The cruel cut of the progressive-Christian boycott

“Judge not, lest you be judged,” I hold the door of encounter open, though a bitter wind is blowing past.

A church in Jerusalem 150 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A church in Jerusalem 150
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Here’s a quiz for you readers: Before boycotting West Bank settlement goods in 2011, when was the last time the UK branch of the Quakers, or Society of Friends as they prefer to be titled, decided to implement a boycott? One has to travel back in history for the answer. Not child slavery in the chocolate plantations of the Ivory Coast in the early 2000s, nor the blood diamonds of 1990s Angola. Not the Nestle infant formula scandal of the 1980s. And definitely not the boycott of the banks that helped to finance apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, which the Quakers reportedly refused to endorse, in part because the targeted bank, Barclays, was founded by prominent Quakers and held the Society’s accounts.
For the answer, you have to look past the 1930s when various Jewish groups pleaded for a boycott of Germany as it stripped the Jewish community of its rights and freedoms. You have to go further back than the 1880s when a Capt. Charles Boycott, a land agent in Ballinrobe, Ireland, gifted the word to the English lexicon, when his workers walked out during the Irish Land War. In fact, the last national Quaker “boycott” was promulgated over 200 years ago, in 1791, in a widely produced hand-bill which called for the “Neceffity of refraining from Sugar and Rum in order to abolish the African Slave Trade.”
What about Christian Aid, the relief charity for the Churches in England, with origins dating back to the early 1950s; can you name their last boycott prior to the current lobbying of the UK parliament for a ban on Israeli settlement goods? Neither can they. Before Israel, Christian Aid never boycotted anything, anywhere.
In a world of horror, torture and sheer greed, a world in which China refuses to give back Tibet, Syria smolders, and bits of metal in my mobile phone finance atrocities in Africa, does it not appear odd, gentle reader, that such august bodies as the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Iona Christian Community, the Quakers and Christian Aid have all chosen to boycott one single issue on earth? THE COMPLEX series of events that led the Quakers, and their ilk, to invest over 10 years of financial expenditure and political clout into a single-minded campaign to end “Israeli occupation” begins, in part, in Latin America in the early 1970s. There, a young Peruvian Catholic Priest, Father Gustavo Gutierrez, was struck with a dilemma.
Christian teachings praising the poor and the meek are widely disseminated in Latin American society, yet the actual poor suffered horribly under cruel and unfair regimes. How could injustice be so rife in a Christian state? Gutierrez came to the conclusion that Jesus’s redemptive call must be reinterpreted as the struggle for bread and justice, rather than spiritual blessings alone.
Gutierrez’s liberation theology was transformative, turning protest marches (or boycotts) into an act of Christian faith. It revitalized Latin American Churches and may have helped depose a dictator or two.
The problem, at least for the Jews, occurred when liberation theology become fashionable among the liberal churches of the west. Liberal Christianity had a separate dilemma; according to New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine, the problem revolved around Jesus: “As long as Christians could believe that Jesus was fully divine, there was no need to distinguish him explicitly from Jews, he was already distinct... Once the church met the Enlightenment and the secular academy, however, Jesus no longer looked quite so original.... Why remain Christian if Jesus is one of several wise individuals with good ideas for social improvement?” For the liberal churches, the answer was to make Jesus stand out on the 1st-century scene. And this, according to Dr Levine, meant reading first-century Judaism as a “noxious” mix of warlike theology, obsessive purity compulsions and clannish racism; in short everything that Jesus could stand out against.
Here was the toxic combination: Liberal churches carried an intrinsically negative view of Judaism, while liberation theology demanded that Jesus’s message must be enacted in real-world change. The perfect storm for the Israel boycotts now required only a dovetailing of the liberation theology call to action, and the liberal churches’ caricature of Judaism, morphed onto the State of Israel. Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem, and co-author of the Kairos Palestine manifesto, joined up all the pieces.
IN HIS 2001 Easter Message Rev. Ateek offered a simple, yet effective homily: “In this season of Lent, it seems to many that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him....
The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.”
Ateek’s analogy is anything but subtle. Israel, in keeping with the stereotypical Judaism of the New Testament, is cast as the warmongering, racist oppressor, nailing up Palestinians today, as they had crucially turned against Jesus, the social revolutionary, then.
Once it had been the “The Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus” (First Thessalonians 2), now it was the Israeli government re-enacting the Passion daily on Palestinian children. In the spirit of liberation theology, this Israeli Jewish injustice, which precisely replicates (and perpetuates) the original injustice against Jesus, must end – first and foremost, above all other global agendas.
In 2009, when Rev. Atteek and Sabeel published the Kairos Document calling on Christians to boycott Israel and decry the “sin” of Israeli occupation, the Churches responded quickly. Within a day, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches endorsed the document and called for an ecumenical boycott. Within six months the Methodist Church had voted for a settlement boycott at its annual conference.
You know the rest of this sad drama.
Can the churches imbibe this heady cocktail of new prejudices pickled in old tropes for so long and still be trusted for sober conversation on the Holy Land? I have doubts. Yet, because a great Jewish rabbi once said, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” I hold the door of encounter open, though a bitter wind is blowing past.
The author is the interfaith consultant for the Board of Deputies of British Jews.