26 March 2007

25 March 2007 - A battle within Christianity

One of the most difficult trends for supporters of Israel to deal with in recent years has been the growing antipathy for Israel within liberal Protestant denominations in the U.S. Some liberal churches have considered, and others have actually adopted, a policy of divestment from Israel. This approach stands in stark contrast to the pro-Israel stance of many conservative and evangelical churches in America.

Today, the sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church—which is broadcast on WHRB radio and over the Internet every Sunday—was given by the Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Austin. Her text was Luke 20:9-19, which is the assigned reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent. The story describes an argument between Jesus and the Jewish priests and has historically provided a basis for Christian antisemitism.

Reverend Austin faced the text’s troublesome legacy head-on, denouncing the way in which it had been abused by those who so easily ignored that Jesus and his followers, too, were Jewish. However, she then concluded her sermon by deducing a political message from the text—one that included opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle. “Remember Palestine,” she instructed the congregants.

The Reverend did not consider that she was merely replacing an old form of antisemitism with a new one, demonstrating in a clear and concrete way the link between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews. Instead of highlighting, as she might have done, the fallibility of religious leaders such as Luke, and the need for even the holiest among us to seek forgiveness, she cast Israel as the new Pharisees.

Confronted with a complaint of antisemitism, the Reverend would surely deny it. Had she not tackled the most difficult of antisemitic texts? And she had not, after all, attacked Jews as such, only Israel. Indeed, she might say, it is Israel that is exposing Jews to antisemitism by purporting to act in the name of Jews around the world when it does terrible things to the Palestinian people. And so on.

But I doubt that the Reverend could have developed such a certain and simplistic picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had she not drawn on religious texts and justifications to do so. It seems fairly certain that the same sort of sermon is being preached in other liberal churches across New England. And of Palestinian terror, of the destruction of churches by Palestinian Islamists, not a whisper.

When I was living with a Muslim family in a Muslim neighborhood in Cape Town, we used to tune into the Muslim radio stations and hear hatred of Israel justified in theological terms all the time. It is quite amazing and disappointing to discover that some liberal churches in America are preaching the same sort of message—that Israel deserves punishment because it is re-enacting the perfidy of the Jews.

One good thing about the sermon is that it clarifies where someone like Jimmy Carter is coming from. His book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is not really about Israel or apartheid at all. It is really a salvo within the battle between the Christian right and Christian left for the American evangelical tradition. Israel is just one front in this battle, and Carter’s battle with the Jewish community is incidental.

But it pains me to know that there are freedom-loving people who are joining in the global effort to strip Israel of legitimacy and prepare the theological justification for her destruction. I am not pessimistic about Israel’s future, but the threat of a nuclear attack is real, and efforts to identify Israel with pure evil are paving the path to the abyss. How sad that Harvard’s own church has lent its trowel.

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