Speaking in the basement of Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) in Minneapolis on July 3, 2010, Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD), offered a relentless denunciation of Israel to a group of Presbyterians.
During his talk, Halper expressed hope that efforts to brand Israel as an apartheid state will get more traction going forward partially as a result of the deaths resulting from the fighting on board the Mavi Marmara a few weeks earlier. During this fighting, nine faux peace activists from Turkey were killed. For Halper, the deaths on board the Mavi Marmara highlighted Israeli intransigence, not the hostile intentions of the IHH members on board the vessel.
I think we have turned a corner with Israels help, he said.
Throughout his talk, Halper gave his audience advice on how to challenge those who defend Israel from attacks like his.
What people are going to tell you all the time is youre not being fair to Israel, he said. Youre not being balanced. There is not a symmetry of power, Halper said, and as a result, theres no reason for criticism to be balanced. Theres only one occupying power, he said. The Palestinians are not occupying Tel Aviv.
Halpers advice on how to respond to efforts to defend Israeli policies as responses to security threats was particularly pointed.
Say, What about home demolitions? That will shut them up.
Halpers commentary fit right in with the agenda of the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA), which sponsored the luncheon at which he was speaking, which was titled Is it Really Apartheid? The luncheon was one of a number of events organized by the IPMN which assailed the legitimacy of the Jewish state during the PC(USA)s 2010 General Assembly. Other events on the IPMNs roster at the WPC included a review of Alan Harts recent book, Zionism: the Real Enemy of the Jews, a review of The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand and a personal testimony by Linda Ramsden, whose talk was titled My Journey Away from Christian Zionism.
Two days later, Halper testified in favor of an overture submitted to the PC(USA)s General Assembly declaring Israeli guilty of the crime of Apartheid. Speaking before the committee charged with dealing with peacemaking overtures related to the Middle East, Halper argued that the PC(USA) should affirm the resolution to help prevent the establishment of new apartheid regime in the world. During his testimony, Halper asked rhetorically what it was about South Africas apartheid regime that mobilized activists all over the world. How did that affect us here in Minneapolis or in the United States or anywhere else? He continued:
Because if you have a state based on racism thats in our international family, it sullies all of us. This was a global issue, apartheid. It had to do with global morality, global politics and so we all spoke out against it. Its the same in the case of Israel. Israel is a global issue. The Israel-Palestine conflict is as General Petraeus says, compromising American interests, but more than that, the South Africans mobilized the churches all over the world.
The churches are the moral voice. If the churches go away, if the churches simply go on with business as usual while apartheid regimes are established in front of our eyes, then where are we? So theres a special responsibility of churches.
Israel is establishing an apartheid regime. There is no more occupation. The occupation has become a permanent bi-national reality and I ask you all to speak out while we can against a new apartheid.
With these utterances, Halper portrays Israel, out of all the countries in the Middle East, as uniquely worthy of contempt and criticism and Christian churches. In Halpers world view, Israel, which has regular elections and grants ethnic and religious minorities the right to vote and participate in governance is condemned while truly racist regimes that murder their political opponents are ignored.
As harsh and unreasonable as this testimony is, he has said worse to other groups. Speaking at a Sabeel Conference held at Bostons Old South Church in 2007, Halper suggested
Israeli officials were contemplating a final solution in regards to the Palestinians. He told the audience that Israeli leaders dont believe that peace is possible and that the Israeli government has done the same thing that the Bush Administration is trying to do mystify the conflict, to depoliticize it so that theres no solution the problem is them. And if the problem is them, then of course to put it in very harsh terms then of course the only solution the Final Solution
. (Emphasis added.)
Hamas and Hezbollah have both expressed a desire to destroy Israel and murder Jews and yet, Halper accuses Israeli leaders of contemplating genocide. This just doesnt make sense and yet Halper was rewarded with loud applause from his largely Christian audience during his talk.
Halper wasnt the only Jew condemning Israel at the Presbyterian General Assembly. Stefanie Fox from the Jewish Voice for Peace also spoke to the committee that dealt with Middle East peace issues, calling on the PC(USA) to divest from Caterpillar.
Let's make no mistake that if you dont choose to divest, youre profiting from the uprooting of olive trees, the demolishing of Palestine homes and whole Palestinian villages, the construction of Jewish-only illegal settlements, the Apartheid wall and the killing and maiming of activists that stand non-violently in the paths of these weaponized bulldozers destruction.
Divesting from Caterpillar because it sells goods to Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic and it does not de-legitimize Israel, she said. In fact, it de-legitimizes the occupation and the use of these weapons, which of course is illegal in the first place. Be a friend to Jews and divest."
