Love The Presbyterian Way

Desdemona in “Othello” as she is being murdered: “That death’s unnatural that kills for loving… I never did offend you in my life.”

Having taken a clearly anti-Israel and, let`s face it, through the publication of “Zionism Unsettled”, anti-semitic, step, the official USA Presbyterian Church protests that it is all done in the name of love. The moderator for the church meeting, Heath Rada, said that the decision was, “in no way…a reflection of our lack of love for our Jewish brothers and sisters”. In an open letter published on its website, the Presbyterian Church (USA) said it is “committed more than ever” to working with the Jewish community after its vote to divest from three companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank. “We believe that being in relationship with the American Jewish communities in authentic ways are central to our Christian values and our shared religious history,” “We recognize the hurt that these decisions have caused,” the letter said. “We ask that you remain open to us.” This is written at a time when the official USA Presbyterian publication, “Zionism Unsettled” calls for a one Arab Palestine state solution, implicitly without Jewish inhabitants.

Let`s examine “our shared religious history”. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is part of the Reformed tradition, founded by Luther. Luther’s attitude toward the Jews changed over the course of his life. In the early phase of his career—until around 1536—he expressed concern for their plight in Europe and was enthusiastic at the prospect of converting them to Christianity through his religious reforms. However, when the Jews refused to convert, Luther denounced the Jewish people and urged for their harsh persecution. In 1543 Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” The synagogue was a “defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …” He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their Prayer books  destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “we are at fault in not slaying them”.Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development of anti-semitism in Germany, and in the 1930s and 1940s provided an ideal foundation for the Nazi Party`s attacks on Jews. Just about every anti-Jewish book printed in the Third Reich contained references to and quotations from Luther.

As mentioned, the roots of Presbyterianism lie in the European Reformation of the 16th century, with John Calvin`s Geneva being particularly influential. Presbyterian denominations hold to the theology of John Calvinand his immediate successors. Interestingly, Calvin did not have much occasion to encounter Jews during the last quarter century of his life in Geneva, since the Jews had been expelled from that city in 1491.  Calvin argued that the Jews are a rejected people who must embrace Jesus to re-enter the covenant. Most of Calvin’s statements on the Jewry of his era were polemical. For example, Calvin once wrote, “I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness – nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” In his “Ad Quaelstiones et Objecta Juaei Cuiusdam Responsio,” Calvin wrote: “Their [the Jews] rotten and unbending stiffneckedness deserves that they be oppressed unendingly and without measure or end and that they die in their misery without the pity of anyone.” In this respect, he differed little from other Protestant and Catholic theologians of his day.

In view of the above, it should come as no surprise that, as part of “our shared religious history”, in October 1933, by a vote of 223 to one, the New Jersey Synod of the Presbyterian Church condemned a resolution protesting against the treatment of the Jews of Germany. The Rev. Robert Arthur Elwood, pastor of the Boardwalk Church, who proposed the resolution, had asked for sympathy for the German Jews. The Rev. Walter H. Westerfield of Bergenfield led the victorious opposition. There were less righteous people in the official USA Presbyterian Church than there were even in Sdom.

In case it is thought that the above was an exception but not the rule, in September 17, 1934, a Church organ blamed Jews for the nazi rise. “Anti – religious Communism” which is “largely under Jewish leadership” is blamed for the rise of Nazism in Germany in an article by Dunbar H. Ogden of New Orleans in the “Thoughts for the Week” department of the Presbyterian of the South.

It comes therefore as no surprise that the official Presbyterian Church disregarded the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews and the initial stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and specifically, the massacre of the Jews at Gush Etziyon and Mount Scopus (the medical convoy) followed by in 1948 the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Jerusalem and indeed the closing of the Western Wall to Jews and the destruction of the 58 synagogues in Jerusalem. The only interest that Jews had to the official USA Presbyterian Church was to convert them. If not, well, I guess, Luther and Calvin took over. In 1942 at the height of the Holocaust, all that interested the official Presbyterian Church was the conversion of Jews. In a report in 1942 it was stated that the task was “tremendously difficult” but “every soul was important”. The attitude of the official USA Presbyterian Church to the Holocaust was one of total inaction and near total silence. In 1961, one Chambers, from the Presbyterian Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews, visited Israel to analyze the prospects for conversion since “the Church cannot sidestep her responsibilities”. While the Anglican Church in 1973 disavowed any approach geared to proselytizing Jews, as recently as 1988 the Presbyterian Church confirmed its evangelistic mission.

Not all Presbyterians were cut off the official USA Presbyterian cloth. There were many Presbyterian individuals, ministers and laymen, who opposed the official line, stood with Jews during the 1930`s and 1940`s and indeed have strongly opposed the current divesture debate. In this context it would be grossly unfair not to mention G. Douglas Young, the president of the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, who lived in Jerusalem for 10 years. It is pertinent to note that he emphasized that after 1967, it was Israel that repaired Christian Churches, situated over the 1948 armistice line, damaged in the 1948 war (probably using Caterpillar equipment). He wrote that for the Jews the problem was not one of occupation, of refugees or of borders but of genocide. Is the official USA Presbyterian Church listening?

In summary, it is submitted that the divesture issue has nothing to do with the Palestinians or “occupation” or “settlements” but, in the spirit of “our shared religious history”, everything to do with the traditional Presbyterian official “Christian values” policy of the conversion of the Jews. I am certain that the $21 million received from the divestment will not be invested in the Palestinian Authority to create jobs or even in the promotion of Palestinian health or education. The intent is not pro-Palestinian but simply anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. True to the tradition of Luther and Calvin, when the missionary work fails, the attacks on Jews by the official Presbyterian Church, transparently disguised as an “occupation” issue but clearly based on the anti-semitic but official USA Presbyterian publication “Zionism Unsettled”, intensify.

There is a golden thread in all this. As many truly god-fearing, decent and reasonable Presbyterians continue to leave the USA Presbyterian Church, whose numbers have decreased by 50% in only 20 years, there will be no one left to implement this latest anti-Israel and, I submit, also anti-Jewish, resolution.

About the Author
Charles Abelsohn, a co-founder of Truth be Told, retired several years ago as the legal manager of one of the most well–known entities in Israel. He is a graduate of three universities (Cape Town, Stellenbosch and U. of South Africa) in South Africa in Law, Transportation Economics and Finance. His interests, even as a young student, were Judaism, Israel, Economics and Finance.