Christian Zionism: Fair Witness for Israel and Palestinians

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Christian Zionism: What Fair Witness Requires



What Fair Witness Requires      

By Dexter Van Zile


Introduction: Dexter Van Zile, Christian Outreach Director and member of the Executive Committee for Christians For Fair Witness on the Middle East spoke at a conference organized by the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel in New York City on May 19, 2006. Here is the prepared text of his speech (with some emendations added in an attempt to include changes made at the podium).

 I'd like to thank everyone for attending this conference. My name is Dexter Van Zile. I am Christian Outreach Director for the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership and a member of the executive committee of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East. Fair Witness was founded last year to promote a response to the divestment campaign in mainline Protestant churches. We have different temperaments and viewpoints, but all of us are mortified by the lack of organized response in mainline churches in the U.S. As far as different temperaments are concerned , Peter Pettit, another member of the Executive Committee, subscribes to the New Yorker. I read Drudge.  I'm here to offer a brief overview of the divestment campaign in mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.

I grew up in Allin Congregational Church, located in Dedham, Massachusetts. It's part of the United Church of Christ, a mainline denomination of about 1.3 million members and 5,700 churches.

Allin Church is one of those old wooden churches they show in movies when they want to evoke feelings of small town New England. The building itself was built sometime in the 1820s. Right across the street is the First Parish Church – the original church building now controlled by the Unitarians. After a bitter struggle over the theology which resulted in Unitarians gaining control of the structure, the defeated majority moved across the street and built Allin Church.

It was a bitter divorce. The two churches fought over the communion silver. The conflict was resolved by making two replicas of the communion ware – one set for each church – and by giving the original to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It has all the makings of a Yankee Protestant version of the Da Vinci Code.

As easy as it is to make light of those who came before us in faith, we owe them. The democratic impulse that manifested itself in Protestant churches of our forbears laid the groundwork for American democracy. The Protestant tradition's understanding of God tells us that we are gifted with certain inalienable rights. The Protestant tradition's understanding of human nature calls on us to consider how we must secure those rights. That has been the genius of our churches. We'll see if that remains our genius.

Faithful Protestants have long struggled with the issues confronting the American people. Leaders of our churches helped spark the American Revolution, helped write the constitution and jump started the Abolitionist movement.

More recently, mainline clergy and lay members have been prominent supporters of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. Protestant clergy along with their Catholic counterparts formed the backbone of the disarmament campaign of the 1980s. 

Mainline clergy and lay members have been proponents of the separation of church and state, fought for the rights of religious minorities and have promoted the status of women. They have also fought to promote the safety of gays and lesbians in the U.S.  Sadly, our churches haven't made these causes as they relate to the Middle East a high priority.

The only people in the Middle East our churches seem willing to defend are those who blame the Jewish State for their suffering.

While the membership of the top six mainline denominations has declined from 28 million in the 1960s to approximately 20 million in 1998, their influence cannot be ignored. In 1998, these top six mainline denominations had 75,000 local congregations, in which an estimated 4 million sermons were preached annually. Mainline churches support approximately 50 seminaries and some support their own publishing houses.

By virtue of their history, symbolism and theology, mainline churches have a unique capacity to whisper quietly (and sometimes shout) into the ear of the American people. Because these churches typically interpret the bible and the Christian faith through a lens of experience and rationality, mainline churches serve as a credible witness to American society writ large, even to those Americans who don't share the faith these churches confess. For many Americans – religious and non-religious – mainline churches represent a badly needed counterbalance to the fundamentalist community that many people regard with suspicion.

Consequently, mainline churches in the U.S. can give religious credibility to a variety of political agendas. And this is exactly that the divestment campaign is about – enlisting the religious credibility of historic churches in the U.S. to broadcast and legitimize a dishonest, unfair and hostile narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the American people. The end game is to convince the world that Israel is an apartheid state that is not worthy of normal relations with the West and ultimately a worthy target of a boycott. Accompanying Palestinian calls for divestment are calls for "broad boycotts" and embargoes against Israel. One student at the University of Michigan described the divestment campaign on college campuses this way: "What we want is not actual economic divestment from Israel. Everyone knows that the US will never pull investments out of Israel like that. Instead, we are looking to shift the dialogue to whether or not to divest from Israel, without extraneous discussion of the basics. We hope that in 10, 20 years the public will just take for granted the premises that Israel is an apartheid state, and then we can move from there." Clearly, the goals of the divestment campaign have little to do with changing Israeli policy or promoting peace, but with the economic and political isolation of Israel.

For the short term, it's not about the money, it's about the podium. Divestment resolutions afford pro-Palestinian activists the chance to speak before large audiences that gather at our church-wide assemblies and talk about checkpoints, home demolitions, and the security barrier without having to explain why Israel does what it does. The story offered is one of innocent Palestinian suffering and Israeli intransigence and savagery.

On this score, divestment is a McGuffin, or plot device used to capture our attention before it is directed to Israel's uniquely sinful behavior. After hearing this story, our church-wide assemblies pass judgment on the behavior and defense policies of a people who for the last 58 years, have fended off three attempts to destroy their homeland.

Most of the people who attend these church-wide assemblies know little if anything about the conflict. Because Jews do not typically have a seat at the table at Christian gatherings, the only way Israel's side of the story can be told is if church leaders deign to let Jewish leaders speak to the gathered assembly.

To its credit the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did just this at its Churchwide assembly in Orlando last year. For the most part, other denominations have allowed pro-Israel Jews speak to committees where resolutions are vetted, but not the entire assembly.

Palestinian activists, however, are routinely accorded voice without vote status or its equivalent. Under these circumstances, anti-Israel activists are able to offer their narrative, without substantive challenge, to the gathered assemblies, and to the reporters that cover them.

One of the greatest moral, ethical and intellectual failures associated with this campaign took place in July of last year when the General Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a Tear Down the Wall resolution during its meeting in Atlanta. This resolution asked Israel to take down the security barrier it is building on the West Bank without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction.

The resolution failed to acknowledge Israel's attempts to negotiate with the Palestinians in the pursuit of peace. Say what you want about Ehud Barak's offer in 2000, but one fact is indisputable. Yassir Arafat walked away from negotiations without making a counter offer. And yet our churches blame Israel for the Second Intifada that followed. 

It failed to acknowledge the role Palestinian leaders have played in promoting violence against Israelis. Muslim sheiks routinely call for the death of Jews on Palestinian TV, but the resolution said nothing about this incitement.

It also failed to acknowledge Israeli efforts to reduce the impact of the security barrier on Palestinians, nor did it acknowledge the reduction in suicide attacks the barrier has caused.

The resolution did not mention, much less condemn, the existence of an infrastructure of terror in areas under the jurisdiction of the PA. Suicide bombers are isolated from their families by skilled handlers, brainwashed, and in some instances shamed into killing themselves and Israelis. In another resolution, the General Synod condemned terror attacks, but not with the same level of specificity with which it condemned the barrier built to prevent them.

The most outrageous aspect of the resolution however, was its clear implication that the property loss and inconvenience suffered by Palestinians because of the security barrier are worse than the carnage caused by suicide bombing. This suggestion is unmistakable after reading the resolutions' detailed descriptions of Palestinian suffering without any specific mention, whatsoever, of the more than 1,000 Israelis killed by terror attacks during the Second Intifada, 135 of whom were killed during one month alone – March 2002.

Yes, 3,600 Palestinians were killed during the Second Intifada, but the resolution does not mention these deaths either or the fact that most of the Palestinians killed were combatants and most of the Israeli victims were women and children. Yes Israelis do kill Palestinian civilians, but they do not target them. Palestinian terrorists target civilians while hiding amongst civilians.’

The delegates who supported its passage have a lot to answer for, but the greatest responsibility, the greatest shame, the greatest portion of sin, and yes that's what it is, falls directly on the national leaders of the UCC and the Global Ministries staffers who controlled the information provided to the delegates and advocated for the resolution's passage.

Members of the committee that vetted this resolution were chosen at random from the delegates attending the church's General Synod in July. Only a very few of them had ever been to Israel and had seen security guards checking bags at restaurants, supermarkets and hotel lobbies.

They were shown maps of the barrier itself, but were offered no images of volunteers picking bits of skin from tree limbs after a terror attack.

They were told about the inability of farmers to get to their olive groves during harvest, but were not shown videos of Friday Sermons in Gaza during which religious leaders call for Jews to be butchered and killed.

They were shown pictures of ominous stretches of concrete wall, covered with graffiti, but they were not shown X-Rays of bombing victims with watch casings, nails and other bits of metal embedded in their bodies from terror attacks.

