American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris is scared. Earlier this month he sounded the alarm about the “antisemitic leftwing tide that is sweeping up vulnerable Jews.” Harris’ over-the-top warnings (young Jews on campuses are being “picked off” by antisemites!) illustrates how panicked the Jewish establishment is about the erosion of support for Israel, not only among young Jews but with long-time, reliable allies in the mainline churches.
This explains the August 16th piece by Harris’ Director of Media Relations Kenneth Bandler, slamming the resolution on Israel recently adopted by the United Church of Christ:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a longstanding favorite in the biennial General Synod… Last month the group did not disappoint its adherents or others who believe Israel is singularly responsible for the current situation. It generated yet another resolution condemning Israel in many ways while never asking the Palestinians to also take responsibility and do something to resolve the conflict, to advance peace.
Here Bandler pulls the first straw man out of his box of talking points. It’s a straw man because his argument is not responsive to anything contained in the resolution itself–it’s there so he can change the subject. The UCC resolution does not concern itself with the question of responsibility for “the current situation.” Given the purpose of the resolution, that would be ridiculous, bordering on the obscene. Rather, it throws light on the huge power asymmetry between Israel and its colonial subjects. This section merits quoting in full:
WHEREAS, reminiscent of historical examples such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Southern Africa, Israel exhibits a current-day form of settler colonialism, actively engaged in the removal and erasure of the indigenous Palestinian population, through a matrix of control that includes: the imposition of a harsh military occupation; the de facto annexation of Palestinian lands and threats of further annexation; the expansion of illegal Jewish only settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; the contraction of Palestinian-controlled land; and the restriction of travel for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza;
Wow. Eighty-three percent of delegates endorsed a statement describing Israel as “a current day form of settler colonialism,” placing the “removal and erasure” (no holding back here) of the Palestinians alongside the historical examples of Canada, Australia, Southern Africa and our own United States. And all Bandler’s got is to ask why the UCC “is condemning Israel…while never asking the Palestinians to also take responsibility and do something to resolve the conflict…”
But no matter, because Bandler is about to bring out his big gun. “Berating Israel has been at the top of the UCC agenda for decades” he continues, citing past actions of the denomination in support of BDS and calling for ending U.S. aid to Israel. This, together with the earlier comment about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” being “a longstanding favorite”of the UCC General Synod is code for the charge of antisemitism.
We all know why Israel is being singled out for criticism, he is saying. “Old habits die hard,” wrote liberal Zionist stalwart and Professor of New Testament Amy-Jill Levine in 2010 after the Presbyterian General Assembly approved a study critical of Israel’s policies, accusing the Presbyterians of deep-seated but denied antisemitism. In the past, Bandler might have forgiven the UCC for a similar transgression–they know not what they do!–but now a line had been crossed. In previous resolutions, at least the “two states for two peoples” formula upholding Israel’s “right to exist,” was affirmed:
The preamble referenced a 1973 General Synod resolution affirming that “peace and security can be attained only” through a political settlement that takes into account “the right to existence of the State of Israel and the rights of the Palestinian Arabs.” If that was an indication of support for a negotiated two-state solution, it is a UCC historical relic, and was absent from the 2021 resolution. There is no longer any pretense of UCC balance when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the State of Israel.
This is what Bandler is so desperately unhappy about. This is where the unwritten commandments long governing Christian-Jewish relations (thou shalt conduct a “balanced” discourse; thou shalt not question Zionism; thou shalt bless the two-state solution; thou mayest acknowledge Palestinian suffering but Jewish suffering takes precedence) were broken by this UCC action. He can’t stand it: What about our deal? We need to keep talking, we thought you were our friends! You are abandoning “balance!” And on top of all this, now you want to make this about–gasp–theology!
With this resolution, he observes with stunning accuracy, you have done something you have never done before:
Instead of framing the conflict in political terms, it focused on theological interpretations grounded in a document issued in July 2020 by Kairos Palestine, the Palestinian Christian group that actively solicits American Christian denominations, including the Presbyterians, Methodists, and UCC. “Cry for Hope: A Call for Decisive Action,” the Kairos document, proclaimed that “support for the oppression of the Palestinian people, whether passive or active, through silence, word or deed, is a sin.”
Thank you, Kenneth, for getting it so right. And thank you, thank you for sending people to “Cry for Hope,” the 2020 declaration issued by Kairos Palestine and the Global Kairos for Justice network. “Cry for Hope” is the beating heart of the UCC resolution. It speaks with incontrovertible moral and theological clarity. The growing global network of church and church-related organizations at local, national and ecumenical levels that produced “Cry for Hope” is the best hope for the movement to free Palestinians and Jews alike from the evil of apartheid in our time.
