Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Mainline Protestants and Israel

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.

Relevant Links
The Religious Left and Israel  Mark Tooley, American Spectator. Progressive Protestants once were fierce champions of Israel, but their sympathies have shifted.
“At Our Best”  Toya Richards, Presbyterian Church (USA). The Church’s general assembly embraces “diverse” views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—by, for instance, commending the Kairos document while disavowing the word “apartheid.”
Against Kairos  Mark Tooley, Central Conference of American Rabbis. A Reform resolution condemns the Palestinian Christian manifesto for its supersessionist language and tacit approval of suicide bombing.
The Presbyterian Church and Israel  Dexter Van Zile, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Obsessive attacks on the Jewish state raise serious questions about the church’s ability to deal with any issue affecting the Jewish people.

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.

Tags: , , , , ,


Martin Gray on July 29, 2010 at 9:13 am (Reply)
So called "main stream" Protestants should not be confused in any way with the many Christians - both Protestant and Catholic - who support Israel as Jewish Homeland. Support for Israel among Americans has never been higher despite the attempts of the left in this country to defame and deride the Jewish state. Main stream Protestants clergy, unlike many of their parishioners, have moved left and reflect the attitudes of the left in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. We should recognize it for what it is - "soft core Jew hatred" - and confront those in our churches who preach this line.
Michael Tupek on July 29, 2010 at 10:19 am (Reply)
As a lone voice speaking for the evangelical community of Bible-believing followers of Yeshua HaNatzry (Jesus of Nazareth), I strongly wish to disassociate us from the mainstream "Christian" community. We evangelical Christians take the Bible seriously as God's revelation and live hourly by it in the fear and love for the living God. We know that our heritage is derived from Biblical Israel; we know that our salvation from sin, our savior, and our scriptures, all derive from the God of the Hebrews. These others (except perhaps some particular individuals here and there) are dead religionists who use Christian terminology but do not have the inner change of heart that comes from the Spirit of God; who do not have a real personal relationship with the living God and who tremble at the word of God. As a consequence, they do not take seriously the role and place of Israel in this world.
Helen Kariv on July 29, 2010 at 10:46 am (Reply)
It's unfortunate that no one seems to be aware of the hard work carried out by both Palestinian Christians and Jewish businessmen working together on various local and international projects, to raise fund to maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Christianity which used to be 20% of the population in Israel has dwindled to a less than 2%.
Even the Pope, in one of his speeches, has asked Christians to get more involved in what is happening in the Holy Land and support the projects done by this group of Christians and Jews.
Nevermind, in a couple of decades, the Pope will not find any Christian with whom he can speak -they will all be in Rome, or somewhere else -but not Israel; and that's not the fault of the Jews.

Who will be left to maintain the Christian holy sites?
Jews? Surely not Muslims whose usual attitude is " where's there's a church, let's build a mosque over it." This is a fact that can be checked out in the field, by the way.

I'm a Jew who lives in "the territories" and I, together with many other Jews, work with Christians in Bethlehem to help raise funds to feed Christian children and provide them with housing and study grants, among many other things.

Are any Presbyterians aware of this? What is the "Presbyterian answer" to the Christian Palestinian-Jewish Israeli undertakings?

Maybe somebody should ask them.

A E ANDERSON | Miami, Fla. on July 29, 2010 at 1:10 pm (Reply)
I don't think main line Protestant support or opposition to Zionism rests on biblical inerrancy. It is perfectly possible to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine for cultural, post-biblical reasons without recourse to an actual divine land grant. In fact, by the time of the Establishment of the State, textual criticism and other trends challenging the provenance of the biblical text were already current in Protestant theological circles, and had been so for decades.

I prefer to see the unholy alliance between main line church and the Palestinians as a consequence of the churches' long dalliance with the New Left and its radical political bedfellows during the 1960s and 1970s. For the Left, Israel represented not merely "Establishment" (to radical Jews), but came to be in their coalescing critiques both an extension of the American military-industrial complex and that ultimate North-South/Third World villain: a colonialist settler state.

It is probably wrong entirely to dismiss the diminishing role of the Old Testament narrative in support for Zionism: certainly that played its role among British supporters in the Balfour era, and in the rather simple mind of that American haberdasher-president, Harry S Truman, for whom Chaim Weizmann's visage was that of a biblical prophet. The Hebrews of old were, and to some extent still are, part of the greater national mythologies of those Protestant nations: the United States and Britain, both of which share a common literary heritage in the Bible as a canonical cultural work.

ralph melnick on July 29, 2010 at 4:46 pm (Reply)
I recall how years ago Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, after straining to understand the opposition of Fr. Daniel Berrigan to Israel, finally concluded that for all of its being given a new face by the politics of the moment, his stance was, in large measure, simply a repackaging of old-fashioned anti-Semitism. I think we do all a disservice, accuser and target alike, by not speaking its name out loud. And if not that element at the root of much of its contemporary expression, how then do we explain the hypocritical stance that masquerades as ethical judgment? Is it moral blindness alone that afflicts those who see only one side?
Irv Mermelstein on July 31, 2010 at 3:36 pm (Reply)
I'm sorry, but it is very much easier to find in the Christian scriptures a source book for anti-Judaism than some basis for Christians to support the State of Israel.

Christians, in the realm of Zionism, are to some extent damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they oppose Israel as a matter of "Christian witness," as was asserted in the draft MESC report for the Presbyterian General Assembly this year, they are hypocrites because they fail to own up to the role of Christian Scripture as the fountainhead of western Jew hatred. For the Presbyterians, this has led to the disturbing argument for ending the safe haven for Jews, the need for which was created by Christian Antisemitism in the first place.

