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When Christians Fight Over Israel

Choir members at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida / Getty Images

When Christians fight, Jews are collateral damage. The prize is Israel, or at least how Americans perceive Israel. That’s one lesson to take away from the Presbyterian Church-USA’s (PC-USA) decision on June 20 to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.

The debate preceding the vote at the PC-USA’s General Assembly was emotional, or at least as emotional as a debate can be that features speakers whose lilting cadence is reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. At one point, the bow-tie-wearing moderator sighed, “Guess I won’t be going to Israel next week.”

The divestment resolution passed by the slimmest of margins — the vote was 310-303. Shortly after, groups associated with the BDS movement trumpeted their achievement and a remarkably unified American Jewish establishment issued ritualized statements complete with finger-pointing and outrage. Even J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, Rachel Lerner, who attended the General Assembly to protest the resolution, expressed her exasperation with the PC-USA. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.

You’d think that this was the first time a church group had voted to use economic pressure to call attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s not. The Mennonite Central Committee voted to divest last year. The Quaker American Friends Service Committee did so even earlier. Nor does the PC-USA vote signal a wholesale divestment from Israel or announce the latest dubious success of the BDS movement. The final text of the PC-USA resolution explicitly rejects the “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.” The fact that the vote will be misconstrued by observers and manipulated by BDS partisans who lobbied PC-USA delegates doesn’t alter the narrow scope of the resolution. BDS supporters will not be cheered that the resolution reaffirms the Church’s longstanding support of a two-state solution and the importance of “a secure and universally recognized State of Israel.”

Nonetheless, David Brog, executive director of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), vented his frustration with the Presbyterians before the vote in an email statement to me: “The fact that they are focusing their attention on the one democracy in the Middle East…raises troubling questions.” Indeed there are troubling questions at the heart of the PC-USA’s decision, but those questions have as much to do with Christian sectarianism as with anti-Israel politics.

The search for answers led me to Reverend Dr. Larry A. Grimm, a strident proponent of divestment who did not attend the General Assembly. I met up with Grimm in an effort to understand the position of those who support divestment. A barrel-chested 65-year-old with an easy smile, Grimm is a pastor at a small Denver Presbyterian congregation and a counselor to veterans suffering from PTSD. Just as we sat down to speak and as if on cue, he offered his help to a former Marine who exhibited symptoms of PTSD.

Grimm, the gentle, former chair of the Justice Commission of the Colorado Council of Churches had endured his own stressful week. He found himself the unlikely target of attacks in Jewish media outlets prior to the PC-USA vote thanks to his Facebook profile. No, it wasn’t because he’s a member of the “9/11 Truth Movement,” nor due to his penchant for posting updates about crop circles and UFO sightings. Rather, the trouble started on June 14 shortly after he announced to his 515 friends — as well as the entirety of cyberspace — that “America is the Promised Land. We all know this. Come to the land of opportunity. Quit feeling guilt about what you are doing in Palestine, Jewish friends. Stop it. Come home to America!” Perhaps he should rethink his privacy settings.

Initially, I read Grimm’s message as a quirky political plan to relocate Israel’s Jews to an American homeland. I was intrigued because of my own research into Mordecai Manuel Noah’s abortive efforts to establish a Jewish city-state in New York in the 1820s. But Grimm wasn’t following in Noah’s footsteps; he’d never even heard of Noah. Nor was he a real-life Moishe Pipik sprung from the pages of Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” to spread the gospel of “Diasporism” in order to evacuate Israel of its Jews.

In fact, Grimm’s fairy tale proposal was limited only to American Jews living in Israel, a fact he later clarified. Because they have the benefit of dual citizenship, he hoped these American-Israelis would simply “come home.” The notion that America could be the Jews’ promised land had been “stuck in [his] gizzard” for many years, Grimm explained. But it was his time counseling traumatized vets that finally pushed him to go public. “The Jewish people here are very prosperous as a whole [and] have great influence,” he said, “and if I were a Jewish young person living on the West Bank I’d say, ‘Why am I here?’ […] Everything says to them they’re under siege. Why live like that? It has a terrible effect on the brain to live with that stress.” What initially seemed like an impulsive Facebook post gradually assumed the shape of well-intentioned, if misguided, concern for the welfare of American-Israelis.

Some might dismiss Grimm as anti-Semitic, but that accusation is off the mark. Grimm has nothing but respect for the American Jewish community, which he characterizes as having “contributed mightily” to the fight for racial equality and women’s reproductive rights. Both issues are pillars of the social justice commitments of left-leaning activists in the PC-USA. A member of the local Reform Jewish community and the long-time director of the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice who worked with Grimm, Betty Serotta, echoed my sense of the man. “He was a wonderful leader,” she noted, “and very sympathetic to women who had to make difficult choices.” While Serotta did not believe Grimm was anti-Semitic, she had heard rumors that he was “anti-Israel.”

Grimm openly acknowledges his opposition to Israeli policies, but he rejects the assertion that he’s opposed to Israel’s existence. As a man of the cloth, Grimm was heck-bent on revealing his motives to me in terms of scripture. “The ‘promised land’ is metaphorical,” he insisted, “it can be anywhere, [it’s] not necessarily a geographic constraint.” Yet when pressed about the effect his own travels to Israel had on his faith, Grimm wavered. “There’s something about that place, primarily Jerusalem,” Grimm recalled, “I felt it in my inner life.” But given Grimm’s interpretation that the biblical “promised land” could be anywhere, it’s understandable that he reached the conclusion that American Jews might want to leave their homes in Israel. Of course, they don’t read the Bible that way. And exegetical disagreement is at the heart of the PC-USA position on Israel.

