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July 23, 2010

Israel as the Ram in the Thicket

Note: The following is a slightly edited version of an essay by CAMERA's Christian Media Analyst, Dexter Van Zile. The piece, which was originally posted on Facebook, can also be seen here and here.

In the course of my work, I have become increasingly worried about the message offered by mainline Protestant churches (and some quarters of the Roman Catholic Church) about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only is the narrative offered by these institutions distorted, it has a negative impact on the safety of Jews throughout the world.

My concerns, which are still coalescing, can currently be summarized as follows:

1. There is a continuum of anti-Israel rhetoric. One end of the continuum is marked by hate toward Israel and Jews rooted in deeply hostile beliefs about the nature of the Jewish people. The other end is marked by polite de-legitimization through an obsession with Israeli policies and silence about the behavior of its adversaries.

The hateful end of the continuum is occupied by anti-Israel extremists in the Middle East and their supporters in the West who portray Israel as a cancerous entity that prevents the Muslim and the Arab peoples in the region from reclaiming their rightful place in history. Under this logic, Israel must be destroyed. Jewish sovereignty is a bad thing because of the nature of the Jewish people.

This brand of anti-Zionism is largely fueled by Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people and the land. Under these teachings, Jews are enemies of God and Islam who should be subject people. Muslim tradition also states that land previously governed by Muslim rulers should never be relinquished to non-Muslims.

Put these two teachings together and the very notion of a Jewish state is a humiliating violation of the Islamic nomos or sense of order rooted in Muslim scripture. Writers such as Sayyd Qutb have retrieved the notion of the Jews as enemies of God evident in the Koran and the Hadiths and applied them to the state of Israel with lethal effect.

Also at this end of the continuum is the hard left in the U.S. and Europe. These activists, who oftentimes co-operate with the Islamists described above, portray Israel as a unique and enduring threat to peace and human rights in the world. To these activists, Israel is guilty of genocide and its supporters in the West are enemies within. These activists regard violence directed at Israel and its supporters as justified. The logic is that only a monstrous people could defend such a monstrous nation. Jews who support Israel support genocide and apartheid and cannot be trusted. They are the enemy within.

In the middle of the continuum are activists who depict Israel and its status as a Jewish state as an obstacle to the causes of peace and the advancement of human rights in the Middle East. Under this narrative, Israel should not be destroyed but dismantled and converted into a bi-national state in which Jews would by definition, be a minority. It is the consequences of Jewish sovereignty that trouble this group.

Most of the time, adherents of this viewpoint speak in less hateful tones than the extremists I just described, but the implications of their narrative are the same: Minority status for Jews in an Arab and Muslim country. Adherents of this narrative regard violence against Israel as understandable and unavoidable. Ostensibly, they are motivated by the suffering of the Palestinian people. (As described below, adherents of this viewpoint oftentimes shift to the more hateful end of the spectrum.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from those who call for Israel’s outright destruction and express contempt for Israel are those who explicitly affirm Israel’s right to exist while subjecting it actions and in some instances its Jewish identity to extremely harsh and unreasonable scrutiny. Adherents of this narrative point out Israel’s failings but are reluctant to point out the misdeeds of its adversaries. They acknowledge that indeed Jews were the victims of genocide in Europe, but fail to acknowledge the frankly genocidal hostility toward Jews and Israel in the Middle East. When they criticize Israel, they speak as if they are motivated by feelings of mournful sorrow about Israel’s failings and hope that someday, Israel will get its policies right and that Jews will come to a better self-understanding and be able to live in peace with its neighbors.

2. One’s presence at the more benign (and less hateful) end of the spectrum does not guarantee that one will stay there.

Activists and commentators who “hang out” so to speak at the softer, less hateful end of the anti-Zionist continuum can move toward more hateful territory. (They often do.) They do not embrace the Islamist narrative, but instead embrace secular notions of Jews as enemies to world peace and well being.

