by Mark Tooley, American Spectator
The nearly 3 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) is pondering yet one more condemnation of Israel, which ranks along with the U.S. as the world’s nearly only sinful nation, at least according to liberal Mainline Protestant elites. Several years ago, Presbyterians approved an anti-Israel divestment policy that was quickly revoked after enormous criticism from Christians and Jews. On July 3, the denomination’s General Assembly will meet across 10 days and consider a new anti-Israel policy from its Middle East Study Commission.
Like the failed divestment policy, the new proposed anti-Israel policy stance is meeting considerable resistance, including from former New York Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr (nephew of the famed Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr), and Christian Century magazine, the longtime flagship journal of liberal Mainline Protestantism. In the 1940s and 1950s, liberal Mainline Protestants elites were typically ardent Zionists. The radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s shifted them to pro-Palestinian, under the guidance of Liberation Theology, which portrayed Israel as the colonial oppressor. But extreme anti-Israel stances still arouse the vocal ire of some liberal Protestant voices, who cherish Jewish interfaith ties, and who also remember Israel’s early history, when America’s Protestant elite, including the elder Niebuhr, were enthusiastic boosters.
A former long-time editor and publisher of Christian Century who remains a contributing editor, James Wall, himself an ordained United Methodist, is responding angrily to the liberal dissent against the proposed Presbyterian condemnation of Israel, especially on the pages of his former journal. In a recent blog, he virtually slammed the critics as Israeli inspired provocateurs trying to disrupt a Christian denomination. Indeed, his blog’s provocative headline was: “Israeli ‘Agents’ Infiltrate Presbyterian General Assembly.” Ominously asking why two publications, Christian Century and Newsweek’s religion blog, are presenting “one side” before the church convention, Wall explained they are “merely following the lead of other American media who, either wittingly or unwittingly, are following the guidance of the Hasbara propaganda army, Israel’s public information program designed to sell Israel as a peace-loving and misunderstood victim surrounded by hateful neighbors.”
Exasperated by Hasbara’s supposed success, Wall opined, “One of the mysteries of collective human sin that will plague scholars of this century for generations to come, will be to find some rational explanation of why Americans, who otherwise find the violations of human rights to be repugnant, have been, and continue to be, such easy targets for Hasbara propaganda.” For good measure, he also decried the New York Times’s Tom Friedman as the “high priest of Hasbara,” though Friedman has not seemingly directly addressed the proposed Presbyterian stance, but is merely guilty of occasionally defending Israel.
The so-called Israeli “Hasbara” control of American public opinion is an ongoing preoccupation for Wall, who has led many anti-Israel ostensible fact-finding missions to the Middle East over the years, and whose nearly three-decade reign over Christian Century included frequent salvos against Israel. Tracking with liberal Mainline Protestantism as a whole, that journal which once represented mainstream Protestant opinion fell into near collapse in the wake of Wall’s long editorship, partially reviving since his departure as editor by shifting towards the center. Recently, Wall also blamed White House correspondent Helen Thomas’s disgrace and retirement on Hasbara, which supposedly wanted to punish her and shift attention away from the Israeli confrontation with the Gaza flotilla. Wall derided Thomas’s critics as PEP’s, or Progressives Instead of Palestine. Progressive Protestants like Martin Luther King, Jr. once championed Zionism as social justice. But the hard Religious Left, so entrenched against America, Israel and Western Civilization, often reacts peevishly against any reminder of liberal Protestantism’s nobler, earlier decades.
Angrily, Wall is wondering whether voting commissioners at the Presbyterian assembly will be “duped” by Israel’s “Hasbara Warriors” or more thoughtfully will “listen to our Presbyterian Commissioners who have studied, prayed about, and witnessed the gross injustice of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people?” The supposedly Hasbara-inspired Christian Century column that irked Wall came from two Vanderbilt University professors who wrote about the proposed Presbyterian policy: “Despite numerous attempts by mainline Protestant denominations to promote historically informed studies of Judaism, repudiate supersessionist theologies and engage in conversations with Jews, the old habit of bearing false witness against Jewish neighbors lives on.” They concluded: “In recent years this practice has thrived, especially in mainline Protestant statements on the Middle East.”
Niebuhr’s critique of the Presbyterian proposal in the Newsweek blog, which he co-authored with a Presbyterian seminary president, similarly denounced the anti-Israel stance as “unbalanced, historically inaccurate, theologically flawed and politically damaging.” They also reported signing “a letter circulating among Presbyterians nationwide, calling on the General Assembly to reject the Middle East Study Committee’s report.” Wall naturally denounced these signers as “whether they know it or not, in the Hasbara army.”
Evidently a stranger to nuance, at least on this topic, Wall slammed Israel as guilty of the “the slaughter of the innocents began with the Nakba in 1947,” while bemoaning the “harsh reality of Israel’s six decades of immoral and unethical treatment of the Palestinian people,” and the “prison-like conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live.”
Wall does not seem to get similarly exercised over the sins of Israel’s neighbors, or of virtually any other government in the world. And the Presbyterians do not have study committees or proposed human rights critiques aimed at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, or other non-democracies notorious for abuses and oppression.
At the risk of being accused of serving in the Hasbara Army, here is my Presbyterian colleague Alan Wisdom’s own critique of his church’s proposed anti-Israel stance. Religious Left anti-Israel zealots like Wall believe their opponents are simply tools of Israeli propaganda. But by the same conspiratorial measure, whose tool might Wall be?
Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.theird.org) and author of “Taking Back the United Methodist Church.”