WALL: Israeli “agents” infiltrate Presbyterian General Assembly July 3, 2010

by James M Wall  -  Wallwritings -  27 June 2010

Four professors–two from Vanderbilt, one from Auburn Theological Seminary, and one from Syracuse University–have burst on the national scene as strong opponents of a Middle East Study Commission resolution which will be presented to the Presbyterian Church, USA, General Assembly in Minneapolis, MN, July 3-10.

Between them, the four professors have produced two articles against the resolution, one in the Christian Century magazine, the other in Newsweek.

None of these academics are elected commissioners. Presumably they represent the highest tradition of scholarship that one expects to find in the Reformed denomination spawned by John Calvin, who, by the way, will reach the age of 501 on the closing day of this year’s General Assembly.

It is possible that one or more of the anti-resolution quartet members has devoted time to academic study of the history, politics and ethics involved in this issue, or conducted on-the-ground research investigation in the area.

There is, however, no evidence of practical nor scholarly wisdom regarding the current political situation in either article.

There is only the usual interfaith request for two of the three Abrahamic traditions to continue to love one another, and, in the Christian Century article, considerable attention to biblical history, which has no actual relevance to the current reality. Not unless we are prepared to reopen the Creek Indian nation’s claim on the state of Georgia.

Each article hides behind a smoke screen that protects the scholars from even remotely approaching the standard of pertinent scholarship one expects from four academics from such prestigious educational institutions.

Both articles ignore the harsh reality of Israel’s six decades of immoral and unethical treatment of the Palestinian people. There is nothing about the Nakba, the “security wall” or the prison-like conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live.

The article written for the Christian Century magazine is by Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine under the headline, “Habits of anti-Judaism”, Both authors teach at Vanderbilt University.

Smith and Levine describe the PCUSA resolution as the latest public manifestation of an anti-semitism that has long existed in American religious life.

The two Vanderbilt professors attack the PCUSA Middle East Study Commission with a string of innuendoes that shout “anti-semites in the room”.  They do so, however, in the polite, and deliberately misleading, language of a dusty seminar room.

This is how Smith and Levine begin their argument, linking anti-semitism to any attempt to criticize Israeli actions:

Old habits die hard. Despite numerous attempts by mainline Protestant denominations to promote historically informed studies of Judaism, repudiate supersessionist theologies and engage in conversations with Jews, the old habit of bearing false witness against Jewish neighbors lives on.

In recent years this practice has thrived, especially in mainline Protestant statements on the Middle East.

The “old habit” of anti-semitism must be so ingrained in the majority of the Middle East Study Commissioners, that they actually dared to reject what their professors taught them in “historically informed studies of Judaism”.

Also presumably, those studies would have revealed to students that one of the greatest threats to the Christian religion is the belief in “supersessionist theologies”.

After their polite attacks on anti-semites, these two learned Vanderbilt scholars give the customary nod to the good intentions of “congregations, denominations and councils [who] have rightly advocated for Palestinians suffering because of Israeli policies.”

Nothing further about the Occupation nor house demolitions, nor targeted assassinations, nor “security walls” designed to steal land and make life miserable enough for the Palestinian to make them just go away. The only blame leveled is at Israeli “policies”.

It is also revealing that one central complaint from Smith and Levine is that the Presbyterians have not engaged in “conversations with Jews.”  I  happen to know that is patently false. These Presbyterian resolution writers depend heavily on Jewish voices to help them in their assignment. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that Jewish voices in the US and in Israel are increasingly speaking out against the “policies” of the government of Israel.

The Newseek article offers the usual discussion caveat by  acknowledging that the “injustice is real, the situation is urgent”. Yes, it is urgent, and it has been urgent since the slaughter of the innocents began with the Nakba in 1947.

Do Smith and Levine really want Presbyterians to believe that criticism of the Israeli army’s occupation tactics in Gaza and the West Bank–well documented brutality–is a “negative depiction of Jews”? It has nothing to do with Judaism.  It has everything to do with the actions of an invading army.

If  Smith and Levine had spent time reading well-researched literature about Palestinian suffering or talking with veterans of the Middle East search for peace, or visiting in refugee camps, could they have concluded that the “false and negative depiction of Jews” is really what should be the major concern of the General Assembly commissioners?

Anti-semitism is an evil thing. Racism is an evil thing. We live in a world saturated with evil things. Given the opportunity to deal with another evil, that of the military oppression of an entire population, the best Smith and Levine have to offer is a loud lamentation about the continuing presence of anti-semitism, even in our churches, and heaven forbid, even among General Assembly commissioners.

Anti-semitism has nothing to do with the suffering of the Palestinian people. Greed and a massive land grab by the modern state of Israel has everything to do with that suffering.

After traveling many times to the region since 1973, of one thing I am convinced: Judaism as a religious tradition is not important to the political leaders of the modern state of Israel, except where it can be used as a propaganda tool aimed at the Christian right or directed at gullible Hasbara-conditioned mainline American Christians.

