Liberal Protestants, Social Justice, and Antisemitism

Liberal Protestants, Social Justice, and Antisemitism July 13, 2015

By Mark E. Gammon.

With the astounding pace of news over the last couple of weeks, it was easy to miss one small item. The United Church of Christ became the latest liberal Protestant denomination to endorse “boycotts and divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.” As David Palumbo-Liu recently reported at Salon.com, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has made substantive inroads in the mainline American Protestant denominations, with resolutions either passed or under discussion by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, and others.

Palumbo-Liu’s piece is misleading in two respects. First, he suggests that the churches are only recently jumping on board with an established campus movement, but the Presbyterians, for instance, have been discussing divestment in the name of Palestinian rights for over a decade. Second, he suggests that the BDS movement is having a real impact, leading Binyamin Netanyahu to denounce it as a “strategic threat.” It is true that BDS has made Israeli leadership take notice, but not in the way that Palumbo-Liu implies. The economic impact of such divestment is miniscule, and in responding to the movement, Netanyahu shows concern about a very different kind of threat.

According to Israeli government spokespersons, the prime minister’s remarks were prompted by “moral outrage” over Israel being singled out for such criticism (in particular, recent efforts by Palestinian activists to kick Israel out of FIFA). Netanyahu is making a much broader claim – that this special focus on Israel’s actions toward the Palestinian people is antisemitic, and thus indicative of the ongoing existential threat to the state of Israel. In fact, a number of supporters of BDS in the liberal Protestant ranks have felt the need to affirm that the movement is not antisemitic, but rather a simple matter of social justice for an oppressed people. One need not agree with Israel’s actions toward Palestine, however, to evaluate the charge. Is the BDS movement in the Church antisemitic?

The short answer is yes. While well-meaning, the BDS movement among Christian denominations is, mostly unintentionally, antisemitic.

As noted, these strategies have little practical effect. We can divest, but there are always other investors. We can boycott, but boycotts rarely matter economically. They also have long proven morally problematic because of who really suffers and the assigning of moral accountability to an entire nation. Academic boycotts have been seen to prevent scholars critical of Netanyahu’s government from international exchanges. In other words, these strategies are as likely to backfire as they are to accomplish anything substantive.

However, a witness need not be practically effective in order to be justified act of faithfulness. Even the great realist Reinhold Niebuhr gave a respectful nod toward the Anabaptist pacifist traditions as reminders of the sinful finitude of the purveyors of justice. It is clear that the churches intend BDS as a witness to social justice on behalf of an oppressed people. Taken purely at face value, it is a important point – and, theologically, it makes absolute sense. As Christians, we should stand with the oppressed. (We also are called to suffer with them, though BDS actions do not speak to that imperative.) Surely, the least we can do as faithful witnesses of Christ is denounce the horrendous actions that a more powerful people inflict upon those weaker than they.

Unfortunately, witness is not that simple. However righteous the intention behind the witness, we still need to evaluate the effectiveness as witness. Here is where the Christian advocates of BDS display a breathtaking lack of historical consciousness. In a vacuum, the condemnation of Israel’s actions may be perfectly justified, but as recent debates over the Confederate battle flag have shown, context is everything when it comes to symbols. Witness, in its essence, is symbolic action, and such action has not only a political, but also an historical context. In this case, Christians cannot simply say wrong is wrong and must be denounced, because to do so is to ignore the fact that the modern state of Israel is a product of the antisemitic moral failings of Western Christendom itself.

I am not trying to say that modern Christians cannot denounce the actions of Jews simply because they are Jewish. The problem is singling out Israel as a special object of moral opprobrium while failing to acknowledge the Church’s role in cultivating a sense of existential threat among Jews. If Christian BDS supporters have to make a point of clarifying that they are not being antisemitic, certainly something has gone awry. Specifically, divestment does not function as a witness to peace or social justice, but rather is a proclamation of Christian moral superiority over Jews. The standing for that type of criticism disappeared shortly after Constantine.

