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Out of the Mouths of Two Witnesses: Guest Post By Dexter Van Zile

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good.
3 John : 1:11

For people who bill themselves as committed to non-violence and reconciliation, the so-called peace and justice activists who inhabit the progressive wing of Protestantism in the U.S. ("mainline churches") sure have targeted Israel with a lot of demonizing rhetoric in the past few years. They have also tolerated, and in some instances, defended the use of explicitly anti-Jewish themes from their allies in both the Middle East and the U.S., raising the question of whether these activists are as committed to "peacemaking" as they say they are.

For example, proponents of divestment in the United Methodist Church, defended Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest in Jerusalem with a history of using deicide imagery from the New Testament in reference to Israel, arguing that "If Israel is concerned about statements that point out its actions against Palestinians, it should stop those actions rather than trying to silence those who tell the world about them." In other words, these UMC "peacemakers" assert that as soon as Israel stops mistreating the Palestinians, Rev. Ateek and the group he founded, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, will back off from his portrayal of Israel as a crucifying nation. The idea that depicting the Jewish state as re-enacting the crime of Christ's murder (and thus affirming its status as enemy of God), does not make for "peace" is lost on activists who seem more interested in generating contempt for Israel and it supporters than they are in promoting peace and reconciliation.

The implicit message offered by mainline peace and justice activists is that Israel – which has been subject to attack by its neighbors virtually every year of its existence – is not entitled to the sympathy or support from right-minded people in the U.S. and that maybe the world would be better off if the Jewish nation were banished from the community of nations and ultimately dismantled. This message (which is offered explicitly by the Mennonite Central Committee) is expressed in the mainline peacemaking narrative that portrays Jewish sovereignty – not the violence and rhetoric used to undermine it – as the ultimate source of suffering in the Holy Land.

The fact that the leaders and legislative bodies of these churches have, to varying degrees, embraced this anti-Zionist narrative and keep Israel's sins – real and imagined – in their minds with greater force and vividness than two successive genocides in Sudan, China's terrible record of human rights, and the mistreatment of women in Muslim regimes throughout the Middle East, speaks volumes about the influence these activists enjoy within their churches.

The anti-Zionist narrative embraced by mainline churches became readily apparent in 2004 when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a divestment resolution that called on the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." In addition to singling Israel out as a target for divestment, the resolution also charged that the occupation had "proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict."

This resolution, passed with the support of the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which vets "peacemaking" overtures passed by the General Assembly, sparked outrage from Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that promotes Palestinian rights and statehood to condemn the PC(USA) in a July 2004 letter which stated "Your simplistic moral declaration is inaccurate and inadequate to explain the situation in all its tragic moral complexity."

RHR also accused the PC(USA) of ignoring "the homicidal ideologies that have so sadly taken hold among [Israel’s] Palestinian neighbors," and said the resolution averted "its eyes from the attempts to destroy our country that transcend the Occupation and precede it by decades."

In 2005, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC), passed a divestment resolution that targeted Israel and a "Tear Down the Wall Resolution," which called on Israel to take down the security barrier, without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction. The resolution, which was also passed by the Disciples of Christ, described Palestinian suffering in exquisite detail, but made little mention of the suffering experienced by the Israelis, or of the Palestinian violence that caused this suffering.

In addition to this, in 2003 the UCC’s publishing house, Pilgrim Press, published Whose Land? Whose Promise? This book, filled as it is with factual errors and hostile anti-Jewish interpretations of scripture would make any self-respecting church official truly concerned about Christian-Jewish relations blanch. One outrageous example on page of 176, Rev. Dr. Gary Burge interprets John 15:6 (a passage in which Jesus states "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned") as meaning:

The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they
cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless they are first grafted into Jesus.
Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refuse to be
attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned. (Emphasis added.)

