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Israel Zionism and the Church

By Prof Paul C Merkely, August 17 2005
Originally posted as IT IS ABOUT ISRAELíS RIGHT-TO-LIFE at IsraPundit.


At annual conventions of several of the major Christian denominations in the North America, Britain and Europe held during these last few months, statements have been written into the record calling upon Israel to dismantle her security barrier and declarations have been passed of intent to divest the denominationsí pension fund portfolios of investments in Israeli firms and other firms doing business with Israel.

Behind these many ostensibly disparate decisions is a well-organized campaign of contempt against Israel. In these past few weeks, and with these actions, the leadership of the major denominations has taken a coordinated step beyond hostility to a nation with a right to defend her good name to active engagement in the campaign to foreclose her right-to-life.

The present campaign first came to the surface with announcement by the Presbyterian Church (USA) at its General Assembly in July, 2004 of its intention "to have its Board of Pensions divest itself of investments in companies receiving one million dollars or more in profits per year from investments in Israel or that have invested more than one million dollars or more in Israel." Some truly prize-winning double talk was expended on that occasion by the Stated Clerk of the denomination in the effort to explain that this was really not as provocative as it sounded --that the divestment would be "phased and selective," unfolding by stages - as if that made a moral difference. In justification of its decision, the Presbyterians offered an efficient summation of the last half-century of history: "The occupation... has proven to be at the root of the evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides." Solution: "The occupation must end."

The Presbyterian Assembly (USA) is one of those denominations which our alert, group-thinking journalists still refer to as "mainstream" because they commanded the support of a majority of American Protestants half a century ago! Like the other "mainstreamers," the Presbyterians have suffered a steady decline in membership in our lifetime. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, had 5 million members in the 1920s - which made it the fifth-largest denomination, when the population of the United States was just over 100 million; it has around 3 million today - which makes it the tenth largest denomination when the population is around 300 million.) There are no doubt many reasons for this, but the one that screams out is that the leaders of these mainstream Protestant denominations have pursued courses of policy which do not have the support of their congregations. They have, in other words, succumbed to elitism: the leaders simply take their positions on public issues from academics in the universities and from the media elites, ignoring the views of their own parishioners.

For a while it seemed that there was sufficient unhappiness about this proposal of the Presbyterian leaders that it would be withdrawn quietly after a decent interval. Apart from everything else, divestment of healthy stocks at work in the ever-growing Israeli economy, could not be considered good financial stewardship -- especially since these very same denominations are losing members weekly (for quite other reasons, having to do with theology and moral philosophy) and consequently are suffering decline of the cash-flow upon which present salaries, not to mention future pensions, will depend. In the Universities (where they have Mathematics and Accounting Departments) the divestment mania crested and then declined, just about the time that the Churches got on board. But just since the beginning of this year the campaign has come back. This very month (August 2005) the Presbyterian Church (USA) announces that it will insist that four companies that it considers helpful to Israel in its occupation of Palestine stop doing business with Israel: millions of dollars of Church pension funds are said to be at stake. And now the United Church of Christ (USA) and the Episcopal Church (USA) have recently voted to consider actions along the same lines. These actions follow a declaration from the World Council of Churches (WCC) in February urging all member bodies to consider taking such actions. The Anglican Consultative Council, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Willams, voted unanimously in favour of divestment from Israel at their meeting in England June, 2005.

Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts, who considers himself a supporter of Palestinian rights, has warned against these actions, on the ground that "the economics of Israel and Palestine are so closely intertwined that divestment is actually counterproductive for the Palestinian people." In the same vein, a group of Episcopal Bishops in New York, led by Bishop Mark S. Sisk, recently held a attended a press conference together with Rabbi Joseph Ptasnik, Executive Vice-President of the NY board of Rabbis, to express opposition to plan.

I have not dealt separately with the simultaneous campaign to compel Israel (through UN action) to dismantle her security wall. The two campaigns (dis and div) are different faces of the same project - which is to expose Israel to enemies whose weapons of choice, including recruitment of children as suicide-bombers, are exempted from criticism by the WCC and the many NGOs because they are considered the desperate feeble instruments of the disadvantaged. It is important, however, to recognize the manipulation involved in these two inter-locking campaigns.

Introduction of these resolutions is always preceded by the claim that the attention of these unbiased and nonpolitical theologians has been drawn to these far-off issues by the workings of conscience. The denominational leaders who present themselves at their conventions as spokesmen for the Palestinian people inevitably have just returned from an all-expense-paid tour of the Palestinian churches - a tour which never includes briefing by Israeli political or military sources or (God forbid!) friendly visits to the pro-Zionist Christian organizations active in Jerusalem. The presenters at the conventions always speak of the sudden clarification of the moral issue which came upon them in the course of these intensive five-or-ten day tours to the front. (Doesnít anyone remember the tours of the Vietnamese front by politicians in the 1960s?)

