Habits of anti-Judaism: Critiquing a PCUSA report on Israel/Palestine

June 29, 2010

Old habits die hard. Despite numerous attempts by mainline Protestant denominations to promote historically informed studies of Judaism, repudiate supersessionist theologies and engage in conversations with Jews, the old habit of bearing false witness against Jewish neighbors lives on. In recent years this practice has thrived especially in mainline Protestant statements on the Middle East.

Congregations, denominations and councils have rightly advocated for Palestinians suffering because of Israeli policies. The injustice is real; the situation is urgent. But church statements too often slip from a laudable call for a just peace—a call with which a large and growing number of American Jews would agree—into false and negative depictions of Jews. This slippage contradicts the churches’ own theological convictions. It distorts Jewish teaching and history. And it can discourage both Palestinian Christians and their U.S. supporters from building alliances with Jews who share their commitments to peace and human rights.

Members of the churches that issue these statements frequently express sincere desires to avoid anti-Semitism. Supporters of problematic statements are rarely bigots; they are more likely people committed to justice who have also absorbed centuries-old patterns of Christian anti-Judaism. This false witness is more a matter of habit than of hate. It lives on through good intentions.

Good intentions are crucial resources for the work of breaking bad habits. But good intentions can become obstacles to change when they short-circuit serious conversation about the nature, history and impact of actions. Breaking habits requires bringing them to consciousness. And that requires attending to the gap between action and intention.

A report just issued by the Middle East Study Committee (MESC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) provides an important example of this gap between action and intention—and it presents a real opportunity to begin to learn better habits. The report will be considered this July at the denomination’s General Assembly in Minneapolis. The MESC was created at the 2008 General Assembly, which asked the moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, to work with his two immediate predecessors in appointing the committee’s nine members. The assembly charged the committee with preparing “a comprehensive study, with recommendations, that is focused on Israel/Palestine within the complex context of the Middle East.”

The study committee made several moves that demonstrate its desire to avoid some of the most common forms of false witness against Jews. For example, it notes that most Presbyterians reject supersessionist narratives in which “Christians have supplanted Jews” to become “the only legitimate heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham.” Signaling this rejection of supersessionism, the report speaks of “Older Testament” and “Newer Testament” in its biblical references. Such language is neither necessary nor sufficient for avoiding supersessionism, but it at least suggests a desire to proclaim a gospel that does not begin with God’s rejection of Jews.

Yet Christian false witness persists in the report despite its authors’ intentions. Habits have that kind of power. Below we name some of these habits and trace the dynamics by which they survive. We write as a Presbyterian and a Jew, as colleagues on a divinity school faculty and as teachers who continue to see the habits of false witness in the work of even our most talented and committed students. We know firsthand how deep-seated the habits can be and how quickly they can outrun our best intentions. We seek not to single out the Presbyterian report, but to illumine patterns that recur in many forms of Christian witness.

Echoes of past interpretations: The report’s opening biblical reflections make conspicuous efforts to avoid anti-Jewish exegesis. But the report pays scant critical attention to Christianity’s long history of anti-Jewish interpretations, and so echoes of these interpretations linger. Those echoes then become amplified by other sections of the report.

The report’s title, “Breaking Down the Walls,” echoes the celebration in Ephesians 2:11–22 of God’s overcoming of divisions between gentiles and Jews in Jesus Christ. The passage, which speaks of abolishing Torah and the formation of “one new humanity in the place of two,” has a long history of supersessionist deployment. There are other ways to read this passage, but the committee does not offer them. The report affirms that Jesus breaks down “the dividing wall of hostility between any two peoples or groups within God’s creation.” Read in the context of the full report, however, that vague affirmation takes on supersessionist content. The church is asked to consider a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews. The report’s consistent lament that the time for a two-state solution is rapidly ending solidifies that impression. “Breaking down the walls” in order to form “one new humanity in the place of two” evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.

Such echoes also linger in the report’s treatment of the story of Jacob and Esau. Framing the story as an illustration of general “processes of human reconciliation,” the report explicitly refuses to identify Palestinians and Jews with one brother or the other. But it describes Jacob in ways that resonate with anti-Jewish stereotypes. He is “characteristically untrusting and wily.” He cannot accept forgiveness. And “in spite of his having seen ‘the face of God’ and received a new name, he had no experience of ‘new being,’ of ‘new creation.’”