In January, the PC-USA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network published Zionism Unsettled, a “congregational study guide” on the conflict. The document “wound up becoming this anti-Israel and in many ways anti-Jewish screed,” J Street’s Lerner explained. To be clear, Grimm had nothing to do with the preparation of the document and claims not to have even read it. But for an outsider to fully understand PC-USA’s stance on Israel, one has to wade through all 74 contemptible pages of Zionism Unsettled. Lerner agreed, insisting that “you can’t read [the Church’s] divestment resolutions outside the context of Zionism Unsettled.” CUFI’s Brog likewise characterized it as “[t]he Presbyterian brief for divestment.”

The document purports “to reckon with the genesis” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And what do the authors determine to be at the root of this evil? Zionism, or more precisely, the “theological and ethical exceptionalism of Jewish and Christian Zionism.” Both forms of Zionism are said to have “intolerable human rights abuses rooted in their core beliefs.” Strong language. No wonder former KKK Grand Wizard and felon David Duke hailed the publication on his website as “a major breakthrough in the worldwide struggle against Zionist extremism.” In chapter after chapter, Zionism Unsettled rails against Zionism as a form of “Jewish supremacism” — a slogan borrowed from the colorful repertoire of Duke’s white nationalism. Remarkably, Zionism Unsettled remains for sale on the PC-USA’s official website.

If the criticism heaped on Israel by Zionism Unsettled is surprising, the authors’ scorn of Christian evangelicals is nothing short of shocking. One chapter of the report is devoted to rejecting the theology of Pastor Hagee and CUFI adherents. The authors accuse Christian Zionists of “distorted ethics” and criticize evangelicals for their belief in what is called Dispensationalism.

Broadly speaking, Dispensationalism divides all of human history between Creation and the Day of Judgment into several epochs. Dispensationalism and its focus on “end time” scenarios remain essential to the theology of many evangelicals, including Hagee and his flock. For Presbyterians, however, Dispensationalism is nothing less than a grave heresy — perhaps the only truly heretical notion prohibited by Church doctrine.

No wonder, then, that Zionism Unsettled ridicules evangelicals for awaiting “God’s final blockbuster.” Brog, who is himself Jewish, lashes out at these attacks: “[T]hey simply lie about Christian Zionist beliefs, motives, and actions.” What Brog refers to, among other things, is the inclusion in the document of an inflammatory quote misattributed to Hagee which had been publicly debunked as an error years before Zionism Unsettled’s publication.

Where do the Jews and Israel fit into this nasty squabble? Never fear, Zionism Unsettled explains that “with the coming of Christ…the old covenant” — that is, the one between God and the Jews — “has been replaced or superseded by the new covenant.” This is what is known as “replacement theology” or supersessionism. In other words, God still loves the Jews, He’s just not in love with them anymore. Plus He wants His promised land back.

Zionism Unsettled relies here on positions outlined by Dr. Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. Burge, the author of two books that treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in theological and historical terms, describes his role as a “consultant-contributor” to Zionism Unsettled. In a phone interview, Burge clarified what Zionism Unsettled characterizes as his support for “some form of replacement theology.” He prefers instead the term “fulfillment theology.” Burge distinguishes between supersessionism, which has historically denigrated Judaism, and fulfillment theology, which maintains “maximal respect” for Jews and Judaism.

By contrast, Hagee’s ministry categorically rejects supersessionism and fulfillment theology. CUFI’s Brog leaves little room for ambiguity on this score: “Most American evangelicals…still believe that the Jews are God’s Chosen People.” For this reason Zionism Unsettled, again under the counsel of Burge, charges that Hagee’s evangelicals stubbornly cling to a faulty “two covenant theology.” Two-covenant theology pains the authors of Zionism Unsettled because it “negates biblical texts that claim salvation is through Christ alone.” Burge himself told me that “salvation can be found in Christ and only in Christ.” When asked directly whether this doctrine was itself “exceptionalist,” he replied: “Sure it is!” Talk about theological exceptionalism.

So what the PC-USA vote teaches us, what Reverend Grimm’s Facebook posting teaches us, and what Zionism Unsettled teaches us is really nothing new at all. Certainly nothing new about American attitudes toward Israel. It’s the same old story of Christian supersessionism, Burge’s disclaimers notwithstanding. Only now, the church marches forward beneath the cross-topped staff of social justice while a benighted Jewry supposedly blindfolds itself to Israel’s human rights abuses.

Those on the right who mischaracterize all anti-Israel positions as somehow anti-Semitic are mostly just scoring hollow rhetorical points. It would be far more accurate — and devastating — to say that some who espouse anti-Israel positions are steeped in anti-Judaic theology.

For those on the left who are skeptical of evangelical Christian support for Israel and their broader conservative agenda, and who find the liberalism of churches like the PC-USA to coincide with the best Jewish traditions of social justice, such a revelation is disheartening. Caught between jingoism and exceptionalism, it kind of makes you wonder just who our Christian friends really are.

Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of the forthcoming In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press, November 2014).




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