Two years ago, American Jewish community relations groups were busy patting themselves on the back for achieving a signal victory in turning back the attempt by anti-Israel radicals to hijack the Presbyterian Church USA.
After the Presbyterians became the first Protestant church to embrace divestment from companies doing business in Israel in 2004, Jewish groups worked hard to overturn the decision. When the church voted to back away from this stand in 2006, it was rightly seen as a triumph not just for friends of Israel but also for the tactic of outreach itself as years of tenacious diplomacy paid off.
The celebrations seem to have been premature.
The release of a document by the church last month titled “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Bias in the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace” was supposed to help its members guard against anti-Semitic rhetoric when discussing the Middle East.
Instead, it is a compendium of charges aimed at deligimitizing the Jewish state.
The document avoids discussing Arab support for terrorism and, rather than serve as a warning against bias, it serves as a justification for anti-Israel invective since it places blame for the conflict solely on Israel rather than on those attempting to destroy it.
In itself, this should justify the outrage and the feelings of betrayal that have been voiced by a wide spectrum of centrist and liberal Jewish denominations and organizations that worked to reverse the previous Presbyterian stand on Israel.
But also buried in the document is a strand of thought that is relevant not only to this battle for the soul of a powerful mainline liberal Protestant church but to the mindset of American Jews as well,
Amid a laundry list of anti-Israel measures in the Presbyterian statement — including opposition to the security fence that effectively ended the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign – is the assertion that “Christian faithfulness, as well as the policies of our church, demands that we maintain our commitments … to criticize forms of Christian Zionism.”
That means that in the same document in which they urge members to avoid couching attacks on Israel in ways that could be labeled anti-Semitic, the Presbyterians specifically attack fellow Christians who have lent their support to the idea that the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty over their historic homeland.
In particular, they singled out evangelicals such as Pastor John Hagee, who was flogged out of the camp of Republican presidential candidate John McCain for saying the Holocaust was caused by the Jewish sin of failing to make aliyah.
To support the contention that Christian Zionists are wrongheaded, the Presbyterian document cited Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, who in a December 2007 speech warned Jews to avoid alliances with the pro-Israel Christian right.
Yoffie, whose Reform movement joined the coalition of Jewish groups that condemned the Presbyterian reversal, is not happy about this. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he is “infuriated” about the Presbyterians “embedding” his words in a “doctrine that is so hostile to Israel.”
While some of Yoffie’s criticisms of Hagee are not completely off-target — particularly his reaction to Hagee’s foolish talk about the Holocaust, for which the pastor has since apologized — the Reform leader is right to be embarrassed.
But rather than merely being annoyed by the church’s chutzpah, he ought to be rethinking his own bashing of right-wing Christian Zionists.
Indeed, the Presbyterians’ renewed flirtation with anti-Zionism should serve as a wake-up call for the vast number of American Jews who have clung to their prejudices about evangelicals, despite the sea change in the Protestant world that has occurred in the last generation.
In the past, Jews instinctively looked to mainline liberal Protestant churches, like the Presbyterians, the Methodists, Lutherans and Anglicans (all of whom been debating divestment measures against Israel in recent years) as allies. At the same time, Jews generally assumed that evangelicals, who generally lived outside the coastal urban enclaves where Jewish life has thrived in America, tended to be anti-Semitic.
But in the America of 2008, it is the evangelicals of the Christian right who are instinctively supportive of Israel, while our traditional allies on the Christian left are flirting with a theology that demonizes Israel and the Jews.