If you do not think that this is outrageous, just ask yourself what the response would be if Pilgrim Press published a book about gay rights that invoked Leviticus 20:13 (which calls for the execution of homosexuals) as providing insight about what rights should be accorded to gays and lesbians living in the U.S. The book would spark outrage and it would be branded as a text of terror. But Rev. Dr. Burge’s book was well-received in both the evangelical and mainline community – a crossover success. Apparently, Pilgrim Press is going to publish a second edition – the book sells. It just goes to show that indeed, there is money to be made and status to be achieved by trafficking in ugly anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist polemic.

The Episcopal Church, which historically has been the most prestigious mainline church in the U.S., has not passed the ugly anti-Israel resolutions passed by the UCC and the PC(USA). Nevertheless, anti-Zionism runs deep in this denomination. It has provided financial and logistical support to Sabeel, the previously mentioned group that traffics in anti-Jewish polemic and portrays the Arab-Israeli conflict as solely a consequence of Israeli policies. In 2007 the Episcopal Peace Fellowship gave Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, a "peacemaking award."

Sadly, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori seems to have adapted Sabeel’s rhetorical techniques to suit her own purposes. The Episcopal Church News Service coverage of her walk through Jerusalem on Good Friday in 2008 included the following passage:

"I was struck at the way we carried on through the normal activities of the
city, crossing busy streets, walking past garbage waiting for pick up, past
people who alternately stared at us, greeted us warmly, or ignored us," said
Jefferts Schori. "This morning we were spat on by a young Jewish
man. How similar must have been Jesus' journeys the last week of his
life."
(Emphasis added. One version of the article that originally
included this passage is available here, but it
no longer includes any reference to the young Jewish man spitting on the Bishop,
but believe me, it was there.)

Yes, it was wrong, disgusting and abhorrent for the young Jewish man to spit on an Episcopal Bishop, but for Bishop Jefferts Schori, a privileged Protestant from the U.S. with an entourage that includes her own press officer, to compare herself to Jesus Christ on his way to the Cross is emblematic of just how self-absorbed and self-congratulatory mainline Protestants can get when they go to the Holy Land. Those with eyes to see will regard Bishop Schori’s star turn in the Holy Land for what it is – a sad example of moral obtuseness that responsible Christians should not follow.

To be clear, the Episcopal Church has acknowledged the presence of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. In a single-spaced, 16-page booklet issued by the church’s committee on Socially Responsible Investment, there is one bland sentence about the issue. "The SRI Committee also notes examples of hostility and anti-Semitism of certain Arab states in the region against the state of Israel."

With the detached and dispassionate tone the SRI committee uses to describe antisemitism in the Middle East, it sounds like a public health problem that can be fixed with a few vaccine shipments, some wide-spectrum antibiotics and maybe some mosquito netting. Compare this language with an article Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church’s "Peace and Justice" Ministries, wrote in 2005 about the impact of the security barrier on Palestinians. In the article, he quotes Episcopalian Michele Spike as follows:

"The Wall invades Palestinian fields, dividing grazing lands – including the
valley of the shepherds at Bethlehem – and, at times, encircling Palestinian
cities." (Emphasis added.)

The Israeli-built security barrier ("Wall") invades, divides and encircles. Antisemitism, on the other hand, is treated as a found object with no life of its own – an artifact "noted" by the SRI committee. With language like this, Arabs who embrace and espouse anti-Semitism are denied agency or any responsibility , but the security barrier’s impact is described in much more expressive terms that make it clear what the author thinks the Israelis are really about – stealing land and placing the Palestinians under siege. Read the rest of the article and you will find no first-hand description of terror attacks against Israelis, just a bland report that "The Israeli government maintains the barrier is built to provide security to Israel." (This under a subheading "Security Issues.")

