Special Report

Divestment Revisionist

The Anti-Israel Religious Left targets the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

By 4.9.12

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The anti-Israel Religious Left has a new target for its fury, and it's not anybody like old nemeses like evangelical Zionists Pat Robertson or John Hagee. It is Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who recently dared to criticize anti-Israel divestment schemes.

"The Episcopal Church does not endorse divestment or boycott," Jefferts Schori recently told a Los Angeles "peacemakers" luncheon. "It's not going to be helpful to endorse divestment or boycotts of Israel. It will only end in punishing Palestinians economically."

Although reliably liberal and politically correct, Jefferts Schori and most of her denomination don't identify with anti-Israel zealotry. In contrast, zealous activists within the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) are trying to persuade their upcoming governing conventions to target Israel for divestment. Episcopal Church opposition makes their argument more difficult.

So understandably, anti-Israel groups like Sabeel are distressed. "If the church is afraid to cry out against injustice and oppression, the living stones, the common people will cry out," warned Sabeel chief Naim Ateek in a letter to Jefferts Schori. Based in Jerusalem, Sabeel is a nexus for anti-Israel organizing between Palestinian churches and Western church activists. Guided by the last remaining vestiges of Liberation Theology, which shook the world in the 1970s by linking Christianity with Marxist revolution, Sabeel summons churches to rally for Palestinian "liberation" from Israeli oppression. Ateek is himself an Anglican priest and frequent speaker in the U.S.

Ateek told Jefferts Schori that her anti-divestment remarks had "shocked and hurt us," by which he presumably meant Palestinian Christians for whom he purports to speak. Theatrically, and citing Holy Week, he described their pain over her stance to Christ's suffering during His crucifixion: "They felt like nails hammered into our bodies and the truth of our reality, as though we Palestinians are living a lie -- only imagining things, and if we only eat, talk, and share our stories, everything will be alright."

Recalling the "ongoing agony, pain, and oppression of our people" across "40 years of misery," Ateek told Jefferts Schori with anguish that, "We only hear 'the Episcopal Church does not endorse divestment or boycott.'" Painful indeed.

Ateek cheekily told the offending Presiding Bishop that Palestinians had already recognized Israel in 1988 and its right to exist in 1993, had also renounced "terrorism" (which he put in quotes) and generously accepted a Palestinian state on 22% of "historic Palestine," i.e. the West Bank and Gaza. Yet still the occupation inexplicably grinds on. Only boycott, divestment, and sanctions as "nonviolent direct action" can serve the common good at this point, Ateek explained.

"We thank God for those people -- Christians, Muslims, and Jews who have eyes to

see and ears to hear," Ateek declared, implicitly contrasting them with Jefferts Schori. "Thank God for people of conscience who are lifting up their prophetic

voice!" He cited retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who ostensibly has declared Israel's policies worse than Apartheid. Ateek closed by remembering Christ as He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, greeted by victims of Roman oppression, and refusing to silence the crowds. Of course, Jesus did not offer political revolution but redemption from sin. But the prophets of Liberation Theology, now fewer in number since Marxism's demise, were never very

interested in redemption.

Another angry voice over Jefferts Schori's audacity in not backing anti-Israel divestment is James Wall, an ordained United Methodist who for many years edited the once prestigious liberal Protestant journal Christian Century. Wall's political and theological myopia led that magazine almost to ruin, until he was succeeded by more moderate voices. But Wall is not silent, especially regarding Israeli oppression and its abettors, apparently including Jefferts Schori. "An appalling shallowness has descended over Mainline Protestantism," he sneered over her refusal to back divestment.

"Martin Luther King, sitting in that Birmingham city jail, would most certainly inform these prelates that there is no debating evil," Wall harrumphed. "A brutal military occupation is not open to debate." He tut-tutted the "collective ignorance" in the Mainline denominations that refuse to aim their battering rams against Israel, on an issue that is "justice, pure and simple."

He implicitly dismissed the likes of Jefferts Schori as "robed religiosos, dripping with interfaith piety."

Wall intemperately likened Jefferts Schori's urging of constructive investment among Palestinians to performing good works inside the "largest outdoor prison." He also likened her remarks to "blatant Israeli propaganda" and compared her to

an "American politician scrambling for Israel Lobby money," which must be the worst insult Wall can imagine. Except he also compared her to a 1950s white Southern bishop complacently urging the segregated and segregators to live together peacefully.

"Bless you bishop, but there are people in Palestine on protest hunger strikes," Wall scowled. "Others are dying under the boot of a brutal occupying army." He seems to imagine the West Bank as a place akin to Poland under the Third Reich, when actually most West Bank Palestinians live under Palestinian rule, while Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Widening his critique, Wall condemned "The New York Times" as a biased "Israeli hometown paper." He quoted a "source" speculating that Jefferts Schori has surrendered to the "copout of 'interfaith' wishy-washiness-cum-cowardice," i.e. caring about Jewish relations. Wall regrets the "Israel Lobby" has taken her captive on behalf of the "Zionist enterprise."

No doubt Episcopal reluctance to jump into the vat of anti-Israel boiling oil that Wall and Ateek prefer is influenced by desires for good relations with American Jews. But it's also true that the Episcopal Church, though obviously very liberal, is not as politically intense as other Mainline Protestants. For example, the Episcopalians were noticeably absent in recent religious demonstrations before the U.S. Supreme Court for Obamacare. They also skipped a recent interfaith call for a "faithful" federal budget that shifts well to the left of the Obama Administration and most congressional Democrats.

Sabeel and the former editor of Christian Century are placing their hopes in Presbyterian and United Methodist anti-Israel divestment proposals. But both denominations have previously rejected divestment by wide margins at their governing conventions. The anti-Israel Religious Left may have betrayal to stoke their anger before this summer ends. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.