The ambiguity of these associations takes on a more pernicious clarity when this retelling of the story of Jacob and Esau is compared to the report’s main historical narrative. The narrative describes the birthright of a peaceful, multicultural Palestine being appropriated by an influx of European Jews. It says that these Jews refused to assimilate, but preferred—like Jacob—to move ahead on their own. It says that Israel—like Jacob—has refused the offer of full reconciliation. While the biblical reflection suggests that Jacob might also be like Palestine, no part of the document suggests how this might be. Jacob/Israel becomes the guilty brother.

Such associations defy the report’s stated intentions. The failure to root them out allows them to resound and replay in later arguments.

Ambiguities about covenant: The report’s biblical section draws upon at least three different understandings of covenant and land. First, its analysis of the term Zion concludes that the church “fully transferred the locus of God’s concrete presence in the world of space and time from the place of Zion—that is, Jerusalem—to the person of Jesus, who had been crucified and raised from the dead just outside Jerusalem.” The covenant has been fulfilled, and its fulfillment involves a transcendence of place in the person of Jesus. Covenant no longer concerns land.

Consonant with this view, the report reaffirms a prior PCUSA statement that “the State of Israel is a geopolitical entity and is not to be validated theologically.” Thus Israel, having neither special sanction nor special obligations, should be judged by the same standards applied to any other nation.

But a second understanding of the land checks this approach. Appealing to a survey of Presbyterians and a collection of biblical texts that limit Israel’s claim to the land, the report states, “Most Presbyterians . . . hold that this promise [of offspring and land] is conditioned by concepts found elsewhere in the first five books of the Bible,” such as the idea that the gift of land is conditional upon Israel’s “adherence to justice.” Here God’s covenant with Israel did and does include provision of land. But that covenant also includes special obligations. And so the report insists that “Israeli Jews” must “fulfill their ‘land responsibilities’” and their “covenant obligation.” Israel is here not just another nation, but a nation held to a special standard. Its claim on the land is not unconditional, like the claims of other peoples upon the places where they live.

A third view of the land further complicates the report’s thinking. When it seeks to expand the Abrahamic covenant to include Palestinian Christians, it appeals to Paul’s view that in Jesus Christ God’s covenant with Abraham expands to include the church. But when the report expands the covenant to Palestinian Muslims, it argues that the covenant extends to all Abraham’s descendants. Thus the report offers different views on who is included in the Abrahamic covenant and how people come to be included. But in neither case does it mention special covenantal obligations. Again the report promotes a vision in which conditional Jewish claims to the land are surpassed by and then reformulated within the seemingly unconditional claims of other communities.

All three views draw upon old tropes of Christian anti-Judaism. The first describes the incarnation as a rejection of God’s covenant with Israel. The second singles Jews out as a people condemned to wander, a people without “natural” ties to land like other people. The third follows a narrative in which Jews are replaced by others.

The use of any of these tropes would be problematic. The problems increase when the report entangles these different strands of thought, with the only significant consistency supplied by political conclusions that stress unconditional Palestinian (Christian and Muslim) covenantal roles while minimizing and holding to special standards Israeli (Jewish) covenantal roles.

Comparative trauma and false stereotypes: The MESC report rightly refuses to engage in comparisons of suffering. It rejects attempts to compare the systematic murder of 6 million Jews (ha-Shoah) and the forcible displacement of 750,000 Palestinians (al-Nakba). Instead it argues that these two catastrophes should be regarded as parallel but incomparable “psycho-traumas.” But the report compromises this sound principle when it compares present-day suffering, calculating that the “ratio of all Israeli to Palestinian deaths [between 2000 and 2008] is 1 to 8.5 and for children it is 1 to 7.4.” Thus suffering is incomparable when comparison might speak on behalf of Israel, but quantifiable to a tenth of a life when it benefits Palestinian claims.

The report makes a further unhelpful comparison in tracing the effects of these traumas. It states, “This sense of historical victimization creates for some Israelis a compensatory reflex to choose power and armament; to reject the claims and critique of others; and the adoption of a philosophy that the ‘end justifies the means,’ even if that means the loss of human rights, life, and the dignity of others.” The summary of effects for Palestinians invites comparison: “The inexplicable pain of the Nakba creates for some Palestinians a sense of historical victimization, which creates a compensatory reflex to choose violence; to reject the claims and critique of others; and the adoption of a philosophy that the ‘end justifies the means.’”

Israelis have a “sense of victimization”; Palestinians have “inexplicable pain.” The Israeli psyche is so damaged that it leads to the “loss of human rights, life, and the dignity of others.” The Palestinian psyche appears better preserved. This comparison is neither social psychology nor pastoral counseling. It is at best unfortunate rhetoric—all the more unfortunate because it draws upon stereotypes of Jews as neurotic, legalistic, bellicose and xenophobic. Again the report’s rhetorical habits betray its best insights: traumas are wounds to be tended, not arguments to be deployed.

Narratives of replacement: The report’s longest section is a sprawling 68-page “Plea for Justice: A Historical Analysis,” written by a professor of bioethics and a professor of Old Testament. This study appears alongside a nine-page piece by a Reform rabbi titled “Notes from a Humanistic, Liberal Zionist: A Personal Perspective.” The two documents seem intended, despite the disparity in size, to balance one another.

They do not. “Plea,” which stresses a Palestinian perspective, was written by members of the MESC, and its arguments appear elsewhere in the report. “Notes” exerts no discernible influence on other parts of the report. Even the titles of the pieces suggest asymmetry: “Plea” makes a much stronger rhetorical claim on readers than some comparatively skimpy “Notes.”

The problem here is not simply imbalance. The problem is that neither document is rigorously historical. “Notes” is a collection of personal anecdotes. “Plea,” despite its length and footnotes, ignores violence against Jews in the region both before and after 1948 and so can be easily dismissed as partisan.

The lack of critical historiography in “Plea” also allows old narrative habits to structure the material. For example, “Plea” notes that between “the fourth and the seventh centuries C.E., the majority of those who lived in the Roman province of Palestine were Christians . . .” But it ignores the reasons for this shift, including Christian persecution of Jews, an influx of Christian immigrants and an imperially supported program of Christianization. Worse, it argues that “when Jerusalem was captured by the Persians in the seventh century of the Common Era, it was the Christians, not the Jews, who sang a lamentation over the Holy City.” Here, Christians replace Jews in lamenting Jerusalem, and this replacement then legitimates Christian claims to the land. The form of supersessionist narrative endures, even as the topic shifts from soteriology to politics.

Presentations of history always involve decisions about what data to present and how to present them. The canons of academic history—canons that “Plea” largely ignores—do not eliminate the necessity of such judgments. But they can check political interests, force reflection on inconvenient truths, create conditions for meaningful disagreement and disrupt too-familiar narrative forms. They can expose bad habits and serve as a tool for their reform.

Mischaracterizing Jews: The report begins with a series of letters to groups the committee believes have a stake in the report. One letter, addressed to “Our American Jewish Friends,” laments the difficulty of working with “organizations within the mainstream Jewish community.” This difficulty should be the occasion for dialogue, not an excuse for avoiding it. Moreover, the report does not name these “mainstream” groups. The open-ended designation has the effect of suggesting that most Jews do not care about Palestinian suffering.

Nor is it clear that the committee seriously attempted to engage with this Jewish “mainstream.” Its schedule of interviews included an associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, but no other representatives of U.S. rabbinic assemblies, let alone the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The committee did meet with the American Jewish Committee’s representative in Israel, but he told the Jewish Week, “They listened to nothing.” Also missing is a conversation with Americans for Peace Now (APN), a “mainstream” Jewish organization and a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. APN was established to mobilize support for the Israeli peace movement, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), and is the most prominent American Jewish Zionist organization working to achieve a comprehensive, just political settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The report silences some Jews by naming them as difficult. It silences other Jews by presuming to speak for them without having spoken to them. The report states that it is “hopeful as organizations like J Street, B’Tselem, Jewish Voice for Peace and others continue to raise the banner that being pro-Israel and being truly Jewish is not tantamount to complicity in the excesses of Israeli policy.” However, a J Street spokes person indicated that the committee did not consult her organization. She added that J Street had “serious disagreements” with the recommendations and deep concern that the report “consistently downplays Israel’s very real security concerns, appears to shrug off any Palestinian responsibility for resolving the ongoing conflict, and downplays the Israeli narrative throughout.”

