walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: November 14, 2012
Are Presbyterians anti-Semitic?

As was widely reported in both religious and secular media, on October 5, 2012, a letter highly critical of Israel was sent to Congress by leaders of most of the major mainline Protestant denominations and the National Council of Churches (which is dominated by them). The denominations include the biggies—the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ (once known as Congregationalists). Notably absent were the Episcopalians. And of course so were the Evangelicals (who tend to be very pro-Israel, perhaps more so than many American Jews).

The letter asks Congress to re-evaluate US aid to Israel in the light of its alleged violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Israel is the recipient of the largest amount of US aid, most of it military. The letter suggests that these violations are offences against US law prohibiting aid to any country engaged in a repetitive series of such violations. Also, the letter claims that the large Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands are in violation of international law and are an obstacle to peace. The purpose of the recommended actions is to end the Israeli occupation of what is supposed to be a Palestinian state (which is the avowed goal of US policy). The letter asks for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations”. Specifically, the letter asks for periodical Congressional hearings to examine Israeli compliance with these laws and for the withholding of military aid in case of non-compliance.

For several years now here has been an international campaign to accuse Israel of illegal occupation and human rights violations, instigated by Muslim states and organizations sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and gaining increasing support from the Left in Europe and America. The campaign has advocated different forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions (“BDS”)—some aimed at Israel in general, some more specifically targeting firms supporting the occupation forces or products of the settlements. The critics of the “BDS” campaign have asserted that its purpose is to delegitimize Israel and its very existence, an assertion given credence by the reiterated characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state”. The campaign against apartheid-era South Africa was successful in making it into an international pariah and was at least one factor in bringing about its demise. The present event is not the first time that American Protestant churches have been involved in the campaign. Both the Presbyterians and the Methodists passed resolutions in favor of divestment, only to rescind these after strong objections from outside and within these churches. The World Council of Churches, which is dominated by mainline Protestants, also passed a similar resolution, but did not rescind it. However, the recent letter to Congress went considerably beyond the earlier efforts, directly challenging US policy toward Israel and thus much more threatening to the latter than recommended actions by private organizations or businesses.

Predictably the Jewish reaction was furious. In the days following the publication of the letter to Congress, major Jewish organizations announced their withdrawal from a meeting of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable planned for later in October. The Roundtable had been established precisely to foster amicable discussion about issues creating tensions between the two communities. What is particularly galling is that the Christian participants in the dialogue were not informed beforehand that the letter was about to be published; they first learned of it from the media. This was, understandably, seen as a breach of trust. But the fury was triggered by the substance of the letter, not just by the sneaky way in which it was published. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League (which ongoingly monitors anti-Semitic developments and which was supposed to attend the planned Roundtable) succinctly expressed the feelings of all the Jewish groups: “It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state”. The rhetorical heat could not have been intensified any more: By one side Israel is implicitly labeled as a pariah state, to be treated as South Africa was in the days of apartheid; by the other side, American Protestant leaders are placed alongside Holocaust deniers and putative Holocaust imitators. Not only is it safe to assume that the Christian-Jewish Roundtable will have a hard time getting back into business, but that the damage to relations between the Jewish community and the liberal wing of American Protestantism is likely to be long-lasting.

The episode suggests a number of questions:

1) Is Israel guilty of violating the human rights of Palestinians? Probably so. Every occupation power does. But a profound bias is obvious in focusing on Israel for such violations, while ignoring the enormously more massive atrocities in other parts of the Middle East, notably right now in neighboring Syria. What is more, the truly grinding cost for Palestinians of the occupation is not primarily the occasional acts of violence by Israeli troops or settlers, but the daily deprivations and humiliations caused by the occupation regime.

2) Is the Israeli occupation a violation of international law? I have no idea. The occupation is the result of the 1967 Six-Day War, which Israel won dramatically against the combined forces of Arab states bent on its destruction. The occupation continues because of the failure by Israel and the Palestinians to arrive at a peace settlement. I rather doubt whether international law is well suited to deal with such a situation.

