The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has more than one million members, and its Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, is its most senior religious leader. During the U.S. national holiday on January 17 commemorating the birth of MLK, the Stated Clerk issued a written statement that specifically identified one and only one international issue as troubling the Stated Clerk: the issue he labelled “Palestine/Israel.”
In a statement of 524 words, the Stated Clerk devoted 85 of them to condemning the “21st-century slavery” of Palestinians by Israel. He twice referred to the “enslavement” of Palestinians, which he called “immoral,” “dehumanizing,” “intolerable,” and an “injustice.”
Not surprisingly, the statement drew lots of criticism. Condemnation came from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Americans for Peace Now.
With all that criticism, the Stated Clerk decided to take a second look at what he had written. And, having taken that second look, he decided that everything was perfectly fine. On January 22, he issued a second written statement, which said that Palestinians have suffered:
[C]onfiscation of rich land they have farmed for generations, destruction of their crops, barriers to access their holy places of worship, lack of access to certain types of employment … As a people they are separated from one another by the military blockade of Gaza. While my reference to these injustices as “slavery” may seem extreme to many and, of course, offensive to most Israelis, no one who is informed regarding the use of military power and racial bias to control the lives of Palestinian citizens can honestly avoid the truth of this situation.
He explicitly rejects the charge that anti-Semitism in any way motivated his comments—“Our General Assembly has a long, clear policy of abhorrence of anti-Semitism”—and then asserts, “but as Christians, we must … refus[e] to give Israel a ‘pass’ in the face of injustices done to Palestinians in Israel-Palestine.”
Where to begin? One might well wonder why, given all the problems and difficulties festering in the world today, the only one the Stated Clerk focuses on is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
As a Christian, he refuses to give Israel a “pass.” But does his silence mean that, as a Christian, he is giving a “pass” (1) to China for its inhumane treatment of Uyghurs, its domination of Tibet, and its anti-democratic threats against Hong Kong and Taiwan, (2) to Russia for its unlawful seizure of Crimea and its continuing threats against all of Ukraine, (3) to Iran for its threats to “erase” Israel, and its continuing aid to terrorists, (4) to Syria for its government’s continuing civil war on the majority of its own citizens, (5) to Myanmar for its continuing genocidal assault on its Rohingya minority, or (6) to North Korea for its threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S.?
The list could go on, but the only international issue the Stated Clerk mentioned in his MLK Day statement was Israel and the Palestinians. Why? Does every country on the planet get a “pass” except Israel? That’s an interesting perspective for a Christian religious leader to adopt.
Secondly, nowhere in either of his statements does the Stated Clerk so much as wonder whether there might be good reasons why Israel has to restrict Palestinians. The Stated Clerk apparently has never given any thought to what would happen if Israel were to cease enforcing its border with Gaza (a border which, incidentally, is also enforced between Egypt and Gaza). He no doubt believes that members of Hamas and the other terrorists garrisoned in Gaza would simply peacefully travel from Gaza to the West Bank and East Jerusalem to catch up with relatives they haven’t seen in a while. That may be what the Stated Clerk thinks, but no serious, thoughtful person could share that view.
The Stated Clerk apparently has never even heard of Islamist terrorism—that people might sincerely believe they have a religious duty to cleanse all of the Islamic waqf that is Palestine, from the River to the Sea, of any trace of Jewish sovereignty. If he had ever read the Hamas charter, he would know that that is true, but I suppose he’s too busy worrying about the Palestinians’ “lack of access to certain types of employment.”
I recently published a post entitled “Don’t use THE THREE WORDS,” in which I argued that it’s almost always a mistake to use “antisemitic,” “antisemitism,” or “antisemite.” I think that the Stated Clerk and his statements are perfect examples of why we should be reluctant to use those words. He explicitly denies any antisemitic motivation, and deploying any or all of those words is not likely to stimulate intelligent, rational discussion.
So, I’m not going to use any of those words here. What I will say, however, is first that the Stated Clerk suffers from an excessive, disproportionate fixation on the Israeli/Palestinian dispute to the exclusion of every other international problem. Why he, “as a Christian,” should be so obsessively fixated is a mystery. Secondly, for all of his focus on that one dispute, he is remarkably ignorant of, and apparently uninterested in learning about, the actual facts of that dispute. In his simplistic, good guy/bad guy world, Palestinians are good and Israelis are bad. This is not the way a mature, thoughtful leader of a serious religious organization would either think or behave.