It’s a disturbing pattern: Year after year, denomination after denomination, mainline Protestant churches put forward resolutions, reports and policies that are biased against Israel. Jews, in turn, are exasperated by the calls for divestment, statements dismissive of Israel’s security needs and theologically charged denunciations of Israeli policies.
Jews and other supporters of Israel, however, should resist the temptation to simply write off the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and other mainline churches as fundamentally hostile. That’s one thing we learned from the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
At their biennial assembly earlier this month, Presbyterian delegates significantly amended a bitterly anti-Israel report that had been put forward by a church study group. While the final outcome was far from perfect, it was a serious improvement. Moreover, it demonstrated that Presbyterians in the pews do not share the views of the handful of activists who all too often shape church policy toward Israel. The same holds true for other mainline Protestant denominations.
While many mainline church members have valid concerns about the plight of the Palestinians, they also express strong support for Israel. Indeed, a January 2009 Pew survey found that white mainline Protestants say they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, by a margin of 48%-13% — a breakdown almost identical to the views of Americans in general.
Unfortunately, small but determined groups of activists who are either hostile or unsympathetic to Israel have spoken louder than the pro-Israel voices within their churches. As in many organizations, an enthusiastic minority wields disproportionate influence. Activists ably negotiate the processes by which churches make statements and policies. Often they deploy powerful theological language indicting Israeli actions as evil, with some likening Palestinian suffering to Jesus’ crucifixion. They’re aided by Arab Christian activists, who make the rounds of the denominational assemblies.
The influence of these church activists is amplified by their strong institutional bases of support. Many of these activists are involved in their churches’ mission and social justice arms, where there is often a strong identification with the anti-imperialist left. Some mainline churches have official or quasi-official offices and campaigns that work specifically on Israeli-Palestinian or Middle East issues, and which tend to be dominated by individuals with pro-Palestinian sympathies.
Needless to say, mainline churches have no pope or even leaders empowered to block extreme activities and statements. Church interfaith officials often feel cut off. Out of the loop, they are compelled to step in after the damage is done.
These are frustrating trends. However, the lessons from the recent Presbyterian General Assembly are instructive and hopeful. Jews around the country engaged with local church leaders prior to the assembly. By sharing their concerns, they encouraged a broad base of Presbyterians to read and debate their church’s imbalanced Middle East report. And many were distressed by what they found.
Rather than disengaging in anger, Jews should continue to cultivate relationships with mainline Protestants. If we want to break out of the ugly cycle that has recently characterized our community’s relations with mainline Protestants over Israel, Jews need to be proactive in reaching out to our Protestant friends.
Adam Gregerman is a scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore.