The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on October 19, 2011
German Christians and the Middle East

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.

  • ilukens

    an oddly opaque, carefully scrubbed and contorted piece of writing which avoids making any real judgement or statement– like the Protestant Academy at Bad Boll.

    The whole thing is a distasteful, bad faith, winking and smirking exercise for the conference participants to test the thrills of verboten anti-semitism while maintaining a nuanced smokescreen of politically correct sentiment.

    How exactly do the authors of the document express their “love for the jewish people” when Isreal is to be singled out as a pariah state?

    What does it mean to conspicuously claim you support only non-violent resistance when your efforts are seamlessly aligned with the much larger group that seeks armed confrontation and applauds murders of Isreali civilians?

    In what ways are the “dwindling community of Christians” “suffering from the conflict with Isreal”?

    And why is the “isreali occupation of palestinian land” uniquely “a sin against god and humanity”? Is occupation of any and other people’s land a similar sin or is there something special about occupation by jews? Or are palestinians a special, “holy” “chosen” people?

    Why is the disputed land adjudged to be “Palestinian land”? What facts or authorities underlies the assumption that the land “belongs” exclusively to Palestinians?

    Was the incorporation of this presumed Palestinian land (the west bank) into Jordan from 1948-1967 a similar sin? Did these protestant divines protest this incorporation? Why not? Was the incorporation of “palestinian” Gaza into Egypt a similar sin? Was occupation of “Palestinian land” by the British or Ottomans or Egyptians a sin? Why not?

    Why does this public, solipistic, meddling and sanctimonious display of moral anguish over a dispute between two far away peoples merit any respect?

  • Pat

    Perhaps some German Protestants shold choose their preferance – the Bible or the Koran…

  • Chris Kringle

    2000 years of Christian anti-semitism continues unabated. Seriously, at this late date we no longer care what you want or think. Am Yisroel Chai.

  • Lawrence

    I think that one can love a people without loving the actions of their state. Why do we have to confuse culture and ethnicity with the policies of a particular government? In almost no other case except Israel do we try to make this logical leap. If I say ‘The Chinese government is oppressive and totalitarian and needs to cease some of its harsher policies,’ only a very foolish person would make the logical leap that I harbor ill-will toward the Chinese people. No one (outside of a fanatic few) would claim that the Occupy Movement is somehow anti-American people despite its displeasure with the American state.

    I think it’s also quite a leap to say that simply because one’s aims are aligned with a more violent groups aims, that makes one violent. Anushilan Samiti and Gandhi had seamlessly aligned goals to the point that Anushilan Samiti actively endorsed Ghandi, yet we don’t say that Gandhi supported non-violent resistance because his and Anushilan’s efforts were aligned toward the same goal. It’s a straw man.

  • WigWag

    “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12 KJV)

    “In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Genesis 15, KJV)

    Fortunately we live in an age where we can decide for ourselves how seriously to take the Holy Book of the Jews and the Christians, but for anyone who claims to take the Bible seriously, it’s all spelled out pretty much right there.

    The difference between evangelical Christians and Christians who cleave to the politically correct views of the National Council of Churches is that the evangelicals know how to read while more liberal Christians seem to be illiterate in English, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Either that or they just don’t think that their Holy Book is really all that holy.

    Whatever one thinks of them, Evangelicals take both the word of the deity and the spirit in which the deity articulated his thoughts for humans, seriously; more liberal Christians simply do not. The irony is that in the 21st century, it’s the liberals who refuse to accept the reality that the all of the justifications down through the centuries for reinterpreting and reimagining the deity’s “deal” with Abraham were little more than excuses dressed up in theological mumbo-jumbo for the hatred of Jews by Christians. In light of this, perhaps we should not be surprised that both anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are now flourishing amongst the Christian left while they are declining amongst more literal minded Christians.

    I might be tempted to find the growing anti-Semitism of the American Christian left disturbing except for the fact that the population of Presbyterians, Methodists and left-wing Anglicans is declining even faster than the population of Western Europe which is where these leftist Christians learned to substitute the ideology of political correctness for the plain language spoken by the deity that they claim to believe created the universe.

    What makes all of this even more ironic is that while the Christian left is beating its breasts and working itself into a tizzy about the plight of the poor Christian Palestinians; they deliberately avert their eyes from a far larger calamity; the worldwide Islamic assault on Christians.

    While the governing bodies of denominations like the Methodists and Presbyterians debate whether to sanction Israel, their fellow Christians are being slaughtered in ever increasing numbers by Islamists in Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and even “moderate” nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Anyone wanting more information about this should read Eliza Griswold’s interesting book entitled “The Tenth Parallel.” (Two works by Professor Berger are cited in Griswold’s bibliography)

    More information can be found here (the book is available for the Kindle)

    http://www.amazon.com/Tenth-Parallel-Dispatches-Between-Christianity/dp/0374273189

    One thing about the Germans should be mentioned. As someone who lost numerous extended family members (none of whom I ever met but many of whom were close to my parents and grandparents) to the Nazis, I am happy to admit that the Germans have been almost uniquely willing to acknowledge and make amends for their terrible recent history. The Shoah may have been a unique event but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been many atrocities down through the ages which have been at least somewhat similar. American regret for slavery and the destruction of North America’s indigenous population doesn’t approach the regret and restitution provided by the Germans. The greatest genocide denying nation in the world today happens to be a country that is moving in an increasingly Islamist direction; that would be Turkey.

    The organized mass murder of a million Christian Armenians has been something that the Turks refuse to acknowledge. “Liberal” Christians couldn’t care less; after all, they are way too busy lamenting how mean Jews are to Palestinians. Apparently the historical memory of this crowd extends only as far back as 1948; the Armenian Genocide started in earnest only 33 years before that but for the Christian left, 1948 was yesterday while 1915 might just as well have been centuries in the past.

    The fact that many liberal Christians think that the persecution of Palestinians by Jews is the biggest or one of the biggest humanitarian issues facing the world today really tells you everything about these liberal Christians that you need to know.

  • Kris

    As WigWag wrote, practically the only place in the Middle East in which the Christian community has fared well is Israel and the areas it controls. Bethlehem’s Christian population has fallen precipitously when under Arab control. Christians supporting Israeli withdrawals are thus acting against their own self-interests. The only question is whether they are motivated by a truly abnegating (to the point of masochism) sense of justice, or whether they feel that anything is better than Jews controlling the Holy Land.

    Regarding our host’s even-handed presentation of the “Naqba.” Following the UN partition plan, the Jewish response was to accept it and declare a state. The Arab response was not to declare their own state. Rather, they rejected the plan, and set out to destroy the Jewish state. Many innocent Arabs might have suffered as a result, but I am inclined to view “Naqba Day” in the same light as a Untergang Day.”

    Asides:
    1. Dixit Wikipedia, “The majority of Bethlehem’s Christian inhabitants claim ancestry from Arab Christian clans from the Arabian Peninsula.” So much for the age-old, from-time-immemorial indigenous population.
    2. WigWag: “American regret for slavery and the destruction of North America’s indigenous population doesn’t approach the regret and restitution provided by the Germans.” True in some ways. In another: “If God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

  • Haim

    Let’s start with the fact. The Stuttgart Declaration doesn’t even include the word “Jews”, much less an apology for Holocaust. In truth, no German Protestant church had ever acknowledged its direct guilt in abetting the Nazi regime or the Holocaust. There was a Protestant church for the Auschwitz staff.
    Now, the document. From the first page you understand two things – that the authors have blotted out the main reason for the conflict – namely, Muslims killing Jews – and that they intended the document as a call for a crusade against those Jews. Even the discussion of this document as anything else then an example of vile resurrection of Christian antisemitic mythology in the service of the Palestinian Jihad against the Jews is an insult to the truth, and when Germans do that, this is also an insult to the memory of the Jews they’ve murdered.

  • Kris

    Upon re-reading the second paragraph of my previous comment (#6), I wish to clarify that my full ire was not directed at Dr Berger, whom I respect and bear no ill will to.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In Dr. Berger’s prior column he wrote about the need for institutions to prevent genocides and unnecessary wars.

