|Reawakening the teachings
By Robert Everett and Dexter Van Zile
For the past few years, liberal Protestant theologians have warned Israelis and American Jews of the alleged anti-Semitism inherent in the end-time scenarios offered by evangelical Christians in the US. Evangelical love for Israel, we are told, is not rooted in regard for the Jews, but is merely a byproduct of their desire to witness the Second Coming of Christ, an event some Christians believe was hastened by the establishment of the State of Israel.
While the end-time scenarios offered by some evangelicals, are indeed disturbing for Jews and many Christians the hostility toward Israel encouraged by liberal Protestants poses a much greater near-term threat to Jews than anything the evangelicals espouse.
Despite repeated assertions that they have removed all traces of anti-Semitism from their theology, the leadership of mainline Protestant denominations in the US have helped breathe new life into the teachings of contempt for Jews in their indiscriminate support for Palestinian theologians such as Naim Ateek, a former Anglican canon who serves as president of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Ateek is regarded as a "peacemaker" in the US even as he recycles the deicide charge against the Jews and directs the hostility it arouses against the Jewish state.
For example, in December 2000, Ateek wrote that Palestinian Christmas celebrations were "marred by the destructive powers of the modern-day "Herods" who are represented in the Israeli government."
In his 2001 Easter Message, Ateek wrote: "The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull." And in a February 2001 sermon, Ateek likened the Israeli occupation to the boulder sealing Christ's tomb.
With these three images, Ateek has figuratively blamed Israel for trying to kill the infant Jesus, crucifying Jesus the prophet and blocking the resurrection of Christ the Savior. The use of such images is not the language of peacemaking, but part of an inexcusable effort to breathe new life into Christian theological hostility toward Jews and focus its vile energy on the Jewish state.
Ateek is not the only religious figure to use biblical passages to delegitimize Israel. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, asserts that Israel's claim to the land is not rooted in the Bible but rather is a consequence of political necessity. Fair enough, but Raheb then argues that because of its historical connection to the Old Testament, Israel must adhere to the obligations that come with this covenant. The implication is clear: Because of its Jewishness, Israel is held to a higher standard of conduct than its adversaries.
RAHEB'S RHETORIC is bland compared to that of Donald Wagner, a professor at North Park University, a Christian college in Chicago owned by the Evangelical Covenant Church. Wagner, a well-known critic of Christian Zionism, invokes the image of a "killer vine" destroying one of his prized rose bushes to describe "Zionist occupation of Palestine."
In his book, Dying in the Land of Promise, Wagner writes: "The weeds and vines had moved in to take over the land and disrupt both the flowers and vegetables that had been the previous dwellers."
To portray Israelis as killer vines is to deny their humanity and justify violence against them, because after all, weeds must be uprooted and destroyed. Coming from a putatively religious figure like Wagner, this is inexcusable.
One would think passages like these would provoke condemnation from the leaders of liberal Protestant denominations in the US who so loudly condemned The Passion of the Christ for its alleged anti-Semitism, but the response so far has been worse than silence it has been active support for their political agenda. Ateek and Raheb have been lionized by Protestant leaders in the US as moderates and voices for peace.
After the Presbyterian Church (USA) which invited Raheb to speak to its General Assembly before voting to divest in 2004 the worst offender is the United Church of Christ (UCC), which is considering three anti-Israel proposals at its General Synod in July. Through its Global Ministries Board, an institution it shares with another Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ, the UCC broadcasts Ateek's message to Christians in the US by reprinting many of its anti-Israel press releases on the Internet and thereby giving credibility to pro-Palestinian propaganda. In 2003, Ateek was invited to speak to the UCC's General Synod, where he compared modern-day Israel to ancient Rome, which of course, killed Jesus and oppressed his followers.
His speech, posted on the UCC's Web site, includes the following passage: "Most Palestinians today are born under occupation as Jesus was. In his day it was the oppressive Roman occupation. Today it is the oppressive Israeli occupation."
Given the tolerance and support mainline Protestants have exhibited toward such obvious attempts to reawaken the teachings of contempt and direct them toward the Jewish state, they should probably consider removing the log in their own eye before pointing out the speck in the eyes of evangelicals.
Robert Everett is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ and author of Christianity Without Antisemitism: James Parkes and the Jewish-Christian Encounter. Dexter Van Zile is founding director of the Judeo-Christian Alliance, an initiative of the David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy group. He is a member of the United Church of Christ.