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January 30, 2014 10:34 am

Profiting From Contempt

avatar by Dexter Van Zile

Old City of Jerusalem. Photo: Hoy Asmeg.

You would think that at the dawn of the 21st century, respectable religious institutions would refrain from demonizing Israel and the Jews who claim it as their homeland. It would also be reasonable to assume that respectable churches would not tolerate or assist people who engage in that sort of thing. Instead responsible church officials would do all they could to distance themselves and the denominations they lead from people who demonize Israel.

Responsible Christians would be disgusted by such behavior.

This should be especially true about the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination with about one million members, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio.

This church, referred to as the UCC, has officially condemned anti-Semitism and the theology of supersessionism that encouraged it. (Supersessionism is the belief that Christianity – or Islam – has superseded Judaism and that the Jewish people no longer have a role to play in God’s plan for humanity.)

In 1987, the denomination’s General Synod passed a resolution that represented the UCC’s effort to come to grips with the history of Christian anti-Semitism and its role in promoting the persecution of the Jewish people.

The resolution called on UCC officials and teachers to work towards promoting an “understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people as a continuing witness in Covenant to God’s presence in the world.” The statement also called on local churches and other denominational bodies to “engage in dialogue with the Jewish community[,] in order to establish relationships of trust and to participate in a joint witness against all injustice in our local communities and in the world.”

The theological rationale that preceded the “whereas” and “resolved” section of the 1987 resolution stated that “a negative portrayal of the Jewish people and of Judaism has been a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes of societies and the policies of governments. The most devastating lethal metastasis of this process occurred in our own century during the Holocaust.” The rationale concludes:

Faced with this history from which we as Christians cannot, and must not, disassociate ourselves, we ask for God’s forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray for divine grace that will enable us, more firmly than ever before, to turn from this path of rejection and persecution to affirm that Judaism has not been superseded by Christianity; that Christianity is not to be understood as the successor religion to Judaism; God’s covenant with the Jewish people has not been abrogated. God has not rejected the Jewish people. God is faithful in keeping covenant.

This is pretty strong stuff. One would think that such a statement would prevent UCC institutions from defaming the Jewish state and depicting the Jewish people as an empty husk that has been abandoned by God.

Sadly this is not the case. Pilgrim Press, the denomination’s publishing house, has not “turned from the path of rejection and persecution;” it has pursued such a path.

It pursued this path by publishing two separate editions of Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians by Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

This book was first published by Zondervan press in 1993 under a slightly different title (Who Are God’s People in the Middle East? What Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians). Zondervan took a pass on future publications of this text, prompting the author to bring the manuscript to Pilgrim Press, which published the first edition of this book in 2003 and issued a revised and updated edition of this text in November 2013.

The first edition of the book received an award of merit from Christianity Today (the house organ for Evangelicalism in the U.S.) in 2004, despite the fact that the text included a number of factual errors, some of which were detailed in an article on CAMERA’s website in 2007.

The errors were bad enough, but what was particularly troublesome was the anti-Judaic narrative that ran through Burge’s text. At one point, Burge invoked the Gospel of John, (chapter 15 verse 6) in a pretty ugly way to portray Israeli Jews as living without Jesus Christ’s permission in the land of Israel. The verse reads: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” Just invoking this verse in reference to the modern state of Israel is pretty bad, but let’s read how Burge interprets it:

God’s vineyard, the land of Israel, now only has one vine, Jesus. The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless first they are grafted into Jesus. Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refused to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? (2003) page 176)

That a prominent scholar could write such a passage after the Holocaust beggars belief. This qualifies as what Christian theologian James Parkes (and foe of anti-Semitism) called “the literature of attack” against Jews. It’s ugly stuff.

But what is even more astounding is that Pilgrim Press, the publishing house of a denomination that has made such a grand display of condemning supersessionism and anti-Semitism, printed it. Apparently, the folks at Pilgrim Press did not get the memo about the 1987 resolution condemning that sort of thing.

