ROOT CAUSES OF MAINLINE AMERICAN CHURCHES’ ANTI-ISRAELISM
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Dexter van Zile
“The national assemblies of five American mainline Protestant churches have frequently attacked Israel over the past 10 years. Included are the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church, (UMC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Their combined membership was 26.5 million in the mid-Sixties, or 13.5 percent of the American population. By 2010, their membership had declined to 17.6 million, or below 6 percent of the population.
“These churches and their predecessors, along with northern Baptists – who now call themselves American Baptists – were the backbone of the Protestant establishment that coalesced in the United States in the 1800s and largely dominated American civil society until the mid-1960s.”
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). He has published in numerous American Jewish newspapers, as well as in the Jerusalem Post, Ecumenical Trends, and TheBoston Globe.
Van Zile comments: “These churches’ clergy have typically held a liberal view of scripture and theology. They have an almost one hundred year old ongoing conflict with Evangelical Protestants, who have a more conservative, if not literal view of scripture. Most mainline churches have, in one way or another, repudiated supersessionism (replacement theology) and anti-Semitism. Yet they seem unwilling to confront these phenomena as they manifest themselves in Islam.
“These mainline churches and their predecessors were largely supportive of Israel’s creation in the years after World War II. The important theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – member of a UCC predecessor – gave eloquent testimony in favor of a Jewish state at the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in New York in 1946. His support for Zionism was based on acknowledging that Jews were unable to live safely or with dignity as a minority in Christian-majority countries in Europe and therefore should return to their historical homeland. At that time, mainline U.S. Protestantism was largely pro-Zionist. This was rooted in a desire for justice for the Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust and a belief that God’s promises to the Jews were unfailing.
“For most of U.S. history, Americans believed they were part of an ‘almost chosen’ nation. Americans considered themselves to belong to the ‘New Israel’ where humanity had a chance to start again. America’s civil religion pretended that it had a positive role to play in world events. The Protestant establishment, of which these churches were a part, saw itself as the guardian of this civil religion which was rooted in Hebrew Scriptures. Thus support for Israel made sense.
“Yet this civil religion began to unravel in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This development accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. By that time, it was often believed that the United States was the most violent and corrupt nation on the planet. Historian George McKenna calls this idea ‘reverse election.’ The concept took particularly strong hold on the elites in liberal Protestant churches.
“Anti-Zionism became increasingly evident in these churches in the aftermath of the Six Day War. As the notion of ‘reverse election’ gathered force in American society, anti-Zionism also became more prevalent in mainline churches. For many clergy, Israel became a proxy for everything that the U.S. had done wrong during the course of its history, and had turned it into a target for condemnation. For those gripped by this notion of ‘reverse election’ the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were not an example of radical Islam’s criminality, but a punishment for America’s sins of imperialism and hegemony.
“Through this lens, many liberal Protestant elites viewed the two intifadas, and in particular the second one. Rather than considering its suicide attacks as evidence that something was seriously wrong in Palestinian society, they saw it as a consequence of Israel’s ‘misconduct,’ particularly settlement construction.
“All this coalesced into a flurry of anti-Zionist resolutions placed before national assemblies of the mainline churches from 2004 onward. The Presbyterian Church was the first to pass a resolution calling for the denomination to divest from companies which did business with Israel. In 2005, the UCC passed a quasi-divestment resolution along with ‘Tear Down the Wall.” In later years, Methodists and Presbyterians did approve a boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank.
“Recent verbal aggression against Israel in these mainline churches – with the exception of continued attacks by PCUSA – has been somewhat muted. This may be partly due to the increased attacks on Christians by Muslim extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
“Yet mainstream churches are reluctant to condemn Islamist violence against Christians. Its elites, including pro-Israelis, wish to continue dialoguing with Muslims. These churches have also never confronted the issue of widespread Muslim anti-Semitism. The main reason is probably that they view Muslims as victims of Western imperialism. The churches’ attitude is, ‘Can we condemn Islamic imperialism given our own history?’”