It should come as no surprise, the resolution came to the floor of the entire Synod, it was passed almost unanimously, with very little opposition.

I need to offer one more detail to anyone who would try to characterize the resolution as a complaint over the barrier's location and not its existence. At one point during the debate on the synod floor, a delegate, God bless his soul, approached the microphone and offered an amendment that would have asked Israel to dismantle or move the barrier to "internationally recognized borders." I know the response to this amendment is that until there is a final status agreement, there is no such thing as an internationally agreed upon border between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the West Bank, but in the context of the debate, it was this delegate's attempt to say "Look, if you've got to build the barrier, don't build the barrier on Palestinian land." 

This amendment, which was clearly offered as an attempt to acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself, was voted down – overwhelmingly. Imagine yourself a Jew. Ask yourself how you would interpret this fact.

Let me be clear. Detailing the impact of the security fence on Palestinians and admonishing Israel to do everything in its power to reduce these impacts is a legitimate part of Christian witness, if it is coupled with an honest acknowledgement of both the motive and impact of Palestinian violence against Israel. We have not seen this acknowledgement.

But portraying Israel as if it has the human rights record of China and the security concerns of Canada, as our churches have done, perverts the whole notion of witness.

Resolutions like the one I just described and the publicity they generate at church-wide assemblies are merely one method used to legitimize and broadcast the dishonest narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the American people. Denominational newspapers publish articles that detail the impact of the West Bank security barrier on Palestinians while giving short shrift to the impact of suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Websites are used to broadcast Palestinian propaganda, with little if any filtering. For example, the Common Global Ministries Board of the UCC and Disciples of Christdisplayed a press release written by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center that described Yasser Arafat as "the father figure of the Palestinians." The release did not mention Arafat's role in the death of 11 Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics, his failure to negotiate in good faith at Camp David, or the billions in foreign aid that disappeared under his tenure.

We will be judged by the things we do not say.

Denominational publishing houses are culpable as well. In 2004, Augsburg Fortress Press, owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America distributed Bethlehem Besieged by Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem who inveighs against checkpoints for making it difficult for Palestinians to get to the hospital in times of emergency. Raheb however, fails to mention the instances in which ambulances have been used in terror attacks against Israel. Fair witness requires an acknowledgment of why Israel imposed these checkpoints and why ambulances are delayed.

The overall narrative offered by mainline churches and their leaders about the Arab-Israeli conflict places a disproportionate amount of blame on Israel, and denies the religious component of the war against the Jewish state. Terror attacks against Israel are done under the cover of religious sanction. The support for Palestinian terrorists is provided by other countries with the approval of Muslim scholars and preachers for whom the notion of Jewish sovereignty and freedom on land previously governed by Muslim rulers is a theological impossibility. Silence on this issue from mainline churches which have condemned Christian Zionism for diminishing the prospects of peace in the Middle East is troubling, to say the least. Let's be clear, there is a growing number of voices for reform within the Muslim religion who need our support and encouragement. 

But when Protestant leaders meet with Hezbollah, as at least three Presbyterian groups have done, we are not doing these moderates any favors.

The narrative offered by mainline churches about the conflict also fails to honestly address the problems in Palestinian society that undermine its ability to live in peace with its neighbors and build a future for its citizens. The press release about Arafat's death is emblematic of this failure.

The mainline narrative also encourages readers to ignore the fundamental differences between Israel and its adversaries. At this point, a few comparisons are in order.

When Baruch Goldstein, and Israeli, killed 29 innocent civilians at a mosque in Hebron in 1994, his countrymen condemned the act as murder. Palestinians name soccer tournaments after suicide bombers. Crowds dance in the streets after successful suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. So-called militants pass out candy.

In Israel, extremist political parties, such as the one Goldstein belonged to, are banned as terrorist organizations. In the Palestinian Authority, Hamas got elected. 

Israeli peace and justice activists monitor the behavior of their soldiers at checkpoints to make sure they do not abuse Palestinians. When abuse does happen, these activists file complaints and tell the world. Palestinian peace activists rarely criticize their leaders in public.

Instead of taking these differences into account, activists in our churches use Israeli self-criticism to justify their agenda. For example, Israeli journalists have written extensively about the terrible mistakes their leaders made during its invasion of Lebanon.

In September 1982, the day after Christian Phalangists supported by the Israeli government massacred approximately 800 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla, 300,000 Israelis took to the streets to protest Ariel Sharon's failure to anticipate and prevent the massacre.

