Liberal Protestant Churches Rebuff Pro-Israel Speakers

By Simona Shapiro

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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CHICAGO — Liberal Protestant churches are coming under renewed fire from Israelis and their American allies who accuse the churches of unwillingness to hear Israel’s side in the Middle East debate.

The newest unrest began to emerge after the start of the intifada, as Jewish observers noticed that the five prominent Protestant denominations were unwilling to include pro-Israel speakers in lectures on the Middle East conflict.

“We became aware that more and more Palestinians were coming to speak in area churches,” said Emily Soloff, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee. But “the efforts on the part of the Jewish community to speak in those churches, through phone calls and letters, were rebuffed or politely refused.”

Elana Stern, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest region, was more blunt: “The ADL has not been welcomed.” She said that in all six states served by her office — Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota — churches were refusing to host ADL speakers.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, say the situation exists nationwide.

“We haven’t done a survey, but this is a phenomenon we see throughout the country,” said David Roet, deputy consul general of Israel to the Midwest. “It’s a question of fairness — people are speaking about Israel, giving a one-sided view, giving false information, to people who don’t have the knowledge to know the truth.”

Leaders from mainline churches — a term used for the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ — acknowledge that they have been turning away pro-Israel speakers. Several said that they saw no point in providing a platform to what they described as one-sided pro-Israel speakers, while others claimed that previous speakers from mainstream Jewish organizations had been rude to participants with opposing viewpoints.

“There is an ambivalence [among] Lutheran churches as to just how productive it would be to have speakers not willing to see both sides of an issue,” said Del Leppke, the convener of the Middle East Working Group for the Chicago branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

There is an “unwillingness on the part of Jewish speakers to listen respectfully and patiently to the opposing view,” Leppke said. “They quickly think something is an anti-Jewish view, when actually it’s an anti-Israeli government point of view. People have said, ‘You’re one sided and bordering on antisemitic.’ We don’t like that statement. We aren’t. We criticize our own government.”

When asked whether he would support hosting Israeli or mainstream Jewish groups in churches, Leppke said, “Personally, I would speak for it. But there are people who would say, ‘That’s a waste of time, we’ re just going to get into an argument.’ There is a strong reluctance to have strong debate. It goes against the grain of congregations.”

Soloff agreed that the deterioration of relations between churches and the Jewish community was in part a product of cultural differences.

“Jews come out of a deep tradition of argumentation and a prophetic call to justice,” said Soloff, who oversees interfaith dialogue for AJCommittee in Chicago. “Christians have a call to justice also, but not the tradition of talmudic argument. They prefer to build around a consensus. We want to talk about history and politics, and they want to talk about justice. The worldview is different.”

Soloff suggested that Jewish groups could do a better job of listening to their Protestant counterparts.

“Our feeling of being under siege, and that this is a war against Israel’s very existence, prevents us from hearing what they are saying: their legitimate concerns about justice,” Soloff said. “It’s become very difficult for Jews to listen to what Christians have to say.”

But the decision may be less about manners and more about advancing a particular point of view when it comes to the Middle East crisis.

Connie Baker, co-chairperson of the Chicago-based Church Network for Education on Palestine, which publicizes between 30 and 40 events per month, said she would probably not host mainstream Jewish organizations at events she was responsible for. “When we talk to mainline churches, they have no idea of the Palestinian perspective. The only point of view they’re reading in the newspaper is the Israeli point of view. We have found that people are inundated with the Israeli perspective.”

Baker said that she worked with two Jewish groups, Not in My Name and the Tikkun Community, the national organization headed by Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has condemned both Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and has also been extremely critical of many Jewish organizations. According to its Web site, members of Not in My Name believe that “the first step toward attaining peace must be for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.”

Indeed, Baker said that her organization would never invite a representative of any Jewish group that is not opposed to Jewish settlements. Settlers, she said, “are causing the destruction of a future Palestine. Would you say it is okay for us to invite Hamas? We disagree with anyone who totally wants to destroy the other.”

Despite such comments, many church officials insist that their programs are balanced.

“I see churches trying to present both sides,” said Donald Wagner, a Chicago-based Presbyterian minister and frequent lecturer on the Middle East conflict. “Maybe there’s a sense of more concern about the Palestinians, but justice for the Palestinians doesn’t mean abandoning Israel.”

But some Jewish observers noted that the resistance to pro-Israel speakers seems to have become a national trend, cutting across several denominations.

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and United Church of Christ have been unbalanced in their descriptions of the Middle East conflict,” said Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs at national ADL and the author of an October 2002 report titled, “Meeting the Challenge: Church Attitudes Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” “They have identified with Palestinian interests and been unsympathetic to Israeli security interests.”

Reverend Dr. Bassam Abdallah, a Lutheran pastor in Hammond, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and a native of Jerusalem, did not disagree with Korn’s assessment. Abdallah, himself a Palestinian who does not hold Israeli citizenship, told the Forward that “the Christian churches have listened to one side and been unwilling to listen to the other side,” though his own church, First United Lutheran, recently hosted a lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that included an appearance by Israel’s consul general to the Midwest, Moshe Ram.

Korn argued that the problem may, at least in part, come from the conflict region itself. “If you look at the church sources [on the Israeli-Palestinian issue], it comes from three bishops in the Middle East. One is the Latin patriarch; one is the Episcopal bishop of Jerusalem, and the third is the Lutheran bishop of Jordan and Palestine. The pattern of these people is not to criticize the [Palestinian Authority], despite the fact that there are enormous abuses and despite the fact that their own communities are suffering terribly. They rarely deviate from the official line of the Palestinians — either out of fear or other motives.”

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