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July 3, 2015 / 16 Tammuz, 5775
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From Liberal Protestants, A Theology Of Silence


No Jewish voices were invited as the World Council of Churches (WCC) convened in Bern, Switzerland this month “an international ecumenical debate” to consider the theological issues related to the Holy Land and help it formulate positions regarding “the Promised Land, the Church and Israel, justice and peace.”

In the Middle Ages, the Church often forced Jews to publicly defend their faith.  This spelled trouble, especially when Jews were not allowed to speak for themselves. If they “lost,” their entire community could be driven from the city. The rules, however, allowed them only to answer questions but not advance arguments in their favor. Winning was not an option.

The notable exception was the Disputation at Barcelona of July 1263, when King James I of Aragon allowed Nachmanides, a famous rabbi and physician, the right to speak freely. He trounced his opponent but aroused the ire of the Dominicans, who had him exiled. Nachmanides arrived in the Holy Land, where he jump-started the growth of the tiny Jerusalem community that had been there since antiquity.

If its long record is predictive, the WCC, the international umbrella group of liberal Protestant denominations, will not treat the Jews even as well as James did. Can sixty-five Protestant theologians accurately formulate “a holistic approach to the biblical message” without incorporating authentic voices of the people they are speaking about? The WCC will certainly not want to validate for its constituency the Jewish state that has been a thorn in its side since 1948.

In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the First Assembly of the WCC acknowledged that the failure to fight anti-Semitism had contributed to the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people: “The churches in the past have helped to foster an image of Jews…which has contributed to anti-Semitism” — perhaps a referral to the fact that the Nazis cited Martin Luther verbatim in calling on Germans to “set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.”

Indeed, after World War II many Protestant denominations took important steps in treating Jews and Judaism with new respect.

Not even the reality of Auschwitz, however, could bring the WCC to come to grips with the renewal of the covenant of the Jewish people with the Holy Land in 1948.  A WCC document depicted the establishment of the Jewish state in ominous terms, rather than the fruit of two thousand years of Jewish prayer and hope: “The establishment of the state ‘Israel’ … threatens to complicate anti-Semitism with political fears and enmities.”

Nothing would change, not even when Arab armies threatened to “drive the Jews into the sea.” The wars against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 elicited stony silence from the WCC. By the 1980s, it described any imputing of theological significance to the return of the Jews to the land of Israel as “heresy.”

Being anti-Israel has become part of the anti-establishment gospel, the trademark of those who purport to identify with the masses, the downtrodden and the Third World.  Paul Merkley, author of Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel said in a 2005 interview, “It is my considered belief, reached through careful study of dozens and dozens of WCC statements on this issue, that the WCC will not let up on Israel until it is no more.”

Deadly silence was the WCC’s reaction as well to the resurgence of global anti-Semitism.  At the infamous UN Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, a member of the WCC successfully argued before more than 3,000 NGO leaders that attacks on synagogues had nothing to do with racism. References to these anti-Semitic attacks were promptly expunged from the conference report.

Even without the decades of bias, formulating new policies in the Middle East without the benefit of authentic Jewish Zionist voices is the height of arrogance. Nor can a valid theological understanding for Christians be achieved without also taking into account Koranic texts that deny any human a place in land once controlled by Muslims, that speak of Jews as subhuman, and that make not a single reference to Jerusalem. The Hebrew Bible has no less than 669 references to the Holy City.

The WCC is a vast empire, incorporating 340 church groups in 120 countries.  Those churches are responsible for some 550 million souls. The WCC does not, however, speak for those souls. There is grumbling in the pews, especially from more conservative elements.

According to Thomas Ogden, a Methodist professor of theology at Drew, “The WCC’s Geneva offices were controlled for many years by leftist ideologues. By colluding with Marxist regimes, fixating on regulatory politics, fantasizing about various liberation theologies, fostering illusions about world anti-capitalist revolutions, and advocating some forms of sexual liberation, the WCC has defined itself in ways that evangelicals (and good Orthodox and good Catholics) cannot in good conscience participate.”

Indeed, the WCC may not speak for anyone but its well-oiled public relations apparatus. This means Jews will find many members of mainline Protestant denominations who do not automatically hew to the Geneva position. We can and must give ourselves the voice denied us by the WCC by reaching out to our Protestant neighbors and making our case directly to the people.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Center.


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