Avraham Burg was also a prominent Jewish activist in attendance at the PC(USA)s General Assembly in Minneapolis. While Burg did warn Presbyterians to not single Israel out for divestment during his presentation to Presbyterian peace activists at the General Assembly (also sponsored by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network), his recent book, The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) is a favorite among Christian anti-Zionists, with good reason. In this text, Burg portrays Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jews and Israel as a figment of Israels imagination and Israeli Jews as thugs suffering from Shoah Blindness.
Yet another Jewish critic of Israel who was in attendance at the PC(USA)s General Assembly in Minneapolis was Mark Braverman. Braverman, like Halper, is a regular speaker at Sabeel events where he holds Israel and Jews up to a biblical standard of conduct while ignoring the sins of its adversaries. (Some of Braverman's rhetoric is analyzed here.)
For the anti-Israel activists in mainline churches, one-sided testimony from these activists is manna from heaven. Not only does it legitimize the received wisdom that Israel is (or should be) a pariah state, it also protects Christian anti-Israel activists from charges of anti-Jewish bias on the grounds that Jews would not say such terrible things about Israel if they were not true. The message they offer is that its the Jews and not the people who hate them who are the problem. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas arent really so bad, its the Jews and their state we need to worry about.
In their testimony before Presbyterians in Minneapolis, Halper and Fox expressed more moral outrage over the sins of their fellow Jews than they do over the misdeeds of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that seek Israels destruction. In the narrative offered by these commentators, the only country whose sins are worth recounting is Israel. Israels behavior is condemned on a theological and moral level while the misdeeds of its adversaries are either passed over or blamed on Israel.
Despite the inherent hostility and unfairness of this story, so-called peace activists in mainline Protestant churches have lionized Jewish activists who tell it, portraying them as the authentic Jewish voice that Christians (and other Jews) should listen to.
For example, in the week before the PC(USA)s General Assembly, proponents of anti-Israel resolutions invoked support from Jewish Voice for Peace and other marginal Jewish peace groups to buttress their case.
This effort was evident in a letter signed by 200 Presbyterian ministers and elders calling for the passage of a one-sided report about the Arab-Israeli conflict (which was so one-sided even J Street condemned it). In this letter, the authors attempted to reassure Presbyterians that the Middle East Study Committee which prepared the report had done a good job despite withering criticism from mainstream Jewish groups in the U.S.
The Middle East Study Committee fulfilled its mandate. There will be both Israelis and Palestinians present at the pre-Assembly event attesting to this. Indeed it is true that the American Jewish Community (sic) has a strong interest in what occurs in Israel, but it should be pointed out that this community is not a monolith. The phrase mainstream Jewish community, as it is frequently used needs to be more adequately defined by those who are using it. There are, in fact, American Jews who are heartsick over Israeli policy towards Palestinians. They will also be represented at the General Assembly in Minneapolis.
What the authors of this letter tried to do was to portray the mainstream Jewish groups that condemned proposals before the PC(USA)s General Assembly as inauthentic representatives of Jews in the United States. The true voice of the Jewish community, the authors suggested, would be represented at the General Assembly by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Halpers ICAHD.
This rhetorical gambit was also evident in the text of the Middle East Study Committee Report itself. The authors of this text held up J Street as a group that American Jews should follow while portraying other (and frankly more popular) Jewish groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center as failing to live up to the higher ideals of Judaism. This strategy fell apart, however, when J Street objected to being used in such a manner and called on Presbyterians to reject the one-sided report.
Sadly, Christians in the U.S. have been using Jews to defame the Jewish people and their institutions for a long time. One of the most egregious examples appeared in the May 26, 1937 edition of Christian Century, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the U.S. This issue included an article by Louis Minsky, a British-born Jew who excoriated Jewish leaders in the U.S. for their allegedly hysterical response to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Minsky, who represented the Jewish Chronicle of London and helped found Religion News Service in the 1930s, opened his Christian Century piece (American Jews Take Stock,) as follows:
After four years of Hitlerism American Jewry is showing signs of emerging from the hysteria which has enveloped it since the nazis (sic) came to power. One of the chief evidences that this turning point has been reached is the rising reaction against the morbid preoccupation of Jews with the defeatist aspects of Jewish life to the exclusion of its positive side.
As this passage indicates, one remarkable aspect of this article written just two years before Einsatzgruppen began murdering Jews in Poland is that Minsky expresses more outrage over the behavior of Jews in the U.S. than he does about the rise to power of a violent mass movement in Germany that had sworn the destruction of the Jewish people.
