The Growing Church Calls for Divestment from Israel
Few stories in recent years have mobilized the U.S. Jewish community more than the announcement by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), a prominent Protestant “mainline” denomination, that it would begin the process of divesting its monies from companies doing business with Israel. More recently, the World Council of Churches, representing 340 denominations and churches in over 100 countries, issued a similar call. This move was almost universally denounced by Jews — ‚ both liberal and conservative, both religious and secular.
Not too long ago, the groups usually referred to as “mainline” Protestant denominations (including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Methodists and others), represented the Protestant establishment in this country. But they have been declining in membership and influence for decades. Indeed, the further they strayed from traditional biblical principles and the more active they have become in advocating for left wing political causes — ‚ including anti-Israel agitation — ‚ the more members they have lost. PCUSA membership stands at about 2.4 million, the lowest in the denomination’s history.
In the aftermath of World War II, most mainline church leaders supported the formation of a Jewish state. But by the 1970s, Israel had become their whipping boy, with criticism of the state injected into virtually every aspect of their politics and policies. Meanwhile, their sympathy and support for Yasser Arafat and the PLO grew stronger by the year. Despite this, Jews persisted in believing that the Protestant mainline churches were sympathetic to Jewish causes. After all, the two communities had marched together to advance the cause of civil rights, to oppose the war in Vietnam and, on more than one occasion, to raise the height of the wall separating church and state. Clearly, they were allied on many critical issues. But as the mainline leadership’s anti-Israel sentiments and policies became more pronounced, this alliance was strained beyond its ability to endure. The Presbyterians’ call for divestment was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” a bitter blow to many Jews who trusted the liberal agenda and sensibility.In frustration, some Jews did something they once had considered unthinkable — ‚ they turned to their political right to build alliances. Fearful they would find anti-Semitism and anti- Israel sentiment among the powerful “Christian right,” they instead discovered a burgeoning movement of conservative Christians — ‚ evangelicals — ‚ who were deeply supportive of Israel. This unexpected discovery forced the Jewish community to re-evaluate its true friendships and alliances.
Why should Jews care about criticism of Israel leveled by a mainline denomination that represents a relatively small number of Christians? First, because Jews believed these people shared their values and would stand with them through thick and thin. After all, Jews represent less than 2 percent of the population, and need all the friends they can get. They were, accordingly, most grateful for the friendship of this well-regarded mainline constituency. Second, because the U.S. Jewish community fears — ‚ rightly, I believe — ‚ a snowball effect as other denominations jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. We already are seeing this in the Episcopal Church’s decision to consider divestment from Israel and in reports that the United Church of Christ and other denominations are doing likewise. And third, for the PCUSA to insinuate that Israel in any way resembles a racist, pariah state like apartheid-era South Africa is inexcusable, and deeply offensive to Jews.
The Presbyterians’ action — indeed, the very idea of an economic boycott of Israel — ‚ stands in sharp contrast to growing evangelical Christian support for Israel. As liberal Christian leaders have abandoned Israel, that void is more than filled by evangelicals and their institutions, which are incontrovertibly defending the existence and well being of the Jewish state. And while some segments of the Jewish community continue to try to alter mainline church policies toward Israel through dialogue, others, like The Fellowship, are committed to working with the millions of evangelical Christians who have proven such stalwart friends of Israel and the Jewish people.
