(photo credit: BDS)
This past week, the pension board of the United Methodist Church – a Christian Protestant denomination – voted to put five Israeli banks on an investment blacklist, charging that the banks that help finance Israeli construction in the West Bank are thus guilty of committing human rights abuses. Our organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, joined others in quickly and sharply condemning the vote as a counter-productive move that will only fan the flames of Middle East conflict rather than encourage peace.
Some headlines framed the Methodist Church vote as a major, if symbolic, victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to cynically demonize, isolate and economically destroy Israel. The Methodist Church this week echoed the Presbyterian Church (USA), another major mainline Christian denomination, which has similarly divested from Israel in recent years.
Taken together these anti-Israel votes paint a picture of growing Christian support for BDS and against Israel.
But that picture is deeply skewed, and more importantly it’s one the Jewish community is wasting its energies focusing on. In fact, the real picture tells a much different story. This is really about the Christian-Jewish future, versus the Christian-Jewish past.
As we well know, the Christian-Jewish past is filled with centuries of Christian persecution and violence against Jews. That all began to change after the Holocaust, when Christian groups, Catholic and Protestant, realized this history of anti-Semitism planted the seeds for the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry. The Catholic Church’s Vatican II Nostra Aetate declaration went further, explicitly exonerating Jews for the collective blame for Jesus’s crucifixion.
The 1960s and 1970s saw increasing inter-faith cooperation in the US, especially between the more liberal Christian movements and the largely liberal Jewish organized community, alongside the momentous black-Jewish civil rights alliance.
That all began to change when the liberal Protestant groups and those Catholics who followed “liberation theology” embraced the Palestinians as another oppressed people. At the same time, by the early 1980s, another Christian group – Evangelicals – began moving from the fringes by getting more involved in public policy issues like abortion and school prayer, and their churches grew in leaps and bounds. These Evangelicals, generally more conservative, also believed fervently in Israel and embraced the Jewish people.
Recognizing that moment as heralding a historic opportunity to nurture a new relationship between Christians and Jews, I founded the Fellowship in 1983, to build new bridges of Christian- Jewish understanding bound by a love for Israel. Today the Fellowship has millions of devoted members around the world and has raised more than $1.25 billion for Israel and the Jewish people. And our ranks continue to grow. For example, this past year we have renewed the historic relationship between African-Americans and Jews, joining together for Martin Luther King Day commemorations and events and bringing several African-American Evangelical church groups to Israel.
That brings me back to the Methodist vote against Israel. The Methodists, while claiming seven million members in the US, continue to dwindle in number. In fact, the mainline Protestant movements have been hemorrhaging members for years. In 1972, according to the widely used General Social Survey, 30 percent of Americans identified as Protestants. Today, only 15% do – a staggering 50% drop in affiliation.
In other words, the churches aligned against Israel are following the wellworn path of how Christians related to Jews for over 2,000 years, the old guard of Christian-Jewish conflict and negativity. The Evangelical groups who love Israel, in contrast, represent the future, the new, powerful front of Christian-Jewish unity and cooperation. Pope Francis, in stirring remarks this week at Rome’s Great Synagogue, reinforced this new era of Christian-Jewish unity, aligning the Catholic Church and the Jewish people against the forces of hatred.
When it comes to the Jewish people and Israel, the Methodist vote this week signaled a final gasp by an increasingly irrelevant body desperate for a bit of PR.
Yes, we need to stand up and vociferously defend Israel when necessary.
But we also need to change our perspective by understanding these anti-Israel measures signify very little indeed. Let us shift our focus. Rather than fight these anti-Israel voices of the past, we should build new coalitions with our friends and supporters, those who have withstood the BDS movement and remained shoulder- to-shoulder with Israel and the Jewish people through good times and bad. We should devote our energies and resources to reach out to those Christians who love Israel and the Jewish people, who have done, and continue to do, so much to shape the Christian-Jewish future.
The author is founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.