In the coming days, leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA will take up a controversial issue – whether to divest from Israel. Why do these Presbyterians think as they do? Their critics overlook the obvious: It’s because of what’s being taught in some Presbyterian seminaries, where future church leaders are inculcated with the moral and religious foundations that shape their world views.
Leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA take up an old obsession in the coming days: Israel. They’re expected to vote on whether to divest from some multinationals doing business there – a controversial process launched at last year’s general assembly, amid a storm of controversy. Critics inside and outside the church have vigorously protested their actions.
To Presbyterian decision-makers, however, divestment is all about human rights – or, rather, Palestinian rights. They mercilessly villainize Israel for violating them, criticizing its anti-terrorism policies – its “separation wall” in particular – and even its commitment to its Jewish identity.
Israel is not perfect, of course; no county is. But the venom of some Israel-bashing Presbyterians is troubling because it negates anything positive about the Middle East’s only democracy; naturally, this suggests the criticism is really a politically correct form of anti-Semitism. Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant churches, according to one study, spend far more time and resources on alleged abuses by Israel and America – yet allot much less attention to the world’s most odious rights abusers.
In some cases, Presbyterian leaders have been apologists for Palestinian terrorism. Their divestment vote followed at least two “fact-finding missions” to the Middle East in which senior church officials hobnobbed with Middle East terrorists. They were part of well-meaning but naïve efforts at “dialogues” aimed at “understanding” different views and cultures.
“They’re taking basically a pro-Palestinian, even worse, pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah, pro-terrorist groups’ stance,” complained Rev. Parker Williamson, a retired pastor and former chief executive of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, speaking ahead of the week-long general assembly meeting that starts Thursday, June 15, in Birmingham, Alabama.
Jewish groups are particularly upset over the church’s veiled anti-Semitism. The outrage is justified, but I suspect it’s missing some important nuances. This probably isn’t old-fashioned anti-Semitism; not the “Gentleman’s Agreement” variety anyway – or at least not among most Israel-bashing Presbyterians and fellow travelers in other mainline churches.
This is worse, I suspect. This strain of anti-Semitism seems bound up with anti-Western loathing – or self-loathing. Palestinians are idealized. Israel is villainzed. Yet Israel is not the only target. Many of the church’s Israel bashers seem just as upset over America and, for that matter, Western Culture. To many of them, it’s not just a matter of what Israel or America does in respect to their policies. It’s a matter of who they are. You’ve heard about “self-hating Jews.” Some of these Presbyterians are “self-hating Christians.”
Churches and Palestinians
Why do Presbyterian decision makers think as they do? Their critics overlook the obvious: It’s because of what’s being taught in Presbyterian seminaries, which inculcate future church leaders with the moral and religious foundations that shape their world views.
One seminary with which I’m familiar is in Texas: a 104-year-old institution whose idyllic grounds are near the University of Texas campus in Austin, the state capital. I’m not a Presbyterian, incidentally. I’m not even a church-goer, though I regularly attended a mainline Protestant church as a youngster. Last February, however, I took a greater than ordinary interest in religion when I noticed that the Austin Theological Presbyterian Seminary was hosting a thought-provoking conference: “American Churches and the Palestinians.” The theme of the two-day event was inspired by a line from Isaiah 58:6: “To Loose the Chains of Injustice…”
Later, when briefly visiting the conference, the biblical passage’s subordination to a political view became clear: Israeli Jews were colonial oppressors; and Palestinian Arabs were their victims. The event’s main sponsors were hardly friendly toward Israel: The Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights; Friends of Sabeel-North America; and Pax Christi USA. Hundreds of religious leaders from around the country, representing various denominations, attended along with seminary faculty.
