Institute on Religion and Democracy
October 24, 2000
It is well known that some of Israel’s strongest U.S. backers are conservative evangelical churches. But it is largely unreported that some of Israel’s sharpest critics are the leaders of liberal mainline churches and ecumenical organizations. Invariably they portray Israel as the primary aggressor and human rights abuser in the Middle East. These church officials largely ignore any transgressions by the Palestinian Authority or neighboring Arab states.
The recent violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces has highlighted this bias by U.S. mainline churches. Palestinians began rioting, with undisguised support from media of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, after retired Israeli General Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Palestinians decried Sharon’s visit to a Muslim holy place as a provocation. Israeli supporters noted that all visitors are supposed to be welcome at the site, and they claim that the riots are simply a Palestinian ploy to force Israel into more territorial concessions.
Mainline church officials have largely endorsed the Palestinian claim that the violence can be blamed entirely on Israeli oppression of a wronged people. “The fundamental source of the present violent confrontation lies in the continued failure to make real the national rights of the Palestinian people to a sovereign independent state in their own homeland and to create just security arrangements in the region,” insisted Robert Edgar, secretary general of the National Council of Churches. He specifically scored Israel’ s “claims to exercise exclusive sovereignty of Jerusalem, in an affront to the sensitivities of Muslim believers,” failing to acknowledge Israel’s recent dramatic offer of shared control for parts of East Jerusalem.
Edgar further faulted Israel for “human rights violations, the destruction of property and the economic emmiseration of the majority of the population.” Although he briefly mentioned the need for “security” and “acceptance” for Israel, he did not describe why Israelis might be apprehensive, nor how their security might be safeguarded if all Palestinian demands are accepted.
In a similar vein, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold blamed the Sharon visit exclusively for the justified “unleashed rage and frustration” of the Palestinian people. He demanded that all Israeli troops withdraw both from the “liberated areas” and the still remaining “occupied territories.” He noted the Palestinian desecration of Joseph’s Tomb only to say that it resulted from “pent-up rage from years of occupation.” He said nothing about Palestinian violence except that sling shots and rocks do not merit the “disproportional military response” of the Israelis.
In a slightly less unbalanced statement, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society called upon both sides to end their violence. But the board fell back upon its traditional blame-America attitude, claiming U.S. arms sales to Israel make the U.S. "complicit” in the current violence. It urged the U.S. to “seriously examine” its military aid for Israel, and to insist upon a shared Jerusalem. The statement said nothing about large amounts of U.S. assistance for the Palestinian Authority. A resolution from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries predictably endorsed Palestinian demands. But a few conservative directors asked for something to be said about the terrorist strike on the U.S.S. Cole. Their fellow board members reluctantly acceded. So the Methodists seem to have been the only mainline denomination to have expressed any public concern about the attack that killed at least 17 U.S. sailors.
Echoing the Methodist demand for reducing U.S. military aid to Israeli, the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America asked that U.S. sales of Blackhawk and Apache helicopters to Israel be suspended. Although the Lutherans called for both sides to desist from violence, they singled out the “disproportionate and excessive use of lethal force by Israeli forces.” And they called for full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories and for a shared Jerusalem.
The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regretted that the U.S. could no longer be seen as “an honest broker” in the Middle East because of its “bias” in favor of Israel. He called upon President Clinton to “disassociate yourself from the stance that appears to blame the victims of this long-term oppression, as the primary cause of the violence.” The statement lamented that Israeli soldiers had been murdered and taken hostage. But it blamed these unfortunate incidents on the legitimate “frustrations” of the Palestinian people who are forced to live under a “clear form of apartheid.”
Although intoning that “this is not a time for ultimatums,” the World Council of Churches nonetheless insisted that Israel must withdraw from all “occupied territories.” The WCC lamented that Israel “has most often either ignored or openly violated” the United Nations demands regarding Palestine, “thus delaying and often denying justice to the Palestinian people, both in the Occupied Territories and within Israel.” However, the WCC admitted that “both sides” had recently offered “constructive proposals for shared sovereignty in Jerusalem.” This is the only acknowledgement among all the major mainline church pronouncements that Israel had made rather dramatic offers of territorial compromises.
None of the statements touched upon the possibility that Palestinian violence was orchestrated to pressure Israel for more territorial compromises. Nor did any criticize the incitements to violence and cries for vengeance from official Palestinian media. None cited the denials of Israel’s right to exist that continue to come from official Palestinian sources. And none expressed any concern about human rights abuses and corruption under Arafat’s de-facto dictatorship over the 90 percent of Palestinians who now live under his authority.
It should also be noted that mainline church officials, despite their professed concern for international peace and justice, have limited their protests about human rights abuses in the Middle East to Israel. One can look in vain through church archives over the last 30 years for any substantive criticism of Arab governments, even though they include some of the worst persecutors of Christians, a topic that presumably would interest U.S. churches.
Why the bias by the mainline churches? In part it is theological. Unlike some conservative evangelicals, mainline church officials do not take literally the Old Testament promises of a land for Israel. But mostly it is political. Israel is a Western-style democracy supported by the United States. The Palestinians and other Arabs are perceived as oppressed Third World peoples still struggling against Western imperialism. Had Israel aligned itself with the Soviet Union 50 years ago rather than the U.S., the mainline churches’ attitude today might be different. Mainline church officials reserve their sympathies entirely for the Palestinians as designated “victim” group, regardless of the character of that group’s self-appointed leaders, and regardless of the tactics employed to advance its cause.
In marked contrast to the liberal mainliners, Southern Baptist leaders have avoided making political pronouncements about the latest Middle East conflict. A church news service report quoted a Baptist missionary on the West Bank who urged: “We Southern Baptists need to be careful not to make statements that condemn one side or the other. …We don’t need to lay blame but to be in a position of praying for peace and their salvation.”
In like fashion, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, speaking for the U.S. Catholic Conference, avoided taking sides, criticizing both “mob violence” and the “excessive use of force.” He called for a peace process that must “satisfy the particular, legitimate, and reasonable aspirations of both peoples.” And he condemned the desecration of mosques, churches and synagogues.
In their statements, the Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics quoted Scripture. The mainline Protestant officials preferred to quote United Nations resolutions. The contrasting approaches perhaps reveal contrasting sources of hope and authority.