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Why is the religious left taking sides against Israel?

Antisemitism is found in more than one form

Delegates wait to speak on U.S. aid to Israel at the 2010 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Minneapolis, Minn. Associated Press/Photo by Jim Mone

Why is the religious left taking sides against Israel?
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Reports of antisemitism have surged of late, dominating headlines about the comments of prominent celebrities. But we need not look only to secular society for antisemitism. There is a long tradition of antisemitism in left-leading religious coalitions.

In July the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly equated Israel with old racist South Africa, declaring that Israeli practices towards the Palestinians “fulfill the international legal definition of apartheid.” It urged Presbyterians to work for “appropriate ways to bring an end to Israeli apartheid.”

Even among liberal Protestants, the PCUSA has been particularly in the vanguard of anti-Israel advocacy. The PCUSA’s Stated Clerk bizarrely used Martin Luther King Day earlier this year to claim that the “continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery” and specifically implored the “Jewish community in the United States” to advocate for ending this “immoral enslavement,” as King would have desired. In 2014, the PCUSA adopted divestment against several companies doing business with Israel.

Perhaps the PCUSA does not merit lots of attention. After all, over the last few decades it has lost 70 percent of its membership. In ten years, it may no longer viably exist. From its long and distinguished history, it still retains wealth, although that wealth presumably too will decline with time. Many PCUSA members of course do not agree with their denomination’s politics. But the PCUSA’s preoccupying hostility to Israel, not replicated with other nations, is politically and spiritually important. It is echoed by parts of other mainline Protestant denominations and the evangelical left.

There are some historical reasons for Presbyterian preoccupation with the Mideast. It historically was an area of concentrated missions by Presbyterians early in the 20th century. Presbyterians founded schools and hospitals there, developing associations with Arab Christians and Arab nationalism that continue to inform some Presbyterian perspectives. But the focused animus towards Israel likely has more behind it.

For the old religious and evangelical left, Israel often represents Western Civilization, colonialism, and imperialism. For aging denizens of Liberation Theology, the Palestinian cause offers the narrative of a Third World people oppressed by First World wealth, technology, and cultural superiority. Israel is an ally of the United States, and from the religious left’s perspective, is an unwelcome extension of American (and British) power into the Mideast. The Palestinians, from that view, are victims of the American imperium, meriting special advocacy by concerned justice-minded American Christians.

The religious left’s animus towards Israel leads to often absurd contradictions and double standards.

Evangelical leftists relate to this narrative, often informed by their own neo-Anabaptist perspective, which is pacifist and anti-empire. Israel of course has by necessity a significant military force, much of it made possible through American aid. This rankles neo-Anabaptists who think anti-violence is the gospel’s chief theme. There is another sometimes-underlying concern for neo-Anabaptists. They are discomfited by ancient biblical Israel, with its divinely ordained kings, warrior heroes, armies, and military victories, all of which defy the neo-Anabaptist stress on God as supremely peaceful. If only unconsciously, they are inclined towards a form of Marcionism, the early church heresy that minimized the canonical authority of the Old Testament. This discomfort with the Hebrew scriptures facilitates unease with modern Israel.

The religious left’s animus towards Israel leads to often absurd contradictions and double standards, especially for a denomination like the PCUSA. It and the other mainline Protestant bodies have countless statements condemning Israel for ostensibly oppressing the Palestinians among other depredations. But they are largely silent about human rights abuses so prevalent among Israel’s Arab neighbors, including the Palestinian Authority, not to mention countless repressive regimes around the world. They ignored Hamas’s July rocket attacks on Israel. A 2011 PCUSA report affirmed calls for democracy during the Arab Spring, but such calls are rare, and it naturally focused on criticizing U.S. Mideast policy.

The PCUSA General Assembly in July did condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it devoted more verbiage to the United States and NATO having “flooded Ukraine with lethal weapons,” enriching “war profiteers—at the expense of the taxpayers, the poor and the planet,” guided by “powerful geopolitical and financial interests.” It also derided sanctions against Russia and lamented the cost to “planetary survival and social justice.”

The Religious Left descends from the Social Gospel, later radicalized by Liberation Theology. It disdains capitalism, bourgeois democracy, America, Western Civilization, and human rights regarding speech, religion, and property. But its hostility to Israel is especially pernicious, not just for its double standards, but also for its underlying disregard for a people who have been among the world’s most tormented.

Modern Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. From the beginning, Israel has had to fight for its very existence. Christians should understand that opposition to Israel as a Jewish state is opposition to Israel as a nation.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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