3) Is the settlement policy of the Israeli government (which goes back many years) an obstacle to peace? It is. Originally initiated for security reasons, it was subsequently “religionized” on the basis of the land promised by God as stated in the Hebrew Bible and, even in secular terms, it fostered the dream of a Greater Israel. By now it is very doubtful whether the realization of a two-state solution is still possible, as it would require the evacuation of tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Alternatively, the one-state solution, with a huge Arab population within the boundaries of such a state, would very quickly put Israel before the impossibility of adhering to its founding principle of being both a Jewish state and a democracy.

4) Is the letter to Congress useful in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace? No, it is not. Leave aside the likelihood that American domestic politics will prevent Congress from acting on the letter’s recommendations—in other words, the letter is a rhetorical rather than politically useful exercise. But even if Congress were to do something on these lines, it would not be “even-handed”, but would substitute its present pro-Israel attitude by a pro-Palestinian one. This would not be useful if the United States is to make a contribution to the solution of this extraordinarily complex problem. Religious leaders have the unfortunate tendency to believe that “speaking truth to power” is a good thing in and of itself, regardless of its practical consequences (and one may add, as in this case, regardless of whether it does indeed represent “truth”). A simple recommendation suggests itself: In political matters, if you have nothing useful to say, keep quiet.

5) Are the signatories to the letter anti-Semites? I don’t think so. It has frequently been asserted that anti-Zionism is a mask for anti-Semitism. This assertion has some plausibility in parts of Europe, but hardly in America. Survey data indicate a steady decline of anti-Semitic attitudes and a concomitant rise of positive feelings toward Jews in the United States. Americans today are much more likely to be anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish. Still, are there anti-Semites in America? I am sure there are. But they are very unlikely to be Protestant church leaders.

6) If anti-Semitism is not lurking behind the letter to Congress, then what motivated it? There are some not very profound explanations: These individuals probably believe (mistakenly, I think) that the unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and that US pro-Israel policy is a negative factor for the quest of peace—and, as mentioned above, they believe that this letter may help to bring about a “reset” of the policy. Also, for many years there have been strong ties between American churches and the (alarmingly shrinking) small community of Arab Protestants in the Holy Land, so that there is a particular empathy with the plight of this community.

However, I think that there is a more profound explanation: Since the 1970s mainline Protestantism has been strongly influenced by every progressive ideology that came down the pike—anti-capitalist neo-Marxism in economic and social perspectives, anti-Americanism and pacifism in world affairs, and every variety of “victimological” identity politics. For some years the pronouncements rolling off the presses of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and mainline Protestant denominations read like reprints of manifestos composed by rioting students on the Berkeley campus.

A core component of this cobbled-together worldview was an idealization of the so-called Third World. In the 1970s this reached a bizarre climax in an enthusiasm for every murderous regime in developing countries, from Maoism on down—as long as a regime was avowedly socialist and anti-American. This particular form of craziness has been more muted in recent years, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the rise of a radically capitalist China (under the auspices of a government that still calls itself Communist). But the Third-Worldism of the earlier period still lingers on in “postcolonial theory” and, more importantly, in the nostalgic memories of aging revolutionaries in academia—and in mainline Protestant churches: Palestinians are a Third-World people, therefore their cause is just. It is possible to empathize with the Palestinian people, without looking at its situation through this distortive ideological lens.

show comments
  • Martin Berman-Gorvine

    These comments are generally fair, but an additional irony should be pointed out: the decline in the numbers of Palestinian Christians is caused by widespread Muslim intolerance, which these letter writers seem utterly blind to.

  • Joe Garbanos

    Are Presbyterians pro-Semitic? Are they actually pro-Anything? I wonder why the Presbytarians are so obsessed with Israel’s human rights violations.(The Israelis are in an enormously unpleasant situation, and I think they keep strangely cool. Any other nation would just kick out all Arabs from the West bank. But the Jews still act like there’s a chance for a lasting peace to emerge from this mess. Ben Gurion reached out his hand, offering peace. The Israelis got their hand many times, yet they still reach it out…) To me, the Presbyterians just seem like a bunch of people that don’t enjoy life. And they don’t like it when others enjoy life.

  • Joe Garbanos

    * got their hand BURNED many times..

  • Dubi Yarden

    “Are the signatories to the letter anti-Semites? I don’t think so.”

