Last month, American Jews anxiously watched as delegates to the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly debated resolutions that used the harshest language to criticize Israel. They were defeated, but the fact that they took place at all is what sticks in the minds of many Jews.
More recently, thousands of Evangelical Christians danced the Hora and sang Hebrew songs at the Christians United for Israel “Night to Honor Israel,” making an equally strong, yet opposite impression on American Jews.
This juxtaposition has led some American Jews to reflexively divide the Christian world into two camps — anti-Semites and Christian Zionists — dismissing Presbyterians as the former, and embracing the latter. Both are mistakes.
First, a little history and perspective are in order.
The relationship between American Jews and Presbyterians has evolved since the end of World War II, when mainstream Protestant churches (of which the Presbyterian Church is one denomination) began a serious internal critique of Christian anti-Semitism. In the following decades, they revised their theology, liturgy and teachings about Jews to reflect an updated belief in an eternal, direct covenant between the Jewish People and G-d, and a rejection of supercessionism, the belief that Christianity supplants Judaism.
In the years that followed, American Jewish groups established effective political alliances with Presbyterian churches on a variety of progressive causes, including civil rights and liberties, economic justice, reproductive freedoms, gun control, human rights, and the separation of church and state. While most American Jews and liberal Protestants continue to agree on domestic issues today, we are less in tune regarding the Middle East.
Presbyterians have deep institutional and human ties to Palestinians and feel a strong ethical and moral call to support those they perceive as suffering. They also feel the religious imperative to “witness for justice” and to “speak truth to power” on behalf of their oppressed Christian brethren in the region, and against what they see as unnecessary violence against the Palestinian people.
Despite initial concerns, the final statement issued at the General Assembly rejected calls for divestment and the use of apartheid language and unambiguously recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation with legitimate security needs, including the right to block the importation of weapons into Gaza. This was a significant and difficult compromise for a church that is deeply divided on Israel/Palestine and took into account the many conversations that groups such as Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee held with delegates and commissioners to the conference around the country in preceding weeks.
That the Presbyterian Church USA arrived at a less-than-ideal final statement on Israel hardly means that Jews should abandon the effort to build relations with mainline Protestants in favor of stronger ties with Christian Zionists. While this wing of Christianity seems friendlier to Israel on its face, thanks to a particular understanding of Scripture, this support is hardly cause for celebration. These same Christians who profess their love of Israel, are prolonging the conflict that we seek to end, by doggedly supporting the retention of all territories conquered in 1967 as part of their Armageddon eschatology that doesn’t end well for us, to say the least.
John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, believes in a Greater Israel that not only includes the West Bank and Gaza, but also all of Lebanon, half of Syria, two-thirds of Jordan, all of Iraq, and the northern portion of Saudi Arabia. He denies opposition to a peace plan/two-state solution when he speaks to Jewish audiences, but he teaches his followers in 190 countries that any peace treaty prior to Jesus’ second coming is a demonic trick of the anti-Christ, who happens to be partially Jewish!
His own words are instructive: “God’s Word is very clear! There will be grave consequences for the nation or nations that attempt to divide the land of Israel.”
One can also find him on YouTube proclaiming, “Joel 3:2 says any nation that tries to get Israel to divide my land … is going to go through a blood bath.”
Some Jewish leaders dismiss Hagee’s “End Times” scenarios in private and accept Christian Zionist support as a life raft in a turbulent sea, but we should be wary of his world view in which we have a very specific role to play and whose end goal is the elimination of Judaism.
What happens when we vary from his script and make peace with our enemies (G-d willing)? This is not AIPAC, who supports the Israeli government, right or left. Christian Zionists support the settler movement, unlike the majority of Israelis, American Jews and every American administration.
Christian Zionism presents more than a threat to the peace process. The prophecy narrative of the “fishers and hunters” of Jeremiah 16 teaches Christian Zionists to act as “fishers” who befriend and convince Jews, via emotional and monetary assistance to fulfill their prophetic destiny by moving to Israel, while “hunters” (as Hitler was) enact a second Holocaust in order to force remaining Jews to flee there. In other words, in order for the “restoration of Israel” to be fulfilled and bring about the Second Coming, there must be violent anti-Semitism which forces Diaspora Jews to flee to Israel.
John Hagee’s teachings lay the ground for just such a scenario. He frequently resorts to what the ADL calls “classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory,” asserting that the Federal Reserve System is controlled by European-based Rothschilds who are intentionally destroying the U.S. middle class by devaluing the dollar. His movie, “Vanished,” caricatures Jews and Catholics burning churches and New Testaments in an obscene inversion of Kristallnacht, where his followers are the victims. Other examples abound.
In his now-famous 2005 sermon, which led Republican presidential contender, John McCain to disavow his endorsement, Hagee stated, “they (the Jews) are physically alive but they’re not spiritually alive. Now how is God going to cause the Jewish people to come spiritually alive.” I wonder. Perhaps Hagee’s friends can help? By targeted evangelizing of Jews, perhaps? Again, he denies such motives to Jewish audiences, but he prominently endorses groups, such as Maoz Israel in Tel Aviv, which has given more than $2 million since 2003 to the poor, the “desperate” and victims of terrorism, but only after they accept Jesus as Lord and actively participate in a Messianic congregation.
It would be a serious mistake for those who are hurt by the actions of a small group within the Presbyterian Church to abandon mainstream Christian-Jewish dialogue or attempt it without addressing Israel. To the contrary, we must continue to engage our interreligious and interethnic partners in defense of our most cherished values, including Zionism, in a mutually affirming and respectful relationship. Intergroup engagement, promoting pluralism and mutual understanding not only helps create a more just and democratic society; it also lays the groundwork for addressing our core issues as Jews, including Israel’s well-being and security.
Some of our Presbyterian partners think we are indifferent to Palestinian suffering. John Hagee is openly hostile to Islam and Muslims. We need to make it clear to everyone that our commitment to the human and civil rights of all people, regardless of their ethnic and religious heritage is part and parcel of our dedication as Jews to protecting the rights of all people throughout the world and specifically of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our homeland.
As America becomes ever more diverse, it is clear that in order to maintain even a semblance of our political clout, we must build alliances with other religious and ethnic groups in a sustained process of sincere engagement, even when they disappoint us, but not when they are actively working against us. We should talk freely about Israel and share our vision for a just and lasting peace for all peoples in the Middle East with partners who seek the same outcome. Our collective voices can rise above the din of tribal hatred and help all peoples who truly care about Israel and her neighbors imagine the peace that is at the core of all three Abrahamic religions.
(Deborah Fidel is executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.)