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Why Reinhold Niebuhr Supported Israel

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In February 1942, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr appealed for the United States and Great Britain, as a binding goal in the war against Hitler's Germany, to commit to creating "a genuine homeland" for Jews "under their own sovereignty, within the framework of the British Empire." "The Jews were the first, as they have been the chief, victim of Nazi fury," Niebuhr wrote in The Nation. "Their rehabilitation, like the rehabilitation of every Nazi victim, requires something more than the restoration of the status quo."

Jews, as a "nationality scattered among the nations," deserved a "homeland" in which they would not be a minority, ever vulnerable to persecution, he said. Yes, Jews had a right to assimilation in any society, but they faced mortal threats in "impoverished ... spiritually corrupted" and war-torn Europe. Many thousands had already immigrated to Palestine, governed after 1922 as a British Mandate; it made sense as a homeland site. With the caution and nuance with which he approached all ambitious endeavors, Niebuhr warned that such a project would not be easily accomplished. Specifically addressing the importance of having Jews make moral and political peace with the Arabs in Palestine, he regretted that Zionist leaders were "unrealistic in insisting that their demands entail no 'injustice' to the Arab population." They needed to think more and better about developing "a policy which offers a just solution to an intricate problem faced by a whole civilization." Americans needed to care about this, too, because the very nature of American life would be affected by how the matter was resolved, he thought.

We -- his grandnephew and daughter -- believe that Niebuhr's early support for a future Jewish homeland in Palestine, and his practical concerns about the difficulties the project entailed, must be recalled now, when a document fiercely critical of Israel is making its way around the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination. Entitled Zionism Unsettled and produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network (an official organization within the church), it finds little to recommend in the founding and history of modern Israel. And it denounces Niebuhr and other 20th-century Protestant figures for supporting what it calls the "exceptionalism" of Christian and Jewish Zionism. It accuses Niebuhr of "moral blindness" in backing Israel's creation as a state and of overlooking the rights of Arabs in Palestine. The first accusation is disgraceful; the second is simply untrue.

That these unwarranted, ignorant charges against Niebuhr and others appear in a so-called "educational resource" for the 2 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) should be an embarrassment to the latter. For a decade, Presbyterian leaders have been debating whether Israel's present policies toward the Palestinians constitute -- as some in the church believe -- such a breach of humanitarian principles as to demand condemnation of Israel as an "apartheid" state, fit for severe economic punishment. So far, the church has summoned enough restraint to avoid going down that path, even while expressing deep concerns for Palestinian rights and the negative effects of Israeli occupation beyond the Green Line. Officially, the church advocates a "two-state" solution for the region -- as does the U.S. Government. But now comes Zionism Unsettled, a booklet the purpose of which appears to be to nudge the denomination into supporting the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) movement, which has arisen among Palestinian organizations and gained traction among various European and American academic groups that have voted to cut off contact with Israeli institutions.

Were the Presbyterians to align with the BDS's stated goals, they would become the largest membership organization to do so. And it could happen. In 2012, the biennial General Assembly, which makes church policies, came within a mere two votes -- out of 664 -- of backing a BDS call to divest from selected companies doing business in Israel. The dispute appears certain to resume when the assembly convenes June 14 in Detroit -- ironically, the city where Niebuhr first served as a pastor (and where, almost 90 years ago, he first argued publicly that Christian efforts to convert Jews should cease, given that Jews -- but not only Jews -- considered such efforts anti-Semitic). If the motion is carried this time, Presbyterians -- congregations, seminaries and individuals -- will have to explain how their church's endorsement of the scathing critique of Israel in Zionism Unsettled shouldn't be regarded as profoundly anti-Israel.

While it is not for us to take issue with the entirety of Zionism Unsettled, we note that its authors pick and choose targets with an apparent disregard or ignorance of well-known features of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our principal question is why they decided they would advance their cause by hauling Niebuhr and his colleague Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary into the dock, along with Krister Stendhal of Harvard, and finding them guilty of being too supportive of Jewish Zionists and even of "bigotry" against Palestinians.

Passages in Zionism Unsettled besmirching these "liberal pro-Zionists" disregard chronology and common sense to make illiberal, inaccurate accusations. Ludicrously, Niebuhr and Tillich are lumped together with other "intellectuals with roots in Germany" (some of them Jews) in an alleged "moral support group" in the 1930s that became a "political think tank" for Zionism doing its best to drag the United States into the war. These Christians' admirable solidarity with Jews -- at a time when fanatical anti-Semites were denouncing, threatening and killing pro- and anti-Zionist Jews along with uncommitted ones -- is now counted against them.

For Presbyterians to indulge in such clumsy calumny against formative modern Protestant teachers might prompt one to mere head-shaking pity. But we are concerned that the booklet does not foster actual study within Christian institutions and instead effectively shuts down discussion. It seems to brand any understanding of Zionism past or present as ipso facto hostility to Palestinians. Nor does it advance the real cause worth striving for: agreement on a workable basis for political, religious and cultural peace between Israel and the Arab nations. When it comes to that goal, the booklet's language is high-minded -- but imprecise.

In 1942, Niebuhr wrote about the danger there, too. Americans should fight "to preserve and if possible extend" their nation's "democratic standards of tolerance and of cultural and racial pluralism" -- an obvious reference to the work of eliminating anti-Semitism in this country -- and that would require them to respect Jews in their "legitimate aspiration... for a 'homeland.'" If they did not recognize this, then they were unrealistically expecting some kind of solution based on "the hope that history is moving forward to a universal culture which will eliminate all particularities and every collective uniqueness, whether rooted in nature or history." This was a dangerous expectation. As he said: "History has perennially refuted this hope."