1. What reasons do mainline denominations give for their harsh criticisms of Israel?
Mainline leaders claim that Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land is the primary source of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the words of a statement released in 2000 by an “ecumenical delegation” of mainline leaders to the Middle East, “” ¦ the fundamental requirement for a durable peace is the prompt end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas.” A resolution passed by the Presbyterian Church USA in 2004 was even stronger, stating, “The occupation ” ¦ has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.” In this way, mainline churches place on Israel sole responsibility for making peace. They even suggest that Israel’s defensive actions are the cause of Islamist terrorist attacks. The fact that both Arab terrorism and refusal to accept the very existence of a Jewish state predate the so-called “occupation” refutes their ludicrous contention. How easily they ignore the reality that the murderous PLO was formed in 1964, well before the Six Day War in which Israel reclaimed portions of Judea, Samaria and Gaza — ‚ and reunified the holy city of Jerusalem. What, in 1964, do they believe the terrorists were trying to liberate, other than every inch of Israel that was home to Jewish people? Moreover, subsequent generations of Palestinian terrorists continue to dedicate, and even sacrifice, themselves to the eradication of Israel, using the murder of innocents as their most effective tool. But all this is irrelevant to mainline leaders who see Israel as the problem, not the victim.It must be said that mainline leaders, in a tepid attempt at balance, occasionally insert pro forma “condemnations” of terrorism in their tirades against Israel. But these pale in comparison to their harsh, detailed criticisms of Israel’s policies — such as her construction of the security fence which was a last-ditch effort to keep Palestinian killers out of Israeli cities.Politics also drive the mainline tendency to demonize Israel. Since the 1960s, leftist politics increasingly have led mainline leaders to distort Jesus’ admonition to champion the cause of the oppressed into a call to champion terrorists as “Third World” victims of Israeli and U.S. imperialism. Seen through this twisted lens, Israel — ‚ a successful, representative democracy — becomes the villain, while terrorists and oppressive governments are raised up as victims.This bizarre juxtaposition of terrorist and victim has been noted even by groups within the mainline churches. A study released in 2004 by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a mainline group, found that criticisms from mainline churches of alleged human rights abuses worldwide were disproportionately directed against Israel. Indeed, of 197 criticisms offered by mainline churches from 2000-2003, a whopping 37 percent were directed not against China or Syria or Saudi Arabia or Cuba, but against the one democracy in the Middle East — ‚ Israel.In the wake of the conflict between Presbyterian and Jewish groups, an organization called Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations (website: http://www.pcjcr.org/) emerged calling for the PCUSA to reverse its decision to divest. Another group has circulated an online petition among disaffected members of the PCUSA seeking a special meeting of the denomination’s General Assembly to reconsider the call for divestment. And for several years a group called the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel (website: http://epjafi.tripod.com/) has been vocal in criticizing the anti-Israel activism of that troubled denomination.Whether the dissident voices now emerging within mainline Christian denominations gain a significant audience — ‚ or have any effect on the actions of church leadership — ‚ remains to be seen.
2. How do mainline Protestant and evangelical views of Israel differ?
Evangelicals support Israel for a variety of reasons — ‚ historical, humanitarian, political and, first and foremost, biblical. The most commonly cited reason for supporting Israel is that they are acting in obedience to God’s promise to Abraham in the 12th chapter of the book of Genesis: “I will bless those that bless you.” By “blessing” the seed of Abraham through their support of Israel and the Jewish people, evangelicals believe they are following a key tenet of their Christian faith.
Most mainline church leaders, in stark contrast, do not view the Middle East conflict through the prism of the Bible as much as they do through their liberal/leftist political philosophies. As a result, they remain harshly and unthinkingly critical of Israel. It is important to note that the average man or woman in the pew of a mainline church may not agree with — ‚ or even be aware of — ‚ the actions of church leadership on this matter. In fact, results of a PCUSA survey released in February 2005 confirmed that 61 percent of Presbyterian church members do not even know about the divestment decision compared to 65 percent of Presbyterian clergy, who said they were “very aware” of it.
Nevertheless, mainline Christian leaders, in contrast to their evangelical counterparts, for decades have attacked Israel and viewed the Jewish State as the primary source of conflict in the Middle East — ‚ indeed, in the world as a whole. In a particularly egregious example of this twisted thinking, a Presbyterian delegation recently met with the terrorist group Hezbollah and then audaciously blamed Israel again for the conflict.In addition, many mainline churches have longstanding ties to Arab churches in the Middle East that they wish to protect. They also may have absorbed the anti-Semitic attitude that pervades much of the Arab world. Perhaps it would be good for them to remember the words of one of their own, the late Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown, who in 1988 said, “Let not any of our words, in tone or content, bring aid and comfort to those who deny Israel’s right to exist.”
