“This statement is tough, thorough and balanced – we warmly welcome it,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJC’s
director of Interreligious Affairs. “No other Mainline Protestant denomination has yet taken such a critical look at its own teachings and how Christian teaching can be horribly misused to demonize U.S. .” Israel
“This document is seminal, positive, and has the potential to open a new chapter in Christian-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi Steven Gutow, JCPA Executive Director. These sentiments were echoed by Midge Perlman-Shafton, chair of JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and a JCPA Vice-Chair. “The PCUSA document calling for “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias” is testament to the value of hard work, faithful dialogue, active listening, and honest confrontation of difficult issues,” added Perlman-Shafton.
One crucial admission of wrongdoing (quoted below) did survive the revision in an altered form, but for the most part, the document was denuded of its moral force.
This bait-and-switch episode prompted criticism from Jewish leaders, who expressed sadness at the evisceration of the original document. Interestingly enough, media outlets that did not cover the document when Jewish groups praised it, now found it newsworthy.
For example, the Presbyterian Outlook which, along with the denomination’s news service, ignored the document when it was first issued, published an article on
On June 16, the Religion News Service published a story that appeared on Christianity Today’s website the following day. Apparently, Jay Rock, the denomination’s coordinator for interfaith relations was not all that talkative. The RNS reports:
Jay Rock, the PC(USA)’s coordinator for interfaith relations, said the revised document reflects a balanced effort to respectfully strive for resolution in the troubled region.
“I will say that talking about the issue of anti-Jewish bias in advocacy for Israeli-Palestinian peace is difficult, because it involves two commitments to justice that can easily seem contradictory,” he admitted, declining to comment further on the controversy. (Emphasis added.)
Despite Jay Rock’s suggestion to the contrary, support for the Palestinian people does not require or invite – even on a superficial level – the use or tolerance of anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Jerry Van Marter, director of the PC(USA)’s news service told the New Jersey Jewish News on June 19 “The Jewish groups go nuts every time we make any statement they interpret as favorable to
The article continues:
Van Marter said church leaders amended their first statement “to make it more balanced, and apparently it still doesn’t satisfy our Jewish friends. It is tough for Presbyterians because there is a Christian population in the occupied territories. The Christians are a very small minority, and they are shrinking because they are caught in the crossfires. The Presbyterian Church understands precisely why Jewish groups are upset, because we refuse to be one-sided. We’ve been on record for a two-state solution for 60 years now.”
And the currently available evidence indicates Van Marter’s assertion that the PC(USA)’s has “been on the record for a two-state solution for 60 years now” adds 34 years to the denomination’s history of support for Israel’s existence.
According to “A Brief summary of General Assembly Statements” issued by the PC(USA) and its predecessors regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict published by the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the first explicit reference to Israel’s right to exist was issued in 1974, contrary to the summary’s assertion that the “consistent Presbyterian position has been to affirm the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state within secure, internationally recognized borders.”
If the PC(USA) or its predecessors did in fact explicitly affirm Israel’s right to exist prior to 1974, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy would have been foolish not to say so in the summary, which was issued in February 2005 in an effort to quell controversy over the passage of the 2004 divestment resolution.