Burge’s contempt for Israel – and Judaism – was also on display at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, which took place in Bethlehem in 2012. At this conference, he regaled an audience of approximately 600 people with stories of how he confronted Orthodox Jews about their claim to the land of Israel by virtue of being descendants of Abraham.

One confrontation took place in the Old City of Jerusalem and another took place at the Kotel or Western Wall. His description of these confrontations, which elicited titters of laughter from the audience, made it clear that he had more than a disagreement with Christian Zionist support for Israel, but Jewish self-understanding and how Jews relate to the land of Israel. Interestingly enough, the organizers of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference no longer display Burge’s talk on their Vimeo account, but it can be seen on YouTube. Watch the video for yourself and you’ll see that Burge is still tied up in the debate between church and synagogue that has caused so much damage over the past 2,000 years.

None of this stopped Pilgrim Press from publishing a “new and revised” second edition of Whose Land? Whose Promise? in November 2013. Some, but not all, of the errors that were in the first edition were corrected. In fact, new errors were introduced. And the anti-Judaic strain that was evident in the first edition is still present in the “new and revised” edition.

The main thrust of the text is that modern Israel is not living up to the demands placed upon the Jewish people in their Scriptures. Burge, who depicts himself as operating in the same tradition as the prophets of ancient Israel. In his book, Burge describes the modern state of Israel as the unproductive vineyard lamented by God in Isaiah 5:1-4. (This passage serves as the front piece to the entire text.) And he uses misinformation – lots of it – to convict the modern state of Israel of this charge.

For example, Burge reports that Palestinian Christians “claim that they are reliving for the first time in history the conditions of the first century church, in which a Christian minority is suffering under the rule of a Jewish majority.”

Here Burge is relaying straight-up anti-Judaism that is undermined by a few facts:

In the West Bank, Palestinian Christians live under the Palestinian Authority, which controls their civil government. Israel is the one country in the Middle East where the indigenous population of Christians has increased in the last several decades. The Statistical Abstract of Israel reports that in 1949, there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel. The vast majority of these people were Arab Christians. At the end of 2011, there were approximately, 125,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. This is a 268 percent increase.

There is also Burge’s dishonest description of the “Free Gaza” flotilla that attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. He describes it as follows: “Ships with 700 international activists. The Israeli Navy intercepts, 16 killed.” Passengers on board the Mavi Mamara (where a total of nine – not 16 – deaths occurred) attacked Israeli soldiers as soon as they landed on the vessel. Israeli soldiers, who were equipped with paintball guns, were beaten with iron bars, had their side arms stolen, and were stabbed with knives. (See Alex Safian, “Latest Video Clips — Gaza Flotilla Incident,” CAMERA, June 20, 2012.)

And prior to the flotilla some of the passengers chanted “Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!” (“Khaibar” is a reference to a seventh century battle that resulted in the extirpation of Jews from the Arabian Peninsula.) (See Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “Gaza flotilla participants created war atmosphere before confronting Israel: Participants chanted Islamic battle cry invoking killing of Jews and called for Martyrdom,” Palestinian Media Watch, May 31, 2010.) The people who engaged in these actions are combatants, not “activists.” No honest description of the Flotilla could omit these facts. Burge’s did.

And like a number of other commentators, Burge falsely reports that the security barrier completely surrounds Bethlehem. He writes that visitors to Israel will see a security barrier “surrounding a city like Bethlehem.”

Burge also reports (without citation) that “in polling, Israelis consistently reject” the option of a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Surveys conducted in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute For the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research all report that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution.

What Burge has done is mine the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures for verses that can be used to portray Israel as a uniquely sinful nation and then he offers a dishonest view historical and current events to fashion a narrative and grammar of contempt for the Jewish state.

It’s irresponsible, it’s dishonest, it is inexcusable.

Exactly why is Pilgrim Press assisting Rev. Dr. Burge in his efforts to demonize Israel?

Didn’t they get the memo?

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