It is hard to explain why Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has become a central liberal Protestant cause, but with worldwide antisemitism on the rise from the extreme right and the extreme left, the BDS movement is surely the wrong place to make this particular moral stand at this time. Have these denominations turned toward their own government’s moral failings? Have we divested from those who do business with the United States military, recognized by many worldwide as a tool of oppression? For that matter, have we given real thought to the fact that our ability to divest is predicated on our participation in an investment banking system that privileges profits over people – and has shown more than its fair share of moral and legal evil?

What BDS does is deflect the world’s attention from the Church’s hypocrisy with regard to economics, warfare, and the Jews. Theologically, that’s tough to justify. We certainly should work with our Abrahamic siblings to find justice and peace. We should pray for Palestine and Israel, and the best kinds of witness in that context are those that foster friendships and cooperation between those peoples. However, when it comes to the Church’s failure to be agents of justice, we better serve our mission to the world by turning critical eyes on ourselves as oppressors. Prophets properly arise from the people they condemn.

 

Mark E. Gammon is the Matthew Simpson Professor of Religion at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. He obtained an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College.

 


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34 responses to “Liberal Protestants, Social Justice, and Antisemitism”

  1. Good column, great insights into the messy relationship between the Christian Church (es) and the Jews. Another point to be made is that Christian anti-semitism derives in part from the Christian view that God rejected the Jews after the first coming of Jesus; ever since then, Christians have been invested in consciously and subconsciously denying the Jews their own morality, the morality of their religious beliefs and culture, right up to questioning the morality of Israel, Israeli leaders and the Israeli state itself. You say this attitude of Christian ‘moral superiority … died” after Constantine, but I would disagree. This attitude has informed western anti-semitism for centuries, and unfortunately, anyone who feels they are unbiased in this regard (especially those representing Christian institutions) needs to think again. What is interesting to me is that, when it comes to the Jewish people, non-Jews (and some Jews themselves who are self-critical of Israel, Jewish establishment, Zionism etc) fail to recognize the old anti-semitic tropes in modern discussion of Jews and Israel. If a white sheriff in a southern State of the US condemned an African American accused of a crime as “shiftless and lazy”, they would be roundly condemned, and probably fired — which they ought to be, since they are obliged to treat all euqally under the law — but instead, uses a classic racial stereotype of American oppression of Blacks to explain the behavior of some Black people who choose criminal behavior . However, Israeli Jews, who are, for intents and purposes, still at war with their Arab neighbors, and who died in by the thousands wars fought against them by Arab nations and in terrorist attacks (more than 1000 Israeli innocent Israeli civilians dies due to terrorism) are held to a much higher standard by the world — Is it to prove finally the Christian belief of the moral inferiority of Jews??

  2. You ask some questions, the answers of which undercut your assertion:

    >>>”Have these denominations turned toward their own government’s moral
    failings?”

    YES. All major denominations have advocacy offices in Washington, DC,
    that lobby on a number of social justice issues, domestic and foreign.
    This undercuts the false accusation that these churches are “singling
    out” Israel.

    >>>”Have we divested from those who do business with the United
    States military, recognized by many worldwide as a tool of oppression?”

    YES. Using the UCC as an example, they already engage in socially responsible
    investing that screens investments in military contractors. So do most other mainline liberal denominations.

    >>>”For that matter, have we given real thought to the fact that our ability
    to divest is predicated on our participation in an investment
    banking system that privileges profits over people – and has shown more
    than its fair share of moral and legal evil?”

    YES. A major part of socially responsible investing is shareholder activism that attempts to influence corporations to behave more ethically toward their workers and the environment. The UCC in particular engaged in shareholder activism to attempt to convince corporations complicit in human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories to change course. Divestment was considered only after such engagement failed to produce results.

    Your attempts to demonstrate hypocrisy are predicated on false assumptions. My only question to you is whether such accusations are simply ignorant, or willfully ignorant.