The thinness of the committee’s consultation with Jews is especially striking when the report is compared to another Presbyterian document, “Christians and Jews: People of God.” This document followed eight meetings between PCUSA theologians and representatives of the National Council of Synagogues and four additional meetings of Presbyterian ministers and Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

Erasing Israel: Breaking old habits is hard work. Guidelines can help. But guidelines become fault lines when they slip from being guides for transforming action into standards for justifying action.

A crucial guideline for Christians seeking to break habits of anti-Judaism is to criticize Israeli policies in the same ways they criticize the policies of other states—without calling the very existence of Israel into question. The report follows this guideline in its letter to American Jews: “We want to say to you in no uncertain terms,” it insists, “we support the existence of Israel within secure and recognized borders. No ‘but,’ no ‘let’s get this out of the way so we can say what we really want to say.’”

Having sworn off qualifications of its support for Israel’s existence, the report then offers them: “The phrase ‘the right of Israel to exist’ is a source of pain for some members of the 2009–2010 Middle East Study Committee, who are in solidarity with Palestinians who feel that the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.”

This frank acknowledgment helps interpret a series of notable silences. While the letter to American Jews affirms Israel as a “home for the Jewish people,” language about a “Jewish state” appears in no policy recommendation. Affirmation of Israel as any sort of state is absent from the letters to American Muslims, Palestinians and Christians in the Middle East. The recommendations do not call the General Assembly to reaffirm its commitment to Israel’s existence. And the recommendations—despite a promise in the summary of past GA positions—do not call “Palestinians and other Arabs to recognize Israel’s existence within secure borders.”

At two points the report insinuates the illegitimacy of Israel through connections to Nazi Germany. A committee member quotes an unnamed Israeli activist as saying that Israel “acts as a Nazi state.” By quoting an Israeli, the report draws the unfortunate connection even while exculpating itself of having made it.

The report also quotes Martin Niemöller’s famous litany: “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist. . . . They came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.” Then it calls for human rights “not just for the Jew, but for every suffering victim in the world today, including the Palestinians.” When Palestinians become Jews in the quote, Israel becomes Nazi Germany. It is hard to see how such rhetoric attends to the “psycho-trauma” noted in the social analysis. And it is hard to see how it squares with the strong affirmation of Israel’s existence contained in the letter to American Jews.

Critics of Christian statements on Israel/Palestine have too often relied on premillennialist theologies or blanket charges of anti-Semitism that stop conversation before it can begin. The former exempt Israel from criticism because of divine favor; the latter exempt Israel from criticism because of human guilt. We have tried to avoid both gambits. We do not wish to muzzle Christian critics of Israeli policy. We have criticisms of our own. We rather seek to foster conversations that can consider Middle East politics without being overwhelmed by old habits of anti-Judaism.


Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine teach at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Comments

Letter from J. Mark Davidson

In “Habits of anti-Judaism” (June 29), Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine critique the report developed by the Middle East Study Committee of the Pres­byterian Church (U.S.A.), “Breaking Down the Walls.” Although the report is a call to Pres­byterians to redouble their efforts to encourage a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine, Smith and Levine do not engage it as social witness policy. Instead, they critique the report for its “unexamined habits of anti-Judaism.” For them it’s a case of interfaith relations trumping social justice.

Smith and Levine adopt the tone of a sobriety coach working with an alcoholic who’s trying really hard to stay on the wagon but, alas, keeps falling off. As the authors state in their opening sentence, “Old habits die hard.” If only the Pres­byterians would follow the wise guidance of enlightened and politically correct academics (like Smith and Levine), they could avoid these mortifying missteps.

For instance, under the authors’ coaching, the Presbyterians would not have used the Jacob and Esau story as an illustration of the dynamics of human reconciliation; according to them, referring to Jacob as “wily” evokes a “negative Jewish stereotype.” Never mind that Genesis itself describes Jacob this way—in fact celebrates this trait of cleverness as the key to his survival in a hostile world.

Neither would the Presbyterians cite the multiple uses of Zion in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament or the different understandings of “covenant” therein, because these terms belong to the minefield of history and evoke (there’s that word again) “echoes” of Christian anti-Judaism and might remind the alert reader of troublesome “anti-Jewish tropes.”

