Gary Burge’s Missed Opportunity

Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, a professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, was given a chance at redemption and he threw it away. He was given an opportunity to provide a reliable and trustworthy text about Israel and the Palestinians, but instead he gave his readers a text that encourages readers to regard the Jewish state – and the people who claim it as their homeland – with unrelenting contempt and hostility.

Burge’s chance to redeem himself came when Pilgrim Press, the publishing house of the United Church of Christ, issued a “revised and updated” second edition of his book, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians.

The first edition of this text, which was published in 2003, was marred with a number of factual misstatements that undermined the credibility of the text and its author, who serves as a Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian institution that prides itself on promoting academic rigor and holding all of its members, both students and faculty, accountable to the standards outlined in a community covenant.

The errors in the book, which was an expanded version of a book published by Zondervan in 1993, were egregious. For example, Burge mis-characterized an article written by Middle East Forum founder Daniel Pipes. The original article by Pipes said Israel had very little chance of making peace with its neighbors. “The point cannot be made often or strongly enough that, in their great majority, Arabic speakers do continue to repudiate the idea of peace with Israel. Despite having lost six rounds of war, they seem nothing loath to try again,” Pipes wrote.

Burge summarized the Pipes article with the following: “In [Pipes’] mind, Israel has an opportunity today to resolve its most basic struggles with the Arabs. But if it does not, its own future will be in jeopardy.”

Pipes said one thing and Burge characterized him as saying exactly the opposite. This is an egregious error. Pipes is a well-known supporter of Israel and if he had actually suggested that Israel had a chance to make peace with its adversaries, readers would ask why it hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity. But again, Pipes didn’t say what Burge said he said – he said the opposite. (Readers are encouraged to read Pipes’ article for themselves to see just how badly Dr. Burge mischaracterized it.)

Burge also falsely reported that Israeli-Arabs are denied membership in Israel’s labor movement, when in fact, they have had access to full membership in Israel’s largest union—Histadrut—since 1959. He reported that Israeli-Arabs were barred from service in Israel’s military and that they are prohibited from joining Israel’s major political parties – another falsehood.

He also attributed a quote to David Ben-Gurion that had been exposed as false and fabricated several years before publication of his book in 2003. The book he cited as the source for the quote – a workbook intended for high school-age students – did not include it.

CAMERA addressed these errors – all of which demonized Israel – and other problems with the text in two articles that were published in 2007. (An analysis of Burge’s writing also featured prominently in a 2009 article about anti-Israel activism in mainline churches.)

Prior to publishing its 2007 articles, CAMERA corresponded with Pilgrim Press in an effort to alert the publisher about the problems with the text. In its correspondence, CAMERA suggested that it “might be reasonable for Pilgrim Press to [take a pass] on future printings” of the book. And when Pilgrim Press continued to publish multiple printings of the book’s first edition – without corrections – CAMERA submitted a piece to JNS chiding the company for profiting from Burge’s mistakes.

Burge, who for a while had blocked emails from the CAMERA analyst who contacted him and his publisher about the errors in the first edition of Whose Land? Whose Promise?, responded to this piece by announcing that Pilgrim Press had agreed to issue a second edition of the text and that the errors that appeared in the first edition would be corrected. And to his credit, all the errors described above have been corrected.

Nevertheless, the “new and revised” edition of Burge’s text (issued in November 2013) includes a number of falsehoods, some of which were not previously identified in the first edition. It also includes new errors. CAMERA contacted Pilgrim Press (and Dr. Burge) with details about these errors (which will be discussed below). After some correspondence between CAMERA and Dr. Burge, Pilgrim Press offered to include a CAMERA-produced 6 x 9 inch insert detailing factual errors that appear in the second edition of the text. The insert, which CAMERA is currently producing, will accompany future purchases of the book.

The pattern of errors in his book raises troubling questions about Burge’s commitment to getting it right and abiding by the rules of scholarship. Although the book is promoted as “Burge’s personal exploration of his feelings about the crisis in the Middle East,” which is “written for the average Christian,” the text has all the trappings a scholarly work with footnotes appearing throughout the book.

Burge relies on his reputation as a prominent Evangelical scholar to put forth his distorted, Judeocentric (and Judeophobic) story across in a manner that should bother his colleagues at Wheaton College, especially in light of the errors he makes. It should also bother officials at Willow Creek Church in Illinois, where Burge makes regular teaching appearances.

