The Protestant Academy in Bad Boll is an influential think-tank located near Stuttgart, in southwest Germany. I worked there for a year in my youth, an experience which greatly influenced my thinking about the role of the church in a modern democracy—an issue of great urgency in the formative years of the Federal Republic. The Academy, then as now a distinctive institution of German Protestantism, has had a basic modus operandi since its foundation a few months after the end of World War II: It does not take positions of its own on public issues, but provides an occasion for individuals with different views and interests to discuss such issues in an atmosphere of freedom and moral concern. In the words of its founder, Eberhard Mueller, the Academy was to be “a forum, not a factor” in public affairs. I have just received the current number of its oddly named magazine Sym. (The Greek word means “with”, as in “sympathy” or “symbiosis”—I don’t know why this name was chosen.) The magazine contains a report and some additional materials on a conference held at Bad Boll in May 2011 on the so-called Kairos Palestine Document. True to its tradition, the Academy presented different positions without taking one of its own. The event serves to highlight the emotionally charged attitude to the Middle East by German Christians and indeed by Germany in general.
The long and rather curious document was released in December 2009 by a group of Palestinian Christians meeting at a dramatic location—in Bethlehem. The title is quite dramatic too—the Greek word “kairos” is a New Testament term for a moment of redemptive significance. The document is described as “a cry out from within the suffering in our country under the Israeli occupation.” There is a detailed description of this suffering. There is an affirmation of the right of Palestinians to live in freedom and independence in “this land”. The boundaries of the land are not specified, but Jerusalem is mentioned as “the heart of our reality”. The document condemns anti-Semitism, expresses love for the Jewish people, and affirms the goal of peaceful co-existence of Palestinians and Israelis. It does not challenge the existence of the state of Israel, but it rejects on theological grounds the belief by Christian Zionists that Israel has a God-given right to rule over the whole of historic Palestine. Although there is no mention of this, one may assume that the framers of the document were well aware of the importance of this belief among American Evangelicals.
While much of the document is ambiguous on some key items in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (notably the territorial details of a putative co-existence), it becomes very clear on its political recommendations. The strongest statement in the document is to the effect that the ”Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity”. (It is left unsaid whether this refers only to the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, or to the entire territory “between the river and the sea”—that is, the territory which now consists of the state of Israel.) Consequently, Palestinians have the right to resist the occupation. However, the document rejects violence in favor of “peaceful struggle”. It recommends the strategy of disinvestment and boycott, and urges Christians in other countries to support this. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa is held up as a model. (Again it is unclear whether these measures are to apply only to the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories or to Israel as such—one or the other, or both, have been recommended by pro-Palestinian groups in Europe and America.)
Jewish commentators have interpreted the Kairos Document as part of the strategy to delegitimate the state of Israel. The so-called DBS campaign (the acronym stands for disinvestment, boycott, sanctions), which began some years ago and continues today, clearly has this purpose. Mainline Protestantism, with its representative institution the World Council of Churches, has been increasingly hostile to Israel—in sharp distinction from the Evangelical community. The reiterated association of Israel with apartheid, in this document as well as in many other places, suggests an intention to make Israel an international pariah state as had been achieved with regard to South Africa in the past. One need not attribute this intention to all the framers of the Kairos Document or to all those who welcomed it. The suffering of Palestinians is real enough, and even sharp criticisms of Israeli policies (notably those which continue to support the settlements in the occupied territories) are not equivalent with a wish to erase the state of Israel from the map of the Middle East. Indeed, most of the critics, including Jewish and pro-Zionist ones, have argued (persuasively in my opinion) that the settlements are a major threat to the future of Israel.
Yet the document, whatever its motives, serves the purpose of the international anti-Israel campaign, with its whiff of anti-Semitism. The role of the World Council of Churches, which has had a long association with Third World ideology, is suspicious in itself. The very name of the document recalls the Kairos Statement, a condemnation of apartheid, issued in 1985 by a Christian group in South Africa. In April 2011 the Palestinian document was again released at an event in South Africa, endorsed among many others by Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. The document was also welcomed by Protestant church groups in Europe and America, though not always with the recommendation of disinvestment and boycott.