As time passes, they start to attack Israel’s Jewish supporters in the West as monsters whose mere presence represents a threat to human rights and democracy. People who obsess about the effects of Jewish sovereignty on the Middle East, (as if Palestinian suffering is singular and without parallel and caused solely by Israel) will eventually come to unreasonable conclusions about the nature of Jews and their state. Through this process, the people who are motivated by a legitimate concern about the Palestinians begin to mimic the anti-Zionist rhetoric offered by the people on the more extreme end of the continuum. And once they embrace anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism is just the next step down the road, so to speak.

3. Efforts to de-legitimize Israel contribute to insecurity for Jews throughout the world. (Israel gets attacked in the Middle East and Jews are threatened in the West).

Over the past few years, there has been a measurable and observable increase in hostility toward Jews throughout the world, particularly in Europe, South America and sadly enough, in some quarters of North America. This was particularly evident during Israel’s fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The Community Security Trust, (a Jewish group in Great Britain similar to the ADL in the United States), linked this hostility toward media coverage of the conflict. According to the CST, anti-Semitic attacks were down during the first six months of 2006 from the year before.

But anti-Semitic incidents rose sharply during the summer of 2006 largely as a consequence of “the war between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon that took place in July and August.” And once a ceasefire was instituted in mid-August, attacks declined. The European Jewish Congress reported similar findings in a report of its own about hostility in the rest of Europe.

A few other examples of this problem include:

• The atmosphere outside the United Nation’s “anti-racism” conference that took place in Durban South Africa in 2001. At this conference, Arab and Muslim extremists from the Middle East and their allies from the radical left in Europe and the U.S. were able to convince the gathered assembly to affirm an amalgam of ritualistic charges of genocide, racism and ethnic cleansing targeted at Israel. Jews were singularly denied the right to participate in the proceedings at the conference because they could not be "objective." Security officials told representatives of Jewish groups that their safety could not be guaranteed. Protesters carried signs stating that if Hitler had finished the job there were would be no state of Israel and no Palestinian suffering. During the conference a Jewish doctor was beaten by people wearing checkered keffiyehs – the symbol of the Palestinian cause – who said Jews were the cause of all the problems in the Middle East. Local Jewish leaders attributed the attack to the atmosphere at the UN Conference.

• The murder of a French Jew, Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2005. Halimi, a 23-year-old French Jew, was kidnapped, tortured for three weeks, stabbed and left to die at a train station on the outskirts of Paris by Muslims who had anti-Israel literature in their apartments. His torture took place in the basement of a public housing project. People knew of his suffering and did not call the police.

• The murder of Pamela Waechter, an employee of the Jewish Federation in Seattle in 2006. Waechter was shot to death at the height of the Hezbollah War by a man describing himself as a Muslim-American “angry at Israel.” The killer was later discovered to be suffering from mental illness, but just as John Salvi who killed two women at an abortion clinic in Boston in 1994, was encouraged by the highly-charged atmosphere surrounding the debate over abortion in the U.S., the anti-Jewish fringe is energized by hostile rhetoric coming out of the Middle East.

• The plight of Jews in Malmo, Sweden. Jews are fleeing Malmo in droves as anti-Semitic attacks, perpetrated mostly by Muslim immigrants have increased substantially. Malmo’s mayor has failed to stop the attack, stating they are merely a consequence of Israeli policies in the Middle East.

• The display of anti-Semitic imagery at anti-Israel rallies in the U.S. during Israel’s fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip during the winter of 2008-09. Protesters carried signs equating the Start of David with the Nazi Swastika, a clear expression of anti-Semitism.

• The recent admission by a young Muslim woman at the University of California San Diego that she supports genocide against Jews in Israel.

• The recent stoning of a Jewish dance troup in Hanover, Germany.

4. One’s presence at the “softer” end of the continuum described above makes it unlikely that one will challenge the extremism of people on the other, more hateful end of the continuum. People who root the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict solely in Israeli policies have a difficult time seeing the motivation and actions of Israel’s adversaries for what they are.

Nowhere is this reality more evident in the activism about the Arab-Israeli conflict offered by mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. that have offered little if any criticism about the rising tide of hostility toward Jews and Israel throughout the world.

