The Presbyterian problem with Israel


The conciliation between Christians and Jews in recent decades has been so remarkable that, although most Jews can’t explain the differences between, say, the Lutheran church and the Methodist church, the general feeling is that all is well, or at least doing better.

This era of good feeling does not extend to Israel, however. Ironically, some of the liberal Christian denominations, the ones that most readily accept Jews as Jews, have the harshest criticisms of Israel. The Presbyterian Church, for instance, has been at the forefront of these criticisms. Indeed, we have begun to cringe whenever we see a headline about the Presbyterian Church’s latest act or statement — invariably combining support for the Palestinians with a deep hostility toward Israel.

Now comes a congregational study guide on Zionism published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network, an arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Zionism Unsettled argues that a “pathology inherent in Zionism” drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and rejects theologies that uphold Zionism.

The text also calls for an “expanded, inclusive” understanding of the Nazi genocide, that would apply its lessons not just with respect to the persecution faced by Jews, but also to the plight of the Palestinians, among others.

The guide was released ahead of the church’s biennial General Assembly, scheduled to take place this June in Detroit. The gathering will once again consider recommendations that the church divest from companies that deal with Israel’s military. Similar resolutions have been narrowly defeated in the past.

The sentiment behind the ongoing drumbeat for divestment seems to be part of a general compulsion to delegitimize Israel. Last summer, for example, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian group, debated and finally endorsed a document arguing that there is no theological right for the State of Israel to exist.

While it is clear that not all Presbyterians are hostile toward Israel, the anti-Zionist rhetoric that spews from some very vocal elements of the movement suggests that Israel’s supporters need to do a better job of explaining the nuances of the Jewish state. And we need to lend our encouragement and support to those voices in the Presbyterian world who are speaking up against this one-sided approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In response to Zionism Unsettled, the Rev. Chris Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, and an ordained Presbyterian minister, wrote in an open letter to his church:

“To suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland — a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations — is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people. The word for that is ‘anti-Semitism,’ and that is, along with racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other ills our Church condemns, a sin.”

These words of conciliation are both accurate and welcome. We wish more of the reverend’s brethren felt the same way, and had the confidence to say so.

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