The Original Document
To get a full sense of just how thoroughgoing the original document treated the issue of anti-Jewish bias, it is necessary to quote it at length. The original version, which can be found here, reads in part:
We Presbyterians can celebrate the extent to which we have been able to rid our teaching, preaching and actions of [anti-Jewish] prejudice. We take these principles and commitments seriously and we believe that the official policies and statements of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) live up to this standard.However, we are aware and do confess that anti-Jewish attitudes can be found among us. Our conversations with Jews in the last several years have renewed our concern to guard against anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish motifs and stereotypes, particularly as these find expression in speech and writing about
, the Palestinian people, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and steps toward peace. Once again, many Presbyterians have become aware that strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read regarding these matters. IsraelExamples of such an anti-Jewish theology can unfortunately be found in connection with PC( ) General Assembly overtures, such as the overture on Confronting Christian Zionism, adopted by the 216th General Assembly in 2004. Some of the authors cited in the rationale of that overture make use in their writings of arguments suggesting or declaring that the Jewish people are no longer in covenant with God, or make statements that echo the medieval Christian claim that the Jews are to blame for the crucifixion of Christ. The rationale and background sources cited in any overture are not General Assembly policy, but Presbyterians need to read such materials with awareness of these themes of classic anti-Jewish teaching. USAWhen our analysis or critique of the Israeli-Palestinian situation employs language or draws on sources that have anti-Jewish overtones, or clearly makes use of classic Christian anti-Jewish ideas, we cloud complicated issues with the rhetoric of ignorance or subliminal attitudes, or the language of hate, and undermine our advocacy for peace and justice. Critical questions such as ending the occupation of Palestinian territory by or the future of Israel are complex and difficult. It does not help to import stereotypes, anti-Jewish motifs or classic ideas of Christian anti-Jewish theology into our discussions. JerusalemSimilarly, in a few materials that have been circulated by Presbyterians, one finds characterizations of Zionism that distort that movement. They do not accurately present the history of the Zionist movement or acquaint readers with its internal debates and ethical concerns. Instead, Zionism is often presented as a monolithic force or merely as an extension of European colonialism and result of anti-Semitism, and nothing else. In such materials, the problems and suffering of the Palestinians are attributed solely — and inaccurately — to Zionism alone. The origins, development and practices of Zionism and its relationship to the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation are much more complex than such a picture presents.Presbyterians who read writers speaking about Israel, Palestine, Israeli-Palestinian peace and related issues (such as Christian Zionism in its various manifestations) must always read with an especially critical eye, alert to any and all anti-Jewish ideas and bias. Despite problematic passages and ideas, much of what these writers say can be helpful in describing aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to read our sources thoroughly and not to accept anything in them that is anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. (Emphasis added.)
The Revised (Sub)standard Version
The original statement, which appeared to represent a change-of-heart on the part of the denomination’s leaders in Louisville, was posted on the denomination’s servers for several weeks but on June 11, 2008 – 10 days before the denomination’s General Assembly was slated to begin in San Jose – a new version of the document was posted in which admissions of guilt quoted above were mostly deleted. To be fair, the following passage was included in the new version.
Once again, through these conversations [with Jews], many Presbyterians have become aware that strains of the old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak, and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read regarding these matters.
The document then offers a list of anti-Jewish teachings that Christian peacemakers should avoid – but omits a detailed explanation as to why it was necessary for the PC(USA) to issue such a list in the first place. This list, which includes “polemic that identifies today’s oppressors with Jewish authorities in the time of Jesus”, implications that “the state of Israel and its policies are [a] crucifying power,” and portrayals of Zionism as the sole source of the problems and suffering of the Palestinians, is a inventory of the type of rhetoric the PC(USA) and its partner for peace, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center have used in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The document also lists a number of the PC(USA)’s “peacemaking” commitments including a call for an end to the occupation, a condemnation of Christian Zionism, and criticism of the “placement” of the security barrier. After this list, the following paragraph appears:
It is important to note that, in and of itself, it is not anti-Jewish, or anti-Semitic, to critique or criticize what
does, or to make the kind of stand for justice and peace that the Presbyterian Church is making. The Gospel demands no less of us. Jews in Israel and in America also critique many Israeli policies, work for the human rights of all people, and strongly advocate for peace as we do. Lively and prophetic critique and advocacy is not a problem, but a responsibility that Christians and Jews, and others, share. Israel
It is axiomatic that not every criticism of Israel, is by itself, anti-Semitic, but much of the public speech put forth by prominent commentators within the PC(USA) – whose work has been recommended by the denomination – has in fact been palpably and demonstrably discriminatory toward Israel, and in some instances, toward the Jewish people.
John Wimberly, Jr., pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church in
Do I think the Presbyterian Church (USA) is anti-Semitic? Definitely not. Do I think that our uncritically pro-Palestinian activists can sometimes say and do things that cause the world to think we are anti-Semitic? Absolutely.
Addressing this concern, the original version of the document offered a direct reference to the “Confronting Christian Zionism” overture that was passed by the PC(USA)’s 2004 General Assembly which lifted up the work of Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner and others.