To be sure, Minsky acknowledges that the Nazis are bad but then goes onto complain the more pressing problem is the selfish way Jews have responded to Hitlers rise to power. Minsky argues that Jews need to respond to the rise of Nazism by promoting peace and justice. Informed Jews, Minsky gladly reports, are starting to realize that the plight of Jews in Poland, is inseparably tied to the betterment of the lot of the landless and starving peasants and the improvement of Polands economic situation in general. He continues:
The causes of the economic and social unrest which produces fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe must be removed. There can be little hope for an amelioration of the plight of Jews until all threat of war is eliminated and something more in the nature of amity among nations is established, leading to an interplay of economic forces for the good of each. In a word, the European situation must be stabilized before any far-reaching solution of the Jewish question can be hoped for. The thoughtful Jew sees that anti-Semitism is a price which civilization has to pay for progress, that is one of the elements in the world struggle between justice and injustice which cannot be separated from the wider aspects of the struggle. (Emphasis Added.)
In the remainder of the article, Minsky condemns what he calls "unhealthy tendencies" in Jewry including the tendency of Zionists to hijack the Nazi rise to power for their own propaganda purposes, the lack of religious belief on the part Zionist Jews who have immigrated to Palestine and a "pre-occupation with anti-Semitism exhibited by Jewish leaders in the U.S. who have allowed Jewish life to "become chiefly a consideration of how to deal with the widespread psychosis of anti-Semitism and how to help its victims."
Minskys extended denunciation ends with the assertion that Jewish leaders must "launch a program of activities which will stop making Jews feel sorry for themselves." In sum, there was very little Jews could do in their own interests that Minsky did not condemn.
This was not the first time Minsky had assailed his fellow Jews who worked to draw attention to the impending crisis. In a piece titled The Policy of Aggressivism published in The Menorah in 1935, Minsky blamed Jewish-organized parades, mass meetings, oratorical invective and persistent moralizing for increased Nazi hostility toward Jews in Europe and the growth of anti-Semitism on the part of Christians in the U.S.
Minskys arguments fit in neatly with the Christian Centurys hostility toward Zionism and other expressions of Jewish collective identity some of which were documented in Hertzel Fishmans American Protestantism and a Jewish State (Wayne State University Press, 1973).
This hostility manifested itself in the magazines laudatory coverage of the American Council for Judaism, an anti-Zionist organization founded by a group of Reform rabbis in Atlantic City in May 1942.
In June 17, 1942 the magazine published an editorial highlighting the groups opposition to the creation of a Jewish army to fight against the Nazis. Christian Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison acknowledged the group represented only a small minority of membership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (which had recently voted to call for the creation of a Jewish army), but went on to emphasize their influential standing in the Jewish community. With such differences of opinion within Jewish ranks, the magazine opined, we cannot but marvel at the assurance with which Gentile groups tell the British and American governments what ought to be done in Palestine and in regard to Zionism.
For the next several years, the Christian Century gave laudatory coverage to the ACJs agenda. For example in November 1942, it covered New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzbergers warnings against Jewish nationalism (and the creation of a Jewish army) during a trip to Great Britain. And in 1946, the magazine gave a favorable view to The Jewish Dillemma by Elmer Berger, an anti-Zionist Jewish Rabbi affiliated with the ACJ who denied the existence of a Jewish people, reduced Jewish identity to one of a shared religion and asserted against overwhelming evidence that the rights of Jews could be obtained through a renewed commitment to emancipation.
Given the coverage the Christian Century gave to Jewish anti-Zionism, one might have been forgiven if they believed that anti-Zionism was a potent force in the Jewish community in the U.S.
According to Thomas A. Kolsky, author of Jews Against Zionism
(Temple University Press, 1990) the American Council for Judaism had, in 1948, a total of 14,000 supporters in the U.S. while Zionist organizations had approximately 1 million supporters. (Page 86)
Clearly, the willingness of American and Israeli Jews to cooperate with anti-Zionists is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, the fact that some Jews are willing to partner with Christian anti-Zionists who offer up a distorted and, in some instances, a hateful narrative, does not make these actions legitimate.
Robin Shepherd, author of A State Beyond the Pale: Europes Problem with Israel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) deals with this issue pretty bluntly when addressing how anti-Israel groups seek to thrust Jews into the front line of their attack. These Jews represent only a small and unrepresentative minority of the overall Jewish population. Israel is a state for Jews, by Jews, of Jews which is supported by the vast majority of Jews around the world. (Page 45)
Moreover, hateful discourse against Israel is hateful discourse against Jews regardless of who is involved in it. No amount of squirming, no rhetorical gymnastics can alter that basis and unyielding reality. The presence of Jews among the ranks of those who oppose Israel is a normal and predictable phenomenon. It has happened before and it will happen again.
Shepherd is right.
It is a normal and predictable phenomenon.
Whenever Christian peacemakers -- mainline Protestants especially -- put Israel in the seat of judgement, they can count on assistance from a small number of American and Israeli Jews who for reasons of their own, want to assist in the process of demonization.