements.”

“But I am 100 percent confident that the clear majority of Bal Harbour supports Church by the Sea and is happy to have them in the town.”

Follow reporter Emily Cochrane on Twitter: @ESCochrane