View from America: Real friends, and real enemies

Presbyterian Israel-bashing shows how Jews are clueless about Christian groups.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
Two years ago, American Jewish community relations groups were busy patting themselves on the back for achieving a signal victory in turning back the attempt by anti-Israel radicals to hijack the Presbyterian Church USA. After the Presbyterians became the first Protestant church to embrace divestment from companies doing business in Israel in 2004, Jewish groups worked hard to overturn the decision. When the church voted to back away from this stand in 2006, it was rightly seen as a triumph not just for friends of Israel, but for the tactic of outreach itself as years of tenacious diplomacy paid off. The celebrations seem to have been premature. The release of a document by the church last month titled "Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias in the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace" was supposed to help its members guard against anti-Semitic rhetoric when discussing the Middle East. Instead, it is a compendium of charges aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish State. The church release avoids discussing Arab support for terrorism and, rather than serve as a warning against bias, it serves as a justification for anti-Israel invective since it places the sole blame for the conflict on Israel, rather than on those attempting to destroy it. If anything, it should serve to reinvigorate those who have been pushing for divestment, which is nothing less than a declaration of economic war on Israel and the Jewish people. In itself, this should justify the outrage and the feelings of betrayal that have been voiced by a wide spectrum of centrist and liberal Jewish denominations and organizations that worked to reverse the previous Presbyterian stand on Israel. BUT ALSO buried in the document is a strand of thought that is relevant not only to this battle for the soul of a powerful mainline liberal Protestant church, but to the mindset of American Jews themselves. Amid a laundry list of anti-Israel measures in the Presbyterian statement - including opposition to the security fence that effectively ended the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign - was the assertion that "Christian faithfulness, as well as the policies of our church, demands that we maintain our commitments … to criticize forms of Christian Zionism." That meant that in the same document in which they urged its members to avoid couching their attacks on Israel in ways that could be labeled anti-Semitic, the Presbyterians specifically attack fellow Christians who have lent their support to the idea that the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty over their historic homeland. In particular, they singled out Evangelicals such as Pastor John Hagee, who was flogged out of the camp of Republican presidential candidate John McCain for saying the Holocaust was caused by the Jewish sin of failing to make aliya. To support the contention that Christian Zionists are wrongheaded, the Presbyterian document cited Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, who in a December 2007 speech warned Jews to avoid alliances with the pro-Israel Christian right. Yoffie, whose Reform movement joined the coalition of Jewish groups that condemned the Presbyterian reversal, is not happy about this. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he is "infuriated" about the Presbyterians "embedding" his words in a "doctrine that is so hostile to Israel." WHILE SOME of Yoffie's criticisms of Hagee are not completely off-target - particularly his reaction to Hagee's foolish talk about the Holocaust, for which the pastor has since apologized - the Reform leader is right to be embarrassed. But rather than merely being annoyed by the church's chutzpah, he ought to be rethinking his own bashing of right-wing Christian Zionists. Indeed, the Presbyterians' renewed flirtation with anti-Zionism should serve as a wake-up call for the vast number of American Jews who have clung to their prejudices about Evangelicals, despite the sea change in the Protestant world that has occurred in the last generation. In the past, Jews instinctively looked to mainline liberal Protestant churches, like the Presbyterians, the Methodists, Lutherans and Anglicans, who have all been debating divestment measures against Israel in recent years, as allies. At the same time, Jews generally assumed that Evangelicals, who generally lived outside the coastal urban enclaves where Jewish life has thrived in America, were liable to be anti-Semitic. But in the America of 2008, it is precisely the Evangelicals of the Christian right who are instinctively supportive of Israel, while our traditional allies on the Christian left are flirting with a theology that demonizes Israel and the Jews. Though the gap between the Christian right and most Jews on domestic issues is still vast, when it comes to the life-and-death questions of Israeli survival and opposition to terror, it is the people who look to the Hagees of the world for leadership, rather than to the Presbyterians, who stand with Israel. Unfortunately, that isn't good enough for many Jews who never tire of making unsupported and utterly false accusations that the Evangelicals actually hate Jews and want to destroy us. It is little surprise that this has only encouraged the Presbyterians to use this issue to bolster their own attempt to isolate Israel. The point here is not to claim that the Christian right has become Israel's only American friends, though they are among the most active and effective. The fact is, most of the rank-and-file members of the mainline churches who are dabbling in anti-Zionist rhetoric and considering divestment don't support the campaign against Israel. Indeed, it is doubtful even after all of the controversy of the past few years, that most are even aware of the fact that their spiritual home is being hijacked by radical left-wing elements. As frustrated as many Jews are with the Presbyterian betrayal, the outreach campaign carried out by Jewish community relations councils across the country must continue. Most American Protestants rightly see Israel as sharing common democratic values with the United States and want nothing to do with the sort of anti-Zionism that has won a foothold among mainline church activists. They need to understand that their silence will be taken as complicity with the actions of these radicals. They must understand that their churches cannot pretend to be friends with their Jewish neighbors while supporting an economic war on the Jewish state. And they must be prodded to take action to rescind such measures enacted in their names. But, at the same time, American Jews must cease living in the past when it comes to understanding the contemporary religious and political landscape of America. At a time when Hamas, Hizbullah and their Iranian sponsors are plotting a new Holocaust for Israel and its six million Jews, treating those Protestants who actually love Israel as hateful pariahs is a strategy devoid of truth or sense. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. [email protected]