To Walt Davis, who helped write it, the 74-page “study guide” adds up to a condemnation of all three Abrahamic faiths’ penchant for saying, “we’re special” — and for using that special status to justify political power and, sometimes, violence.
To Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the booklet amounts to something less nuanced and more threatening.
“It’s basically a declaration of war on the Jews,” he said.
In the aftermath of a withering blast of criticism from Jewish advocacy groups — and from some Presbyterians — there’s scant evidence of much middle ground between those perspectives on “Zionism Unsettled,” the handiwork of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The mission network issued the study guide and an accompanying DVD in January. A Jan. 21 news release on the denomination’s website said “Zionism Unsettled” was aimed at ending “the silence surrounding the impact of Zionism” and encouraging “open discussions on the topic in church and society.”
Zionism, a movement dating from the late 19th century, refers to the struggle to establish and preserve a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.
Davis, the project coordinator for the study guide, said in an interview that there are different types of Zionism, and that the study guide makes that diversity clear.
He said the study guide does not launch an indiscriminate attack on Zionism, but does focus on the strain of Zionism that fuses religious ideology with political power. That, he believes, is an example of an error that Christians and Muslims have also committed over the centuries — thinking they are so special they have a God-granted privilege to oppress.
“Our basic premise is that exceptionalism by any group doesn’t work in the 21st century,” he said.
But drawing any sort of bull’s eye on Zionism was too much for some devout Jews like Cooper, who said he had read “a good deal” of the study guide.
“It’s meant as an insult,” he said. “It’s meant to delegitimize Zionism and love of Zion, and it’s taken as such.”
It took a while after the study guide’s release for the firestorm to break. Before that happened, the PC(USA)’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment delivered what might appear to be the second blow in a one-two punch aimed at Israel.
On Jan. 23, MRTI announced it had renewed its call to for the church to drop its stock holdings in three U.S. companies that sell products that Israel uses in security operations that target Palestinians. An MRTI proposal to divest from the same three companies failed narrowly at the 2012 General Assembly.
When Jewish advocacy groups weighed in, they trained their initial fire on the mission network’s study guide, not the divestment effort.
On Feb. 6 in the online magazine Global Jewish Advocacy, Rabbi Noam Marans of the American Jewish Committee called the study guide “reminiscent of medieval Christian polemics against Judaism, with the authors claiming to know better than the Jewish community how Jews define themselves.”
On the same date, the Wiesenthal Center — an international Jewish human rights organization — issued a blistering condemnation of the study guide. In it, Cooper said the PC(USA) had “deployed the nuclear option against the vast majority of Jews, calling us inherently racist and abusive.” Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the center’s director of interfaith affairs, said Jews would now regard the PC(USA) “as a hostile church.”
In a Feb. 11 article in Commentary, a conservative opinion magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee, Jonathan S. Tobin drew a linkage between what he viewed as the study guide’s attack on Zionism and divestment efforts.
The PC(USA) “has a particularly virulent group of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists working in positions of influence,” yet it failed to pass the divestment resolution in 2012, Tobin wrote.
Those “anti-Israel elements” within the church, Tobin continued, “have now regrouped and launched a new initiative that threatens to escalate the battle within the church and to undermine any remnant of good will that still exists” between the denomination and American Jews.
A Feb. 12 article in New York Jewish Week said that, while the study guide posed little threat to Israel’s existence and Presbyterian investments in Israel were “inconsequential,” the symbolic damage of such actions could be profound.
“When a major, mainstream denomination of American Protestantism unequivocally demonizes Israel, it sends a message to other Christians in this country, those unfamiliar with the vagaries and complexities of the Middle East situation — that Israel is the bad guy, that Israel deserves the bulk of criticism, that Israel is fair game,” the article said.
After the barrage of criticism — some of it directed at church leaders for posting glowing claims about the study guide on its website — the denomination issued a news release Feb. 13 that stressed the independence of the mission network. It quoted Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, saying the church “has a long history of engaging many points of view when it comes to dialogue on critical issues facing the world around us — it’s who we are, part of our DNA.”
The Outlook asked Valentine for further comment, but Kathy Francis, the denomination’s senior director of communications, said the news release “pretty much says all we have to say at this point.”
Davis, a professor emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary, said the study guide project team expected criticism, and prepared for it by soliciting favorable comment from credible sources in advance. (Among them was Clifton Kirkpatrick, a former General Assembly stated clerk, who said the study guide provided “a valuable opportunity to explore the political ideology of Zionism” and urged pastors and congregations to use it.)
Davis also said that, apart from two introductory chapters, the study guide is a synopsis of a yet-to-be-published collection of essays by Jewish, Christian and Muslim writers, each of whom expressed an individual point of view.
According to the study guide, the planned book, “Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land,” has a cosponsor: Friends of Sabeel North America. The Anti-Defamation League’s website calls Friends of Sabeel North America the “voice for Palestinian Christians” against Israel’s policies and “a driving force” behind boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel, including those initiated by Protestant churches in the U.S.
Some Presbyterians who watch closely the church’s involvement in peacemaking efforts in the Middle East voiced dismay at the study guide’s content and impact.
John Wimberly, co-moderator of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, said it came as no surprise that Jewish groups reacted more vehemently to the study guide than to the latest divestment initiative.
“We’re talking about a direct attack on the Jewish state’s right to exist,” he said. “That’s going to preempt everything.”
Wimberly said he feels concern for the Palestinians “but I also don’t feel the answer is to turn around and slam Israel with everything we’ve got. … It’s not a black-and-white situation, which is the way it’s been portrayed” in the study guide.
He said the document’s denial of any nation’s right to hold to an “exceptionalist” doctrine would surprise the Irish, Japanese, Czechs, Armenians and citizens of some Muslim nations, all of whom grant special status to a single faith or ethnicity.
Wimberly also said the document shows the mission network has dropped its “smokescreen” of support for a two-state solution — one independent state for Jews, another for Palestinians — and instead favors a single state.
“These folks want a secular, non-Jewish state, maybe called Israel, maybe called something else. But they want to undo what the world did in 1947, when it created and embraced the state of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Davis said the study guide takes no position on where peace negotiations should lead except that “everybody should have the same rights.”
Susan Andrews, general presbyter of the Hudson Valley Presbytery, said that as a member of the Middle East Study Committee in 2010, she wrestled with the problem of respectfully disagreeing with specific Israeli policies. She agrees with some steps the church has taken along those lines, including the boycott of Israeli products made on occupied Palestinian land, imposed in 2012.
But Andrews, who was moderator of the 215th General Assembly, said the new study guide risks alienating even those Jewish groups that share concern for the Palestinians and oppose the occupation. The harsh language in the document makes “that internal conversation within the Jewish community harder,” she said.
Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, has published a detailed critique of the study guide on the institute’s website. He cites specific language that he calls misleading or false, gleaned from throughout the document.
Excerpts from Zionism Unsettled:
A Congregational Study Guide
“Nakba is the Arabic word for ‘Catastrophe’ and refers to the massive ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Palestinians … The Hebrew term for the Nazi Holocaust, Shoah, also translates as ‘Catastrophe.’” – Page 6
“The theme that unites and underlies this congregational study is the toxic relationship between theology and politics in all three Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all suffer from a common condition: theological and ethical exceptionalism … . Although this resource focuses primarily on Zionism, exceptionalism is not unique to Zionism; rather it is present wherever exceptionalist religious ideology is fused with political power.” – Page 7
“We believe that justice, peace, and reconciliation will become possible for the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inhabitants of the Holy Land when Israel and its supporters around the world comprehend the impossibility of resolving the crisis through the exercise of power, and radicalized Muslims relinquish the dream of an Islamic theocracy.” – Page 8
“The Zionist movement, like other colonial movements, required collective denial of what was being done to Palestinians, a denial that may even be characterized as self-inflicted blindness. The major American Jewish organizations bear considerable responsibility for spreading this fear and blindness by their uncritical support of Israel over the years … .” – Page 23
“How ironic that (American theologian Reinhold) Niebuhr … would demonstrate moral blindness to the fact that the establishment of a ‘Jewish democracy’ in Palestine was preconditioned on the exclusion of the native Palestinians.” – Page. 40
“For Palestinians and a growing number of internationals around the world it is clear that Zionism is a false theology.” – Page 56