  3. You did a good job pointing out the hypocrisy in this post. The faux ignorance in it is astounding–the usual charge against liberal Protestant denominations is precisely that they usually adopt positions on social justice issues that are critical of US policy. They are seen as liberal do-gooders out of touch, Now, all of a sudden it turns out that they have never said anything on social justice issues except to criticize Israel. Who knew?

  4. ” If Christian BDS supporters have to make a point of clarifying that they are not being antisemitic, certainly something has gone awry. Specifically, divestment does not function as a witness to peace or social justice, but rather is a proclamation of Christian moral superiority over Jews. The standing for that type of criticism disappeared shortly after Constantine.”

    What has gone awry is that anyone who criticizes Israel is accused of either self-hatred (if Jewish) or antisemitism (if not). Usually people like yourself say that it is okay to criticize Israel, and then launch into one of those two attack modes against anyone who actually does criticize Israel in anything other than the most innocuous and meaningless ways.

    “It is hard to explain why Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has become a central liberal Protestant cause, but with worldwide antisemitism on the rise from the extreme right and the extreme left, the BDS movement is surely the wrong place to make this particular moral stand at this time.”

    And there it is. You don’t think that Palestinian human rights are important enough to matter. It is inexplicable that anyone could possibly care about them, unless they are motivated by anti-Semitism. Palestinians in themselves are nothing. Guess what? That’s you inadvertently demonstrating your own subconscious racism.

    One reason Americans in particular should focus on this issue is precisely the fact that our government is a strong supporter of Israel–it’s the same reason liberal Christians focused so heavily on Central America during the 80’s. Children were being murdered with American weapons. Children are being murdered now with American weapons and our politicians almost universally condemn Hamas for its rocket fire while never saying one word about Israel’s routine violence against Palestinians.

    On Christian anti-semitism–yes, people should and have been talking about this for decades. It is a horrible stain on 2000 years of Christian history and we should continue to discuss its roots in the New Testament and later. But it is truly vile to use this history as an excuse to whitewash Israeli crimes or to attack people as anti-Semites when they criticize Israeli crimes.

  5. I think you misunderstand that those questions are based on how these moves function as witness to the wider world and whether Christians have the moral authority for such actions. I do, in fact, know what the liberal Protestants do on these issues. Thank you for your comments.

  6. False dichotomies abound. Boycotting over illegal and continuing settlements is not equal to “abandonment of Israel;” caring about justice for Palestinians is not supporting a “terrorist state.”

  7. Actually, they would support Israel if she would simply stop colonizing the west bank. But I understand that subtleties are difficult to people with deep emotional attachments. War does that to us- makes us loose our ability to see clearly.

  8. Surely some Christians are antisemitic as you describe. However, many simply do not want Israel’s illegal colonization to be blamed on the US, since we supply it with constant protection via weapons/military aid, and through diplomatic support at the UN, vetoing anything against Israel’s settlement policy. An honest discussion needs to look at that angle and not only focus on the anti-semitic extremists.

  9. I think you misunderstand as a privileged American whose country supplies weapons to Israel that you don’t have the right to use Palestinians as the scapegoats for your Christian guilt. You really need to read Mark Braverman’s post on this subject.

  10. You miss my point. I am not saying that present day overt anti-semitic beliefs are a problem (although they certainly contribute) I am saying that in criticizing the Jews who live in this particular area, loaded with its importance to the major religions, bring their own subconscious biases to the debate. You call it illegal colonization. Did you know there were Jews living in occupied territories, especially in the old city of Jerusalem, throughout the millenia, (under Muslim rule of course) and even under the British mandate. Did you know that in the ’48 war, Jewish nurses serving at a hospital on Mt Scopus (in the West Bank) and living in the old city of Jerusalem were masssacared?? Did you know that Jews had a state in that area, an independent state, as well as one which was subjugated by the Greeks and then the Romans? At that time, and later, with the establishment of the Christian religion, the powers that be decreed that Jews could no longer live there (just what the Palestinians are asking for now) — so I ask you, who is colonizing who?? The israelis won those lands in a the ’67 war after being militarily threatened by Egypt who allied with Jordan (occupier of the West Bank prior to 1967) to defeat them in war. But the Israelis won, and won that territory fair and square. These are the rules of conquest practiced by nations for centuries, including our country, our government, the USA. I dont see anyone running to give back “occupied teritory” to Native Americans, do you?? It is only when it comes to Jewish national liberation, and in the land where they used to live that Christians have problems. They have problems with it becuase it goes against their world view of history, how history was “done” with the Jews in that land, becuase of the coming of Christ, and the conversion of the entireo Roman empire to Christianity. People (Jews) who rejected Christianity should no longer have any say, right? Wrong. Things have not turned out that way.
    So when you debate the Middle East, and you use a double standard when it comes to Israeli policies and Israeli interests, think about your biases as a Christian having grown up in the Western world.

  11. Thanks for the reply. You missed my point. I’m saying I agree with you that people, for the wrong reasons, will disproportionally focus on Israel’s transgressions; I am asserting that Israel’s ongoing colonization is worthy of legit criticism, and that some of those expressing it are good-willed christians who do know the history and conclude the settlement policy is still illegal under international law, provocative to the hundreds of thousands of refugees/civilians living there with fewer and fewer rights; and a recipe for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish democracy.
    If people like you get their way, Israel will either stop pretending it’s a democracy, or will have to ethnically cleanse its territory. Do you not even recognize the demographic problem that the left has been screaming about for decades? What’s the solution? Just more colonization because 2000 years ago Jews had a real state there? Yes, some Jews always lived there, just as some gentile arabs lived in many places that were colonized by Israel- doesn’t change my critique at all.

  12. Please stop using that stupid, politicized and over-exploited word, antisemitism. There are two far more accurate (and honest) words that can and should be used instead – anti-Jewish and anti-Jewarchist. Racists who hate all Jews are anti-Jewish. It’s easy to spell, easy to remember, and it means exactly what it says. People who are opposed to corrupt Jewish groups or excessive Jewish control and manipulation (e.g. “Jewish bankers,” the Jewish Mafia, Jewish control of Hollywood, etc.) are anti-Jewarchist. Anti-Zionists oppose Zionism but, by definition, aren’t necessarily concerned about other corrupt Jewish organizations.

    Anti-Jewism, anti-Jewarchism and anti-Zionism are words intelligent people should be using. Antisemitism actually impedes rational discussion – which is precisely why it’s favored by the ruling class.

    Learn more @ http://www.jewarchy.com

  13. You completely missed the point of this article, opting instead to go
    into your own attack mode. Yes, the charge of anti-Semitism is made by
    Jews, and others, and sometimes that charge is overblown. When, however, a church exclusively criticizes Israel while ignoring the massive human rights violations by other Middle Eastern states, what that amounts to is the singling out the world’s only Jewish state. Christians ought to be asking themselves why they spend so much time excoriating Israel, but
    fail to be moved when innocent Israeli civilians are targets of terrorism. Why do mainline Protestants bring up resolution after resolution attacking Israel’s human rights record, yet zero resolutions are up for debate on states such as Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan etc. The human rights records of these governments are appalling, yet churches remain silent.

    This singling out of the world’s only Jewish state for criticism by Christians — given the horrific and long history of Christian oppression of Jews — is what makes Jews suspicious of Christian intent.

  14. He’s just being honest, crazy honest! I don’t think the Nazis used the term antisemitism much. They simply said antiJew.

  15. Sorry for taking so long to reply, been traveling. In any event, Hitler and his minions actually did use the term “anti-Semitism” quite a lot. In those days it was widely used by anti-Semites, and proudly so. The Nazi genocide made being overtly anti-Semitic repugnant for the last two generations, but that seems to be changing now. This David Blomstrom is a prime example. although, even he is trying to avoid being labelled an anti-Semite by trying to create various euphemisms.

  16. Do “liberal’ denominations preach the gospel anymore? Or are they parroting the late night comedians and day time talk show hosts call for social justice? Someone said the “most radical of Christ’s Teachings was the Sermon on the Mount.” I always thought the most radical of Christ’s Teachings was who He was, the Son of God and fulfillment of Holy Scripture (Luke 4:18, 19; Matthew 16:13-18; John 5:39). I pray that the gospel of Christ, which includes His death, burial and resurrection and promise of new life from above does not get lost in the murky sacred/secular call for social justice waters! Where those with religious robes on sound no different from the talking heads on network and social media and the call for repentance and faith towards God in Christ is barely audible. Come out from among them the Scriptural Writers admonish us and God, in Christ, will receive us unto Himself!

  17. Way to turn things around. It’s Jews who try to avoid being labelled racist by using euphemisms (chiefly “anti-Semitism) that suggest Jews are the only victims of racism worth caring about. Jews can slaughter 10,000 Muslims, but if you criticize them, they just call you “antisemitic.”

    What a racket.

  18. You are indeed an antisemite. Instead of hiding from that reality, embrace it. Allow your inner Nazi to emerge.

  19. But I like Arabs, and Arabs are truer Semites than Jews. As for the Nazis, I haven’t yet made up my mind – it’s hard sorting through all the propaganda Jews have dumped on us since that era. Many people believe Hitler was one of Hitler’s greatest leaders and visionaries. They credit him with holding Jews accountable by forcing them to work in labor camps. Others claim he used barbaric means to execute Jews. Ironically, many people would applaud him either way, because he actually tackled a problem that needed to be dealt with.

    So while you pray under your Jewish Swastika, I’ll continue pondering the Nazis.

  20. Very few countries that stand up to Jewmerica last that long. The irony is that millions of people are taking another look at World War II and the “Holocaust,” and it seems the Nazis are gaining popularity while the Jews – well, let’s just say it’s become obvious while questioning the Holocaust is illegal in some countries. 😉

  21. “Try speaking your mind in Nazi Germany or Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.”

    Or fascist Israel???

    “What countries is it illegal to question the Holocaust? It’s NOT the USA is it?”

    Google is your friend.

  22. Love the hypocrisy! The Jews never stop bashing (or killing) Nazis, Muslims and “anti-Semites,” then they tell us it’s bad to call names.

    Sorry, but I have a problem with pedophiles, whether they’re sitting on the Seattle School Board you so adore or serving in the Israeli military.

    Have a nice day, Michael Two-Faces.

  23. Michael: Stop talking to yourself. The only person who thinks you’re even remotely entertaining is yourself.

  24. Christianity is responsible for Jew hatred, having taught it for 1900 years. Some Christian groups still teach it. The indifference of European Christian populations towards the murder of Jews in their midst during WWII by Germans and by their own fellow Christians could not have occurred without the Christian teaching of anti-semitism over time. Protestants are just as guilty as Catholics and Orthodox. the very New Testament, especially the Passion stories and some of the epistles of Paul, remind people that the Jews killed Jesus, pure and simple, although scholars can find reasons for such writings; ordinary people just hear the anti-Jewish narratives.

  25. Israel has one unanswerable retort to all the Protestant hypocrisy about the middle east. Protestants embraced the semi-Marcionite view of Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann for whom Judaism had an evil God and Jesus came to introduce the good God. The answer to all this is this: from 1933 to 1945 Christians, including Americans and Britons, as well as continental Europeans, did nothing to help the Jews who were being hunted everywhere. So why Jews or Israeli should pay any attention to the hypocrisy of Christians concerning the Middle East remains a mystery.

  26. There was a video on YouTube of a circus bear attacking a skinhead….. it had over a million views……

  27. So many men (especially skinheads) who publically oppose pedophilia? Yea. You know. Turns out, yup.

  28. Seems to me Nazi sympathizers are a lot like those who lost the American Civil War? Hard time dealing with a good old fashion ass whooping, sit around trying to revise history in a way that makes them feel better. Poor baby. Mommy has some warm breastfeeding milk for you wittle davie.

  29. That is AWESOME DAVID! Did you know Disqus and YouTube are owned and managed by Jewish Americans (can I call you David Einstein) oooops!