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Obama’s Favorite v. BDS Presbyterians

I wrote on Tuesday about one of the first shots fired by those seeking to boycott Israel in advance of this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Two years ago at the last such gathering, the Presbyterians came within two votes of adopting a pro-BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) proposal against Israel and the powerful anti-Zionist faction in their ranks are taking no chances about this year’s debate. They forced a Virginia pastor to resign as moderator of their Middle East committee because he had taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish groups even though he had been on pro-Palestinian junkets in the past. But the focus of much of the discussion among Presbyterians will be the book and companion DVD published earlier this year titled Zionism Unsettled. As I noted in February it is an anti-Zionist screed with heavy overtones of anti-Semitism that seeks to delegitimize not only the Jewish state but also its American supporters.

Among the targets of Zionism Unsettled is an unlikely figure: the distinguished Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who is, as is well known, President Obama’s favorite philosopher. According to the new Presbyterian guide to the Middle East, Niebuhr and other liberal figures that supported the establishment of a Jewish state are guilty of “moral blindness” for embracing Zionism. But his daughter and his grandnephew have now come forward both to defend Niebuhr and to place Zionism Unsettled in the proper context of the war on Israel. Writing in the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Sifton and Gustav Niebuhr state clearly that by trashing the great theologian in this manner, the BDS crowd is not only distorting the record but also placing the Presbyterians on the wrong side of history.

Sifton and Niebuhr note the significance of the Presbyterian General Assembly taking place in Detroit this year:

Detroit [is] 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.

But what really bothers the pair is the way contemporary Presbyterians are ready to ignore history in order to advance their anti-Zionist agenda.

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.

Niebuhr’s stand against anti-Semitism demands our admiration today, but it was particularly courageous in the context of the era in which he made it. Though not uncritical of Zionist leaders whom he rightly chided for being too optimistic for thinking the Arabs would not fight the creation of a Jewish state because it was clearly in their interests to share the land and cooperate toward the goal of economic development, Niebuhr nevertheless understood that the effort to create a state in their historic homeland was a just cause. The problem with the BDSers is not merely that they don’t tell the truth about Israel’s measures of self-defense or its right or even the reality of Palestinian violence and rejectionism. It is that they reject Niebuhr’s belief that Jewish aspirations for a state were entirely “legitimate.” As such they seek to deny to the Jews alone what no one would think of refusing to any other people. Niebuhr understood the thin veil that separated anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, as did many other decent thinkers on both the left and the right in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

By turning their back on this great man with the publication of Zionism Unsettled and by flirting with BDS, Presbyterians are doing more than venting their spleen against Israel. They are turning their back on a tradition of Christian decency that Niebuhr embodied.



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