    The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) Working Definition of Anti-Semitism includes the following: Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

    By a standard written by a European organization where assertions of anti-Semitism “have some plausibility,” as the author admits, a mainline Protestant letter that calls out Israel but no other country is prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism.

    Furthermore, the fact that the mainline Protestantleadership “has been strongly influenced by every progressive ideology,” itself usually a product of anti-Semitic Soviet-era propaganda, is no excuse for the leaders adopting anti-Zionism.

    Fortunately, rank-and-file mainline Christians, diminishing in number though they are, generally pay no attention to the politics of their leadership.

  • Karmanot

    It’s about time and late in coming. Anti Semitic my ass. Israel has been hiding its crimes and fascist apartheid policies behind that victim charge for far to long. As for the first comment, that’s a valid argument, but a different topic.

  • MarkB

    I think it’s fair to assume that there has been no vote in the membership of these Protestant denominations regarding Israel. The people who seek power in these churches are ideologically driven activists who see the denominations as useful pulpits to carry out their political actions – and nothing more. I think it would also be fair to say that most are atheists in all but name. They have taken over these old, mainline churches to use as propaganda tools, and corrupted the life out of them.Most members from a generation or two ago would be horrified by what they’ve become. In the community I grew up in, the Congregational church of my mother now flies a ‘welcoming’ rainbow flag, and seems to have little or no interest in Jesus. The church has become a talk-shop for anti-imperialists, anti-capitalists, gay rights activists, and everything but Christians.

  • John Barker

    “Christians, diminishing in number though they are, generally pay no attention to the politics of their leadership.”

    I have observed, neither do they pay much attention to their sermons.

  • ari

    The bishops of the ELCA held at least one retreat in the Holy Land, preferring Palestinian accomodations. Their hosts gave them embroidered stoles. They wear these stoles to preside over communion.

  • R.C.

    This is quite straightforward:

    The mainline leadership of the Protestant denominations are left-progressives;

    Left-progressivism as a movement is functionally (though not racially) antisemitic;

    Therefore the mainline leadership of the Protestant denominations are functionally (though not racially) antisemitic.

    Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

    They are functionally (though not racially) antisemitic. And this is revealed in the ongoing wild double-standards for behavior.

    The persons are not racially antisemitic; that is, they do not hate Jews as a matter of birth.

    But they are functionally antisemitic: They consistently impose ideological double-standards which put Jews in peril. (Indeed, I suspect it’s a form of oikophobia: The Jews are more like they are, so the left-progressives hate them more easily.)

    While feeling no animus towards Jews they may happen to know, they observe the prosperity of most Jews they know and of Israel relative to the region and contrast this with the poverty and dysfunction of the Muslim enclaves of Dearborn and of the Muslim Middle East. Then their left-progressive instincts take over and they identify the prosperous and high-functioning society as oppressor and the dysfunctional and poor societies as the oppressed.

    And that identification is all it takes to cause left-progressives to weep for every Hamas supporter who takes shrapnel — or pretends to do so in a Pallywood farce — while shrugging at every score of Israeli citizens incinerated in an exploding bus.

    I tell you the truth: Left-progressives will show no sympathy for Israel; when it is no more they’ll say “good riddance.” And they will show no pity for the Jews slaughtered to bring about this event; they’ll say, “payback.” Only when the remaining Jews live in a crushing dhimmitude will left-progressives suddenly say, “Ah, how terrible and unjust it is! How evil is the Islamist genocidal quest against the Jews in the Middle East!”

    But when this belated attitude emerges, it won’t be because left-progressives suddenly became aware of reality. It’ll only be because the Jews won’t be wealthy and prosperous any more, and will finally begin to tickle their left-progressive instincts the right way.

    To put it more briefly: To a left-progressive, the only good Jew is a poor and endangered Jew.

  • Viola Larson

    As for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which I am a member of, they do have an organization influencing much of the leadership which is antisemitic. That is the Israel/Palestine Mission Network. They did have a Facebook page that linked to various antisemitic sites until enough concerned people spoke out. Still they are on Twitter and link to all bad news about Israel including Jews who break the law in the United States and they link to all the good news about the Palestinians without ever chastising Hamas.

