Both the 7.6 million United Methodist Church and 2 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) will ponder anti-Israel divestment at their governing conventions later this year. Specifically targeted are 3 firms that ostensibly profit from the “occupation:” Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard.
Perhaps with this battle in mind, Friends of Sabeel-North America (FOSNA), a chief anti-Israel advocate among churches, has hired a Presbyterian minister as its new organizer to reach a “wider Christian audience.” Sabeel’s describes his goal as addressing the “increasing awareness among American Christians and the Palestinian Christian community and the principles required for a ‘just peace’ between Israel and Palestine.”
In other words, the organizer will rally U.S. Christians initially for anti-Israel divestment and more ultimately against any special U.S. friendship for Israel, with the final goal of deconstructing Israel as a primarily Jewish democracy.
The new Sabeel organizer is the Rev. Donald Wagner, who recently served at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. He previously headed Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, which seeks to disengage U.S. evangelicals from their traditional pro-Israel stance. In the 1980s he headed the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. Seemingly Rev. Wagner combines Mainline Protestant, evangelical and Anabaptist connections that will greatly enhance his anti-Israel work.
Mainline Protestant elites have been anti-Israel since the 1967 war. They identify Israel as a Western, pro-U.S. power and colonialist victimizer, against which faithful Christians must labor under a Liberation Theology theme. In contrast, evangelicals remain the largest pro-Israel demographic in America. But increasingly the Evangelical Left is persuading evangelical elites (especially in academia and missions groups) who are anxious to disassociate from the Religious Right to identify with purportedly oppressed Palestinians. And Anabaptists, such as Mennonites and Brethren, are pacifists and traditionally few in number. But both left-leaning Mainline Protestants and evangelicals increasingly embrace the Anabaptist tradition to justify their contempt for America and its “empire.”
The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem understandably wants to deploy FOSNA as its U.S. arm to appeal to all these key American religious constituencies. Rev. Wagner seems ideal for the task. ”I am very pleased to have Don leading FOSNA’s programs,” explained Sabeel founder and chief the Rev. Naim Ateek, who is a Palestinian Anglican clergy. “He demonstrated long ago his passion for justice for oppressed Palestinians, and he has been committed ever since.”
Chief among Wagner’s goals is promoting “Kairos Palestine,” the 2009 appeal by Palestinian church clergy for Western churches to renounce and boycott Israel. The Religious Left in America is not typically interested in persecuted churches around the world, especially if the tormentors are Islamist or Marxist. But Palestinian Christians uniquely attract their sympathy because their plight can be blamed on Israel. The Kairos appeal also likens Israel to Apartheid South Africa, which Sabeel is anxious to propagate in its campaign to make Israel as illegitimate as the old Afrikaner, racist state.
“Kairos Palestine is a hopeful and natural partner for FOSNA and Sabeel worldwide,” Rev. Wagner enthused in a news release. He acclaimed the Kairos clergy for having “been prophetic voices throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States on BDS, particularly with the churches.”
The Kairos movement has spawned supportive caucuses in different Protestant denominations. “United Methodist Kairos Response” recently hosted a reception for delegates to their denomination’s upcoming General Conference. The hostess cited “profits,” “campaign donations,” and “arms sales” as reasons for continued U.S. support of Israel, against which good Methodists must contend. And she insisted that “selective” divestment is aimed only at ending the “occupation” and not at Israel itself. Naturally, this opposition to the occupation never explains how Israel is to completely withdraw from the West Bank when Palestinians refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish democracy.
The Religious Left, with groups like Sabeel and the Kairos movement, spotlights Israeli settlements in the West Bank while claiming it seeks mutual existence between Israel and Palestinians. But there is almost always an underlying discomfort with the whole project of Israel as a Jewish democracy. Rev. Wagner’s 2003 book, Dying in the Land of Promise, seemingly likens the “past one hundred-year process of Zionist occupation in Palestine” to a killer vine killing beautiful rose bushes. “The Israeli occupation and settlement strategies that have taken over most of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights are like invading vines and weeds,” he further, sort of, clarified.
Much of Rev. Wagner’s 35 years’ worth of anti-Israel work obsesses over the supposedly sinister tentacles of Christian Zionism. “Christian Zionists have traded the mantle of the biblical prophets for an idolatry of militarism and the nation state,” he explained in a 2003 Christian Century magazine article. But typically radical Islamists, even apocalyptic Iranian clerics calling for Israel’s incineration, do not arouse anywhere near equal concern.
Groups like Sabeel, with help from clergy like Rev. Wagner, claim to speak both for, and to, Christians. But the ultimate beneficiaries of their campaigns to delegitimize Israel seem to be radical Islamists. And the ultimate victims of what they propose seem to be both Jews and Christians.
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