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Confronting antisemitism and Islamophobia

General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) explains the "Statement Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia" passed by the 225th General Assembly.

Commissioners meet in small groups during the Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement Committee meeting. The Ecumenical and Interfaith Engagement Committee approved the Study Document on Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia and brought it in front of the General Assembly, where it was also approved. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

  • The 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, whose victims included Holocaust survivors
  • The 2017 bombing of the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, that occurred while worshipers were gathered for morning prayers in the mosque
  • The 2017 travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries entering the United States
  • The 2021 Capital Building insurrection where crosses were juxtaposed with antisemitic imagery and language
  • The hundreds of hate crimes against Muslim and Jewish persons that make the news, and the thousands that do not
  • And then there are the frequent instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia that occur in the lives of Jewish and Muslim persons, unseen by many of us

The uncomfortable truth is that many who perpetrate hatred against Muslim and Jewish persons claim a Christian faith. The even more uncomfortable truth is that we, as Presbyterians, have also been complicit in antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) began what would become the Statement Denouncing Antisemitism and Islamophobia in response to the above events, and in an abiding belief in two truths: God calls us to repent of the sins of antisemitism and Islamophobia against our Jewish and Muslim siblings, and we believed that, with God, repair of those relationships was possible.

The writing team consisted of Nanette Sawyer, Sabrina Slater and Anne Weirich (who are all ministers of Word and Sacrament), Heidi Hadsell (president emeritus, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace), Rick Ufford-Chase (moderator of the 216th General Assembly), Dianna Wright and So Jung Kim (who are PC(USA) staff members), and myself. We spent four years drafting a document exploring antisemitism and Islamophobia in consultation with interfaith and ecumenical partners. After careful consideration, we chose to present a single document in two parts. We did not want to conflate the harm our Muslim and Jewish siblings experience, and we did not want to conflate the distinct identities of those communities. A single document did allow us to take a stand loudly and clearly for both our Muslim and Jewish siblings while inviting repentance and repair of our relationship with each community.

As writing team member Sabrina Slater expressed, “There is a history of creating documents, and seeing antisemitism and Islamophobia as different and distinct. They are. And, we need to confess how we have individually and collectively participated in antisemitism and Islamophobia.” The writing team had fears that if we presented two separate documents, one may be approved and not the other, leading to even greater harm to already fragile relationships.

This single document has been presented not as an official policy paper or as a mandate, but rather, as a study document. This choice is partly due to advice from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN). We also name this a study document because, while we as the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations hope that this will be a public stand with and for our Muslim and Jewish siblings and a clear denouncement of the sins of antisemitism and Islamophobia, we recognize that our words are but a first step. It is our prayer that these words lead to a deeper study of the sins of antisemitism and Islamophobia as they relate to Christian history and our own Reformed theology. It is our prayer that these words lead to a deeper study of ourselves and our biases. And it is our prayer that these words lead to a deeper study of the rich and varied expressions of faith and life by Jewish and Muslim persons.

This study document is not about lambasting Christianity at our worst; it is about creating space for us to best embody the charitable and courageous love we confess in Christ — a love that does not let harm go unnoticed or ignored.

As a study document, we have organized this resource in instructional ways. We name the present context for antisemitism and Islamophobia, denouncing each. We carefully, through the words of Muslims and Jews themselves, define both antisemitism and Islamophobia. Because we believe this is a time not just for words, but for action, we then offer a practical guide to repairing and deepening our relationships with our Muslim and Jewish siblings. Finally, in additional resources, we offer a public litany for moments of harm against Jews and Muslims, biblical and confessional grounding for our commitments to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia, and historical and theological foundations of Christian hatred and violence toward Muslims and Jews. You can read the full document here.

The study document and its accompanying resources are, at their core, a place for honesty. It invites a study of the harm we have done, and continue to do, to our Jewish and Muslim siblings. This sort of study is not easy. It requires vulnerability, patience and openness. And yet, when we as Presbyterian Christians are honest about our history and willing to believe that with God, repentance and repair are possible, beautiful things can happen. This study document is not about lambasting Christianity at our worst; it is about creating space for us to best embody the charitable and courageous love we confess in Christ — a love that does not let harm go unnoticed or ignored. A love that is willing to change, and to practice special care for those most facing threat and violence. A love that is willing to admit when we are wrong, and work to make it right.

This study document is an invitation to go deeper into our understanding of antisemitism. We offer two complementary definitions in this study document, from the Anti-Defamation League and from the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. These definitions name both antisemitism present in physical and political violence and also in ideological violence, in our language of and ideas about Jewish people.

Guided by these definitions, we invite a repentance of the antisemitism we may not have recognized in ourselves. This repentance does not challenge our previously asserted Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convictions for Palestinian people. The document describes this in detail, but one key excerpt names:

“Presbyterians have repeatedly affirmed our conviction that the State of Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for Jews, providing a safe haven for all Jewish people, as we also advocate for national self-determination and safety of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian refugees. Presbyterians have spoken out repeatedly to condemn the actions of the government of Israel in the occupation of Palestinian land and the consistent abuse of the fundamental human rights of Palestinians … It is urgent to critique human rights abuses that are happening through the policies and practices of the government of Israel and it is possible to do so without questioning Israel’s right to exist, and without using antisemitic language and stereotypes.”

This repentance [of antisemitism] does not challenge our previously asserted Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convictions for Palestinian people.

We can hold to our previously asserted commitments for Palestinian self-determination, we can critique human rights abuses by the government of Israel, and we can repent of our antisemitism. These are in no way mutually exclusive.

We offer definitions of Islamophobia from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), naming that Islamophobia creates, “a distorted understanding of Islam and Muslims by transforming the global and historical faith tradition of Islam, along with the rich history of cultural and ethnic diversity of its adherents.” We further name that “Presbyterians recognize that incidents of Islamophobia often depend upon institutionalized racism and systems of white supremacy that have thrived in our society. The link between the two is clearly evident in racist attacks on mosques and Muslim community centers by white supremacists. Like other forms of racism, Islamophobia is often driven by misuse of Christian symbols and Christian scripture.”

It is impossible in our time, or any time, to repent of the sins of Islamophobia and antisemitism without acknowledging how White supremacy plays into both. Again, we believe God is calling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to a time of vulnerable honesty on behalf of our Muslim and Jewish siblings. This begins not only by looking outward to those most extreme examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia, but by looking inward as well: into our hearts, our theologies, our readings of Scripture, and our words and beliefs about Muslim and Jewish people.

This begins not only by looking outward to those most extreme examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia, but by looking inward as well: into our hearts, our theologies, our readings of Scripture, and our words and beliefs about Muslim and Jewish people.

Change begins with education, with learning our own histories, and the experiences of our Jewish and Muslim siblings. Some Presbyterians will choose to begin the work of repentance and repair by identifying and celebrating what people in their community or congregation are already doing to support Muslim and Jewish people, and then build upon that interfaith trust. Some will choose to begin with the definitions we offer, going deeper into the historical and theological roots of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Others may begin with the sections on denouncing Islamophobia and antisemitism, and yet others may begin with the practical guide at the end of the document. Some may begin with our Christian relationship with Muslim siblings, or Jewish siblings, or both. What we as GACEIR hope is that engagement with this document happens in whatever way it needs to for different communities, to bring repentance to the church and repair to our relationships with both our Muslim and Jewish siblings. We also hope to offer additional resources along the way to help congregations and church leaders connect more deeply with this document.

We cannot eradicate antisemitism and Islamophobia fully ourselves, but we as Presbyterians can learn, repent and grow. We can begin to build a world where Muslims and Jews do not face threats or violence, especially not from Christians. This document is a small but needed first step toward that world.

Interested in learning more about the study document? Join Presbyterian Outlook along with the co-authors of the study document for a 90-minute webinar with Q&A on November 15, 2022, at 7:30 p.m. EST. Click here to learn more.

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