To be sure, the difference in tone can be explained in part by the different purposes of the two documents – one a journalistic screed by Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, and the other a more business-like document detailing a committee’s deliberations. Nevertheless, the scant public speech in the Episcopalian Church about Arab violence and enmity to Jews and their state is governed by the tone of the SRI document – restrained and scholarly. But when it comes time to talk about Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians, Episcopalian condemnations are filled with active verbs and theological allusions that point out how badly Israeli policies contradict idealized visions of the Holy Land.

The same allusions and even more powerful verbs could be used to highlight hostility and violence toward Jews in the Middle East, but for the most part, these active verbs and Biblical allusions just are not present in the public speech of any mainline church regarding Arab and Muslim hostility toward Jews in the Middle East. (Why? Probably for the same reason that the Barmen Declaration – a ringing a denunciation of Nazi ideology affirmed by Christians in Germany in 1934 – made no reference whatsoever to one of Nazism’s most salient and lethal characteristics – its antisemitism.)

The United Methodist Church did not pass a divestment resolution targeting Israel at its 2008 General Conference, but it did pass two other resolutions (one condemning Israel as a violator of international law and another calling for a study of the denomination’s investments in among other places, the Middle East) which, taken together, set the stage for more divestment resolutions at the next General Conference in 2012.

And prior to passing these resolutions, the UMC published a mission study by one of its staffers, Rev. Stephen Goldstein that portrayed the Israelis as too damaged to be trusted with self-determination, and a children’s story that portrays Israeli security checkpoints as the cause, not the result, of Palestinian violence. (Predictably, the children’s story describes Israeli suffering in diffuse and abstract terms and Palestinian suffering in concrete and experiential terms.)

The Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) has problems of its own to address. At its 2005 Churchwide Assembly in Florida, the denomination played a video on the hotel’s cable system that used ominous images of Israeli checkpoints to raise funds for Augustus Victoria Hospital run by the Lutheran World Federation. (Apparently, Israeli villainy sells!) At this assembly the denomination affirmed a "Peace Not Walls" campaign that placed the onus for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel.

In August, 2007 ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly passed a resolution that called on Lutherans to explore the feasibility of "refusing to buy products produced in Israeli settlements." In other words, two months after Hamas and Fatah gunmen battled it in the streets of Gaza, throwing one another off rooftops, ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly suggested that maybe it is a good idea to boycott settlers in the West Bank.

Then there was the ELCA organized event in Germany, where Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh, testified against the security barrier built to stop terror attacks from the West Bank. Of course Batarseh, is going to condemn the security barrier. Batarseh, an American citizen, was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was elected mayor of Bethlehem with the support of Hamas. (Fortunately, the denomination’s magazine The Lutheran, was honest enough to cover the concerns raised over the one-sided nature of the conference.)


Weak Affirmations

Invariably, the leaders, spokespeople and activists from these churches will loudly assert that they have not embraced an "anti-Zionist" narrative, and that in fact, they have explicitly and repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to exist.

Not so fast.

Yes, these declarations have been made, but they are very rarely accompanied by any explanation as to why such an affirmation is necessary. Israel’s right to exist is not a settled issue in the Arab world where the refusal to accept Jewish sovereignty is rooted in part, in Muslim theology – a fact mainline churches are loath to acknowledge.

Moreover, mainline affirmations of Israel’s right to exist are undercut by the alliances these churches maintain with groups like the U.S. Committee to End the Occupation and Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an organization whose leader, Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek has explicitly denied the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

All this, coupled with the willingness of these churches to publish materials that root the continued existence of the conflict in Jewish identity and psychology (The Methodist Mission Manual) and portray Israel’s creation as a violation of the boundaries set for the Jewish people by the New Testament (Whose Land? Whose Promise?), renders these affirmations meaningless because they do not have any effect on how the churches "talk" about the Arab-Israeli conflict. People who truly affirm Israel’s right to exist would talk honestly about the threats it faces. Mainline churches do not.

The upshot is this: The center of gravity of the mainline church’s prophetic voice is decidedly anti-Zionist. Yes, there are times when mainline leaders respond forcefully, for example, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says something outrageous, but when it comes to addressing the day-in and day-out violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel is condemned and the Palestinians are excused.



