“The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately.” Sadly, these aren’t the words of some radical fringe group. It was the declaration of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on MLK Day 2022.
For the last two decades, Presbyterians have led the American Protestant campaign against the State of Israel.
Every General Assembly contains a litany of anti-Israel resolutions, and the denomination has gradually inched its way closer and closer to full alignment with the BDS movement. While other mainline denominations have certainly been critical of Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has made anti-Zionism a key position. Already in the 1990s, it was clear that “no church is more committed to the Palestinian issue or has more informed, organized advocacy and educational programs than the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
What accounts for the Presbyterian preoccupation with Israel?
Traditional explanations attribute the campaign to historical circumstances. The Presbyterian Church has deep roots in the Middle East dating back to its missionary work in the 19th century. During that period, the denomination established ties with local Arab communities and built significant institutions in the region, including hospitals, universities, and social service organizations. In addition, mainline Protestant post-Holocaust sympathy for the Jewish people dissipated after the Six Day War, as Israel was no longer seen as the little David facing down the giant Goliath. Consequently, Presbyterian sentiment leans toward the Palestinian cause.
But the reasons motivating Presbyterian activism are more complex than mere history. Doctrinal issues undergird the denomination’s anti-Zionist campaign. Two theological flash points have led to its present position: premillennial dispensationalism and same-sex marriage/ordination.
Presbyterianism came to America when Scots-Irish Protestants fled Northern Ireland due to religious persecution. Viewing the journey across the Atlantic to America through a biblical lens, they were not content with settling along the eastern seaboard. They had crossed the “wilderness,” but had yet to conquer the “promised land.” And so the Scots-Irish blazed the path across the American Frontier.
One of the heroes of the Frontier movement was President Andrew Jackson, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants and a practicing Presbyterian.
In the 18th century, Presbyterianism dominated the American backcountry; Jackson’s relationship with his church, however, was complicated. In one of the great challenges of his tenure, the Presbyterian leadership protested his harsh policies toward the American Indians. From the clergy’s perspective, Christianity’s mission was to bring the gospel to native peoples, which required the maintenance of healthy relations. They were similarly at odds over the issue of abolition, with the Church calling for the ending of slavery.
Nevertheless, the Scots-Irish embraced what would become known as Jacksonianism, characterized by populism, rugged individualism and defense of the Second Amendment, and Christian devotion. Located initially in the American South, its influence would spread across the country. And a century later, the State of Israel would resonate with Jacksonians who saw the struggle of the Israeli people as paralleling their own.
However, a rupturing of Protestants in the late 19th century would change the religious culture of America forever. As Enlightenment thought swept through Europe and America, Christians began to debate biblical literalism and inerrancy, broadly culminating in today’s evangelical-mainline divide. Simplified, evangelicals are fundamentalists who interpret the word of God literally, whereas mainline Protestants are modernists who interpret the Bible more liberally.
The Presbyterians were no strangers to these disputes. And yet while others splintered into separate conservative and liberal denominations, the Presbyterian doctrine taught that the unity of the Church was sacrosanct and different viewpoints must be tolerated.
Ultimately, a theology called “premillennial dispensationalism” became the dominant fundamentalist approach. While liberal Christians believed that America was leading the way into the Kingdom of God on Earth, most fundamentalists believed that only Jesus’ return would usher in the messianic era. After the Civil War, dispensationalism was particularly popular in the South, and prominent Presbyterians including James H. Brookes, Billy Sunday, and Cyrus Scofield became leading promulgators of the doctrine.
In the 1930s, dispensationalism’s compatibility with Presbyterianism was a topic of frequent debate. The dispute centered on whether the New Testament was a continuation and development of the Old Testament, or if it came to disrupt the evolution of the spiritual historical system. Dispensationalists believed that “Israel” of the Old Testament was to be understood as referring literally to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel for all eternity, whereas “Covenantal” theologians contended that Israel had been replaced by the Church, thus negating its continued relevance.
In 1944 the Presbyterian Church ruled once and for all that dispensationalism was incompatible with traditional doctrine, creating a rift with enduring reverberations. Unable to minister in their denomination, newly ordained Presbyterian dispensationalists would go on to serve unaffiliated congregations, thus starting the Independent Bible Church movement. Many of these congregations later formed the foundation of the American Christian Zionist movement. And dispensationalism would become the primary theology driving American Christian Zionism, motivating preachers from Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye to Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and John Hagee.