Law of Return Mischaracterized

One of Burge’s most egregious errors is the manner in which he mischaracterizes Israel’s Law of Return. On page 140 of the first edition and page 152 of the second edition, Dr. Burge writes, “The law of return (1950) declares that every Jew in the world has the right to immigrate to Israel and claim automatic citizenship and social privileges.” He then adds a footnote to the text, which reads as follows:

Jewishness, though, has been carefully defined by Israel’s orthodox rabbis. They exclude illegitimate children of Jewish parents, children with a Jewish father but whose mother became a Christian, and Jewish believers in Jesus. Technically, a Jewish person who was an atheist would qualify as a Jew and be able to claim citizenship. See S. Z. Abramov, “Who is a Jew?” in S.Z
. Abramov, Perpetual Dilemma: Jewish Religion in the Jewish State (Cranburg, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1976), 270-320.

Here, Burge tells his readers that Israel’s Law of Return theoretically allows every Jew in the world to become an Israeli citizen, but then falsely suggests that Israel’s orthodox rabbis keep Jews whose parents were not married at the time of their birth out of Israel with their narrow and unyielding definition of Jewishness. He also falsely implies that a child whose mother converted to Christianity would not be allowed citizenship in Israel.

Readers who take Burge’s statements at face value would wonder why Israel would be so cruel as to prevent children whose parents were not married or whose mother converted to Christianity from entering the Jewish state. Readers would also falsely believe that someone with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother would be denied Israeli citizenship.

They would note that Burge cited a book about Jewish identity and the Jewish state (written by a Jew no less!) as his source of information. Since Dr. Burge’s book is a primer geared toward a popular audience, it’s pretty unlikely that they would consult the out-of-print text he cites in the footnote. In short, they would trust Burge, a scholar and a man of God. (In addition to serving as a professor at Wheaton College, Burge is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church [USA]).

This would be a mistake. The text Dr. Burge cites to buttress his case (Abramov’s The Perpetual Dilemma), contradicts what he communicates to his readers. The first clue comes on page 274 of Abramov’s text, where we learn that the Law of Return is enforced by civil, not religious authorities in Israel. And then, on page 304, Abramov reports that the Law of Return was amended in 1970 to allow anyone born of a Jewish mother (or who has converted to Judaism) into Israel. (Dr. Burge makes no reference to this amendment, which is clearly an important part of the story.)

And in a footnote on the same page of Abramov’s book, we learn that the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return also extended the right of Israeli citizenship to “the children and grandchildren of a Jew, to his spouse, as well as the spouse of his child or grandchild, excluding a person who was a Jew and who of his own free will has embraced another religion.” Abramov continues: “Thus non-Jewish spouses of Jews, as well as their offspring, regardless of whether they were Jews in terms of the Halakhic definition, would be admitted to Israel and entitled to all the benefits accorded to such persons.”

So, despite Dr. Burge’s assertion to the contrary, someone with a Jewish child born out of wedlock would be granted access to Israel. Moreover, the conversion of a child’s Jewish-born mother to Christianity would not prohibit that child from getting into the Jewish state, because that child would also qualify by virtue of his or her grandparents because anyone with a Jewish grandparent qualifies for Israeli citizenship (unless they themselves have converted to a religion other than Judaism.)

Burge simply got it wrong on one of the most basic (and important) laws of the Jewish state. And he got it wrong in such a way so as to suggest that Israel had betrayed its very reason for existence – to provide a safe haven for the Jewish people. And he misrepresented the work of a Jewish scholar to lend credence to his error.

Mischaracterized ID Cards and Driver’s Licenses

Burge also broadcasts what can be politely described as “misinformation” in his effort to portray Israel as an apartheid state. On page 139 in the first edition and 151 of the second edition, he writes that driver’s licenses and ID cards in Israel “indicate if the driver is Jewish or Arab.” He then adds a footnote that states “In fact, Jews renew their licenses on the fifteenth of the month, non-Jews on the first.”

Burge’s assertion that Jews renew their license on one day of the month and Arabs renew their licenses on another is false. If it ever was true, it is certainly not true now and hasn’t been for some time. This webpage from Israel’s Ministry of Transportation states that the expiration date for driver’s licenses, which in most cases are good for 10 years, “is identical to your date of birth.”