I have not obtained the full record of what everyone said at the Bad Boll conference. Evidently care was taken to let both advocates and critics of the document speak. Two authors of the document were there to present it, Jamal Khader (of the Catholic University in Bethlehem) and Naim Ateek (an Anglican and author of a 2010 book on the Palestine issue). Both have been associated with non-violent opposition to the occupation (which is the current policy of the Palestinian Authority). A critical viewpoint was presented by Dieter Qualmann (one must wonder whether this name determined the worldview of its bearer—in German it literally means “man of agony”!). He belongs to a German-Israeli friendship society. In opposing the call for a boycott of Israel, he reminded the audience that the Nazis called for a boycott of Jewish stores shortly after coming to power in 1933. Martin Schneller, a former German ambassador to Jordan, took a positive stand on the document.
The German relation to Israel is like that of no other country. Very soon after the end of World War II the Protestant churches issued the so-called Stuttgart Declaration, which acknowledged guilt for not opposing more forcefully the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The Federal Republic has been a model in its actions of repentance and restitution toward Jews, up to the erection of the huge Holocaust memorial in the immediate vicinity of the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament. There is some irony in the fact that Germany has been a more reliable friend of Israel than any other country in the European Union. German Protestantism has been a leader in this matter all along. At a 2008 conference called by the World Council of Churches to discuss the idea of a Promised Land, Michael Volkmann, in charge of Christian-Jewish dialogue in the Protestant Landeskirche (provincial church) of Wuerttemberg, gave an eloquent summary of actions taken by German Protestantism over the years to heal the wounds of the Nazi past. He pointed out the extent to which this dialogue has become a grassroots movement, firmly established in the culture of German Protestantism. He quoted Karl Barth, who said that the greatest ecumenical challenge is the Christian relationship to Judaism. He observed that he has missed such an attitude at this conference. One may surmise from this that the main thrust there was an attack on the idea that God’s promise of the Holy Land to the Jews is still in force (as of course both Israeli nationalists and Christian Zionists are claiming). As recently as September 3, 2011, German Protestant churches held the annual “Israel Sunday”, paying homage to Judaism and commemorating Protestants who helped Jews during the Nazi period.
On the other hand, German Protestants have had strong ties with Palestinians for many years. Since 1890 the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer has been an important Christian center in the Old City of Jerusalem. There has been a small community of Palestinian Lutherans since that time. (For a reason that is a bit embarrassing: Since Protestant missionaries could not convert Muslims during Ottoman rule, they instead converted Orthodox Christians—a definite breach of ecumenical etiquette as understood today.) German Lutherans founded the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem (still active today) and ran an orphanage for Armenian children who survived the 1915 genocide. Pietists (who are a sort of Lutheran cousins of Methodism), especially from Wuerttemberg, went to live in a number of colonies in Palestine—they expected Jesus to land there upon his return, and they wanted to be right there when he arrived. The Lutheran World Federation has an office in Jerusalem and conducts a joint program of religious studies with the Hebrew University. As a result of all this, German Protestants have a good deal of empathy with the plight of the Palestinians. They are especially cognizant of the dwindling community of Christians among them who, in addition to suffering from the conflict with Israel, face the violent threat from militant Islamism throughout the Middle East. Not long ago, commenting on the mass emigration of Christian Palestinians, the mayor of Bethlehem asked the world to imagine his city without any Christians.
Every year Israelis observe Independence Day, a joyful celebration of the re-establishment of a sovereign state in the ancestral Jewish homeland. On the same day Palestinians observe Naqba Day (Arabic for “catastrophe”), commemorating the fact that tens of thousands of their kind lost their homeland and were forced into exile at the same time. Powerful emotions attach to each observance. Many German Protestants have tried to do justice to both. The effort merits respect.