3. What brought about the current conflict between “mainline” Protestant denominations and Jews?
The mainline Protestant-Jewish conflict reached its apex in 2004 when the PCUSA at its annual denominational meeting voted to begin divestment from Israel. The problem worsened several months later when church officials meeting in Lebanon with leaders of the terrorist group Hezbollah — ‚ a group dedicated in no uncertain terms to the elimination of the Jewish State — shockingly stated that “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.” While PCUSA leadership eventually disavowed these comments and dismissed some of those who took part in this ill-conceived trip, it did so only after intense pressure from Jewish groups — ‚ pressure that may have solidified their resentment of Jews and Israel, even as it forced them to back down to save face.In fact, anti-Israel sentiment in the mainline churches has been brewing for years. In 2001, a letter on the Middle East conflict signed by a number of mainline leaders described Palestinian terrorists as acting from “the rage that comes from decades of (Israeli) occupation.” That same year, three bishops from the Episcopal Church issued a statement saying that “the Palestinian people are victims of an injustice that cannot be allowed to continue” — a statement that conveniently ignored the murders of hundreds of Israeli civilians by Palestinians. And in 2002, when Palestinian gunmen, fleeing Israel Defense Forces, occupied and desecrated one of Christianity’s most sacred shrines, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, mainline churches responded with a flurry of criticism for Israel and sympathy for the terrorists.Yossi Klein Halevi, a Jewish writer who for years has encouraged Jews to view Christianity more positively, rightly referred to the flowering of Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last century as one of “the great movements of reconciliation of our time.” It is not only regrettable, but ultimately tragic, that this movement toward mutual understanding has been aborted in many mainline denominations. In contrast, we can be grateful that cooperation and greater understanding between Jews and bible-believing evangelical Christians is taking on new life.
4. Have recent actions of mainline churches, in contrast with the strong support of evangelicals for Israel, caused Jews to rethink their traditional alliances?
Many in the Jewish community, because of their political leanings, have always assumed they would stand with liberal mainline Christians against the more politically and theologically conservative evangelicals.But harsh criticism of Israel from mainline churches for building the security fence, their calls for divestment and a disingenuous tendency to see Israel as the sole cause of Middle East unrest has caused many Jews to question old assumptions and open their minds to new alliances with a group with which they previously were largely unfamiliar and for which they had little tolerance.
Public statements urging Jews to acknowledge and appreciate evangelical support have come from a variety of respected American-Jewish leaders. Many Israeli government leaders have also expressed their appreciation, including Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Natan Sharansky, Ambassador to the U.S. Daniel Ayalon and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself. Moreover, Ambassador Ayalon, in an act of strong support for The Fellowship’s third annual International Day of Prayer and Solidarity with Israel, dispatched more than 20 Israeli consular officials to churches around the United States to personally thank pro-Israel Christians for standing with Israel, and spoke himself from a major pulpit in Colorado.
While we may not yet be looking at a total realignment of Jewish sympathies, if evangelical support for Israel continues, as I strongly believe it will, and mainline Protestant churches persist in their biased approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, more and more Jews will come to know what many of us have known for a long time — ‚ that bible-believing evangelical Christians are among Israel’s best and truest friends.
- Jonathan Tobin, “With Friends Like These.” July 23, 2004.
- Dennis Hale, “Why the Left Abandoned Israel.” March 13, 2003.
- Dennis Prager, “A Jew Defends Evangelical Christians.” Oct. 23, 2002.
- John Leo, “When Churches Head Left.” Oct. 11, 2004.
- Elliott Abrams, “Mainline Protestants: Anti-Israel, Pro-PLO.”
- Report from the Institute on Religion and Democracy: “Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches (2000-2003): A Critical Analysis.” Download online or order at: http://www.irdrenew.org/Home/Home.cfm?ID=958&c=52