As soon as the opening speeches are made and the documents are introduced for discussion, a highly-effective cabal of despisers of Israel is already in place at the microphones as questions are now called from the floor. When a historian of the Twentieth Century reads the transcripts of the discussion taking place at these denominational conventions, he is reminded of the days of the Popular Front (the1930s), of those many emotion-charged conventions of the self-declared Friends of Peace where well-rehearsed single-issue zealots -- a small rudder directing a huge seagoing vessel --carried an agreed strategy to the floor while the rest of the delegates floated about asking each other what the issues were.

The full-time fomenters of this anti-Israel campaign are mainly associated with certain of the NGOs whose leadership is drawn in large part from Christian Arabs. Funding for these many NGOs comes from church groups in Europe and North America. Spearheading these efforts is the organization called Sabeel Liberation Theology Centre, Jerusalem, whose full-time director is the Rev. Naim Ateek, once Canon of St Georgeís Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. Canon Ateek travels constantly. When I was researching my books and living in Jerusalem I tried repeatedly to secure interviews with him, but he has always either too busy or out-of-town -- in Cyprus, in Europe, in North America. Needless to say, costs of Canon Ateekís heroic non-stop travels do not come out of Palestinian coffers but out of budgets of WCC and denominations who provide the settings for his anti-Israel conferences.

No pro-Israel speaker gets anywhere near the platform at a Friends of Sabeel Conference. I have proffered my credentials as a published academic scholar on the History of Zionism and of Christian attitudes towards Israel and have either been ignored, without the courtesy of acknowledgement, or given the stick-in- the-eye that the program is already filled, but thanks so much for your interest. I have undergone this humiliation locally, when the Anglican Church of Canada has sponsored its Friends of Sabeel meetings here in my home city of Ottawa.

Part of the problem is that nobody in the hierarchy of the denominations ever reads a book. The busy, always-traveling, always-at-meetings, always-talking leaders of the denominations do not seem to grasp the concept of a book as an extended argument, with sources and facts and ideas. For these technocrats, everything comes from brochures and goes directly into binders. In this company, pamphleteering is the beginning and the end of everything, scholarship counts for nothing.

Because they are not interested in books of history, they are not exposed to the complexities. Their repertoire comes from headlines, one-liners and slogans.

As for my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, their bookstore promotes a single, doggedly pro-Palestinian booklet: Ann E. Hafften, Water From the Rock: Lutheran Voices from Palestine. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress. 2003. 94 pages. I have tried repeatedly, as have other others, to get this author and her publishers to acknowledge correspondence. (My unsolicited critical review of her pamphlet will be noted in the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the literary item most often lost in the mail by a major ecclesiastical body.) My approaches by telephone to the Canadian, American and the World Lutheran bodies (involving, in the latter case, expensive long-distance phone calls) get the bumís rush.

In this totalitarian ambience, the thought of debate makes no sense: right-thinking is everything. (Again, the analogy with the Popular Front will occur.) Efforts of Jewish organizations to establish dialogue on the effects of these campaigns has failed utterly. Groups representing the various rabbinical associations and secular organizations like the Anti-Defamation League -- groups which had played prominent roles in Christian-Jewish dialogue over the past two or three decades - have discovered in recent months that they have no credit at all with the denominational leaders who have become enamored of the twin issue of divestment and dismantling.

So far, opponents of these actions within the denominations have been outflanked by the activists. However, there are signs that Christian laity are taking alarm at the palpable anti-Judaism (masquerading as anti-Zionism) which has taken hold of the leadership. Individual voices of protest, or at least of caution, are being heard regarding official church harangues against Israel and the Jews which figure in Sabeel and MECC literature. Notably, there is a fascinating scholarly essay by Dexter van Zile, formerly Deacon with the Congregation Church in Massachusetts and now director of the Boston office of The David Project of the Judaeo-Christian Alliance, which explores the resonance which can be heard between these documents and the medieval libels that we thought we had all put behind us.["Sabeelís Teachings of Contempt: A Judeo- Christian Report", June, 2005, which can be obtained via www.davidproject.org ] Van Zile exposes the "deicide imagery" in Naim Ateekís many essays and lectures.

As van Zile records, Ateek is especially enamored of the image of the Israelis as Herod - and the mirror image of the Palestinians as the babes of Bethlehem. I myself have been in the congregation at St. Andrewís Church of Scotland in Jerusalem to hear on one occasion a version of this same inflammatory Herod/babe-in-the-manger sermon at a regular Sunday- morning service. I regret to this day that I did not have the character to stand up on a point of privilege, but a lifetime of conditioning to the solemnity of church service held me down, I did, however, check his office the next day to request an interview. They told me he was out of town.)

This scurrilous deicide stuff is not muttered in corners but is repeated again and again in lectures and printed materials. The Israeli "occupation," Ateek declaims, is "the stone placed on the entrance of Jesusí tomb." In a sermon of April, 2002, Canon Ateek said: "In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundred of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull." What does this lack that it should be considered less provocative than the sermons that sent the medieval mobs on their pogroms?

Literature on the present Arab-Israel conflict made available through WCC, MECC, and the headquarters of the denominations all draws on this Sabeel script: Palestinians are always and exclusively victims; terrorist acts against Israel are either ignored or rationalized as the hapless but heroic response of unarmed civilians against tanks and guns. All unhappiness in the Middle East, and most of the unhappiness everywhere else in the world, has followed from the great mistake of letting Israel come into the world in 1948. Never mind that the creation of the State of Israel was approved by a 2/3 vote of the General Assembly of the United nations: happiness will never appear on the face of the earth until that decision is reversed.

The anomaly is that Christian friends and supporters of Israel vastly outnumber the pro-Palestinian ideologues in the pews of the very churches whose leaders are cranking out these anti- Jewish provocations. Those individuals and organizations which give voice to Christian Zionism are crudely dismissed in official Church pamphlets as theological illiterates, right-wingers, tools of Likud, offspring of the KKK -- - none of which I like to admit about myself. Years ago the WCC issued a blanket anathema against the heresy of Christian Zionism. Those of us who conclude that when St. Paul talks about Israel he means Israel and when he says Zion he means Zion (e.g., in Romans 11) are dismissed as fundamentalists (a word which long ago lost all meaning - like the word fascist.) Meanwhile, the temptation to fall into that heresy has been effectively removed from the midst of Christian Arabs by the simple and clean expedient of removing the Old Testament lessons from Church services and removing the History of Israel from Sunday School materials.

Since the day after the Six-Day War, during which Israel thwarted the whole-hearted effort of the combined Arab nations to remove her from the map and liquidate her population, the WCC has been issuing statement after statement declaring unqualified partisanship with the "Palestinian cause." At the Nairobi Asembly of the WCC in 1975, the WCC supported the PLO as the rightful voice of the unfilled desire of the Palestinians for nationhood and endorsed its right to build up its "liberation armies" under Yassir Arafat; at the Assembly in Vancouver in 1983 it called for the establishment of a Palestinian State. But up until a few years ago, the authors of WCC statements always took the time and trouble to let into their declarations a few words about recognition of Israelís existence. Recent statements, however, have taken the WCC so far down the path towards demonization of Israel that one can find in them nothing to dignify a case for Israelís right to life.

The turning point came just a few days before the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, when WCC representatives attending the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held at Durban, South Africa, led a meeting of NGOs in demanding official UN denunciation of Israel for "systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing." (The rumour is that they dropped halitosis at the last moment.) Since then, WCC statements, echoed by statements issuing from denominational bodies in America and Europe, have revisited this corrosive Durban language in order to strip Israel of the essential basis of her right-to-life.

Today, the WCC is an unqualified ally of the enemies of Zionism. It has no interest in speaking a kind word for the only proven democracy in the Middle East, the only polity in the Middle East where Christianity has been permitted to flourish. Having brought on board the entire anti-historical truck about the brutality of Crusaders and the unmixed beauties of the original Muslim empires of the East, it now contemplates returning the only non-Muslim portion of the Middle East to Islam.

Just as the confrontation between Israel and the protean legions of nihilism has, by the abandonment of Gaza, been drawn up to the front door of every resident of Israel, the WCC and several of the major worldwide Protestant denominations have become active partners in the campaign to destroy the Jewish nation. So single-minded has this effort been that, at the denominational conventions, the entire agenda of foreign policy issues has had to be swept clear - so that no distractive discussion has taken place regarding China (where masses of Christian believers and believers in other faiths languish without hope in windowless cells) or regarding Zimbabwe (where agriculture has been absolutely ruined and famine has been imposed on thousands so that the Emperor Mugabe -- promoted by the WCC in the 19790s as a Africaís prince of peace -- can build more palaces for himself, or regarding Saudi Arabia (where Christianity is forbidden), or... well, forgive me, I am being tedious.

The instruments with which the denominations are now arming themselves on behalf of the Palestinian cause are unfamiliar to historians; but then, the history of warfare is really nothing but the story of the invention of new and deadly weapons which soldiers in conventional armies invariably fail to recognize as lethal. These new weapons, dismantlement and divestment, are meant to be lethal. They have been smuggled onto the scene under the customary cynical cover of "peace and justice." The members and adherents of the mainline denominations are told that they are really not weapons at all but gestures of love, expressions of the desire to achieve peace by defending the Palestinian cause harmlessly against the superior adversary, Israel - that they are ingenious newfound ways to exercise "the preferential option for the poor and the weak" - an expression of the spirit of the Beatitudes. But make no mistake, this calumny against the spirit of the Beatitudes is for the sake of advancing the liquidation of Israel.


Paul C. Merkley, a retired Professor of History from Carleton University and a consultant on foreign policy, is the author of three books on Christian attitudes towards the Jews, Israel, and Zionism, the most recent of which is American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praegar, 2004.) Prof Paul C Merkley submitting this article to IsraPundit who have circulated it to Zionism On The Web for reproduction. Permission for third parties to reproduce this article has also been given.

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