Rev. Dr. Burge, himself and ordained minister in the PC(USA), uses passages from the New Testament to demonstrate that God’s promise to Abraham has been passed onto Christians – specifically Palestinian Christians living in the
Rev. Dr. Burge affirms
For example on page of 176, Rev. Dr. Gary Burge interprets John 15:6 (a passage in which Jesus states “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned”) as meaning:
The people of
On page 188, Rev. Dr. Burge interprets Romans 9-11 (in which Paul contemplates the fate of the Jewish people after Christ) as follows: “
And on page 189, Rev. Dr. Burge compares Jewish statehood against the writings of the New Testament to find that “The Israeli attempt to take land and forge a nation is religiously misdirected. God’s people are called to infiltrate the empires of the world, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all, regardless of history, race, or religious persuasion.” In short, to earn Rev. Dr. Gary Burge’s unqualified sanction to live in the
In Whose Land? Whose Promise?, Rev. Dr. Burge demonstrates a persistent tendency to judge Israeli Jews according to Christian expectations (while failing to use the same principles to judge the behavior of their adversaries). While Rev. Dr. Burge does mercifully grant that God does still love the Jewish people and that Israelis are entitled to a sovereign state of their own, these acknowledgements are undercut by depictions of the Jewish people as rebellious and disobedient — notions rooted in the Jewish refusal to accept Christ.
Burge states that he is making these arguments only to highlight problems with Christian Zionism, which asserts the modern state of
Rev. Dr. Burge’s real problem, however, is that the Jews themselves would believe that they have a claim to the land. Ultimately, Rev. Dr. Burge’s arguments are set in motion not by the support of Christian Zionists for modern
Rev. Don Wagner
The work of Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner, an ordained Presbyterian Minister also reverberates with some pretty ugly polemic. For example, his book Dying in the Land of Promise (Melisende, 2003) a book recommended by the PC(USA), includes a passage which compares Jewish settlement in Israel to a killer-vine he discovers strangling rose bushes in his back yard. Because Rev. Dr. Wagner has complained of his writing being “spun” or taken out of context, CAMERA is quoting at length from the relevant passage.
My heart sank when I saw how the vines had strangled the roses and killed one of my prize rose bushes. I carefully disentangled the lone survivor, losing several delicate branches and buds in the process. Then I noticed that my task of liberation had not been completed. The killer-vine had literally surrounded the base of each rose bush and had extensively reproduced itself through a massive network of nodules that were attached to the base of the plant. Undoubtedly, the network of nodules had probably been there for some time and my prior weeding had failed to address the source of the problem. I was amazed at how thoroughly the vine had surrounded the base of the rose bushes with over a dozen nodules, each of which was the source of long vines that stretched through the roses and had extended to other flowers in the garden. I felt as if it was too late to salvage not only my prize rose bush, but the entire flower garden.
