The following article is a modified version of remarks prepared by Dexter Van Zile for the Academic Engagement Network’s 2019 Meeting in San Diego which took place last month. The author would like to thank AEN’s executive director Miriam Elman for the invitation to speak at the conference.
For the past fourteen years, I’ve been working to counter anti-Israel propaganda in liberal Protestant (or mainline churches) in the United States. I started this work in 2005 after the national assemblies of mainline churches began to intensely scrutinize the Jewish state and found it singularly worthy of contempt.
A number of churches, most notably the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA have passed divestment resolutions as part of this campaign. To justify the passage of these resolutions, so-called peace activists in these churches rely on the narrative offered by Palestinian Christians, whom I have written about extensively.
Just getting these resolutions on the agenda of a mainline church is a win for anti-Israel activists because the ensuing discussion affords anti-Zionists an opportunity to tell a story of innocent Palestinian suffering and Israeli intransigence and savagery.
The mainline turn against Israel was big deal for American Jews. With their attacks on Israel, churches that were previously regarded as friends American Jews had turned on them in a public act of denunciation. Mainline attacks on Israel helped problematize Jewish life in American civil society at about the same time anti-Zionist activism began making life difficult for Jews on college campuses.
Mainline animus toward Israel became evident in 2017 when a group of teenagers approached the microphone at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and relayed ugly propaganda produced by a Palestinian “human rights” organization whose leaders are affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The teenagers, who had been brought to the General Synod by a pastor from a church in the mid-Atlantic, were testifying in favor of a resolution that invoked the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The resolution, which was supposed to affirm the rights of Palestinian children, remained silent about Hamas’s tolerance for the use of child labor in the digging of smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
The resolution also said nothing about antisemitic incitement on PA- and Hamas-run television stations. Such acts of incitement are clear violations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child cited in the resolution’s text.
The resolution also failed to acknowledge Israel’s efforts — documented by UNICEF — to reduce night-time arrests of Palestinian teenagers, many of whom had thrown rocks at Israelis living in the West Bank, another reality omitted from the resolution.
During his time at the microphone, one of the teenagers asked attendees “How can we be paying an incredibly high amount of tax dollars to a country that values the torturous interrogation of children?”
Some Israeli soldiers do mistreat Palestinian children in the West Bank. This is a reality. Put young men (and women) in combat situations and some of them will do bad things. The vast majority of Israeli soldiers behave admirably under very difficult conditions.
But the fact is, a people can be sovereign, or it can be innocent. But it cannot be both at the same time. This is true for Jews as much as it is for anyone else. But by any reasonable assessment, Israel treats its adversaries, dissidents, critics, minorities and its own citizens better than any other nation or regime in the Middle East.
To ignore this reality and to state baldly that Israel “values the torturous interrogation of children” is false and defamatory.
Another more recent example of anti-Israel defamation took place last summer when an assistant diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Church approached the microphone at a meeting of the denomination’s House of Bishops.
She told her colleagues that during one of her visits to the Holy Land, several Israeli soldiers had shot a Palestinian teenager in the back a total of 10 times because he asked a question the soldiers did not like.
She also told her fellow bishops that Israeli soldiers had tried to arrest and handcuff a three-year-old child on the Temple Mount. According to the bishop, Israelis attempted to arrest the child, a Palestinian, after the ball he was playing with bounced over the edge of the Temple Mount and landed on the Western Wall plaza.
It took a fair amount of work, but her stories were eventually exposed as lies.
When she first told these stories to her fellow bishops, she had suggested that she had witnessed the events first-hand.
After some pushback, the bishop apologized for suggesting that she had witnessed the events she described when in fact, she was merely repeating stories she had heard from someone else.
Then, after some more pushback, she admitted the events she described didn’t happen at all and she apologized outright. The apology wasn’t perfect but was still remarkable because it revealed that there were limits to how far people can go in the Episcopal Church in their attacks on Israel.
What we’ve seen is a woman of the cloth, an Episcopalian bishop — whose life is supposed to be devoted to sharing the transformative power Christ — broadcasting defamatory blood libels to her fellow Christians.
And before we saw Christian children in the United Church of Christ engaging in essentially the same type of behavior.
What made these episodes (and so many other events like them) so troubling is that they took place at the national assemblies of two liberal Protestant denominations that had were part of what I call the “Never Again” human rights coalition that was constructed in the years after the Holocaust.
This coalition, which portrays itself as the custodian of the lessons ostensibly learned and codified in the years after the Nuremberg Trials, has attacked the primary victims of the Holocaust with a flood of dishonest propaganda that portrays Israel as a singular abuser of human rights in the Middle East.
Between emancipation and the Holocaust, the story was that Jews needed to be rendered harmless because they abused the rights accorded to them as citizens in the countries where they lived.
These days, the message is that (1) Israeli Jews abuse the rights accorded to them as a sovereign people in the Middle East and (2) that by exercising undue influence in the democracies where they live, diaspora Jews help Israel get away with its crimes. It’s a “cleaner” version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but the implications are just as demonic.
The great genius of Palestinian propagandists has been to weaponize what Paul Hanebrink has called “Holocaust-memory culture” against the Jews and their homeland.
In his book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, Hanebrink writes that “Holocaust memory is widely associated with a broader set of political and moral values that include an appreciation for the norms of liberal democracy; respect for racial, ethnic, and religious differences; and a commitment to human rights.”