In the 1960s, the Presbyterian Church adopted a new commitment to social justice, focusing on women’s issues, civil rights, and divestment from “sin stocks,” including tobacco, military supplies, and oppressive regimes such as apartheid South Africa. And given the shift in mainline Protestant sympathies after the Six Day War, Israel was never far from the spotlight. Nevertheless, although anti-Zionist resolutions were proposed at the General Assembly, the denomination largely strove to remain balanced regarding Israel.
In 2004, however, the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a resolution to consider divestment from multinational corporations supporting Israel’s activities in the West Bank. While politicians, the Jewish community, and the media were fixated with discussions about whether the denomination was antisemitic, an additional resolution passed almost unnoticed. Whereas the divestment resolution consisted of a mere 45 words, a contemporaneous resolution attacking Christian Zionism contained 1,830 words.
The lone Christian Zionist leader singled out for opprobrium was Texan dispensationalist pastor John Hagee. He responded that PC (USA)’s actions towards Israel had brought the judgment of God upon the denomination, a reference presumably to its flagging membership that had halved from its 1960s height of over four million. Hagee subsequently formed Christians United for Israel, and following the approval of the divestment resolution in 2014, Hagee issued a curt response: “Happily, this small and shrinking denomination does not speak for America’s Christians or Americans in general.”
But here’s the big question: if Presbyterian anti-Zionist proclivities began in 1944, why has it only made headline news in recent years?
As mentioned earlier, according to Presbyterian theology, differing viewpoints must be tolerated. Consequently, throughout the 20th century, the denomination consisted of a diverse mix of member congregations and pastors, ranging from conservatives to progressives, resulting in lively policy debates.
One such area of debate concerned the question of homosexuality in the Presbyterian Church. In 1978, the Presbyterian Church issued a statement prohibiting the ordination of practicing homosexuals. After decades of debate, however, that statement was overturned in 2011. And then three years later, the General Assembly resolved to approve the presiding of its pastors over same-sex marriages.
These decisions took their toll on the Presbyterian Church, and as a result of the new direction, large numbers of conservative pastors and congregations left the denomination. In the space of a decade, the denomination lost over 600 congregations and hundreds of thousands of parishioners.
The departure of conservatives from the Presbyterian Church had repercussions beyond the issue of same-sex marriage and ordination. Due to the spectrum of views in the denomination – from progressives to moderates to conservatives – doctrinal evolution was previously a gradual process. Nonetheless, once significant numbers of conservative members departed, the progressive wing’s influence increased, and on a variety of issues they began to see their successes multiply. Simply put, there were not sufficient moderates remaining in the denomination to vote against progressive or even radical resolutions.
The Presbyterian Church’s shift on Israel was one of the results of the conservative withdrawal. Many of those who previously defended Israel in the face of its detractors were motivated by their conservative religious and political views. With the departure of that demographic, anti-Zionist radicals faced less opposition to their position.
That’s not to say that their proposals passed unchallenged. Many progressive Presbyterians still defend Israel for reasons other than literalist scriptural readings. These activists are often motivated by a commitment to interfaith dialogue and activity. Their denomination’s one-sided perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they complain, is jeopardizing their domestic bridge-building efforts. Moreover, they emphasize Israel’s progressive policies. Unfortunately, however, they tend to lack sufficient numbers to win the votes on key issues. As a result, every General Assembly inches closer and closer to unanimity with the BDS movement.
When PC (USA) votes against Israel, the other denominations generally follow suit. Consequently, the 21st-century trend in the mainline Protestant Churches has been the adoption of increasingly anti-Zionist positions. Indeed, to a large extent, the Presbyterian BDS campaign is more about the intra-Protestant struggle over American cultural values. From abortion to same-sex marriage to education choices, Israel has joined the list of issues on the spiritual battlefield of evangelicals vs. mainline Protestants, aka the Christian Right vs. the Christian Left.
The good news is that a bastion of pro-Israel Presbyterians remains in the denomination holding down the fort. Many of them knew very little about Israel before they took up the cause, but they felt that something wasn’t quite right when Israel became the primary focus of denominational discussions. These courageous individuals are committed to educating themselves and other Christians about the truth of the conflict. It’s folks like these who may be counted among the righteous gentiles of the world, sincerely seeking a peaceful solution for all. May the Almighty guide them in their sacred work on behalf of the Holy Land. ■
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman holds a PhD in International Relations specializing in American Christian attitudes to Israel. He was the inaugural chair of the National Holocaust Monument of Canada, and the author of The Transformative Daf book series.