Now we are left with Burge’s main assertion – that Israeli ID cards and driver’s licenses indicate whether the driver is Jewish or Arab. Burge is wrong on both counts. While Israel does gather information regarding one’s ethnicity or leom (“nation”) on the application for an ID card and includes this information in its population registry, it does not, except in some instances (noted below), include this information on the ID card itself, and hasn’t done so since 2002 – one year before the first edition of Whose Land? Whose Promise? was published. The Los Angeles Times provides some detail:

Identity cards issued since 2002 have generally left open the question of leom.The Ministry of Interior stopped filling in the category to avoid having to comply with a court order to register converts to non-Othodox streams of Judaism as “Jewish.” The ministry, which oversees the population registration process, was frequently under ultra-Orthodox Jewish control.
But the category is still filled in on the population ledger. The ministry recently decided to also allow Jews to identify themselves as such on their cards, saying that some Holocaust survivors felt strongly about stating they were part of the Jewish nation.

In any event, the vast majority of ID cards issued in Israel since 2002 make no reference to the bearer’s ethnicity. Burge again got it wrong.

In regards to Burge’s assertion that Israeli driver’s licenses include information about people’s ethnicity, this too is false as demonstrated by a website published (in Hebrew) by Israel’s Ministry of Transportation. It shows the layout of an Israeli driver’s license. The license includes fields that report the driver’s first and last names, date of birth, the first day the license is valid, its expiration date, an ID number, home address and the class of vehicle the driver is allowed to operate but nothing about ethnicity.

When CAMERA challenged Burge about his false assertions regarding the driver’s licenses and the ID cards, he responded with the a note from someone he described as an “Israeli-Palestinian citizen living in Jerusalem.” It reads as follows:

The driver’s licenses did not change, the ID cards did recently. The Israelis know you are Arab because they require that you always show your grandfather’s name on the license — and Jews don’t have to sho
w this on their cards. Jews will also show a Jewish birth date according to the Hebrew calendar. So the system is built to disclose your race. The licenses are the main means of disclosure.
That’s the main point: the identification system is built to identify citizens based on race.

CAMERA looked into this claim. Its researchers in Israel spoke with their Arab friends and looked at their driver’s licenses. One colleague reported that her Arab friends’ driver’s licenses reveals that “they are identical to any ‘Jewish’ driving license and there is no entry of their grandfathers’ names or any other names besides their own.” This colleague also reports that “The only way to determine their ethnicity is from their name – as I imagine is also the case for all the Patrick O’Reillys or Juan Fernandezs in the US.”

Another one of CAMERA’s researchers checked the driver’s licenses of five Israeli Jews. None used their Hebrew birthday, but all used the secular calendar. This researcher also spoke with an Arab-Israeli journalist who checked the driver’s licenses of five Arabs. None of the five listed the name of the grandfather.

So here we are. Burge’s friend claimed that driver’s licenses held by Israeli Arabs show their grandfather’s name on their licenses but licenses held by Jews do not. It’s a nefarious and false charge.

This raises a number of questions. Does Burge’s correspondent know what he or she is talking about? Is this source lying? Does this source even exist? These are harsh questions but they are warranted in light of the pattern of factual misstatements that appear in Burge’s text.

Grandfather’s Name on ID Cards

A CAMERA researcher contacted an Arab friend – a journalist – whose ID card included his father’s name and next to that, his grandfather’s name. This is not proof of nefarious purposes on Israel’s part, because apparently that’s typical of how it’s done in Arab countries in the region.

The Arab-Israeli journalist reported to CAMERA’s analyst in Israel that “in the Palestinian Authority and in Arab countries, official documents require ‘fore names’ meaning the applicant’s name, his father’s name, his grandfather’s name and the family name. This is because of large clans in which many people have similar/same names.”

Another analyst in Israel reports the following:

The practice of including the names of parents/grandparents on identification documents (including hospital registration) is intended to limit confusion. There are for example thousands of Moshe Cohens and David Levis in this country – it is easier to ensure that, for example in relation to my personal experience, you are giving medication to the right Moshe Cohen if you know that his father was called Shimon. Likewise, there are thousands of people with the exact same Arab names. For example in the town of Um el Fahm in Wadi ‘Ara there are only three surnames because the whole of the town is made up of three clans. Hence, Mohammed Agbariya from Um el Fahm could be hundreds of different people, so if you have the back up of father’s/grandfather’s name, there is less chance of mistakes being made.