The speakers and participants invited to the event revealed much about the seminary and its world view. As the old adage goes: “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Consider a few of the main guests:
Robert Jensen, a radical left-wing University of Texas journalism professor. Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Jensen gained national notoriety for his inflammatory Op-Ed column in the Houston Chronicle, “U.S. Just as Guilty of Committing Own Violent Acts.” The attacks, Jensen argued, were “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism…that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.”
At the conference, Jensen discussed the mainstream media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A well-known figure in radical circles, it was not hard to surmise whom Jensen thinks the U.S. media favors – given that he believes Israel is as immoral as America. Two years earlier, in fact, he published an Op-Ed column in the Houston Chronicle and Palestine Chronicle. Its title and first sentence were the same: “I Helped Kill a Palestinian Today.”
“If you pay taxes to the U.S. government, so did you,” asserted Jensen. He went onto to say that “the current Israeli attack on West Bank towns is not a war on terrorism, but part of a long and brutal war against the Palestinian people for land and resources.” He said nothing about billions of international aid flowing over the years into the Palestinian territories – only to be squandered, pocketed by corrupt officials, or used to fund terrorism.
Jensen, a tenured professor, is a self-described “activist” in the mold of his radical counterpart, Ward Churchill, the embattled “ethnic studies” professor at the University of Colorado. Questioning the innocence of the World Trade Center vicitims, Churchill had derided them as “technocrats” and “little Eichmanns,” a statement with which Jensen fully agreed. (More on Jensen in Part 2.)
Cindy and Craig Corrie, parents of the late Rachel Corrie, spoke at the event’s dinner. At age 23, Rachel Corrie was killed when she put herself in front of an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer conducting anti-terror operations – clearing tunnels utilized by Palestinian terrorists. To her supporters Corrie is a martyr. To some in the mainstream media she’s an idealist. However, The Wall Street Journal’s online OpinionJournal had the most accurate description for her: “terror advocate.” It produced this revealing photo of Corrie at a pro-Saddam rally: She’s clad in Muslim garb, her face contorted in rage as she burns a crudely drawn American flag.
Corrie’s parents head the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice. Its goal is to support “programs that foster connections between people, (which) build understanding, respect, and appreciation for differences and that promote cooperation within and between local and global communities.”
The star speaker was the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Episcopal priest who founded and directs the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Ateek “flatly denies that Israel has a right to exist, describes Israelis as immoral and demonic, and salts his sermons with the language of Jewish deicide,” observed Diana Applebaum in a recent article in The American Thinker.
Like his Presbyterian cheerleaders, Ateek is an apologist for terrorists. He distributed a lengthy paper: “What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings?” A Palestinian Christian Perspective.” This subject was timely. Suicide bombings were more common at the time: Israel’s infamous “separation barrier” – which has indeed saved lives by thwarting suicide bombers – was in a less advanced stage of construction than today.
Ateek’s paper navigated a thicket of theological considerations, but its theme was fairly simple: Suicide bombers do indeed violate Christian doctrine – but the desperation fueling their misguided actions is understandable: It’s Israel’s fault. Neither Ateek nor his Presbyterian supporters, incidentally, have ever given credence to three other “root causes” of Palestinian terrorism: Islamist ideology; the culture of hate permeating Palestinian culture; an “honor-shame” mentality that undermines efforts for peace, which the overwhelmingly majority of Israelis desire.
I visited the conference briefly, walking along hallways lined with numerous exhibits outside “workshops” being conducted in classrooms. The exhibits bristled with pro-Palestinian political literature and books. One focused on Palestinian culture, displaying clothing and other items. (Not included were suicide vests or a replica of the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing; such an exhibit was displayed by clever Hamas student activists at al-Najah University in Nablus).
Ateek was a conference favorite. Conference-goers eagerly repeat his stories of alleged Israeli terrorism against Palestinians, including when, he says, his family was forcibly removed by Israeli troops on May 12, 1948. Perhaps Ateek’s stories are true; perhaps not. However, what’s clearly false about these stories, revolving around Israel’s creation, is that they pretend these were everyday occurrences, the result of Israel’s aggression: the defining element, in other words, of what Israel is.
There’s no denying, to be sure, that some Palestinians have some legitimate historical grievances. Most of us do; and most of us get over them. That includes people with far greater historical grievances than any of us: Jewish holocaust survivors and their families. They’ve led productive lives wherever they’ve gone, neither wallowing in self-pity or hatred.
However, such distinctions were non-existent at the conference. There was no pretense at balance. A number of Palestinians were present. So were a few Israeli-Jews who decried Israel’s policies. However, there were no victims of Palestinian terrorism. Terrorism was a non-issue, in fact, apparently not worth any moral nitpicking. If a suicide bomber walks into a Jerusalem pizzeria, and Palestinians cheer over the dead, well, people who are as oppressed as the Palestinians, whose humiliations are boundless, are entitled to do desperate things. That, it seems, was the thinking of the upright Christians at the conference.
Weeks before the conference, the seminary hosted a photography exhibit that reflected the conference’s main theme: Palestinians as victims; Jews as their exploiters. Dozens of heart-rending photos portraying Palestinians as victims were hung on the hallways of the seminary’s classroom building. For future ministers and religious leaders, the photos were there to see, ponder, and absorb. The exhibit was from a local documentary photographer, Alan Pogue, a Vietnam veteran specializing in social and political themes.
The exhibition’s theme was unmistakable: European Jews displaced by World War 2 had created Israel and ejected Palestinians from their ancestral homes. In fact, this was one of the photo’s captions. There were no positive photos of Israel or Israeli-Jews. How might Pogue depict Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal – now that Palestinians dying violent deaths usually do so at the hands of other Palestinians?
Some of Pogue’s photos may be seen here.
Two other photos arranged side by side impressed me for the mentality revealed by their juxtaposition. One was from New York City right after the Sept. 11 attacks – a poignant photo of a make-shift sidewalk memorial. It was a still life of sorts: flowers, photos, and mementos left by friends and family members.
Next to it was a strikingly similar photo – one of a Baghdad sidewalk memorial. It remembered the approximately 300 mostly women and children killed by a U.S. precision-guided bomb. They died in an underground shelter that U.S. military planners presumed was one of Saddam’s command-and-control centers. Just before the war, it was converted into an air raid shelter – one Saddam’s military men avoided. Using civilians like this is a common tactic among Middle Eastern terrorists and “insurgents” – a way to blame and shame the enemy when civilians are inevitably killed.
Pogue saw things differently. His caption noted the photos “similarities.” The subtle impression was that Americans now knew the horrors of the same crimes their government committed abroad.
Curiously, the exhibit was removed the day before a rare event at the seminary: a colloquium of Presbyterian ministers and rabbis held two weeks after the Palestinian conference. The event’s title: “A Difficult Friendship: Divestment, Dialogue, and Hope.”
One visiting Presbyterian minister and a rabbi were put off by the “Difficult Friendship” title.
“This is not a ‘difficult friendship,’ this is a ‘nascent friendship’,” observed Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “We’re really at the very beginnings of a friendship that at best is forty years in duration … The reality is that for the last forty years we have assiduously avoided the 600- pound-gorilla sitting in the room with us … our differences.”
In one sense, the remark was ironic. In recent years, Presbyterian leaders and the intellectual elite within their seminaries have, on the other hand, gone out of their way to bridge “differences” with Palestinian Arabs and Muslims – even when it means apologizing for terrorism or values that are the bedrock of our Judeo-Christian culture.
“The church has been infected,” a conservative seminarian once told me.
She wasn’t referring to Palestinian propagandists. She was describing the peculiar world view adopted by many left-wing Christians – sort of a hybrid of Marxism, Christianity, and Edward Said.
One result has been the vilification of Israel; not to mention America and even Western Culture. No, this is not your old-fashioned anti-Semitism. It’s something worse.