The recent parliament elections in Sweden revealed an interesting trend. The young generation is apparently less radical than those over 65. This can also be the explanation to why there is suddenly a shift in the World Council of Churches (WCC). The church body, which represents Christian denominations from over 120 nations, has a long history of being anti-Israel. But many of these anti-Israel clerics and activists are over 65 years old. Most of them had their heydays in the social radicalism of the 1970’s. However, when the WCC gathered to its 11th assembly in Karlsruhe earlier this fall it was no longer able to find consensus in its criticism of Israel, the most popular target for the Christian radicals. Despite coordinated efforts to brand Israel an apartheid state, a compromise resolution reads, “our member churches have different opinions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”
This is the same WCC that was one of the main instigators behind the UN NGO World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in September 2001. This was the conference that the late US Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos referred to as “his worst experience of antisemitism since the days of Nazi Germany.” This conference saw the launch of the international BDS movement as well as the initiative to brand Israel an apartheid state. WCC contributed by only one year later launching its Ecumenical Accompaniment Program which sends out Christian observers to monitor and document alleged Israeli human rights violations in the disputed territories. Once back in their home countries they are tasked with spreading their accusations in the own church circles.
Twenty-two years later these same forces seem to be in retreat. Let it be that the general secretary elect Jerry Pillay (born 1953) is part of the old guard as he has a long history of promoting the BDS movement and having even called Israel an apartheid state. But once he moves into his new office in Geneva, he no longer speaks only on behalf of the Presbyterian church in South Africa but will have to represent a variety of Christian denominations from over 120 nations.
It will not be easy. It is no secret that the WCC is in decline, both as it relates to its shrinking membership as well as finances. This may explain why the WCC secretariat is today building bridges both to the Evangelical and the Pentecostal world. But in these church circles you do not make any new friends by being anti-Israel. On the contrary, it is among these growing church groups that the support for Israel is at its highest.
But lowering the tone against Israel is not only a survival instinct. The world around us has changed dramatically since the Durban conference in 2001. Today antisemitism is recognized as an existential threat to our democracies. In 2015 the European Commission appointed its first Coordinator in the combat against antisemitism and many EU member states have followed suit.
Following the international Holocaust Forum in Stockholm in 2000 the global combat against antisemitism has been institutionalized in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance IHRA. In 2016 IHRA finally agreed on a non-binding working definition of antisemitism. The definition has been adopted by some forty nations as well as important international institutions such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The definition is short but is complemented by concrete examples. In the list of examples anti-Zionism is included as well as any accusation of Israel as a racist endeavor. The European Union has openly criticized the BDS movement and the German parliament has even defined it as antisemitic.
In this sobering new world also the World Council of Churches have had to adapt. Ahead of the 11th assembly of the WCC this fall many church leaders were nervous about how they would be received in Germany. What if their general secretary elect was to be denied entry because of his active campaigning in support for BDS?
In his opening remarks German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted that religions should not be used for hate but rather to fight hatred and antisemitism. He added that antisemitism today can appear in many forms, a clear reference to the IHRA definition.
Christian antisemitism will not disappear overnight. It has been around for centuries and will remain so for a foreseeable future, mainly as anti-Israelism. However, the times when Christian radicals would claim the moral high ground by criticizing the Jewish state and get away with it seem to be over. And if this is really the case, we may note that this change took place in Karlsruhe, Germany.