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January 26, 2022 11:57 am

Presbyterian Clerk Doubles Down Against Israel, But His Critics Man the Barricades

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avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Members of the Presbyterian Church USA’s Israel Palestine Mission Network pose in front of Israel’s security barrier during one of their trips to the Holy Land. The graffiti on the barrier readers “PC (USA) stands with Palestine.” Photo: Twitter.

One of the sad facts of the debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in liberal Protestant churches in the United States, is that the folks who demonize Israel have the courage of their convictions. They say hateful things about the Jewish state, but they stand their ground once they are called out. They are fearless in their hate.

Their opponents, on the other hand, seem unable to screw their courage to the sticking place when it comes time to stand up to anti-Israel propaganda in churches. They are perennially more interested in being nice and playing by the rules.

It looked like this phenomenon was going to play itself out during the recent controversy surrounding the MLK Day sermon offered by Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)’s stated clerk, on Monday, January 17.

During his speech, Nelson accused Israel of “slavery” in its conflict with the Palestinians. He then called on American Jewish leaders, who were still reeling from the hostage-taking in Texas, to join his mendacious attack on the Jewish state, proclaiming: “I would also hope that the Jewish community in the United States would influence the call to join the US government in ending the immoral enslavement.”

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He got a fair amount of pushback from the Jewish community, and even from some folks within the denomination. Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) issued a statement declaring that Nelson’s statements were “beyond the pale.” Late in the day on January 20, “Pathways for Middle East Peace,” a mainline Protestant organization whose membership overlaps with PFMEP, issued a barnburner of a statement that ended with a simple demand of Nelson: “He should resign immediately.”

Wow. The statement wasn’t signed by anyone in particular, but it seemed to carry the imprimatur of the organization’s board of directors.

But Nelson wasn’t having any of it. He was, to borrow a phrase from Tom Petty, not backing down. On January 22, he issued a statement that made it perfectly clear that his accusation of slavery was a hill he was quite willing to die on. He said it. He meant it. He stood by it.

“While my reference to these injustices as ‘slavery’ may seem extreme to many and, of course, offensive to most Israelis,” Nelson said, “no one who is informed regarding the use of military power and racial bias to control the lives of Palestinian citizens can honestly avoid the truth of this situation.” He then went on to declare on behalf of the PCUSA that the “realities” of the conflict in the Holy Land “make it imperative that we, as Presbyterians, find ways to have the necessary conversation with Jews who will talk with us about the real tragedy of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle.”

Nelson also objected to complaints that he made his statements two days after a terrorist took four hostages at a synagogue in Texas. “The juxtaposition of those two things is strictly coincidental,” he said, as if ferocious, one-sided criticism of Israel doesn’t set Jews up as targets of extremist violence.

The PCUSA’s Israel-Palestine Mission Network came to his defense, declaring with its inimitable smugness that “the words of our Stated Clerk and the legacy of King remind us justice is hard won, and that we must push and challenge even our closest friends.”

At some point, Pathways for Middle East Peace, which had so boldly called for Nelson’s immediate resignation, surreptitiously changed its statement. Instead of standing by its powerful demand that Nelson resign, the organization now calls on Nelson to “apologize immediately and take appropriate steps to root out similar language in PCUSA.” To be fair, this statement did include the names of three signatories, all longtime and principled opponents of anti-Zionism.

Still, it’s hard not to think that Israel’s defenders blinked, and Nelson and his fellow travelers did not.

But this fight isn’t over. Not by a long shot.

In response to Nelson’s doubling down, PFMEP issued another statement on January 25, which was a barnburner of its own. It says in part, that “It has now been over a week since the attack in Colleyville, and unlike our brothers and sisters in other main line denominations, there have been no words from PCUSA to condemn the attack nor words of support for our Jewish neighbors who once again are under assault by anti-Semitism.”

The statement then goes on to assert that Nelson is guilty of a “failure to lead.”

PFMEP continues: “Instead of building on grassroots relationships between Jewish and Presbyterian congregations, the Stated Clerk’s words and actions are undermining these relationships and hinder the good work being done locally. Presbyterians deserve better leadership from our Louisville leadership for the sake of the gospel and our common mission with Jewish congregations. An acknowledgement by the Stated Clerk that the words he wrote were harmful to the Jewish community and interfaith work is needed. Now.”

It looks like the responsible folks in PFMEP have found a hill they are willing to die on.

Good for them.

Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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