If they support Israel on scriptural grounds, they merely leave those of us few committed Jews who read the New Testament for historical purposes scratching our heads as to what Christian Zionists are talking about. One need only look at Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John or chapters 9 and 10 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans to understand what I am talking about. These are examples only--there is very little love for Jews in the New Testament.

These are difficult truths, but it would be far better to look them in the face and wonder why than to merely repeat the curious idea that that so many highly observant Christians are devotees of the Jewish state while simultaneously believe that every word of the successionist New Testament is true.

Speaking only for myself as a child of survivors, I am reluctant to accept the support of Christian Zionists when I cannot see how they come to their views through Christianity.

Any port in a storm is an idea that has usually brought Jews to grief over the course of European history.
Bill Freeman on August 1, 2010 at 5:02 am (Reply)
The conclusion of this article - that evangelical support for the State of Israel is "politically indispensable" - does little to warm my heart. I find the alliance between Israeli Jews and fundamentalist/evangelical (I know these are not synonymous) American Christians worrisome, to say the least. A classic case of "strange bedfellows." Clearly, at the deepest levels each of these groups is unable to seriously tolerate the worldview of the other and yet each goes on caressing the other hoping that they will outlast the other. Jews cannot really tolerate the evangelical goal to missionize the world (even if this only occurs at the end of days). Likewise, evangelicals cannot really tolerate Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah. Israeli Jews think that the evangelical reading of the Bible is quaint but a little nutty. Evangelical Christians find Zionism's fulfillment of scripture (the people have returned to their land and the desert is blooming) inspiring, but Judaism is clearly a means to an end. Obviously each is using the other to advance its own objectives. No one has thought too carefully about what the implications of this alliance are, other than a mutual opposition to Islam. It's a zero sum game so only one can win. Something tells me both will lose.
Amo Fuchs on August 2, 2010 at 9:07 am (Reply)
All the various Protestants who presented themselves previously as pro-Israel etc. had one thing in mind: proselyte the Jews to the only true faith, to Christianity. When they became aware that Jews may be either religious or agnostic but had little left for Christianity, they switched away and now are trying to woo the Muslims to their faith. I don't have a big understanding of the Muslim psyche but I guess that they too are not much inclined to Christianity, the proselyting soul of the protestants will turn to something else, maybe to Shintoists or Buddhists.
Irv Mermelstein on August 4, 2010 at 11:52 pm (Reply)
A note to Bill Freeman, two comments up.

In my experience very few Jews read the New Testament. Jews are overwhelmingly ignorant of Christianity beyond the charge of deicide. They certainly do not understand the finer points of the Rapture and the need for witness Jews. I am suggesting that Israelis and Jews worldwide don't make themselves comfortable in an alliance with Religious Zionists because they think the Christian take is quaint; they do it only because Jews reasonably believe they are threatened today and they are casting about for all friends in the West and in the US in particular.

As I commented above, I don't understand why any Christian denomination or sect would come to a support for Israel through their Scriptures. There is one neutral ground, I suppose, namely that Christians feel far more confident in Jews to protect Christian holy sites than they do in any Muslim state. Particularly on the Christian Right, hostility toward Islam and Muslims is right out in the open.

I am not personally comfortable with such an alliance at all, and believe that Israel can (and must)survive without active support of others on purely (non-Jewish) religious grounds. Such friends can evaporate too quickly with changes in political climates.
Michael Tupek on August 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm (Reply)
Response to Irv:

I'm sorry but you are misunderstanding the Christian scriptures, especially the ones cited. They do not teach antisemitism; indeed, have I expressed antisemitism?

Here is a very brief summary of what Jesus and Paul are actually saying: Since Jesus is the prophesied Messiah, anyone who believes in him and follows him (whether Jew or Gentile - but the Jews are offered salvation first) evidences the supernatural change of heart by the Spirit of God (Deut 30:6 and Ezek 36); but those who reject him (whether Jew or Gentile) evidence their abandonment to Satan and are mere empty religionists outwardly.

These convictions are not unique to the Christian scriptures but were first preached by Moses and the prophets (see the song of indictment in Deut 32 and Dan 9).

Furthermore, Biblical/Mosaic Judaism is not antithetical to Biblical Christianity, but Rabbinic Judaism/Talmudism is antithetical to both.

The Jews are honored with a calling to live especially for the true God (according to his terms) but that is no guarantee that the calling is honored by all. This is the complaint of Moses and the prophets. As a Gentile I am invited to enter into this calling according to the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12: 3). Not everyone (whether Jew or Gentile) responds favorably to this honored calling. This is not antisemitism. If I did not give my heart to the Messiah, I would prove myself belonging to Satan too.
Irv Mermelstein on August 6, 2010 at 12:56 am (Reply)
Note to Michael

I do understand the Christian Scriptures (at least the Catholic NAB). But I understand them differently from you because the perspective of a committed Jew and a committed Christian are not the same.

I would like to answer your comment more fully, with a reference or two. Buts its late, so I will try to do that tomorrow if comments are still open.
J. Arnon on August 8, 2010 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
Any position taken in politics in general and on the Arab Israeli conflict in particular based on “morality” religious or not is spurious.

Morality is too often based on subjective feelings about what is right and what is wrong.
Even antisemites have their morality. It is not based on objective criteria and when it is used to create policy it becomes one sided.

Moral thinking told many mainstream Protestants that Zionism is a worthy cause, and it now tells the same Protestants that it isn’t a worthy cause. What has changed?

What has changed is the fact that Jews were in the recent past seen as oppressed which means that they were seen as needy. Today they are seen as the equal of any other people. This means that Protestants have to deal with them as equals. Some of them have found this to be too much. At bottom they don’t think of Jews as their equals which is why they support their enemies, those who would destroy the Jewish State.

All in the name of morality of course.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham