Battle Lines Drawn Between Jewish Groups and Protestant Churches

By Ted Belman

The Forward recently published this informative article Methodist Church Renews Drive For Divestment From Israel by Nathan Guttman.

My friend Will Spotts and tremendous activists on behalf of Jews and Israel sent me this article he wrote in response.

Presbyterians Tell Jews: Get a Life

Since I have been examining church anti-Israel activism and its relationship to antisemitism, the following item struck me as a good example of problematic statements and actions undertaken by ‘leaders’ in mainline denominations. It contains several features that are very revealing about the current state of opinion and action in many of the ‘mainlines’.

Presbyterians ‘in the pews’ may or may not know the PC(USA) has an Israel/Palestine Network. This was formed in response to an action of the 216th General Assembly, and it is supported, maintained, and advised by national PC(USA) staffers. It claims of itself that it:

    “works in close cooperation with ecumenical partners and with the Office for the Middle East, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Presbyterian Washington Office, the Presbyterian UN Office and with other appropriate entities of the General Assembly and General Assembly Council.”

Its pronouncements therefore have a fair degree of official imprimatur from the PC(USA) and reflect opinions current among the national staff and offices of the PC(USA). Recently, the Israel/Palestine network launched a new, updated website. Among many other things (some of them very problematic in their own right), the I/P Network of the PC(USA) presented a power-point presentation that it attributed to Jeff Halper. I draw your attention to slide 31. Here the reader is told THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN THE DIASPORA MUST GET A LIFE.

I have said this is illustrative of the problems often encountered by churches in their pro-Palestinian activities that quickly morph into anti-Israel activities and then overtly anti-Jewish activities.

The first problem is the painfully, unavoidably obvious double standard. This can easily be demonstrated by substituting any other group for ‘the Jewish community’. If Presbyterians regarded the Jewish community as an ethnic designation, the question arises: would Presbyterians post materials that tell the African American community to get a life? Would Presbyterians post materials that tell Italians to get a life? Would Presbyterians suggest that Native Americans should get a life? Would Presbyterians tell Iranians to get a life? The answers are NO, NO, NO, and NO. These would be extraordinarily inappropriate, insensitive and racist statements. If Presbyterians regarded “the Jewish community” as a religious designation, then the question is this: Would the Presbyterian Church publish materials that tell Hindus to get a life? Would they suggest Moslems get a life? Would they suggest that members of the Baha’i Faith get life? Would they argue that Roman Catholics ‘must get a life’? Again, in all four examples, the answer is an emphatic NO. How then is it possible that Presbyterians can think that telling “the Jewish community” it must get a life is acceptable in any possible universe? How then can the PC(USA) evade the rather obvious implication that its double standard is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry?

The second problem is the attribution. Jeff Halper is the coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition. Halper is Jewish, Israeli, and has a unique opinion on the situation and on American Judaism. At one point Halper asserted that “[He] would argue that American Judaism is in danger of being turned into a cult.” The thing is, even if his opinions are inherently offensive, Jeff Halper can speak because his criticism does, to some degree, come “from the inside”. The immediate problem, however, with the decision of the PRESBYTERIAN I/P Network to publish these comments with its apparent endorsement is that Presbyterians cannot criticize from the inside. When Presbyterians support comments such as “The Jewish community in the Diaspora must get a life”, they are speaking of people of a different group from themselves. It can in no way be construed as self-criticism – instead it appears to be more accurately construed as bigotry.

[This is, in all honesty, a common phenomenon – engaged in by the PC(USA), the UMC, and many other groups. These have frequently found certain Jewish personalities or groups to endorse their activism as if this somehow inoculated them from antisemitism. But it is a patently false argument because it seizes on small minority opinions as if these were representative of Jewish people generally, and because it fails to account for the distinction between what it might be acceptable for a member of a race or religion to say about that race or religion and what would be unacceptable for a person to say about member of a different race or religion.]

The third problem is the question of audience. By featuring this on a Presbyterian website, the Presbyterian I/P Network must intend it to be read by someone. The questions are who? And to what purpose? It is obvious that the Presbyterian activists who made this decision cannot really believe that telling the Jewish community in the Diaspora to ‘get a life’ will somehow prompt Israelis to change the policies to which the I/P Network objects. It is equally obvious that this is not directed at the Jewish community – because it is clear that members of the Jewish community would not be persuaded by Presbyterians telling them to ‘get a life’. Its appearance on a Presbyterian website instead seems to be directed at Presbyterians – to convince them to ignore (without a hearing or consideration) opinions from Jewish people that conflict with the I/P Network’s agenda. It seems to be indicating that good Presbyterians don’t have to listen to Jews because Jews need to ‘get a life’.

I’m left wondering how long Christian groups will content themselves with a brand of activism that clearly crosses lines into the offensive and immoral over and over again. I’m left wondering how long it will be before the members of Christian organizations will start to say enough. I’m left wondering how many times these same members will content themselves with the inherent corruption of having their ‘corporate witness’ commandeered by those so driven by their own political agendas that they take no note of the consequences of their actions – either to those organizations or to others.

Thank you Will Spotts

February 1, 2008 | 3 Comments »

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