There is a widespread impression that prior to June 1967 Israel was beloved by American liberals, who turned lukewarm only when the Jewish state lost its underdog status. While most mainstream liberal politicians at the time were indeed pro-Israel, the same cannot be said for liberals in academia and in an often overlooked but influential source of elite opinion – the major Protestant denominations, which by the mid-1960’s were almost uniformly leftist in their political orientation.
The late Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., who gained notoriety in the 1960s for his militant antiwar stance, was an archetype of the trendy left-wing clergyman. Consider his offensive analysis of the Israel-Arab conflict, from a 2004 interview with Catholic New Times:
“As goyim (non-Jews), we have to be very sympathetic to a kind of persecution complex, a paranoia on the part of Jews…. However, it is possible that the oppressed long to be oppressors or they naturally react that way. I attack Sharon and his policies in the name of Judaism as I understand it…. So many Jews who know better refuse to criticize Israel…. It’s a little bit like a southern white in the 1950s being against segregation. Israel seems to latch on to loyalty and those who do criticize them are written out. No one will touch them.”
The animus toward Israel among left-wing clerics was evident long before settlements or Ariel Sharon emerged as convenient foils. On July 7, 1967, not a month after the end of the Six-Day War, the executive committee of the liberal National Council of Churches released a statement lambasting Israel for the “unilateral retention of lands she has occupied since June 5.”
That same day, a remarkable letter in The New York Times made the equation between Israelis and Nazis that in later years would become all too familiar:
“All persons who seek to view the Middle East problem with honesty and objectivity will stand aghast at Israel’s onslaught, the most violent, ruthless (and successful) aggression since Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Western Europe in the summer of 1940, aiming not at victory but at annihilation,” wrote Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, a former president of Union Theological Seminary, the academic centerpiece of liberal Protestantism in America.
And then there was Dr. J.A. Sanders, one of Union Theological Seminary’s more prominent professors at the time, who, in decrying the injustices done to Arab refugees, wrote in the liberal journal Christian Century:
“Let us imagine that the United Nations decided that, to compensate for the crime of genocide against the American Indian, the state of New Jersey should be given to the remaining Indians in the United States…. And that the present inhabitants of New Jersey who did not wish to live under an Indian government in the newly created state of ‘Algonkin’ could live in tents and camps in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. A wildly impossible event, of course, but a not altogether unjust analogy.”
To which Howard Singer, in his luminescent book Bring Forth the Mighty Men: On Violence and the Jewish Character (Funk & Wagnalls, 1969) responded, “Well, no. It is a hideous analogy…. Palestine was not ‘given’ to the Jews by the United Nations; they did not have it to give. The United Nations did not create anything new; it merely ‘legitimatized’ what already existed. The United Nations did not defend what it had legitimatized; it could not, it had no troops of its own, it was as much a debating society then as now. The Jewish community in Palestine proved its reality by soundly defeating the armies of the neighboring Arab states. What difference, then, did United Nations ‘legitimatization’ make? None, actually. The United States still clamped an embargo on arms to Israel, even though the United States had recognized it as a nation.”
Regarding the refugees, Singer added: “If Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq had not invaded Palestine in 1948 there would have been no war and no refugees….”
It’s unlikely anyone on The New York Times editorial board has ever read Bring Forth the Mighty Men, but even if a copy of the book, long out of print, were to fall into the hands of every board member, it wouldn’t help. When it comes to the Middle East, the otherwise adamantly secular editorialists at the Times write from a vantage point not of reason but of faith – the faith of liberal churchmen like William Sloane Coffin and Henry Van Dusen.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org