The Timing

The amazing thing about mainline anti-Zionism is that became more pronounced in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, when Israel most needed – and was most entitled to – support from liberal progressive churches in the U.S. The Second Intifada was a violent campaign of suicide terror attacks that erupted after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations held during 2000 where Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state of their own that included all of Gaza and most of the West Bank. Israel made an offer, the Palestinian Authority refused and did not make a counter-offer. During the winter of 2000/01, the PA turned down the Clinton Parameters which would have given the Palestinians a state of their own on even better terms than that Barak offered during the summer of 2000.

In January 2001, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned Yasir Arafat – who had turned down Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 – to embrace the Clinton Parameters, but was unsuccessful. "I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime." (The New Yorker, March 24, 2003).

Despite all this, these churches, under the influence of their various cadres of peace and justice activists, passed resolutions and issued publications that held Israel exclusively responsible for the violence of the Second Intifada. The end result was that attacks on Israeli civilians – which should have prompted horror among right-minded people in the U.S. – were understood in this churches to be regrettable but understandable acts of desperation by the Palestinians who wanted peace against the Israelis, who didn’t. In fact, the violence was perpetrated and tolerated by religious and political figures in Palestinian society unable to lead their societies without using Jew-hatred as a unifying cause.


Who is the Model?

To be sure, the polite and genteel anti-Zionism expressed by mainline churches looks almost benign when compared to the explicit anti-Semitism displayed at the UN Conference on Racism and Xenophobia that took place in Durban, South Africa in late August and early September of 2001. At this conference, Arab and Muslim extremists from the Middle East and their allies from the radical left in Europe and the U.S. were able to convince the gathered assembly to affirm an amalgam of ritualistic charges of genocide, racism and ethnic cleansing targeted at Israel. The ritualistic nature of these charges is demonstrated by a few facts: The population of Palestinians has quadrupled in the past 60 years, Israeli Arabs serve in the Knesset and make up nearly one-fifth of the country's population while Arab countries in the Middle East are effectively Judenrein.

These charges were only part of the craziness at Durban, where Jews were singularly denied the right to participate in the proceedings at the conference because they could not be "objective." Security officials told representatives of Jewish groups that their safety could not be guaranteed. Protesters carried signs stating that if Hitler had finished the job there were would be no state of Israel and no Palestinian suffering. During the conference a Jewish doctor was beat up by people wearing checkered keffiyehs – the symbol of the Palestinian cause – who said Jews were the cause of all the problems in the Middle East. Local Jewish leaders attributed the attack to the atmosphere at the UN Conference.

Ya think?

If you’re looking for mainline condemnations of what happened at Durban, good luck. One thing you will find, however, is a quote from Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches chiding the Bush Administration’s decision to withdraw from the conference, asserting that it prejudged "the conference’s ultimate declaration… The US government made its point, but at an unfortunately heavy cost… In walking out the United States forfeited a critically important opportunity to address with courage the legacy, tenacity and toll of racism."

To be sure, the anti-Zionism expressed by mainline churches in the U.S. is not as virulent as what was on display at Durban, but this is cold comfort. By embracing a more polite form of the anti-Zionism modeled for them by their peace and justice activists, mainline churches that have explicitly condemned anti-Semitism became allies with groups that use anti-Zionism, not as a cover, but a vehicle for their anti-Semitism. One example of this phenomenon was a June 2007 Washington, D.C., rally organized by the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation. This rally, sponsored in part by the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church featured protesters carrying signs that read "F*&K Israel" with the "s" in Israel drawn to look like a Nazi swastika – a clear and undeniable expression of anti-Semitism. Other protesters carried signs that read "From the River to the Sea Palestine Will Be Free" – a clear and undeniable call for Israel's destruction.