To be sure, there are debates over the number of people massacred and the number of protesters who took to the streets the next day. I've seen victims numbered as high as 3,000 and protesters numbered between 200,000 and 400,000. Whatever the numbers let me state unequivocally, the massacre was an outrage and the Israelis knew it and they said so.

But our churches use this self-criticism in a discriminatory manner. Anti-Israel activists in our churches routinely invoke this massacre to justify their calls for Ariel Sharon to be tried for war crimes. 

They have remained virtually silent, however, about atrocities that cannot be blamed on Israel. For example how many of you have heard of Hama? It's a city in Syria where an estimated 10,000 civilians (and that's the low end of the estimate) were killed by their own government in February 1982, a few months before the massacre at Sabra and Shatila? How many calls have there been from activists in our churches calling for an investigation into this crime?

And in May 1985, Shiite Militia involved in the Lebanese civil war laid siege to Sabra and Shatilla, the scene of the massacre that took place three years before. The residents of these camps, subjected to intermittent bombardment for 18 months, were reduced to eating rats by the time the siege ended. An estimated 2000 people were killed.

Nabih Berri, the leader of the militia group that laid siege to these camps, became a protégé of the Syrian government and is currently speaker of the Lebanese National Assembly.

And while Protestant leaders justified their criticism of Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza as part of an effort to support Palestinian Christians, how much support did they lend to Christians in Lebanon who served as the backbone of a non-violent campaign to rid themselves of the foreign occupiers after their former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb allegedly planted by agents of Syria's Bathist regime? How many times did they invoke UN Resolution 1559, which called for the Syrians to end the occupation and for Hezbollah to disarm?

At this point, I feel compelled to address the involvement of Jews in the anti-Israel campaign in our churches. Two in particular, Marc Ellis and Jeff Halper, two prominent supporters of Sabeel, offer a narrative about the conflict that does not take into account the threats faced by Israelis on a daily basis. I have heard both Ellis and Halper speak and have never heard them mention the incitement on Palestinian Television, or acknowledge the repeated attempts by Israel's adversaries to destroy the Jewish State. The fact that both Halper and Ellis are Jewish does not turn their denial of these realities into a virtue. And their Jewishness does not give Christians leave to ignore these issues.

As I said just a moment ago, church leaders and activist justify their behavior as an attempt to lend support to a Christians from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem whose leaders come to the United States, describe the suffering they experience and then proceed to blame this suffering on Israel. Mitri Raheb is one of these leaders, but the most prominent in the U.S. is a man by the name of Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest and founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.

Sabeel, a pro-Palestinian organization that enjoys the support of activists in a number of mainline Protestant churches, portrays itself as a peace-and-justice organization that acknowledges Israel's right to exist and condemns terror attacks against Israel, but there are troubling aspects about the group's agenda that disqualify it as a true partner for peace, as its supporters in the U.S. insist it is.

One problem is the penchant of Sabeel's founder, Anglican priest Naim Rev. Ateek, to portray Israeli behavior in language that raises legitimate doubts about his motive. For example, Rev. Ateek has portrayed Israeli officials as modern-day Herods, written that Israeli government crucifixion machine operates daily in the disputed territories and has compared the occupation to the stone blocking Christ's tomb. This imagery, which surfaced during the Second Intifada, has undeniable echoes of the deicide charge leveled against the Jewish people. As documented elsewhere, the notion that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ – expunged from Catholic theology in 1965 – has contributed to unending hostility and violence against the Jewish people. Ominously enough, the portrayal of the Jews as Christ-killers is a common motif in Palestinian political discourse. Rev. Ateek's use of this imagery in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable.

Nevertheless, Rev. Ateek and his defenders assert he is merely using the "Language of the Cross" to describe Palestinian suffering, but in fact, he is referring to Israeli behavior, not Palestinian suffering and consequently, its use elicits profound feelings of doubt over Rev. Ateek's motive as a peacemaker. Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, warns that "no compromise is possible when the crucifixion is invoked."

Sabeel also espouses a one-state agenda, which is made explicit in "The Jerusalem Sabeel Document, Principles for Just Peace," published by Sabeel in 2004. This document states that Sabeel's "vision for the future" is "One state for two nations and three religions." Under this scenario, Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state.