And of course the properly informed Presbyterians would know better than to use a Christ-centered text like Ephesians 2:11–22, which refers to Christ breaking down the walls of hostility and offering himself as a vehicle for peace and reconciliation between divided parties, be­cause it “evokes” supersessionism. Never mind that it is a key New Testament text grounding the Christian vocation of peacemaking and the call to reconciliation. Never mind that the PCUSA has, since the advent of Holocaust theology, engaged in four decades of sincere Christian-Jewish dialogue and interfaith cooperation. It has also stated its un­equivocal repudiation of supersessionism, its clear affirmation that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is eternal, and its steadfast refusal to view Jews as objects of Christian proselytism.

Naturally, appropriately sensitized Pres­byterians would show the correct reticence about highlighting Palestinian voices in the report, because this would open them to the charge of being “partisan,” “pro-Palestinian” or, worst of all, “unbalanced.”

One wonders what would be left of the report after Smith and Levine had given it a good interfaith scrubbing and pronounced it fit for public consumption.

The article makes the serious charge that the MESC report displays a persistent and unwitting “anti-Judaism.” After re­reading the entire report of 160-plus pages again with this charge in mind, I frankly don’t see it. Rather, I see a misreading of the report by two academics who are sincerely committed to improving Christian-Jewish relations but who chose to grind their ax at the expense of the report.

Smith and Levine claim not to be trying to “muzzle Christian critics of Israeli policy,” but it would be naive to assume they are not aware that accusing critics of Israeli policy of being “anti-Semitic” or “un­balanced” is a well-known bullying tactic de­signed to put critics on the defensive.

J. Mark Davidson
Church of Reconciliation
Chapel Hill, N.C.

Letter from Ronald Shive

While Smith and Levine consider the MESC report to be one more example of a supersessionist false witness against the Jewish people, the report in fact focuses on justice and peace in a setting in which Israelis have vastly disproportionate power over Palestinians and in which a Christian minority is on the brink of extinction. Smith and Levine do not challenge the report’s delineation of the facts on the ground, and they demonstrate no efforts to change those facts. Nor do they give anything but minimal attention to the moral questions about what is being done in violation of international law to hinder the possibility of a two-state solution.

As their critique acknowledges, the report explicitly repudiates anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism and supersessionism, yet they allege that the committee “as a matter of habit” has allowed these to seep into the report. Their story line is possible only by use of an extremely distorted and fanciful interpretation and very creative imaginations.

I would urge readers to read the report for themselves, noting that part three is composed of study materials that the committee was not asking the PCUSA General Assembly to approve. These study materials offered two different perspectives of the conflict; neither fully represented the perspective of the committee as a whole. The report and FAQs regarding it can be found at www.pcusa.org/middleeastpeace.

Ronald Shive
Chair, Middle East Study Committee
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
First Presbyterian Church
Burlington, N.C.

Letter from William Plitt

While it is reassuring that Smith and Levine acknowledge the need to advocate for an end to Palestinian suffering due to Israeli policies, their attacks on the MESC report are disturbing. The charges against the proponents of the report as bearing “false witness” and displaying bad habits rooted in the historical past of “anti-Judaism” miss the mark and become a diversion from the heart of the matter—which is the denial of basic human rights.

The writers conflate religion and politics. They presuppose that criticisms of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza, for example—or, more recently, against the Freedom Flotilla—are anti-Semitic. This presupposition is both common and misguided. As a sovereign nation, Israel is subject to scrutiny and critique, just as are all other countries in the family of nations. To assume that Israel, because of its Jewish majority, is off-limits to critique is inappropriate, unhelpful and patronizing.

The article melds the maintenance of healthy interfaith dialogue with the implementation of strategies de­signed to alter Israeli government policy and be­hav­ior. The authors stress several times that taking such actions as divesting funds or withholding military funding would harm Presbyterian relationships with our Jewish friends.

It’s true that anti-Semitism is alive and well. But maintaining good interfaith relationships must be done in the context of open and honest discussion of disagreements. We must keep strong our Christian witness to respond to the injustices of the occupation, which are recognized to be violations of international law.

The fear about supersessionism ex­pressed in the article is also unfounded. The report does not support the concept of the replacement of Jews as the chosen people.

