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Evangelicals Rally to Israel’s Side As Protestants Consider Divestment

A clash between evangelicals and mainstream Protestants on divestment from Israel marks what appears to be the groups’ first direct confrontation over the Jewish state. Following the lead of several Protestant churches who are considering dropping their holdings in companies that do business with Israel, the United Church of Christ will debate divestment at its July 1-5 synod in Atlanta.

In response, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is primarily supported by evangelical Christians, launched a petition drive Monday urging the UCC to reject the anti-Israel resolutions: two considering divestment and one condemning Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

“It’s absurd to paint democratic Israel as the world’s worst human rights abuser. And hearing the leadership of the UCC dictate to Israel how she may or may not protect her citizens ought to anger anyone who believes in the right of sovereign nations to defend themselves against terrorists,” said Gary Bauer, an evangelical Christian who is president of American Values, a conservative lobby.

“We need to let the UCC know that Israel-bashing won’t be tolerated. We need to let Israel know that real Christians stand for Israel.”

The fellowship’s Stand for Israel project also launched a more general anti-divestment media campaign Monday, aiming to run full-page ads in newspapers around the country opposing calls within churches, universities and local governments to divest from Israel.

The evangelical push against divestment highlights a new level of pro-Israel activism, along with the growing rift between evangelical churches and mainstream Protestants.

It also exposes the complex relationships between Jews and Christians, and among Christians about Jews.

“The fundamental questions of the connectedness between the Hebrew Bible, the scriptures and New Testament have still not been settled,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s a symbol of that lack of understanding, even among Christians, about the most fundamental issues that define us as a religious people.”

According to Bretton-Granatoor, the root of the matter is understanding the Jewish covenant with God, which is “built upon the acceptance of certain behaviors and obligations and mores, the performance of which leads to the promise of land,” he said. “A nomadic people are now landed, and it gives us our identity, and it gives us our history, and it gives us our narrative.”

The fundamentalist reading of biblical text accepts a divine promise of land to the Jews, whereas mainline Protestants draw metaphorical lessons portraying the Palestinians as the landless lot who deserve justice, he said.

Additionally, Protestant “liberation theology,” with its mandate to aid oppressed, gives rise to a political ideology that sympathizes with the Palestinians as the perceived underdogs.

“We come from profoundly different places,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Protestants believe peace will ensue when Israel lifts its occupation of areas Palestinians claim, while Jews see an Israel that “is not this military superpower without limits. It’s a nation that’s used to being threatened and isolated,” Felson said.

The divestment movement began last July when the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a resolution to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

They since have been followed by Methodists, who are studying the prospect of divestment, and Episcopalians who are reviewing their investment activity. The Lutherans are considering a proposal to “invest in peace.”

To combat the challenge, the JCPA, American Jewish Committe, ADL, American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee have joined the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative movements to promote interfaith outreach on local levels, where Protestant communities have seemed more open than at the national leadership.

The approach has borne fruit.

In St. Louis, for example, the Jewish Community Relations Council worked closely with the Eden Theological Seminary, which is producing an anti-divestment video that it will send to all the Protestant conferences.

Regional UCC groups from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine came together to submit an alternative to the divestment resolution, calling for “selective investment in those initiatives that firmly reject violence as a means to resolving religious and political disputes.”

“The business of community relations is that of strategy and relationships, and in about 120 communities around the country those meetings have had significant impact where people from the Jewish community were well-trained and well-coordinated,” Felson said.

Online petitions, on the other hand, often lack impact, aside from letting people feel that they’ve made a statement, he said.

The United Church of Christ does not seem concerned by the evangelical petition.

“We look forward to healthy debate, and it’s hard to say how such a petition drive will impact that,” said Peter Makari, UCC executive for the Middle East and Europe, who will submit the resolution condemning Israel’s security barrier.

“Based on an understanding of Jesus Christ’s ministry as one of justice and reconciliation,” Israel’s fence is seen as “a barrier to reconciliation and the opportunity that Israelis and Palestinians might have to engage with each other, not just at the governmental level, but at a more grass-roots level,” Makari said.

Makari questioned whether the fence had proven effective against terrorism, but in fact suicide bombings have fallen off dramatically in areas where the fence has been built. Israeli officials note that as Israeli casualties have fallen so too have Palestinian casualties, as Israel has had to undertake fewer counter-terrorist raids.

Evangelicals see things differently from the UCC.

“It’s another example of how the Palestinians have managed to flip-flop the David and Goliath story, and the Philistines have somehow become David,” said George Mamo, executive director of the Fellowship’s Stand for Israel project.

“Our hope is to educate the folks who are taking this foolish path and to motivate the evangelical Christian who is kind of a latent supporter of Israel and get him to be a blatant supporter of Israel,” and urge Christian groups to respond to divestment by investing in Israel, Mamo said.

Asked whether the confrontation was worth risking Protestant-evangelical relations, Mamo referred to a saying at the fellowship: “We should cooperate wherever possible, correct when necessary and teach and sensitize at all times,” he said.

“We think this is an opportunity to both correct and teach and to show our mainline Christian brothers why they should be supporting Israel,” he said, pointing to Israel’s democratic values and its protection of Christian holy sites.

The group will run a full-page ad opposing the UCC resolutions in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the start and close of the group’s conference.

With 70 million evangelicals, “we think we can outweigh any damage that’s done,” Mamo said.

Whether they are effective or not, when the battle on divestment subsides it will leave deep marks on interfaith relations.

“There will be a memory here on this issue of divestment who was prepared to support divestment against the State of Israel, and who supported Israel in this debate,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the AJCommittee, who will address the UCC synod. “There will be a memory, and it will have an impact.”

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