The injection of theology into the Israeli-Palestinian real estate dispute has rarely proved helpful, particularly in cases where one side seeks to make a claim to all the land at the expense of the other.
The Church of Scotland’s laughably regressive new document, “The Inheritance of Abraham?: A Report on the ‘Promised Land,” which wilfully mischaracterises and then dismisses Jewish claims to a state in Palestine, is equally as unwelcome.
Its premise is that Zionism is not a national but a religious ideology, grounded in specific and unconditional biblical claims to the Land of Israel. The position of Zionism is that “God promises the land to the Israelites unconditionally,” it says, adding that “Zionists think that Jewish people are serving God’s special purpose.” As such, “Christians should not be supporting exclusive or even privileged divine right” to any territory. “If Jesus is indeed the Yes to all God’s promises, the promise to Abraham about land is fulfilled through the impact of Jesus, not by restoration of land to the Jewish people.”
When it isn’t promoting supersessionism — the notion that the truth of the New Testament renders irrelevant the claims of the Old — it’s borderline anti-Semitic.
“It has to be recognized that the enormity of the Holocaust has often reinforced the belief that Israel is entitled to the land unconditionally,” it states, but “Christians must not sacrifice the universalist, inclusive dimension of Christianity and revert to the particular exclusivism of the Jewish faith because we feel guilty about the Holocaust.”
Rather, “the Jewish people have to repent of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. They must be challenged, too, to stop thinking of themselves as victims and special.”
This document has been welcomed by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign in particular. Mick Napier, the campaign chair, directed the Forward to an article in which he asserts that “The Inheritance of Abraham?” concludes “what every sane person has already decided — that the Christian or Jewish Bibles are not (any longer) to be treated as title deeds to modern real estate and that Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights is very bad indeed.”
It is true that Scotland has traditionally had a more radical political culture than the rest of the United Kingdom, and that in the past, Israel’s ambassador to the U.K., Daniel Taub, has voiced his concern over “elements of extreme hostility to Israel in parts of Scottish society.” But speaking to the Forward, Hannah Holtschneider, senior lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Edinburgh, indicated that the document is a reflection not so much of public opinion in Scotland, but of a subset within the Church of Scotland that wishes to “change the church’s understanding of the Jewish people” and its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Within the Church of Scotland, a significant faction has come to identify with the plight of Palestinian Christians, both those living in Israel and under occupation in the West Bank.
This has now manifested itself through this document, the intent of which is the shift by the Church of Scotland away from identification with Jewish theology and toward the Palestinian cause as a political matter and ecumenical matter. That this document has been published now is the consequence of an evolution over a number of years on these issues and a desire on the part of the authors — the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland — to have its conclusions adopted by the General Assembly of the church, which will convene later in May.
Holtschneider believes that this document is a step backward for the Church of Scotland, one that “seeks to challenge developments in Jewish-Christian relations made in the last 30 years.” It is a “problematic document,” one that “conflates issues” and calls for a “radical reassessment” not only of the church’s position on Israel, but also of Christian understanding of the Old Testament.
Indeed, “The Inheritance of Abraham?” is an unusually unlettered document. It is based on a false premise that Zionism is a purely religious movement, ignoring that in its origins, IT was a secular, national movement that aimed to address finally the problem of anti-Semitism. “The Inheritance of Abraham?” displays a very cheap and narrow understanding of Jewish and Israeli history, and presents a caricature of the conflict in its limited analysis of it, one that views Israel as the only actor in the region, as if the Palestinian people have no agency themselves. And in so doing, it makes a very large and triumphalist claim for itself that Jewish claims to all or part of the Land of Israel are rendered invalid by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities broadly concurs with such an assessment. In a statement, SCoJeC labeled “The Inheritance of Abraham?” an “outrage to everything that interfaith dialogue stands for. It reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism. It is biased, weak on sources, and contradictory. The picture it paints of both Judaism and Israel is barely even a caricature. The arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts and Jewish theology is breathtaking.”
In order to repair the damage the document has already caused, the Board of Deputies of British Jews including representatives of Orthodox and Reform congregations met with Church of Scotland leaders yesterday. The statement released jointly by the Church and the Board noted that the original report “has given cause for concern and misunderstanding of its position and requires a new introduction to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used.”
“The inheritance of Abraham” will thus be redrafted before it is tabled at the General Assembly later this month. Whether the Kirk really wishes to heal its relationship and continue its dialogue with Scotland’s Jews, or turn back the clock on interfaith dialogue to an age of Christian supremacy, will be made all the more clearer then.