By portraying Israel as an enemy of human rights and diaspora Jews as enemies of democracy in the countries where they live, Arab and Muslim propagandists and their allies in the West have been able to isolate Israel from the community of nations and distance diaspora Jews from mass political movements and civil societies in Europe and the United States. It’s a global campaign to isolate Israel and Jews from the rest of humanity — using the rhetoric and logic of human rights and genocide prevention to achieve this goal!
The sight of liberal Protestant churches assisting in this campaign calls into question the whole project of liberal Protestantism as it as unfolded over the past century. These churches declared themselves enemies of anti-Jewish bigotry at about the same time they began facilitating its spread in the U.S.
It’s a profoundly demoralizing process to witness.
Most of the people involved in promoting anti-Israel propaganda in mainline churches are not what Daniel Goldhagen might call “Yassir Arafat’s Willing Defamers.” They are not motivated by age-old Christian antisemitism and hatred.
They are just ordinary Christians making day-to-day decisions not necessarily about Israel, but about their relationship with their fellow Christians.
Sometimes they act out of ambition, and other times they go along with BDS because the various sources of authority within the denomination pressure them to, just the same way the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority did in the 1960s. In Milgram’s experiment the subjects were convinced to inflict pain and suffering on other human beings as part of a stated effort to make education more efficient.
In the mainline community, people cooperate with the isolation of Israel and Jews as part of an effort to promote peace and justice.
What has happened is that instead of challenging Palestinian use of anti-Zionism as a unifying political agenda, some mainline churches have embraced this strategy for their own.
A similar process is taking place on college campuses.
If I were to write a book about the phenomenon, I’d call it “Ordinary Christians.”
It’s a clear reference to Christopher R. Browning’s text Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland which describes how a group of ordinary men recruited to serve in a German police battalion during World War II became killers, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews in Poland during the Holocaust.
My text would outline the social process(es) by which ordinary Christians have been transformed from people who knew little and cared little about Israel and the Middle East into people who promote (or at least tolerate) hateful propaganda about Israel and its supporters in the United States.
I would use Browning’s title not to equate the lies told (or tolerated) by mainline Protestants about Israel and American Jews with the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. My goal would be to highlight how ordinary Christians were cajoled, coerced and enticed into defaming Israel (and diaspora Jews) with the same incremental and bureaucratic techniques Germany used to turn men into killers in the 1940s.
All the same techniques used to turn people into killers — scapegoating, diffusion of responsibility, appeals to authority, the enforcement of conformity, demonization and moral distancing — have been successfully deployed to turn mainline churches into sources of anti-Israel propaganda.
Using these techniques, a very small number of hard-core activists in the mainline churches were able to convince the majority to acquiesce to this process. And sadly enough, once the process got rolling, it generated a terrible energy of its own. It became a witch trial.
I’d open the book by recounting events I witnessed at the UCC’s General Synod in 2005. After testifying against divestment, a woman came up to thank me —quietly — for what I said. I can’t remember exactly what she told me, but it was clear she thought singling Israel out for condemnation was a bad idea, because it faces enemies who have said many times they want to destroy the Jewish state.
The woman, as it turned out, was a prominent gay rights activist who had been deeply involved in the fight against the Clinton Administration’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the military.
She had worked as a pastor in another denomination and was seeking standing to serve as a pastor in the United Church of Christ, which was on the cusp of approving a resolution affirming gay-marriage at the 2005 General Synod.
I made a point of remembering her name because I thought she might be willing at some point in the future to fight against anti-Israel divestment in the church.
Eventually, I called her up and asked her if she was interested in going on a trip to Israel and in turn, work to counter the BDS movement in the UCC. She was still in the process of becoming ordained in the UCC. She said she’d call her conference minister for guidance.
She got back to me telling me she had to say no because her conference minister, the person who had control over which churches saw her résumé, told her it wouldn’t be “a good idea” to get involved with pro-Israel activism. She went from a potential opponent of the BDS campaign to a bystander.
Here’s another example. The current president of the United Church of Christ, Rev. John Dorhauer, was elected to his post in 2015, the same year the denomination’s General Synod passed a divestment resolution that singled Israel out for condemnation.
When the resolution was first passed, Dorhauer said he would abide by the resolution despite his doubts that divestment was worth the damage it would do to the church’s relationship with the Jewish community.
These days, Rev. Dorhauer is an ardent participant in his church’s propaganda war against Israel. He recently appeared in a propaganda video the denomination made about Israel’s treatment of children. He’s fully on board with this campaign and is will likely be reelected to a second term four-year term at the denomination’s next General Synod in June.
Anti-Zionism has become a dominant ideology within the UCC.
There is no magic bullet to fixing this problem, which is present in the academic world as well. Fixing this problem will require individual effort and sacrifice and a willingness to stand up to peer pressure. There is simply no alternative.
As Zygmunt Bauman, stated in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust, “moral behavior means taking a stance dubbed and decreed anti-social or subversive by the powers that be and by public opinion (whether outspoken or merely manifested in majority action or non-action). Promotion of moral behavior in such cases means resistance to societal authority and action aimed at the weakening of its grip.”
That is not going to be an easy task. It will generate tremendous controversy and push-back.
The work cannot be finessed, but can only be accomplished with great struggle, for as Bauman tells us, “The voice of individual moral conscience is best heard in the tumult of political and social discord.”