The upshot is this: There is no way the modern-state of Israel could keep track of the identity (or even the names) of its citizens and issue drivers licenses to its citizens without gathering information that reveals the ethnicity of its citizens. But Israel does not, as Burge insists, use driver’s licenses as part of a system to disclose people’s ethnicity.

Retreats into Larger Narrative

As the evidence of Burge’s errors mounted during CAMERA’s correspondence with him and the Pilgrim Press, he responded with message that reads as follows:

We’ve had the same conversation for many years. My challenge to you is to examine the substance of the book and its main thesis: the military occupation of over 3.8 million people is both immoral and unsustainable by both political and theological measures. Read the last chapter of the book. There are four possible solutions to this problem. And most (many Israelis and non-Israelis alike) think that Israel will ultimately default to a form of apartheid if it has not done so already.
In a season that is remembering Nelson Mandela, it is remarkable that you’re discussing Israeli licenses instead of the moral problem hidden in Israel/Palestine. This thesis isn’t challenged by minor items in footnotes that you pick out — some of which are correct, some of which are not. In the academy, Dexter, we examine the chief thesis of an argument, we don’t work around the edges like this. To suggest “there are factual errors” in a minor footnote is akin to saying that a speaker’s thesis is false because he pronounced a word wrong. This is a 300-page book for heaven’s sake. I’ve yet to see Camera really grapple with the larger moral problems in Israel-Palestine. Camera prefers to defend Israel against its critics. Which is exactly what the opponents of Mandela did in the early 1980s. They were inevitably on the wrong side of history.

With this response (which is the last message CAMERA has received from the author despite having contacted him about another problem described below), Burge has begun his retreat into an all-too-predictable realm – that of the “larger narrative.” In his book, he reports his “facts” with a breathless and outraged tone to advance the story he tells. These facts matter for they are what “Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians.” But when confronted with evidence that his facts aren’t true, Burge argues that the mistakes aren’t all that important.

If that is the case, then why did he include these assertions in the first place? If the licenses aren’t important, then why bring them up? If the Law of Return isn’t important, then why bring it up?

What is most troubling about Burge’s response is that ignores one of the most salient characteristics of Israeli (and Jewish) history: Misstatements of fact, which in some instances are called “lies,” have been used to justify violence against Jews in the Levant (and in the rest of the Middle East) before, during and after the creation of their sovereign state. Jews living in the Levant have faced repeated violence from Arabs since at least the 19th century, boycotts since the early 20th, and a smearing set of charges, all mounted to delegitimize the right of the Jewish people to create a sovereign state of their own.

In light of this history, one would think that a scholar such as Burge would be as scrupulous as possible in his criticism of the Jewish state and would be grievously troubled to have made the mistakes he made. Burge’s response is simply not that of a scholar interested in the facts.

Whether Burge intends it or not, his misstatements of fact,
which invariably cut against Israel, give force to an age-old effort to prevent Jews from exercising sovereignty in their land. Burge explicitly affirms Israel’s right to exist elsewhere in the book and at one point, even goes so far as to describe it as a “good country.” But the story he tells and the “facts” he bases it on offer an entirely different message.

Some Omissions
In addition to getting important facts wrong, Burge omits crucial history (some of which, but not all of which, has taken place since his book was first published in 2003) that undermines his portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict as almost entirely the fault of the Jewish state and something that Israel can unilaterally bring to an end.

Burge drastically downplays anything that highlights Palestinian responsibility for the conflict. Hamas, or example, is described as a “violent resistance group” and “the critical opponent of Israel,” not an organization that seeks Israel’s destruction.

And in advancing his larger narrative, Burge does not address how Israelis should respond to what happened after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 only to see a dramatic increase in Hamas rocket attacks from this territory. This is a big deal because it highlights a tragic reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel has been attacked from nearly every piece of territory from which it has withdrawn over the past few decades. And yet the whole point of Burge’s book is that an Israeli withdrawal from territory claimed by the Palestinians – a two-state solution – will bring about peace. What’s his evidence?