The sad reality is this – these extremists at these are not modeling their behavior on the example set for them by mainline churches. It is the other way around. We are following the lead of the extremists.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.


The Second Witness

By aligning themselves with the extremist rhetoric of groups like the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, and failing to denounce it afterwards, mainline churches became the second witness needed to initiate a public stoning under Biblical law:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses, he that is to die shall
be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one
witness. The hand of the witnesses shall first be against him to put him to
death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil
from the midst of you. (Deuteronomy 17:6-7) [The King James Version, which
apparently is much closer to the original Hebrew in this passage, has a much
more evocative opening to this passage: "At the mouth of two witnesses…"]

Deuteronomy, written as an attempt to constrain collective violence in a region and era when it was routinely practiced, understands that most of the people in a crowd lack the nerve to throw stones at fellow human beings, a point underscored by Jesus’ defense of the prostitute in the Gospel of John. The "first stone," French literary critic Rene Girard writes is "not purely rhetorical [because] it is the most difficult to throw."

Why is it the most difficult to throw? Because it is the only one without a
model. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, page 56).

By requiring a second witness to enact an execution, Deuteronomy attempts to deprive angry crowds of the model they need to initiate a stoning, just as Christ did when he issued the challenge "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to thrown a stone at her." (John 8:7) Mainline peace activists have facilitated a process that Deuteronomy tries to hinder and which Jesus tried to disrupt – demonization. And in so doing, they have served as an intermediary between explicitly anti-Semitic anti-Israel activists in the hard left and well-intentioned mainline Protestants who would be horrified by the enmity on display at the June 2007 protest. And in the process, these churches became indifferent to the hostility toward Israel expressed by extremists in the U.S. and the Middle East. And why shouldn’t they become inured?

Mainline peace and justice activists, many of whom had been to the Middle East, are not bothered by it, but regard their willingness to rub shoulders with people carrying "F*&K Israel" signs as a sign of their commitment to the cause – of peace. In the world view of these activists, hostility toward Jews, which had previously been taboo in mainline churches, has become an unremarkable and understandable, (albeit regrettable) aspect of the movement, excused by the notion that Israeli policies cause antisemitism. In other words, associating with groups and people that traffic in explicitly anti-Semitic calls for Israel’s destruction became part of the cost of "peacemaking" and anyway, the story goes, people will abandon their anti-Semitism as soon as Israel makes peace with its enemies.

And so the contagion spreads.

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posted by Dexter Van Zile, Friday, September 12, 2008

6 Comments:

This comment has been removed by the author.
commented by Blogger lydia, 2:07 PM  
Dexter Van Zile has been discredited in much better words than I have by Richard Silverstein. The article is entitled, "Dexter Van Zile's fraudulent camp against Sabeel":

http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2007/10/27/dexter-van-ziles-fraudulent-campaign-against-sabeel/
commented by Blogger lydia, 2:14 PM  
Thanks Lydia.

Now I know what subject I need to address next.

Sincerely,

Dexter Van Zile
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 3:03 PM  
The words 'discredited' and 'fraudulent' (in the comment above) suggest that 1. Van Zile's statements were untrue and 2. That the linked article somehow demonstrated this.

Neither seems to be the case.

The 'discrediting' argument is extraordinarily weak ... the use of the imagery in question was and is designed to suggest the equivalency. The author of the linked article doesn't seem to even notice the statements he actually quotes which point to this equivalency. Among other things, Rev. Dr. Ateek is quoted (by Silverstein) as saying "Jerusalem still does not know what makes for peace". That reference makes the comparison more explicit.
commented by Blogger will, 2:30 AM  
I wonder if that's Lydia as in Lydia Veliko... you know the UCC's Ecumenical Officer and apologist for Sabeel:

http://www.ucctruths.com/Archive/2005DecemberArchive.html
commented by Blogger UCCtruths, 4:25 PM  
No, I do not believe it is.
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 10:11 PM  

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