To continue to take no action and only engage in dialogue on the recommendations of the report would be to maintain the status quo. Jesus was not passive and did not shy away from attacking popular beliefs rooted in the culture of the Roman occupation. He suggested a third way—nonviolent resistance to injustice. The PCUSA study report calls for such action for the good of all humanity.

William Plitt
Arlington, Va.

Letter from Doug Gebhard

I was exceedingly pleased to read Smith and Levine’s critique of the MESC report. Having not read the entire report, I was anxious to hear about the committee’s work from the co-moderators during a recent Webinar. The anti-Israel bias was clear from the beginning. Despite the fact that Palestinians do not have a nation of their own, the entity “Palestine” was as­sumed throughout and contrasted to the nation of Israel. During the response time, I posed a simple question: “Where is the state of Palestine?” The answer: “Well, it doesn’t exist, but we hope it will someday.” But most egregious was the lack of any denunciation of Hamas or Hezbollah. Israel and its military actions were frequently de­nounced, but there was scant mention of the horrific acts of violence committed by “brothers and sisters in Palestine.”

Doug Gebhard, Chair of the Conciliation Team (Salem Presbytery)
Lewisville, N.C.

Letter from Mark Braverman

The intent of the MESC report is clear:

“to break down these walls that stand in the way of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.” But Smith and Levine ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.” In a shocking distortion of the study committee’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that the report “evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.” “Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying “anti-Semitism” when­ever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the state of Israel are questioned that we must confront.

In a handful of words of breath­taking clarity and beauty, Ephesians 2:14 articulates a vision of universal wholeness, of the breaking down of hostilities born of divisions between peoples. This is the core of the Christian vision put forth in Ephesians and this is the spirit and intent of the Presbyterian report. The report is not perfect. But it is a faithful document, and it represents the best hope for peace. These Presbyterians are not about destroying Israel. They are about saving it. The survival of Israel, whether as part of a partitioned territory or as a single multiethnic state, depends on we who are Jews (as well as our Christian supporters) letting go of the belief that every critical word about Jews, Zionism or the state of Israel stems from implacable hatred toward the Jewish people rather than, of all things, our own actions.

Mark Braverman
Submitted via e-mail

Letter from Stephen P. Gerhard

I consider it unhelpful for the continuing conversation be­tween Jews and Christians that Smith and Levine began their article with an unbounded generalization regarding mainline Protestant denominations: “The old habit of bearing false witness against Jewish neighbors lives on . . . [and] this practice has thrived especially in mainline Protestant statements on the Middle East.”

Stephen P. Gerhard
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Letter from Barry Mack

Canadian Presbyterians seem to have done a better job of mapping the theological middle ground. By avoiding both loopy dispensationalism and an un-nuanced liberationism in favor of a re-worked covenantal theology, one hopes that the report of the Canadian church’s doctrine committee to this year’s assembly avoids the sins ascribed to their Amer­ican cousins and will issue in fruitful dialogue between at least some Christians and some Jews on the vexed question of justice in the Middle East.

The report, “One Covenant of Grace: A Contemporary Theology of Engagement with the Jewish People,” can be found at http://presbyterian.ca/webfm_send/5040.

Barry Mack
Submitted via e-mail

Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine reply

The General Assembly of the Pres­byterian Church (U.S.A.) made significant revisions to the Middle East Study Committee report, and these revisions addressed our most significant concerns. All of the problematic passages we named were either received as information—and so denied official standing as church teaching—or excised completely. The as­sembly added a clear affirmation of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation. As Ronald Shive—chair of the MESC, who wrote the letter printed here in advance of the assembly—said at the assembly itself, “I think that what we have come out with is a strengthened report.” We agree.

The assembly appropriately retained many of the original report’s critiques of Israeli policy, including calls for ending settlements in the West Bank and for limiting the Gaza blockade to military supplies. No longer enmeshed in anti-Jewish rationale and now contributing to a wider process that takes seriously the needs of all sides, such critiques can play their rightful role. As our essay plainly stated, the injustice is real. There is a need to take a stand. But it matters how Christians take that stand, and for what reasons.

Therefore, we focused closely on the rationale for the original report’s recommendations. We engaged the sections on Bible, theology and history more than the list of policies. Some of our critics felt that this focus amounted to a failure to engage the report as social witness. But the witness of the church is more than a series of policy pronouncements. It involves reasons and rhetoric, a way of seeing the world.