Nor does Burge address how Israelis should interpret Yasir Arafat’s failure to make a counter-offer in response to an offer made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. Burge acknowledges that Barak made overtures to peace even as he asserts they were never put in writing. But he omits that, after the Palestinian Authority refused Barak’s offer, it did not make a counter-offer of its own.

For Burge, the story of failed negotiations stops at Camp David. He makes no mention of the Clinton Parameters, put forward by the former president during the winter of 2000/2001, which the Palestinian Authority turned down – despite the fact that they would have given the Palestinians a state of their own on even better terms than that Barak offered during the summer of 2000.

Arafat rejected the Clinton Paremeters, even after the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, told him, “I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.” (The New Yorker, March 24, 2003). Clearly, Palestinian leaders bear a huge measure of responsibility for the continuation of the conflict, but this is not something Burge can admit because it would undermine his narrative, which places all the blame on the Jewish state.

Burge’s Last Chapter

Burge’s narrative of Israeli fault is the centerpiece of the last chapter of his book, “Where Do We Go from Here?” (This is the chapter that Burge pointed out in his response quoted above – “Read the last chapter of the book.”)

In this chapter, Burge outlines four potential outcomes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the two-state solution, the one-state solution, apartheid and expulsion). Burge prefers the two-state solution, but on pages 296 and 297, he asserts it is doomed because “in polling, Israelis consistently reject this option.” Burge provides no citation for this powerful and damning accusation.

This is interesting because numerous polls demonstrate that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution. For example, in June 2013, a joint public opinion poll conducted by the Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University and The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research headquartered in the West Bank reports that while Israelis and Palestinians continue to display pessimism regarding the peace process, “The majority of Israelis (62%) supports a two-state solution, while 33% oppose it.”

A similar poll, this one conducted in September 2012, reported that 58 percent of Israeli Jews and 61 percent of all Israelis support a two-state solution.

A third poll, conducted in June 2011, indicates that 67 percent of Israelis supported “the principle of two states for two peoples, the state of Israel as a Jewish state and a homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people, each would have the right to self determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”

And a fourth poll, this one conducted in March 2010, indicates that 71 percent of all Israelis support the two-state solution, “namely the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.” And this article, published in Haaretz at the end of 2012 indicates that even right-wing Israelis support a two-state solution.

And a fifth poll conducted in 2009 reports that 73 percent of Israelis believe that the best solution to the conflict is the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, known as the two-state solution.

There are five well-documented and publicized polls that contradict Burge’s flat-out – and undocumented – assertion that “in polling, Israelis consistently reject” the two-state solution. A majority (albeit a declining one) supports it.

Can Burge cite any polls that support his statement that Israelis “consistently reject” the two-state solution? If such polls exist, why did not Burge point to them in a footnote? And if such polls do not exist, then how can Burge justify his assertion, which portrays Israelis as intransigent and unwilling to make peace?
If Burge wanted to say that overall a decreasing number of Israelis support a two-state solution over the past five years, that’s a reasonable assertion that is buttressed by the data (aside from the uptick of support between 2012 and 2013). But then he would also have to contend with why Israeli support for a two-state solution has decreased. This would require an accurate understanding of Israeli society, which the author clearly lacks given the mistakes he has made.


The problems with Burge’s book confirm that Pilgrim Press is moving in the right direction when it invited CAMERA to create a response to his text that will be included in future purchases.

Now it’s time to direct our attention to Willow Creek Church and Wheaton College in Illinois – two institutions where Burge teaches. When will these institutions stand up, take notice and confront Dr. Burge over his persistent failure to get things right?

As a professor at Wheaton College, Burge is charged with modeling, setting, and enforcing academic standards in the classes he teaches. Can students in his classes take him seriously on this score given his pattern of errors and omissions in his writings about the Arab-Israeli conflict? And can the congregants at Willow Creek trust his teachings given his tendency to broadcast propaganda and misinformation about the Arab-Israeli conflict?

What will the leaders of these institutions do?

Note: This is not an exhaustive study. These are only some of the problems with the “revised and updated” edition of Burge’s book. CAMERA will educate the public about these and other errors and material omissions in this text as time allows in the weeks and months ahead.

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