Think back some 40 years to the release of Nostra Aetate, the revolutionary Vatican document that inexorably changed the nature of Catholic-Jewish relations. It firmly confronted old church attitudes and teachings that Jews suffered under for centuries. It unequivocally asserted the historical and theological dignity of the Jewish people.
Imagine if, a week later, Pope Paul VI stood on the porch of Castel Gandolfo and announced, "There has been a terrible misunderstanding. All we meant is that when we complain, as we must from time to time, about price-gouging around Christmas by pushy Jewish merchants (by that we only mean some of them, of course), we should not go so far as to blame them for the crucifixion. That hurts their feelings."
In May, the Presbyterian Church (USA) released "Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias." Jewish organizations were effusive in their praise. The last decade has seen a spike in violent anti-Semitic hate crimes in Europe. The document could not have been more welcomed and well timed.
The love-fest was short lived. In June, the PC(USA) removed the original document from its website and replaced it with "Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Bias: In the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace."
It would be hard to construct two more dissimilar documents with similar titles. The original pointed directly to problematic PC(USA) overtures and materials, such as overtures "declaring that the Jewish people are no longer in covenant with God or to blame for the crucifixion." It was a startling and honest mea culpa that directly addressed Jewish concerns about a steady pattern of criticism of Israel that had morphed into derision of Jews. (The latest U.S. State Department annual report on human rights offered, "The distinguishing feature of the new anti-Semitism is criticism of Zionism or Israeli policy that whether intentionally or unintentionally has the effect of promoting prejudice against all Jews by demonizing Israel and Israelis and attributing Israel's perceived faults to its Jewish character.")
Ominously, the main focus of the new document is no longer anti-Semitism, but Presbyterian responsibility in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anti-Semitism has become essentially a sideshow to the main event, which seeks "to call an end to the Israeli occupation to criticize Christian Zionism to speak out against the placement of the separation barrier." (Perhaps the denomination might convince Hamas to end its daily barrage of lethal rockets directed at civilians. That might be easier if the denomination would begin by mentioning them, but don't look for such mention in the document.) PC(USA) members are now cautioned to mind their Ps and Qs as they pursue their one-sided quest for peace. They are urged to be vigilant against slipping into the language and imagery of anti-Semitism while all references to PC(USA)'s own malfeasance have been purged.
Whereas the old document treated such language as inherently wrong, the new one shifts the blame to the Jews. Using crucifixion language in regard to Israeli soldiers is problematic only because Jews "inevitably construe" such imagery as anti-Jewish. Rather than commit to fight the scourge of exploding worldwide anti-Semitism, the PC(USA) now adds to the one-sided demonization of Israel ("the oppressive force in the Israeli-Palestinian situation") that fuels it.
To the vast majority of committed Jews, the land of Israel is inseparable from their identity as a people. The May document recognized the "particular gift of land to the Jewish people." Remarkably, in the very section that criticizes supersessionism, the new document terminates the lease, and awards the land to "the Jewish people and all the descendants of Abraham [without condoning] an interpretation of the Bible as providing a blueprint for the modern state of Israel."
The PC(USA) has long been an enigma to Jews. From where we sit, no Protestant denomination has as many vigorous and outspoken loyal critics within its ranks as do the Presbyterians. Websites and publications that offer alternative views to those of church officialdom abound within the PC(USA), whereas they do not in other denominations. Organized, vocal friendship for Israel and the Jewish people is stronger than in any other mainline denomination.
At the same time, no other denomination has a group of apparatchiks at both national and committee levels that so consistently and undemocratically thwarts the expressed will of its laity regarding the Middle East as does the PC(USA). When the 2006 General Assembly was on the verge of undoing the damaging divestment-from-Israel resolution of 2004, an 11th-hour move by Louisville leadership desperately tried to forestall it. When that failed, it spent the next two years trying to deny what clearly had been the will of the people: to move to greater balance and evenhandedness in its attitudes toward Israel.
Sadly, it is time for Jews, along with proud friends and allies within the PC(USA), to take off their gloves. Part of our struggle will be to contend with those who can find room to support the national liberation aspirations of every group on earth but the Jewish people.
In a long footnote to the new document, the authors express a revealing howler. The note describes the variegated landscape of contemporary Zionism, from settlers to secularists to Palestinian-rights advocates. Amazingly, it also includes "religious Jews who view human efforts to restore Jewish nationhood as a misguided usurpation of God's messianic design." The reference, of course, is to the Neturei Karta lunatic fringe group that equates any kind of Zionism with apostasy, and embraces (literally) Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
How could the folks in Louisville confuse the staunchest anti-Zionists on the planet with Zionists and elevate them to mainstream status? When it comes to Israel, some people in the PC(USA) have little patience for facts, let alone nuance and context. They demonize Israel as an aggressor state, and don't like to be reminded about invading Arab armies, spurned peace offers, the expulsion of Jews from every surrounding Arab country, terrorist attacks, and the loathsome way that every Arab government has used Palestinians as pawns while denying them the assistance that could have meant meaningful lives for three generations of their brethren. They certainly don't want to hear about Jewish roots in the Holy Land and a continuous presence for thousands of years.
Which is precisely why the world needed the first document. And precisely why the biases they won't own up to moved them to rescind it.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is interfaith director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles.
Opinions expressed in Speaking Out do not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.
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"Jewish Groups Angered by Presbyterian Statement on Anti-Jewish Bias" explained that many Jewish leaders see "Vigilance against anti-Jewish bias" as pro-Palestinian.
Recent articles on Christian-Jewish relations include:
Christian Evangelism and Judaism | An exchange of views between a rabbi and a columnist. (April 2, 2008)
Why Evangelize the Jews? | God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do. (March 25, 2008)
Pro-Israel vs. Pro-Palestine | A rabbi hopes for a better conversation. (January 23, 2008)