    Dr. Berger’s discussion about the Bad Boll Academy as such an institution for creating a forum where groups can speak across social divisions about political and religious issues that are never spoken about at work, church or social gatherings is critical.

    In every California community where I have explored different churches I have found that they are segregated mostly by social class and that there is a particular hatred of the Business Class in liberal, elite churches and vice versa of the Knowledge Class in conservative churches. This social division follows classical French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s observation that social class is mainly occupational.

    Church leaders on either side of the class spectrum dare not try a ministry of social reconciliation about any of the issues that divide, if for no other reason than preaching subtle class warfare is good for fund raising and fiefdom building.

    I attended an Anglican Church for a while that had separated from the mainline Episcopal Church over the homosexual priest issue. The Episcopal Church is an historical hybrid of Catholic liturgy and Protestant style theology. One would think that Episcopal or Anglican Churches would be social institutions where both Catholics and Protestants, political liberals and conservatives, could transcend differences on occasion at least. Not so.

    The Episcopal Church ended up using a court order to take over the church building of a smaller breakaway Anglican group even though the Episcopal Archdiocese was never named or recorded on the deed to the property. Similar disputes over church buildings have transpired across the U.S.

    One can find liberal churches where social action groups have formed to advocate for the victimized Palestinians; and conversely conservative, especially Evangelical, churches that are supporters of Israel.

    The liberal embrace of the Palestinian cause is especially interesting in their self-righteous defense of “victimized” Palestinians, oppressed by Capitalist societies. Sociologist James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy and the Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World discusses the particular cultural tendency of Americans to see certain groups as mere “victims.”

    The divide over Palestinians versus Israel is an issue where worldviews collide, also over land and property rights issues.

    The lack of what Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus once called true “Mediating Institutions” is apparent not only in religious institutions, but educational and social institutions as well. This makes the model of the Bad Boll Academy all the more important.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added that Christian pastor John Hagee and Jewish leader and U.S. radio talk show host Dennis Prager have formed a pro-Israel group in the U.S. called Christians United for Israel. They have occasional meetings where Orthodox and Conservative Jews and Evangelical Christians get together to discuss Israel and the necessity of Judeo-Christian values in a world of an assumed “clash of civilizations” (Samuel Huntington), which are mainly false stage fronts for something less sweeping.

    This might be all well and good but still does not bring the most liberal Christians and Jews together in a forum with Evangelicals and Catholics over the Palestinian and Israel homeland issues. I think what Dr. Berger is driving at is more expansive (not “inclusive”) and transcendent than merely getting conservative Jews and Christians together to support Israel.

    Yes, Palestinians as presently demographically constituted may never have existed in Palestine. And yes Palestinian leadership may have been co-opted by Muslim extremists hoping to dump unwanted groups of Muslims next door to Israel hoping to drive the Israelis out of the Mideast or eventually overwhelm them in population. Whoever the “Palestinians” are they are not mere victims of Imperialism or only willing terrorists for Hamas, Hezbollah or some other front group.

    While it may be politically impossible to talk to Palestinian people beyond their “leaders,” there should be an attempt to do so wherever possible rather than meetings where liberal Protestants and Catholics get together to demonize Jews and Israel; or vice versa where Conservative Jews and Christians gather to support Israel.

  • Pingback: “german christians and the middle east” link « bone, wood, and stone

  • Michael

    I wasn’t aware there were any Christians left in the Western world, much less Germany.

  • Gerhard

    German Christians looked the other way while Jews were murdered. That is historic truth. Now, like many of their fellow Germans, they resent the Jews for defending themselves and for the guilt the Christians still feel. No need to feel guilty if Jews are occupiers, after all. Eventually German Christians will condemn the Jews, Zionism, and Israel. God help them those same Christians when they must deal with militant Islam. There are wrongs done to the Palestinian people, but their leadership should be held to account for that. Not the Jews who have every right to defend themselves — after all, they have not seen many other nations who are anxious to help them.