Even supporters of the Palestinian cause have acknowledged that under such a solution, the Jews would not be safe. Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and a frequent speaker at Sabeel events admits "The history of bi-national states is not a happy one." And more to the point, Edward Said, who spoke at an international conference hosted by Sabeel in 1998, admitted in 2000 that he worries what would happen to a Jewish minority in a single state. "It worries me a great deal," he said. "The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don't know. It worries me."

Sabeel also denies the Palestinians moral agency by rooting Palestinian violence and suffering entirely in Israeli behavior. Sabeel's prescription for the end of the conflict is "end the occupation and the violence will end" narrative. This story is enunciated in the PC(USA)'s divestment resolution passed in 2004, which asserted that "occupation" had "proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict."

Arab violence against Israel and Jews existed long before the occupation and long before the creation of the modern State of Israel. And in at least three instances, Palestinian violence has increased after Israeli efforts for peace. Israeli deaths increased after the failure of Camp David in 2000. Israel deaths increased after the first round of Oslo negotiations in 1993 when Israel agreed to transfer power in the disputed territories to the Palestinian Authority. Israeli deaths increased after the second round of Oslo negotiations 1995 when Israel agreed to let the PA maintain a security force of 24,000 men to maintain order in areas under its jurisdiction. And more recently, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was met with increased weapons flow into the PA from Egypt, an up tick in rocket attacks against Israel, and in late January, an overwhelming electoral victory for Hamas – an organization which recently posted a video of a suicide bomber expressing a desire to drink Jewish blood. This is the world the Israelis live in. And our churches do not do a good job of describing it.

Underpinning this narrative is what I call messianic pacifism, or the notion that embracing the tactics of non-violence in the face of terror and aggression will somehow bring about  the redemptive promises offered in Isaiah, in which "the lion, like the ox will eat straw" and not I presume, thirst for Jewish blood. The irony of the story offered by Sabeel and its defenders in the U.S. is that it is a mirror image of pre-millennial dispensationalist narrative that they abhor – not in the predictive language of biblical prophecy, but in the prescriptive language of peace and justice. In this schema, improvements in the Arab world will take place as a consequence of Jewish change of heart and behavior. But instead of the Jews coming to Christ, Sabeel would have the Jews of Israel embrace a pacifism (which no other country in the world would be expected to embrace) in the face of terror attacks.

What does fair witness require? I'll offer four suggestions.

The first is that we must renounce and distance our churches from thedeicide imagery offered by Rev. Naim Ateek. This is not the language of peacemaking, but the language of demonization. When mainline churches turn a blind eye, or worse, apologize for the use of this imagery, one of the bulwarks of anti-Semitism in American society has fallen.

Secondly, churches must acknowledge the religious component of the war against Israel. If Protestant leaders in the U.S., including those in the UCC, are going to condemn Christian Zionism as a threat to peace, they have an obligation to acknowledge the religious motivation of violence against Israel. Religiously-motivated hostility toward Israel, which Hamas embodies, turns the conflict from a disagreement over borders and settlements into a fight over the existence of the Jewish State, an issue over which their can be no compromise. We can no longer remain silent about this component of the conflict.

Thirdly, our churches must start speaking honestly about the problems in Palestinian society that will make it difficult for Palestinians to live in peace with their neighbors and build a future for themselves. Calling for the creation of a Palestinian state while remaining silent about collapse of civil order in Gaza, the mistreatment of Christians by Muslims areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority and the failure of Palestinian leaders to stop terror attacks against Israel encourages the creation of nothing more than a failed state that oppresses its own people and menaces its neighbors.

Fourth, our churches have an obligation to acknowledge the support Palestinian terrorists receive from other countries in the region. If Protestants in the U.S. are going to invoke America's "special relationship" with Israel as justification for the focus on its misdeeds, they have an obligation to acknowledge the support terrorists targeting Israel have received from Syria, Iran and up until recently, Iraq.

I would like to offer one closing comment. Our beloved mainline churches, for all their quirks, controversies and faults have a unique capacity to arouse the conscience of the American people. We have an obligation to make sure that the prophetic voices of our denominations are directed by an informed conscience, not a hostile agenda. It's time we started living up to this obligation.

Mr. Van Zile is a layman in the United Church of Christ.  He is the Director of Christian Outreach for the David Project Center in Boston, MA  and  the Director of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, He received his M.A. in Political Science/Environmental Studies from Western Washington University and his B.A. in Politics and Government from the University of Puget Sound. In the 1980s, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


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