In March 1943, the Independent Jewish Press Service published an editorial that took leaders of American Jewish organizations to task for not playing it straight with rank-and-file Jews in the US about their inability to get American policy makers to stop the wholesale murder of Jews in Europe. “Let’s be frank about this, our dear leaders,” the editorial declared. “Isn’t it a fact that for ten years you have been trooping up to the State Department with bated breath and hat in hand — and getting the run-around? Politely, of course.”
The editorial declared that once these leaders realized they were not getting anywhere with the State Department that they “should have said so, loud and clear, so that every Jew in America can hear it, and every Gentile too.” If the leaders in question had come clean with their inability to bring about a change in State Department policy, rank-and-file Jews — and presumably, their non-Jewish allies — could have done “the next democratic thing” and formed a mass movement to change American policy, the editorial declared. “Instead of doing that you hushed up your failure.”
A phenomenon similar to the one described by the Independent Jewish Press Service 75 years ago has played itself out again, this time with mainline Protestant churches in the United States. These churches, which historically played a dominant role in American public and intellectual life, have been viewed as allies of Jews in the US in the decades after the Holocaust. After the Catholic Church issued Nostra Aetate, a text that declared that the Jews would no longer be held collective responsible for the death of Jesus and condemned antisemitism in 1965, mainline churches got on board with the “Christian-Jewish relations” program and in a number of statements of their own, pledged to stand firm against Jew-hatred themselves.
Scholars got doctorates in Christian-Jewish relations and wrote dozens, if not hundreds, of books lamenting the role Christianity played in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust. One of the main points of all the time, energy and money invested into the field of Christian-Jewish relations was to make sure that Christians did not talk or think about Jews like they did prior to the Holocaust. After learning the lessons of the Holocaust, Christians would refrain from using Jews as a proxy for things they didn’t like about human nature and as a scapegoat and explanation for every bad thing that happened in the world.
As it turned out, the theological revolution that took place in the American mainline after the Holocaust did not transform itself in a change in practice. Yes, speaking evil about Jews was taboo for a while, but this taboo was eroded in the face of anti-Zionist agitation by Palestinian Christians and their allies in the mainline “peacemaking” community. In his recently published book, Jews Make the Best Demons: ‘Palestine’ and the Jewish Question, former CAMERA researcher Eric Rozenman, states that “Hatred of Israel, of the Jewish state, reanimates hatred of the Jewish people.”
Much of the agitation against Israel was a proxy for the mainline’s hostility toward Evangelical Protestants, with whom progressive Christians had been feuding for decades.
In any event, this agitation — which had been present in some quarters of progressive Christianity during the first half of the 20th century — really took off in the 1990s when churches started to express indifference toward threats to Jewish safety in the United States and contempt for American Jews and Christians who advocated for Israel on the American scene. Mainline “peace” activists, whose churches had previously condemned antisemitism, began to first speak about Israel, and then in some instances, Jews in the same language that Christians had used in the Middle Ages. Nowhere was this process more evident than in the Presbyterian Church USA whose General Assembly passed an overture that targeted Israel for divestment in 2004 and whose peacemaking organization, the Israel-Palestine Mission Network, has broadcast nakedly antisemitic propaganda since its founding in 2004 (the same year the PCUSA passed the divestment overture). A cursory examination of IPMN materials will reveal the presence of many of the antisemitic tropes that have been used to justify violence against Jews since, if you pardon the phrase, time immemorial.
The sea change that took place was beyond the capacity of Jewish leaders to stop, a reality that they have been loath to acknowledge publicly. When the problem of mainline hostility toward Israel began to manifest itself in earnest in the early 2000s, the mantra from Jewish leaders was, “We got this under control, we can beat this problem. Mainliners are our friends. We have allies in these churches who can help us, we just have to figure out how to talk about the conflict in a language they can understand. And look, we have to admit that security barrier really does look awful, the settlers are a pain and Netanyahu is kind of an embarrassment. But still, we can do this.”
Eventually, the narrative of being able to fix the problem shifted into calls to ignore what the churches were saying. “Look, these churches are dying,” the story went. “It doesn’t matter what they say about Israel. We should just ignore them.” There was some truth to this “dying church” narrative, which I included in my writings, but the problem remained: Even dying churches can help poison the atmosphere of the larger society in which they operate, even in a society where political support for Israel and stated opposition to antisemitism is the norm.
The fact is, Jewish condition can be tolerable, even good in one arena of public life and deteriorate in others with profoundly troublesome effects. Things can be good on a policy level but falling apart in the cultural arena. In his magisterial text, Final solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949, David Cesarani writes that in Germany during the early 1930s that, “Even as the Reichstag proved barren ground for anti-Semites seeking to revoke Jewish emancipation and segregate Jews by law, anti-Semitism spread as a ‘cultural code,’ an attitudinal marker separating Jews from non-Jews.”
I do not want to equate pre-war Holocaust Germany with modern-day America, because Jews in the United States have allies and resources that simply were not available to Jews in Hitler’s Germany. But the similarity is there. Support for Israel is at an all-time high in the U.S. The U.S. government just moved its Embassy to Jerusalem and is putting the screws to Iran, one of the most antisemitic regimes in the world.
