Mainline Protestants and Israel

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, July 29, 2010

So enamored are today's mainline Protestant churches with the Palestinian Arab "narrative" that they seem to have altogether forgotten, or denied, their own prior history of support for Israel and Zionism. Indeed, some of them appear to be trying to derail the Zionist enterprise altogether.

The English Puritans who came to North America in the 17th century linked their fate in the New World to that of biblical Israel. By the early 19th century, the Presbyterian minister John McDonald was urging Christians to help the Jews of Old World Europe to return to Zion.  Later in the 19th century, the Methodist preacher William Eugene Blackstone traveled far and wide to campaign for the same cause. Many Anglicans were similarly disposed. In Britain, Lord Balfour described himself as a "Zionist."  In March 1948, despite the persistence of anti-Semitism in the United States, fully half of Protestant Americans voiced support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Today, the mainline denominations, which represent a dwindling yet still influential minority of American Christians, regularly take left-wing positions on matters of both theology and politics, and their attitude toward Israel has changed decisively. Theologically, most of today's Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others no longer believe that the Bible is the word of God or should be interpreted as literally true. The theological basis for connecting the people of Israel to the land of Israel has consequently evaporated. Politically, the institutions of mainstream Christianity have embraced much of the Left's antipathy toward Jewish national self-determination and a view of the Arab-Israel conflict in the black-and-white terms of oppressors and victims. The results are visible in such recent initiatives as a document being circulated by Methodists that calls for boycotting goods produced in the West Bank, or the vote of the UK's Anglican Communion in favor of economic divestment from Israel.

It is true that these denominations have objective interests in the Arab world, rooted in concern for the diminishing numbers of Palestinian Christians struggling to survive in an environment of increasingly ascendant Islamic extremism. But it is also true that church activists living or stationed in the Middle East wholeheartedly endorse Arab political sensibilities and lobby aggressively inside their institutions against the Zionist enterprise.  Further skewing the picture, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of mainline church bodies, propagates a version of the Israel-Arab conflict that is insidiously damaging to Israel's survival.

Given this stacked deck, it is easy to appreciate the relief of Jewish organizations when, at a recent meeting of the policymaking body of the Presbyterian Church, a plank defaming Israel as an "apartheid" state failed to pass.  But, while condescending to endorse Israel's right to exist, the Presbyterians simultaneously approved "for study" the disingenuous Kairos document—"the Christian Palestinians' word to the world about what is happening in Palestine." This document labels the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank as "aggression," "evil," and a "sin" that must be "resisted and removed." Violence is ostensibly abjured, but "peaceful resistance" and "boycotts" are legitimized. The Presbyterians have also obliquely called for withholding military aid from Israel in order to pressure it back to the armistice lines that ended the 1948-49 war.  

This "Presbyterian answer" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has left church leaders boasting that they may have "stumbled upon a way of building peace." In fact, what they have done is to place the Jewish state unjustly in the dock and to single it out for undeserved opprobrium—an act that might more properly be considered an occasion not for self-gratulation but for soul-searching. In light of it, the wholehearted support for the Zionist enterprise coming from the vibrant evangelical wing of American Protestantism is all the more heartwarming and, politically, indispensable.


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