After recovering from my discouragement I sat down in the bright sunlight to reflect on the newly weeded but significantly reduced garden. I began to realized that I had just experienced something analogous to the past one hundred-year process of Zionist occupation in
. The weeds and vines had moved in to take over the land and disrupt both the flowers and vegetables that had been the previous dwellers. Indeed, there were indigenous Palestinian Jews, Muslims, and Christians prior to the accelerated Zionist colonization beginning with the British Mandate of 1922, but the new Zionists took over significant portions of the land once shared by the indigenous inhabitants. Returning to the garden analogy, one can ask: do the stronger vines and weeds have the right to conquer that land and possess it, asserting nebulous ‘divine claims’ to the land or a questionable historical argument (‘we were there first’)? I would reply that the lands were intended by God to be shared but because certain parties were unable to reach this level of mature community, they would need to be separated for an interim period. During the interim, outside (international) intervention and monitoring would be necessary to prevent the more aggressive party from destroying the weaker party. PalestineUnfortunately, by the time I figured out the strategic pattern of the vines, the job was beyond my ability to reclaim the garden for the original inhabitants because some of the vines had literally surrounded and strangled them. The vines were like ‘facts on the ground’, and their networks went everywhere dominating the garden. I was able to remove many of the vines but it was a temporary procedure because they easily reproduced themselves at the roots and base of the plants, retaking the land within a few weeks. It was not until I discovered the massive reproduction system of nodules throughout the soil and at the base of the plants that I was able to salvage some of the soil and specific flowers. I had to make strategic choices. I could hire other people to come in and spend hours going through the soil and help me take out the network of vines and nodules, or I could focus on a few strategic areas. My resources were limited so I had to choose the latter approach.The Israeli occupation and settlement strategies that have taken over most of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Strip and Gaza Golan Heightsare like invading vines and weeds. (Dying in the Land of Promise, pp. 246-247)
When challenged about the propriety of comparing Israelis to weeds and vines, Rev. Dr. Wagner has responded by stating that he was talking about the settlements in the
Rev. Dr. Wagner’s tendency to demonize Zionism is evident elsewhere in Dying in the Land of Promise. For example, he acknowledges that European anti-Semitism was a factor in the birth of Zionism in the 19th century, but downplays Arab hostility and violence toward Jews in the years before
Sixty-two Jews were murdered by Arabs in the first week after the UN partition plan was passed, and by May 15, 1948, a total of 1,256 Jews had been killed, most of them civilians. These deaths were caused by Arab militias, gangs, terrorists and army units which attacked every place of Jewish inhabitation in
The attacks succeeded in placing
under siege and eventually cutting off its water supply. All Jewish villages in the Jerusalem Negevwere attacked, and Jews had to go about the country in convoys. In every major city where Jews and Arabs lived in mixed neighborhoods the Jewish areas came under attack. This was true in ‘s Hadar Hacarmel as well as Haifa ‘s Jerusalem . Old CityMassacres were not uncommon. …
His portrayal of the Palestinian refugee problem is equally one-sided. In an obvious attempt to exculpate Arab leaders and demonize Israeli leaders for the refugee problem, Rev. Dr. Wagner makes great play of Irskine Childer’s inability to find recordings of radio broadcasts of Arab leaders calling for Arabs living in
… we were told that the Palestinians essentially left their homes of their own volition or at the request of their own leaders. In other words, they have only themselves to blame today for the abandonment of their homes and villages, plus the fact that they have to spend fifty years in refugee camps far from their native lands. (Dying in the Land of Promise, page 146)
The historical record indicates that Arab leaders do in fact, bear a major share of the responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Before the war, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said declared: “We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.” (Myron Kaufman, The Coming Destruction of Israel, NY: The American Library Inc., 1970, pp. 26-27).
On April 9, 1953, the Jordanian daily al-Urdun, quoted refugee Yunes Ahmed Assad as saying: “For the flight and fall of the other villages, it is our leaders who are responsible, because of the dissemination of rumors exaggerating Jewish crimes and describing them as atrocities in order to inflame the Arabs… they instilled fear and terror into the hearts of the Arabs of Palestine until they fled, leaving their homes and property to the enemy.”
In his memoirs published in
1973, the former Prime Minister of Syria, Khaled al-Azem, listed what he thought were the reasons for the Arab failure in 1948: “The fifth factor was the call by the Arab governments to the inhabitants of
This is not to say that all Palestinian refugees left their home because Arab leaders told them to. Clearly, some were forced out by Israelis, but Professor Efraim Karsh estimates only 5-10 percent were expelled by Israelis, and these from areas where
Until now, not a single Palestinian refugee from 1948 nor their families have received a cent of compensation nor have they been allowed to return to their homes and land. (Dying in the Land of Promise, p. 151)
Notably, from the early 1950s until 1967, Israel maintained a family reunification program under which it claims that around 40-50,000 refugees returned to Israel; several additional thousands returned between 1967 and 1994. And since the beginning of the Oslo process, Israel has collaborated in the de facto “return” to the Palestinian authority thousands of 1948 refugees: PLO political figures and security forces, and their families.