At the same time, antisemitism has become a “cultural code” or “attitudinal marker” that is serving to problematize Jewish life in the U.S. Antisemitism, which was discredited as an ideology during the second half of the 20th century, has become acceptable in the early years of the 21st century. Things have happened in the public square in the past few years that would have been inconceivable during the first five decades after the Holocaust. One sign that things have changed for the worse is the regular harassment Jews endure on college campuses in the U.S. at the hands of anti-Zionist “peace” activists. A veritable ghetto bench is being used to encourage some Jews to retreat from public discussions about Israel. There are other signs as well.
That former President Bill Clinton — no enemy of the Jewish people — would share a stage with a Jew-hater like Louis Farrakhan at a public funeral would have been impossible two decades ago, but not today. It actually happened when Aretha Franklin was buried in August. To make matters worse, former Attorney General Eric Holder had his picture taken with the man at the same funeral.
It would be equally inconceivable that the President of Auburn Seminary Katharine Henderson — who at one time was a vocal opponent of the BDS campaign against Israel that rocked the Presbyterian Church USA — would sit in the audience and bask in a name-check from Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. But it happened during Sarsour’s keynote speech at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2017. During her speech, Sarsour referred to Henderson as a “superstar” and “very dear friend” for having signed an anti-racism statement that condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Auburn Seminary is one institution that in years past would reasonably be expected to keep Sarsour at arm’s length, but not anymore. Sarsour, a longtime fan and defender of the antisemitic Farrakhan, has declared on Twitter that “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and that Bridgette Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali were “asking for an a$$ whippin’” and that she wished that she could take their vaginas away because they “don’t deserve to be women.”
The attack on Ali’s womanhood is particularly egregious because as a child she had been the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), an abhorrent practice that is all-too-common in Muslim countries, particularly in North Africa. Despite all these and other ugly public utterances, Henderson aligned herself with Sarsour by signing a statement in 2017 declaring that “An attack on Linda is an attack on us all.” Two decades ago, no self-respecting seminary president would sign such a statement in defense of Sarsour. But today, it’s to be expected. It is the norm.
One last example. It would be inconceivable — utterly impossible — that a former editor of The Christian Century, the flagship publication of American Protestantism would agree (and be allowed) to serve as editor of an explicitly antisemitic website even while his named appeared on CC’s masthead and while he was listed as an ordained pastor in the United Methodist church. Such a thing would never have happened in the 1980s or 1990s, but in the Brave New World of 21st Century America, where the modernists and progressives are oh so very modern and progressive, it did.
It happened when James M. Wall Methodist pastor and former CC editor, served on the editorial board of Veterans News Now from 2012 to 2015 before he quietly resigned his post at the website. When the taboo against antisemitism was enforced, Wall would not have been allowed to quietly have his name quietly removed from the offending website’s editorial board. Instead, he would have been drummed out of the ranks of polite society. His former colleagues would express dismay and sadness. But not the folks at Christian Century, nor his fellow pastors in the United Methodist Church.
All these events help explain the American Jewish Committee broke ranks with the “we got it covered/these dying churches don’t matter” narrative a few weeks before the Presbyterian Church USA passed a veritable flood of anti-Israel resolutions at its 2018 General Assembly.
Prior to the assembly, Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, declared that his organization would not attend the proceedings in an effort to affect the outcome. “The AJC, whose decades-long record in interfaith relations is second to none, will not engage with the GA farce anymore,” Marans said, adding that “No longer can we participate in a GA drama whose best-case scenario is exaggerated Jewish relief that anti-Israel resolutions are marginally toned down before passage.”
Maran’s honest (and accurate) description about what was likely to happen (and which did happen) at the upcoming PCUSA’s General Assembly was a first public admission that interfaith dialogue between mainline Christians and Jews in the U.S. was at an impasse and pointed to an even more troublesome possibility: The Christian-Jewish relations industry that had been established in the years after the Holocaust has been largely ineffective in preventing the recrudescence of antisemitism in the mainline Protestantism in the U.S.
Experts and scholars in the field of Christian-Jewish relations have been able to convince scholars to use the word “antisemitism” instead of “anti-Semitism,” (for reasonable but ultimately academic reasons) but as far as steering Christians away from the habit of using the Jews and their homeland as an explanation for all that is bad in the Middle East (and the rest of the world), well, that did not happen. This was the reality that Rabbi Marans from the AJC was coming to grips with.
The problem is not incompetence or lack of effort on the part of Jewish leaders, but condescension on the part of mainline Christian leaders. Whenever mainline leaders need to demonstrate just how committed they are to good interfaith relations, they can shop around for various subalterns to bring to the prom. In the aftermath of the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, mainline Christian leaders knew full well they would be welcomed with open arms to the various vigils throughout the country and that mainstream Jewish leaders would be glad to have them present on the stage. The troubling irony is that mainline peacemakers had helped to mainstream the ideas used to justify anti-Jewish violence throughout history.
Mainliners can get away with this behavior for one simple reason: For them, there are a lot of fish in the sea. If mainstream Jewish leaders get too angry at mainline churches over something they say or do in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, mainliners can always invite someone from Jewish Voice for Peace or J-Street to the interfaith prom to prove they don’t have a problem with Jews per se — just Israel. And to further prove their moral and intellectual superiority to the interfaith community, mainline elites can, when it suits their purposes, stand in solidarity with Muslim activists like Linda Sarsour.
There it is.
White mainline privilege is getting to decide who to bring to the interfaith prom at the last minute. Somebody is always waiting by the phone.