“We are committed to stand with Israel and the Jewish people,” declared a group of mainline Protestant activists from Western Europe and North America who met in Jerusalem just prior to last month’s escalation of hostilities around Gaza. The group also vowed to “stand with persecuted Christians and other minorities in the region.”
The 20 participants in the November 5-8 Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East came from denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Canada, the British Anglican and Methodist churches, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandinavia. Leaders of these denominations have resorted to increasingly harsh statements and gestures condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. At the same time, mainline church officials have remained largely silent about human rights abuses under neighboring Middle Eastern regimes.
Consultation participants joined in a closing declaration: “We are distressed to see how certain European and North American church officials approach the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as if it were a zero-sum game. They fall in line with the international campaign that purports to help the Palestinians by delegitimizing Israel.”
Participants criticized the targeting of Israel for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. “This approach is unjust,” they said, “and it is unhelpful to the cause of peace.” They added that “such strategies lend encouragement to the forces that have vowed to destroy Israel.”
By contrast, the Protestant activists “affirm[ed] our love of Israel. We believe that God remains in covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” They repudiated “the ‘replacement theology’ that claims Israel has no further place in God’s plans.”
“Our love for Israel does not contradict our love for other peoples in the region, including the Palestinians,” the declaration insisted. “We believe it is possible to pursue justice and peace in ways that attend to the rights and needs of all peoples of the region.”
Consultation participants told of hearing testimony of Coptic Christians from Egypt and Assyrian Christians from Iraq about the perilous situations they face in countries where Islamist movements are gaining power. “We have also come to see the hostility to Israel as part of a larger pattern,” the declaration observed. “The forces that refuse to tolerate the existence of a Jewish state are fiercely intolerant of other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.”
The November consultation was co-sponsored by the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel and the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. B’nai B’rith Center director Alan Schneider spoke to the Jerusalem Post about consultation participants: “They are often lone voices [in their churches] who have taken personal initiatives to counter this wave of anti-Israel agitation, and so we hope that this [consultation] will be the beginning of ongoing contact and cooperation among the participants.”
The anti-Israel agitation struck a nerve in the U.S. Jewish community in October, when 15 top mainline U.S. Protestant officials sent a letter to Congress demanding “an immediate investigation” into “widespread Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.” The church officials suggested the possible “withholding of [U.S.] military aid” from the Jewish state. In protest, leading U.S. Jewish organizations cancelled a planned Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting.
Participants in the Jerusalem consultation were eager to assure Israelis, diaspora Jews, and others that the anti-Israel ecclesiastics did not represent most church members. As Israel continues to come under attack, rhetorical as well as military, it has many more friends than it may realize. A survey last year by the Pew Forum showed mainline U.S. Protestants sympathizing with the Jewish state over the Palestinians by a 46 percent to 12 percent margin.
Alan F.H. Wisdom, a freelance writer in Falls Church, VA, is an adjunct fellow with Institute on Religion & Democracy. He was a participant in the November consultation in Jerusalem.
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