Christian Opposition to Israel Requires a Christian Response
“Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and condescending friends?”
That tortured query was issued by Hannah Arendt in 1941, after Jules Romains — a prominent French writer and longtime PEN president — complained that Jews were not sufficiently grateful for his efforts to save them from the Nazi menace. After fighting for the passage of a resolution condemning antisemitism at a meeting of PEN (over the objections of H.G. Wells) and helping Jewish intellectuals escape France after the Nazis took over, Romains was angry at the apparent ingratitude from Jews for his work on their behalf. And he said so publicly.
“You complain in fact very loudly and articulately about the ingratitude of Jews for whom you have done so much,” Arendt wrote in response to Romains’ complaints.
But at the risk of alienating a protector of Jewish lives, Arendt declared that the last thing Romains should worry about was whether Jews were grateful for his good works. By protecting the lives of Jews and helping them escape their fate under Nazi rule, Romains was defending the “freedom and honor” of the people of France who were also under the boot of the Nazi regime, she said. Arendt went on to ask if Romains understood that the “arrogant demand for gratitude from a protector cuts deeper than the open hostility of antisemites?”
The underlying message that Arendt had for Romains was that by standing in solidarity with Jews during their time of trial, he was protecting the better parts of himself and the country he called home. In other words, Romains’ work on behalf of Jews in France wasn’t just about Jews, but France as well.
If Arendt were alive and watching the efforts to staunch the flow of anti-Zionism that has taken root in mainline Protestant churches in the US today, she might utter a tortured query similar to the one she offered in 1941. It would go something like, “Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and ineffective friends?”
It’s not that Israel and the Jewish community do not have any friends in the American Protestant mainline. They do. The problem is that these friends keep losing the fights at the national gatherings of mainline churches. They fight well enough to remind Jewish friends and observers that they are still on the job, but not well enough to stymie or defeat the anti-Israel propagandists who have hijacked the prophetic voices of the mainline churches.
Given their dependent status, Jewish leaders in the United States are not in any position to complain about the ineffective response offered by their friends and allies in the Christian world, but they can no longer kid themselves about what has happened in the American mainline. And neither can Christians themselves.
Despite the strenuous efforts of both Christians and Jews, mainline churches have become persistent sources of anti-Jewish invective in American society, and therefore cannot speak credibly in opposition to the rising tide of antisemitic violence that has manifested itself the Middle East, Europe, and most recently the US.
This is a bad thing.
Mainline churches are clearly not the force they once were, but even in the face of their decline, they should have been well-positioned to offer the American left a well-placed warning about the dangers of antisemitism to the body politic. But given what has happened in these churches, the leaders there cannot offer this badly needed corrective. Their churches are part of the problem, and have been for a long time.
The Presbyterian Church USA is the best, but not the only, example of this phenomenon. Pro-Israel activists in the denomination operating under the banner of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) have been unable to block the passage of anti-Israel overtures put forth by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), which over the years has produced anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda worthy of Der Stürmer.
PFMEP has also been unable to achieve the passage of overtures that would highlight the threats to Israel’s safety in the region. At the denomination’s General Assembly (GA), which took place in St. Louis last summer, activists associated with IPMN were able to flood the agenda with resolutions highlighting Israel’s alleged misdeeds, while PFMEP was only able to get two “balanced” overtures on to the agenda of the GA. Most of the IPMN overtures were approved in committee, and then passed by the GA’s plenary.
At one point during the GA, one overture was amended to state that the assembly did not “condone” the incitement offered by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but even this reference to Hamas was removed prior to the final vote — on the grounds that there was incitement on both sides of the conflict. Talk about adding insult to injury.
One egregious demonstration of incitement came from anti-Israel activists at the GA, who said hateful things about Bassem Eid, a human rights activist who was invited to speak at the gathering by PFMEP. Eid was harassed in the convention center and on the streets of St. Louis, and the denomination’s leadership did nothing, despite vociferous complaints from PFMEP.
Further clues as to how little influence PFMEP has within the PCUSA appear in the organization’s own statements. On the last day of the General Assembly, PFMEP issued a bulletin calling on the body to support the overtures as they came out of the Middle East Committee “despite disagreeing with the position the Committee took on several of the overtures.”
PFMEP even praised the GA’s Middle East Committee declaring, “The Committee worked hard, debated the issues thoroughly, and perfected the overtures to their liking. We see little that will be gained by the plenary attempting to re-open debate.”
PFMEP admitted — in not so many words — that they lost the fight in committee, and had no hope of winning on the floor of the entire assembly. Instead, they concluded the best thing to do was to remain silent. That’s the equivalent of waving the white flag or walking off the football field before the last whistle has blown because your team has no hopes of winning.
The day after the General Assembly ended, PFMEP issued another statement declaring that the General Assembly had “changed the tone and substance of conversations that had been going on for more than a decade” within the PCUSA, and then referred to issues that had nothing at all to do with the Middle East — fossil fuels and the organization of the church’s bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, the change in tone had nothing to do with how the denomination deals with Israel, a fact underscored by the PFMEP’s own post-GA email, which stated: “The death threat issued against our dear friend Bassem Eid because of his testimony before the Middle East Issues committee is something we take very personally and very seriously. We can’t let the weak response of GA officials to that scary situation stand.”
To be fair, there have been some victories over the years. For example, in 2014, the PCUSA was forced to stop selling an IPMN-produced document titled “Zionism Unsettled” on its website. The denomination made this decision after the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) declared that it was cutting its ties to the church’s leadership in Louisville. “We are severing all dialogue with PCUSA, because of a pattern of malicious behavior on the part of church administration,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the SWC Center in Los Angeles.
There’s more at stake than mainline-Jewish relations. Mainline anti-Israel activists have done more than help establish an attitudinal barrier between liberal Jews and the progressive left in the US.
They have also hindered the ability of their churches to credibly attest to the Christian faith.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.