In February of this year I wrote about the latest instance of the Presbyterian Church USA engaging in hostile behavior toward both Israel and the Jewish people. A new study guide and companion CD about the Middle East published by an official Presbyterian group sought to delegitimize Israel and whitewash those who wage war and terrorism against it. Even worse, it compared Zionism to anti-Semitism and said that American Jews who supported Israel were not faithful to their religion. On top of the denomination’s past flirtations with the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on Israel, the study guide demonstrated just how deep the hatred for Jews had become among some church officials. But an even more recent incident illustrates that these episodes are not aberrations but reflect a clear desire on the part of church cadres to treat any normal contact with Jews as beyond the pale.
What has happened is that a Virginia Beach pastor who was slated to take a leadership role in a church forum at its annual General Assembly has been pressured to resign by Presbyterian Church USA officials. What was his offense? Taking part in two trips to Israel sponsored by a Jewish group. As Rev. Albert Butzer relates in a piece he wrote about his experience for The Presbyterian Outlook, he had looked forward to being the official moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues at the denomination’s General Assembly. But he was forced out when it came out that he had gone to Israel on trips organized by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia. Though he had previously been to the region on two trips organized by the Palestinians, the mere fact that he had been exposed to Israel’s side of the story in the conflict was enough to brand him as untrustworthy.
While the question of who sits on church committees may not strike many people as an earthshaking question, Butzer’s treatment is significant. His ouster signals a new turn in interfaith relations. Whereas in the past Israel’s foes in mainline Christian churches have sought to cloak their hostility to Zionism and to affirm that they did not wish to harm interfaith relations, it’s now clear that this is no longer the case. By saying that participation in any trip that allows Christians to hear Israel’s point of view even alongside the voices of Palestinians is beyond the pale, the Presbyterian Church USA is telling us that they are declaring war on American Jews as well as Israel.
What is also interesting about this tale is that Butzer should in no way be considered an ardent advocate for Israel. In his piece, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate his sensitivity and even sympathy for the Palestinian point of view. He is willing to view Israel in a negative light and seems not to challenge the Palestinian narrative. But he is willing to listen to the other side in the conflict and that is something that BDS supporters inside the church rightly consider to be dangerous to their cause.
Of course, the BDS crowd at the Presbyterian Church USA isn’t saying who is sponsoring the various pro-Palestinian dog and pony shows in the region (here and here) that it is schlepping its members to this year.
But the point here is that it is drawing a line in the sand and labeling anyone who makes common cause with mainstream American Jewish groups as beyond the pale. In return, Jews and all Christians and people of faith who truly care about peace should make it clear that so long as the Presbyterian Church USA is waging war on the Jews, they will treat it as a hate group masquerading as a community of faith.