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How Talking Theology Can Help Defuse Anti-Israel Activism in Mainline Churches

The Jewish community should stop treating the issue as a political problem

Yishai Schwartz
February 27, 2014
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Shutterstock)

In late January, the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) published a new educational booklet entitled “Zionism Unsettled.” The 74-page illustrated pamphlet declared its intent to bring “an end to the silence surrounding the impact of Zionism,” accused Israel of Jewish supremacism, and essentially questioned the state’s moral right to exist. Naturally, this provoked an immediate storm of condemnation from the entire spectrum of American Jewish institutions. And once again, the leaders of these institutions will go to work lobbying the Church’s leadership in the hope of eking out a narrow defeat of anti-Israel divestment at the Church’s upcoming conference.

But while these American Jewish leaders are engaged in holy work, their approach is inadequate. That’s because at its heart, the Christian critique of Israel is not a political problem but a theological one—which means it needs a theological solution.

As should go without saying, the Presbyterian Church USA is, first and foremost, a Church. The authors of the recent egregiously misguided tract see their actions and analysis in theological terms. They view themselves as heeding Isaiah’s call to protect the weak and as emulating Christ’s defiance of established powers. And they see in Zionism’s emphasis on land and peoplehood a modern parallel to the Pharisaic privileging of meaningless ritual over human need. If in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” then the very idea of a nation-state for a particular people becomes repulsive. To someone with this theological mindset, the siren’s call of a cosmopolitan world without national identity doesn’t seem naïve, utopian or dangerous, but imminent. After all, Christ has already said it must be so.

The problem, then, is not simply that an increasing number of mainline Christians lack an accurate understanding of contemporary Arab-Israeli politics and so fall prey to one-sided denunciations of the Jewish state (although this too, no doubt, is a serious problem). The issue is that a theological predisposition in favor of universalism, utopianism and the pleas of the powerless makes Israel a particularly inviting target. At its root, therefore, the problem presented by the Presbyterian Church is not political. It is not even about Israel. It is about what sort of attitude we ought to have toward states, nations and power differentials. In other words, it is about theology.

Logic would dictate, then, that Jewish laypeople interested in complicating this sort of perspective ought to engage theologically with their local Presbyterian communities—and indeed with members of many other Christian churches—in an effort to explain the Jewish outlook on these questions. Alas, grassroots theological conversations between Jews and Christians are exceedingly rare. Part of the problem, of course, is the double-plague of Jewish ignorance and dogmatic Orthodoxy. Too many Jews are Jewishly-illiterate and incapable of a theological conversation of any kind. And the vast majority of the Jewishly-educated are hostile to interfaith dialogue as a matter of principle.

But the unwilling and unable are not an exhaustive accounting of American Jews. In college Hillels and in synagogues across the country, there is surely a significant number of capable and committed Jews to begin a sizeable grassroots conversation with their Christian counterparts. Toward the end of my junior year in college, a few of my most Jewishly knowledgable and thoughtful friends began gathering weekly with a group of the campus’ most committed Christians for joint Bible study. Simple text study soon morphed into far-ranging and electrifying conversations on theology and religious practice, and eventually, a group trip to Israel. There is no reason why this sort of experience couldn’t be replicated on a larger scale.

The problem, however, is that too many of us don’t even know what a theological conversation ought to look like. Our models are either the esoteric musings of professional theologians or the end-of-days analyses that so fascinate Jewish observers of Evangelical Christian Zionism. Neither, of course, is remotely interesting to the vast majority of mainline American Christians, or for that matter, to many Jews. But surely our Jewish theology is about more than either of these, just as surely as our Zionism is about more than fears of anti-Semitism or a mystical biblical deed to land.

So, what exactly would a theological dialogue about Israel look like? To begin with, those of us who believe that Zionism has at its core discernible spiritual and moral teachings must explain what these are to our Christian interlocutors: If we believe that peoplehood, historical consciousness and national identity are not outmoded constructs, but inspiring avenues for reaching God, we should say so. If we believe we have a duty to actualize our ancestors’ millennia-old dreams and aspirations, we should say so. If we believe that communities that share history, texts and language inspire a sense of collective responsibility unmatchable in cosmopolitan fantasies, we should say so. And if we believe that doing justice is more complex than simply acceding to the demands of the less powerful, then we should persuade others to follow.

And if we engage, we will find that Israel is neither the beginning nor the end of a much deeper conversation. Even the most committed Jew may find a great deal to love and to emulate in American Christianity: The spontaneity of prayer, the personal relationships with God, the constant emphasis on charity, the seriousness with which worshippers approach church—all of these are lessons that Jews would do well to learn. But we also have what to teach. And if we believe that our commitment to Israel flows from intelligible and communicable values, then we must articulate what these values are and why they are worth holding.

We should not allow today’s Christians to view today’s Zionists as Paul viewed the rabbis of old. But the task is too large and too important to leave to a few rabbis at the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It ought to be taken up by thoughtful and committed Jews in every synagogue and on every college campus. And in the process, Isaiah’s very different modern disciples may find they have a great deal to learn from one another.

Yishai Schwartz is a writer in New York. He graduated this past May from Yale University with a B.A. in philosophy and religious studies.

Yishai Schwartz is a student at Yale Law School. Previously, he was an associate editor for Lawfare and a reporter-researcher for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @YishaiSchwartz.