Smith and Levine insult the intelligence of their readers by hiding behind a smoke screen of the false charge of anti-semitism against Presbyterian commissioners who ask nothing more than that their denomination go on record of standing against a moral injustice that harms both Palestinians and Israelis.

Smith and Levine are not alone in their effort to confuse Presbyterian commissioners. They have recently been joined by two other academics who adopted a different smoke screen, the Rodney King approach to conflict, “can’t we just get along” tactic.

These two authors are Katharine Henderson and Gustav Niebuhr. Henderson is president of Auburn Theological Seminary, and Niebuhr teaches media studies at Syracuse University. They wrote  on a Newsweek blog, On Faith, a piece entitled “Peacemaking is more than pointing fingers”.

It certainly is, but that is hardly the real issue here. Their column ignores the suffering of Palestinians by narrowly focusing on “peacemaking”, one of those warm and c0zy religious terms that sound nice to everyone.  Who doesn’t want peace?

Memo to Newsweek: Peace making between Goliath with a sword at David’s neck and a giant foot on David’s back can be discussed only after Goliath lays down his sword and lifts his giant-sized dust-covered foot.

And come to think of it, how is it that the two publications who have given space to our quartet of academics, the Christian Century and Newsweek, are presenting “one side” of the discussion the week before the Minneapolis meeting?

In doing so, of course, they are merely following the lead of other American media who, either wittingly or unwittingly, are following the guidance of the Hasbara propaganda army, Israel’s public information program designed to sell Israel as a peace-loving and misunderstood victim surrounded by hateful neighbors.

One of the mysteries of collective human sin that will plague scholars of this century for generations to come, will be to find some rational explanation of why Americans, who otherwise find the violations of human rights to be repugnant, have been, and continue to be, such easy targets for Hasbara propaganda.

This is a nation that finally rejected segregation and has finally admitted its part in the oppression of Native Americans. But unlike people of other nations, Americans still believe they are justified in defending Israel as the innocent victim.

Henderson and Neibuhr report in their Newsweek article that they have signed what they call “a letter circulating among Presbyterians nationwide, calling on the General Assembly to reject the Middle East Study Committee’s report.”

They write that what prompted them to sign this letter and then publish their article was that they “don’t like” the report. They were joined in signing the letter by a large number of Presbyterian pastors, lay persons and academics, all soldiers, whether they know it or not, in the Hasbara army.

Katharine Henderson and Gustav Niebuhr find the report to be “unbalanced, historically inaccurate, theologically flawed and politically damaging”.

How many days or weeks did they study the Resolution to enable them to make that sweeping judgment?  How many years have the Presbyterian ommissioners struggled to find a balance between their churches’ right and left flanks?

Henderson and Niebuhr offer little data to back up their blanket condemnation of the work of the Middle East study group.

The authors of these two articles are teachers, for heavens’ sake, part of the John Calvin tradition. Surely, the four of them know Calvin well enough to recall that while “Calvin placed the highest value on education in the church, he also thought, “doubly fools” those “who do not deign to learn, because they think they are wise enough.”

In his Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 1:45, Calvin wrote that many poor ignorant people, “though ignorant and unskilled in the use of language, make known Christ more faithfully than all the theologians … with their lofty speculations.”

It is the “lofty speculations” that continue to dominate the dialogue we conduct on Israel-Palestine.

We believe academic scholars because they are supposed to know what others don’t know; we sign letters that urge patience and understanding instead of demanding an end to the suppression of Palestinian freedom; and we continue to read columnists like Tom Friedman, who have only one interest in the Middle East : “Is it good for Israel?”

In this week’s Sunday column, Friedman gave his usual overview of the Israeli military picture which he gleans from his friends in high places in the Israeli military command.  He pretends his usual concern for those who die because of Israel’s need for its self-described “security”.

Friedman describes Israel’s wars, always from the perspective of the Israeli military high command, as wins or losses, depending on how much they did for or against for Israel.

His theme is that there are “timeouts” between wars. Only a military sycophant would describe a “timeout” between wars.

His final paragraph is classic Friedman, in which he asks, once again, is it good for Israel.

Note carefully who is guilty of causing wars, forcing the “good guys”, in Friedman’s world, to have to risk their very legitimacy by attacking “fighters who wear no uniforms.”

Israel needs to try to buy its next timeout with diplomacy, which means Netanyahu has to show some initiative. Because the risks to Israel’s legitimacy of another war in Gaza, Lebanon or the West Bank — in which Israel could be forced to kill even more civilians to squash rocket attacks launched from schoolyards by fighters who wear no uniforms — will be staggering.

Come to think of it, Friedman is the high priest of Hasbara.

[The research on John Calvin’s writings is found on the PCUSA home page, in an essay by Joseph D. Small, Director, Theology, Worship and Education. The conclusions drawn from Calvin are from the author of this blog, not from Dr. Small.]

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois.  From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine.  Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008.

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