Since the Second Intifada, mainline Protestant churches (the Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists (also known as the UCC), Presbyterians and Episcopalians) have attacked Israel, portraying it as solely responsible for the conflict. The narrative told by these churches is that Israel can bring a unilateral end to the conflict through a magical combination of peace offers and territorial withdrawals. Israel’s failure to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve peace is depicted as a consequence of some flaw in Israel’s national character. Examples of this narrative abound:

a. In 2004, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly passed an anti-Israel divestment resolution stating the occupation was at the root of violence against innocents on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It made no mention of the ideological hostility toward Israel espoused by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

b. In 2005, the general synods of both United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ passed a resolution that called on Israel to take down the security barrier without asking Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that preceded its construction.

c. Mainline Protestant denominations have published numerous books portraying Israel in an unfairly harsh light. Some of the language in these texts borders on the hateful. For example, one Presbyterian commentator has likened Zionist settlement in Palestine during the 20th century to a “killer-vine” that had attacked a prize rose bush in his back yard. (This is just one example.)

d. In embracing this narrative, mainline churches have demonstrated a fundamental inability to think clearly about the strategic and moral challenges Israel face in the Middle East. Instead of encouraging their parishioners to embrace a comprehensive understanding of the ideological and physical threats faced by the Jewish people, these churches have encouraged people to embrace an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict that places Israel under intense scrutiny and which gives its adversaries a pass. They offer little, if any, criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah while intensely interrogating Israeli policy and Israel's status as a Jewish state.

5. This is not the first time mainline Protestant institutions have engaged in this type of behavior. For example, in the 1930s, Christian Century, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the U.S., exhibited a troublesome hostility toward Jews and their desire for a state of their own and to other collective expressions of Jewish identity. The publication gave prominent and laudatory coverage to anti-Zionist Jews and attacked Rabbi Stephen Wise, a prominent Zionist in the U.S., for bringing the Holocaust to the attention of the American people in 1942.

Coverage like this was emblematic of a larger reality. Prior to World War II, Jews were regarded through the lens of potential conflict. As the first targets of Nazi hostility, Jews were regarded as the cause and not the victim of the violence and hostility directed at them. Nazi anti-Semitism was condemned in the abstract, but when it came time to speak about issues in concrete terms, anti-war commentators were much more willing to condemn Jews as opposed to their enemies.

In both the 1930s and today, the contempt for the Jewish people and indifference to the threats to their safety can be linked to a refusal to take threats by totalitarianism seriously. Just as it was more convenient to abandon the Jewish people to the threat posted by fascism in Europe the 1930s and 40s, it is easier to ignore the threat posed by fascism in the Middle East. Here a phrase used by Paul Berman to describe the anti-war socialists in 1930s France seems appropriate: “They were eager, they were desperate to find a description of reality that did not point to a new war in the future.” (Terror and Liberalism, page 124). This applies readily to the so-called peace activists in mainline churches. They desire peace. This desire is legitimate. But in the course of searching for peace, they have abandoned reality and the Jewish people as well.

6. Part of the problem is that many people in mainline churches have embraced a view of history that portrays Western civilization as the dominant, if not unique source of suffering in the world today. Given this understanding, and the self-hate it engenders, members of these churches feel as if they deserve punishment.

In this sense, the members of mainline churches are like Abraham’s son Isaac on the way to Mount Moriah. They see the wood and the fire and have a vague sense that an immolation is going to take place, but hope desperately that they will not be the victim of this sacrifice. They feel on one level that if it weren’t for their exquisite moral sense, that they would deserve to be immolated.

And how do they demonstrate and give voice to their exquisite moral sense?

By condemning Israel.

Israel, for these folks, is the ram in the thicket on Mount Moriah. Israel is the entity that they can thrust into the fire of moral judgment.

In sum, what we are witnessing is an intellectual process by which people are preparing themselves to justify the re-abandonment of the Jewish people. If we continue with this process, it will have great consequences for the Jewish people in particular and Western civilization in general.

Posted by dvz at July 23, 2010 02:31 PM

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