In an essay published in Commentary in May 2001, Ephraim Karsh provides more detail about
offered to take back 100,000 Palestinian refugees; the Arab states refused. Nevertheless, some 50,000 refugees have returned over the decades under the terms of Israel ’s family reunification program, and another 75,000 who were displaced from the Israel West Bankand in the 1967 war have also returned to those territory. Gaza
Arabs who lost property in
are eligible to file for compensation from Israel ‘s Custodian of Absentee Property. As of the end of 1993, a total of 14,692 claims had been filed, claims had been settled with respect to more than 200,000 dunums of land, more than 10,000,000 Israel (New Israeli Sheckels) had been paid in compensation, and more than 54,000 dunums of replacement land had been given in compensation. Israel has followed this generous policy despite the fact that not a single penny of compensation has ever been paid to any of the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who were forced by the Arab governments to abandon their homes, businesses and savings. NIS
Church and Society
Other materials related to the PC(USA)’s witness on the Arab-Israeli conflict exhibit signs of anti-Jewish bias and anti-Israel animus. For example, an article published in the May/June 2004 issue of Church and Society, a now-defunct publication operated by the PC(USA), offers an ugly dichotomy between Christianity as a new religion of peace and Judaism as an old and archaic religion of sacred violence.
The article (a version of which is available here) by Robert Hamerton-Kelly, a theologian and retired pastor from the United Church of Christ, begins as follows:
On deep cable a few weeks ago, there was a semi-propaganda movie of the kind we see more and more as the religious violence of the State of Israel becomes more and more egregious. It is about a Polish village, whose inhabitants were all Jews, and their dreadful fate during the 1940s. One scene sticks in my mind: an avuncular rabbi, a cross between Santa Claus and “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of the exodus to ten or so angelic children aged about six through nine. No scene would be warmer and more engaging, more full of love and beauty, and then the narrative begins. This genial old mans asks the question, “Why do we celebrate Passover?” He then answers his own question: “Because God killed the firstborn children of the Egyptians and told us to mark the doorposts of our houses with the blood of the lamb so that the angel of death might pass us over.” I was appalled and thought immediately of two things: 1) That this gave the children permission to kill those who were not like them, and 2) That the Apostle Paul had been such a child and then such a rabbi.
With this reference to Paul – a Jew who persecuted Christians before becoming one himself – as a rabbi who knew his Torah, Hamerton-Kelly begins his portrayal of Judaism as embodying the tendency to encourage or legitimize violence and Christianity as having transcended this impulse. Hamerton-Kelly writes:
If … one does not allow oneself to be distracted, one will observe that Paul’s life is all about violence and religion and that the most important event in all of human history is that fortunate incident on the
We cannot penetrate the divine content of this event, but we can map its sociological form and its psychological dynamic. Briefly stated, Paul realized that his religious zeal had made him a violent man and therefore he changed communities, passing from the community of the persecutors to the community of the persecuted, from the religious to the irreligious.
Hamerton-Kelly then proceeds to make a comparison between Paul, who through divine intervention realized the evil of his ways on the road to
nothing happened on [Goldstein’s] way to the mosque that morning to reveal to him the violence of his religion and dissuade him from his plan. He made it to
as it were, without incident. Perhaps he already knew the violence of his religion and affirmed it in the name of Yahweh, God of Battles, Damascus ’s divine champion and licenser of mayhem. Israel
An essential part of this advent of the new is the disclosure of the old as a structure of sacred violence, build on murder and shrouded in lies.
Hamerton-Kelly’s dichotomy between “old” and “violent” Judaism and “new” and “peaceful” Christianity is contradicted by history. Violence against Jews in
This dichotomy is also contradicted by Jewish texts. The gospel of peace, warns Robert J. Daly, S.J., is not a Christian invention, but was “inherited from and grew out of Jewish soil.” In an essay published in Contagion in 2002, Daly wrote:
There was, indeed, an impressive heightening and deepening of peace themes in the Christian Scriptures and in Early Christianity. But this development was not at all unlike similar developments also going forward within postbiblical and early rabbinic Judaism. To present one of these traditions as a tradition of peace and the other as something other than that is, objectively, a mendacious misrepresentation.
Sadly, mendacious misrepresentation is a pretty good description of much of what the PC(USA)’s peace activists and denominational professionals have had to say about the Arab-Israeli conflict,