The deepest problems in the report emerged in its reasons and rhetoric, not in isolated policy pronouncements. It is not anti-Jewish to argue that Egypt and Israel should allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. Thus we do not, as William Plitt writes, “presuppose that criticisms of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza, for example—or, more recently, against the Freedom Flotilla—are anti-Semitic.” This is exactly the view we reject—explicitly and frequently—in our essay.

Plitt also says that we “stress several times that taking such actions as divesting funds or withholding military funding would harm Presbyterian relations with our Jewish friends.” We do not even mention divestment or military funding. And we never ground our argument in the effects a decision might have on Jewish-Christian relations.

Plitt in effect charges us with playing the anti-Semitism card, and he does so by attributing to us statements we did not make and motives we do not hold. So, too, Mark Braverman says that we need to let go of “the belief that every critical word about Jews, Zionism or the state of Israel stems from implacable hatred toward the Jewish people.” And J. Mark Davidson calls this a “well-known bullying tactic.” These are stock arguments—themselves designed to silence critics—that do not fit the content, points or purposes of our essay.

We argue that this particular report slipped into habits of anti-Judaism. And we tried to cite specific cases throughout the report to make that argument with precision. We are grateful for Stephen Gerhard’s caution against unbounded generalizations.

It did not require flights of fancy to see habits of anti-Judaism at work in this report. Davidson makes it sound as if we saw Jacob described as “wily” and leaped immediately to a charge of anti-Judaism. The leap sounds fanciful only be­cause Davidson ignores both the rest of our argument and the history of Christian anti-Jewish preaching. The report described Jacob not just as wily but also as unwilling to accept forgiveness. It said that Jacob, who had seen the face of God and received a new name, still “had no experience of ‘new being,’ of ‘new creation.’” Jacob is the legalist who cannot accept grace. He is the one who met God but missed redemption. Each point alone is problematic; together they assemble into a line that points toward patterns of anti-Jewish rhetoric.

This line is underscored when such moments—and many more like them—are taken together and read in conjunction with parts of the report that liken Israel to a Nazi state and attribute Israeli intransigence to a uniquely deformed Jewish psyche.

Plitt, Davidson and Braverman all see our concerns about supersessionism as unfounded. To be sure, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has for decades rejected supersessionist theologies that describe a covenant of salvation with Israel which is forfeited by Israel’s sin and given to the church. We see the supersessionist narrative returning, however, in a political key. The original report repeatedly related history in this form: once Jews had a claim to the land, but then they sinned, and now the land should be given to others. This narrative form appears, for instance, in the report’s stating that “most Presbyterians” see God’s covenant with Israel as including the promise of land, but also a set of “land responsibilities” and “covenant obligations.” The original report then suggested that if Israel does not fulfill these covenant obligations, it should lose the land.

In the context of such a narrative, human rights violations are not just policies to be resisted. They are reasons for dissolving the state of Israel and giving its territory to others. What Jews lose shifts from eternal salvation to political legitimacy and land. But the form of the supersessionist narrative is the same.

This pattern of political supersessionism aroused our concern about the report’s use of Ephesians 2. The report’s talk of “breaking down the dividing wall” clearly referred not just to a generic sort of conflict resolution, but also to the wall/security barrier erected by Israel. Talk of two peoples becoming one also invited a specific political reading given the report’s ambivalence about a two-state solution. Ephesians 2 was doing many kinds of rhetorical work in the report. It can be “a vision of universal wholeness,” as Braverman suggests, but it also serves in this report to suggest a world in which Israel is absorbed into—superseded by—a single state with a Palestinian majority. Two peoples become one.

Christians should worry about this kind of supersessionism not only because it offends Jewish neighbors (let alone the numerous Presbyterians who found the report unhelpful), but also because it compromises the integrity of Christian witness and because it has done so much to underwrite injustice. Thus we reject the opposition that Plitt and Davidson try to set up between interfaith relations and justice. Witness is not a zero-sum game. As Ronald Shive and other leaders have argued, “We have learned that we do not have to choose between our commitments.”

We join many others in hoping that this year’s General Assembly opened up new ground for conversation that is pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace. We would be pleased if our essay played a role in creating that opening, and we hope that this subsequent exchange might share in that new conversation.

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