Bill Menke's BLOG Page: Presbyterians and Israel: Peacemaking?

The Presbyterian Church USA just adopted the policy that "financial investments ... as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested only in peaceful purposes"*. Someone unfamiliar with the Church's politics might have thought this issue a no-brainer. After all, a liberal American Protestant church hardly could be expected to be making war-promoting investments anywhere. But it turns out that it was put forward as an alternative to an existing policy that had more bite, one that called for "phased selective divestments in multinational corporations operating in Israel". That now-superceeded policy had been widely decried as anti-Israel (and by some, antisemitic). The Church's inclusion, in the new policy, of a statement of regret over the "hurt and misunderstanding" that it caused the US Jewish community is an admission that the old policy was an exceedingly bad idea.

But it's American Protestantism's fascination with Israel that interests me. First, why Israel? Today's world has lots of other hotspots, from Armenia to Zambia. Second, why does the language of the conservative denominations tend to sound pro-Israel, and that of the liberal denominations, anti-Israel?

The national mythos of Israel is part of the reason. Israel, as the kingdom of David and Solomon reborn, as a refuge against persecution that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, as a society based on the homey egalatarianism of the kibbutz, of a land of high democratic ideals, connects strongly with the core beliefs of many Christians. Yet my sense is that the Church's ideas about Israel have very little to do with the actual situation there, and an awful lot to do with sloppy mental free-association over those beliefs. Furthermore, the pro-Israel/anti-Israel bias is not quite what it superficially appears to be.

There are many within the conservative Churches who see in the 1948 founding of the state of Israel proof of the faithfullness of God. God is keeping the Biblical promise of a homeland made to the Patriarch Abraham (Genesis 15:7). Appealing, but to me sloppy thinking, because very little attention is given to the significance of matters such as the one thousand eight hundred seventy-nine year hiatus, or the radically secular orientation of the overwhelming majority of Israeli citizens. Conservative thinking about Israel often has strong apocalypic overtones. Israel's rebirth is seen as a sure sign of the approaching Millenium. I don't think that Israelis would appreciate this perspective, that their supporters are motivated by a burning passion to witness the End of the World.

Liberal Churches, on the other hand, seem to feel that Israel has betrayed them by not being a utopia. That the overtly Jewish state of Israel might have been initially seen as epitimizing the Social Gospel - the notion that the world's problems can all be solved by the application of Christian principles - might seem a bit odd. But the second half of Twentieith Century was a very ecumenical era, when there was an astounding amout of reaching out between Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Liberals expected great strides in peace, and the reality of fifty years of nearly continuous warfare soured them. Even so, I'm not sure that the Palestinians would find this sort of anti-Israelism comforting. It is fundamentally about who the Israelis aren't, and not about who the Palestinian people are.

I don't pretend to understand the real situation among "Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank" (to use the rather awkward Presbyterian phrase). But at the very least, it deserves our pity and not our religious or philospohical theorizing.

* Resolution of the 2006 General Assembly.