Why are mainline Christians underwriting an event that envisions ending Jewish sovereign equality? 

An international consortium of Catholic and Protestant aid societies is funding a conference this week in Tel Aviv called “From Truth to Redress: Realizing the Return of Palestinian Refugees.” The event is organized by Zochrot, a fringe Israeli group that has no constituency in Israel. Insisting on a “right of return” for 1948 Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants amounts to a call for the elimination of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The conference has no other Israeli sponsors, and “is made possible thanks to the generous support of: Misereor, Christian Aid, CCFD, Finn Church Aid, HEKS-EPER, Broederlijk Delen, AFSC, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Mennonite Central Committee, Trócaire, St. Het Solidariteitsfonds, Oxfam GB and private donors.”  These mostly Christian sponsors are themselves funded by European governments that officially support the two-state solution.  The conference, then, undermines these governments’ own policies.

The full realization of a “right of return” is correctly understood by every Israeli – including Zochrot – to mean the erasure of the State of Israel.  This demand directly contradicts the “two-states for two peoples” formula supported by the international community, as Israel would become a bi-national entity with an Arab majority.  In such a scenario, Jews would return to the predicament of everywhere being minorities vulnerable to the whims of sometimes hostile majorities.  From 1933 to 1945 the results of that condition were catastrophic.

Since the Holocaust, many Christians began to explore how centuries of Christian anti-Jewish demonization fed into Nazi ideology. Their focus was on what historian and Holocaust survivor Jules Isaacs called the “teaching of contempt.”  This includes the beliefs that Christianity superseded the Jews as the “New Israel,” that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews were divine punishments for Jewish rejection of Jesus, and that “the Jews” are responsible for Jesus’ death.

Isaac’s work led to the beginnings of significant revision of Catholic and Protestant teachings about Jews and Judaism.  His 1960 conversation with Pope John XXIII is largely seen as an important stimulus to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the Jews.

Ever since, the general trajectory of Jewish-Christian relations has largely been positive.

But, the support given to this “right of return” conference by these Christian groups indicates that the old “teaching of contempt” is still active, but in a new guise: anti-Zionism.

Zionism is a political, not theological, construct.  As such, anti-Zionism can provide a secular framework for the old theological teachings of contempt.  We see this, for instance, in the activities of Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based Christian group that promotes “Palestinian Liberation Theology,” a fusion of Christianity and Palestinian nationalism.  Sabeel’s influence in churches globally is immense.  Its material is distributed by the World Council of Churches.  Some of the Zochrot conference’s Christian funders (Christian Aid, CCFD, AFSC, Mennonite Central Committee) also distribute Sabeel’s materials and collaborate on programming.

Sabeel promotes supersessionism and deicide imagery.  It attacks Judaism as “tribal” and “primitive” – in contrast to Christianity’s “universalism” – and compares Palestinians with the crucified Jesus – while pointing a finger at Israel’s “crucifixion machine.” Sabeel’s founder, Rev. Naim Ateek, said the “establishment of Israel was a relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive tribal God.”

In 2010 I attended a Sabeel conference at a California Presbyterian church.  One speaker sought a theological underpinning for his anti-Zionism and found it in the teaching of contempt.  “Christianity came to take Judaism,” he declared, “what was wonderful and revolutionary about Judaism – you know monotheism, one God, ethical monotheism – pull it out of its tribal framework and make it universal.”  He also said, “Jesus stood in front of the Temple and said, ‘In three days the stones are going to come down.  Nothing will be left.’  He was saying this: we need to reform our religion.  He was speaking truth to power.  It’s for everyone and it’s not about a place, not about a land.”

In stark contrast to this renewed anti-Jewish teaching of contempt, we have the example of Pope John Paul II’s 2000 visit to the Western Wall, the Temple’s last remnant.  He left a note in its ancient cracks asking for God’s forgiveness for the centuries of suffering the Church visited upon the Jews.  For Catholic writer James Carroll, author of “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews,” this act was “momentous.”  Christian theology, he writes, “has depended on the destruction of the Temple as a proof for claims made in the name of Jesus, the new Temple.  Nothing signifies Christian anti-Judaism more fully than this attachment to the Temple in ruins.”  For Carroll, the pope’s action “created a new future.  The Church was honoring the Temple it had denigrated.  It was affirming the presence of the Jewish people at home in Jerusalem.  The pope reversed an ancient current of Jew hatred with that act, and the Church’s relationship to Israel, present as well as past, would never be the same.”

The pope’s example has yet to reach the Catholic and Protestant funders of this week’s abolish Israel conference.  Zochrot may offer them a “Jewish shield” to deflect charges of antisemitism, yet no fringe Israeli group can do that.  The theological housecleaning of the teaching of contempt is not yet accomplished, and making use of anti-Zionism only makes a mockery of those devoted Christians who truly seek a rapprochement with the Jewish people.