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Joshua Stanton

Joshua Stanton

Posted: December 10, 2010 03:00 PM

The Presbyterian-Jewish Divide That Need Never Be


Simon Wiesenthal was an inspiration to me as a Jewish kid growing up in America. Who in my place wouldn't have been inspired by him? My large European-based family lost something on the order of fifty members during the Holocaust, and Wiesenthal hunted their killers -- or at least those who had gotten away.

When I learned about the center that bears his name, I was equally impressed. How couldn't I support an organization "that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations"? It brought together the hard-nosed fight for justice with a love for teaching and an investment in the future of Judaism.

I still profoundly admire Wiesenthal and the Wiesenthal Center. But I worry that a recent op-ed written by two of its leaders, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, goes against the very pursuit of justice that the center so firmly embraces. Entitled "Presbyterians Against Israel: Liberal Protestants are engaging in historical revisionism concerning Jews and the Holy Land," its strong suit is certainly not understatement. But by labeling an entire Christian denomination "anti-Israel," it may prove far more damaging.

The Presbyterian Church has over 2.3 million members in the United States. Its members are diverse, as are its leaders. To claim that "Presbyterians" -- and all the more so "liberal Protestants" more broadly -- are "against Israel" is provocative, unconvincing, and even ironic.

One of the worst dichotomies propagated by Israel's critics (and an unfortunate number of its supporters) is the very idea that you can be "anti-Israel." Besides undermining any hope for nuanced discussion, it suggests that you can be against the very existence of a country, rewrite history, and should devote time to counterfactuals rather than peace-building.

If there is a lesson to be derived from problematic and disproportionate criticism of Israel, it is not to oversimplify. It is appropriate to criticize the policies of a given country and support alternatives; it is unacceptable to tarnish the image of an entire country based on policies that only some support.

Something similar may be said of denominational bodies and their policies, as well.

Most tragically, we find that Israel's staunchest supporters within the Presbyterian Church are those most hurt by Hier and Cooper's piece. They are now seen as being in bed with true opponents of the Presbyterian Church -- rather than simply holding different aspirations for its internal policies. By contrast, those most critical of Israel in the Presbyterian Church -- some of whom may even venture into the self-defeating ether of counterfactual history -- will gain momentum and political stature from their article.

Just last summer, the Wiesenthal Center and its representatives witnessed the Presbyterian Church vigorously reaffirm its historic commitment to Israel's right to exist, turn down divestment proposals and amend many other proposed Middle East policies. By criticizing an entire denomination, Rabbis Hier and Cooper can expect more, not less, criticism of Israel.

Israel stands to lose from a lack of nuance on all sides. So does the future of Presbyterian-Jewish relations in America.

(Full Disclosure: While I am primarily a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, I also serve as Program Director of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Auburn Theological Seminary, an institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church -- notably one whose leaders have opposed divestment.)

 

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