    Also just recently the executive of the United Church of Christ & the Disciples of Christ gave an interview o an organization founded by the man who founded the Institute for Historical Review which denied the Holocaust, that is the American Free Press. If it is okay you can find that information here:

    So what I am saying is that your article is basically right (excellent in fact) and at some point I think I will link to it on my blog. But there is also a small but very vocal undercurrent of antisemitic voices pushing on the top levels of mainline leadership.

  • Asher Eliezer

    I might agree that the other mainline Christian denominations aren’t anti-Semitic. Not so the Presbyterian church. In addition to this, the Presbyterian church continues to run messianic Jewish “congregations”, most notably in suburban Philadelphia. A link to its current website –

  • Wolf Terner

    When church leaders participate in immoral undertakings it is no surprise then their respective congregations are disappearing and dissipating.

    Nothing of the ideologies these churches entertained these past 40 years served to increase their congregants; rather they are in the process of withering away. They have left God in search of new idols and idol worshippers have no need of churches.

    To turn a phrase from the Book of Ruth about the future of these churches,

    “Whither thou goest…” and soon.

  • Darryl Boyd

    The shells of these once great Christian institutions are little more than clubs whos members long ago abandoned any pretense of being Christian. The WCC and its member churches took a Left turn in the early ’70’s and failed to see that few were following. The fact that their memberships have declined by over half during this time and currently continue a straight line fall to oblivion around 2020 offers stark testimony to the apostacy that has destroyed them.

  • DK

    Gestapo: “Where are the Jews hiding?”

    Liberal protestant (speaking Truth to Power): “In the attic.”

  • anon

    … but … but … but …

    Those mainline Protestant denominations recognize the holocaust that was committed,
    mostly, by Catholics. So, of course they
    are (not were) against that.

    To put it most briefly:

    To a left-progressive, the only good Jew is a Dead Jew.

  • Mac

    The author’s stated intention is to ask the NCC to STFU. This might have worked if not for the disastrous interventionist foreign policy that the evangelicals and neo-cons (which is dog-whistle for Jewish Americans now apparently) espoused under Bush II. You don’t get to tell other people how their foreign policy ideas are bad when yours are proven failures. Criticism of Israeli policy, particularly settlements, should not be off the table.

    As for the various commentors railing against the left and progressives, maybe they should think back to their kibbutz days and ponder the socialized Israeli healthcare system.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    No mention has been made of whether Presbyterians have always been anti-semitic, or at least “supercessionists” who saw the Jews as a rejected people who need to embrace the New Covenant of Jesus.

    If Wikipedia is a reliable source (?), Calvin called Jews “deicides” and “profane dogs” who were untruthful and lacked common sense. In Calvin’s work “Response to Questions and Objections of a Certain Jew” he wrote that Jews missed the unity of the Old and New Testaments and he believed Jews deserved to be oppressed without pity.

    To what degree, if any, Calvinistic theology carried over to modern day American Presbyterians I can’t say. The current American Presbyterian Church policies toward Israel seem mostly a reflection of New Class cultural politics poisoning Christianity. Many mainline protestant churches seem to have a perverted theology of the victim that is also found in the New Knowledge Class.

    Sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book “To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy and the Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” write about the cultural trend toward identifying with “victims.” Hunter warns about mainline and Anabaptist churches who embrace the “will to power” and seek political solutions to everything. As Hunter writes:

    “The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day.”

  • Tom

    Calvin also worked in medieval Europe, where anti-Semitism was, as near as I can tell, all the rage.
    In other words, Calvinism has virtually nothing to do with this–the Presbyterian Church (USA), the organization being discussed here, is a hotbed of theological liberalism.

  • David Fischler

    The mainline denominational leaders Berger cites (including Presbyterians) may or may not be anti-Semitic themselves, but they have no problem trafficking with anti-Semites:

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  • jean

    From an ex-Presbyterian. Yes,the Presbyterian Church USA, located in Louisville, KY is anti-semetic.My large Presbyterian Church located in Cincinnati was liberal progressive. I left the denomination because my husband is Jewish, and their anti-Israel bias infuriated me. The Presbyterian Church is more like a political action group for doing good works. It is not very spiritual.

  • jean

    R.C’s comments above are accurately. The ruling body of the Presbyterian Church USA has enacted anti-semitic policies. The people in the pews may not be anti-semitic, but the governing body and many ministers surely are.

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