In this resolution, the UCC has declared its unqualified commitment to the theological principles and plan for action set out in a “Cry for Hope.” Bandler quotes those key words from the resolution as if they were an indictment. And then, as if to make sure we get the point, he does it again:
This year’s Synod statement “is not just a call to action. It is, centrally, a confession of faith and principles,” wrote Hans Holznagel on the UCC website in May, ahead of the July virtual conference. The resolution, “Declaration for a Just Peace Between Palestine and Israel,” adopted on July 18 by a vote of 462 to 78, declared “Israel’s continued oppression of the Palestinian people a sin in violation of the message of the biblical prophets and the Gospel.” It firmly rejected “the notion that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a purely political problem.”
The UCC delegates understood the power of the word “sin.” They understood the step they were taking in making it the centerpiece of their resolution when they voted overwhelming to reject a motion to remove the word as “too inflammatory.” Bandler’s answer here, presumably in response to the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” is another straw man, an astonishingly tone-deaf non sequitur given the power of what he had just quoted:
Notable is the lack of clarity of what constitutes Palestine in the view of the UCC. The “text of the motion,” following the preamble, opens with “whereas for over seventy years Palestinian people have faced dispossession of their land.”
And that’s all he’s got. Again, Bandler changes the subject, hauling out his next talking point. We have now moved from the moral and theological imperative to oppose oppression to a debate about when the colonization and ethnic cleansing actually began. Seizing on “for over seventy years,” he is off and running, because since we are about to change the subject from justice for Palestinians to the destruction of Israel by its eternal enemies, we have to talk about Hamas. He continues:
This view that the “occupation” began not in 1967 but in 1948 is the conviction of extremist Palestinians, notably Hamas, who firmly believe that the Jews are colonial intruders, have no connection to the land, and must be expunged. In the entire UCC Declaration there is no mention of Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, is committed to Israel’s destruction, opposes any peace initiatives, and in May initiated another conflict by firing thousands of rockets indiscriminately at Israel’s cities.
Perpetrator becomes victim and aggression becomes self-defense in the narrative of Jewish suffering that the AJC must promote in its defense of Zionism. Gaza has been subject to a brutal blockade since Hamas took control in 2007. Over 70% unemployment and shortages in food, potable water and power have created a humanitarian crisis. Pitiless bombings of this tiny, overcrowded strip of land over this period have caused thousands of deaths and massive destruction of housing and critical infrastructure. Hamas didn’t start a war, the purpose of which was to drive the Jews out of Palestine. For that, it would need an army: weaponry, soldiers, that sort of thing. No–the rockets were a message: “We are here! We need your attention–and that of the world!” But Bandler can’t be bothered with facts. He has more talking points to get through before he runs out of print space:
The UCC Declaration rejects “the imposition of so-called peace agreements by Israel or the United States,” but does not identify any of them while totally ignoring genuine peace offers by Israel, with American support, that have been consistently spurned by the Palestinian Authority.
Seriously, one gets tired of refuting these–well, tired–claims about Palestinian rejection of “generous offers.” Read Rashid Khalidi’s The One Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017: the Palestinians have not had a “generous” offer since the western powers set about dividing up their colonial empires in 1917. Read Noura Erakat’s equally eye-opening Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine: “generous” is not even at issue–the West has been dead set against Palestinian self-determination and nationhood from that far back, and that has not changed.
It is this truth, becoming increasingly clear to so many, that has led to this resolution. It has driven the inexorable progress of the resolutions of the UCC dating back to the 1960s and–this is not lost on Bandler–it will lead to resolutions to come from the other denominations, here and abroad, who are already close on its heels.
The latest UCC resolution is a disservice to those truly committed to achieving durable Israeli-Palestinian peace and no doubt will be enshrined in the permanent record of UCC policy towards Israel. Other Protestant churches may well emulate the UCC’s new theological approach when they convene next year and, as they do regularly, prepare and adopt statements condemning Israel.
This is serious! he cries. Others will follow! Yes Kenneth, they will. “The UCC’s obsession with Israel?” Once again, Bandler’s got it right. An obsession is something that won’t leave you alone. For over half a century, the United Church of Christ has returned again and again to Israel and the Palestinians. It’s an obsession because human rights and social justice is the core mission of the church, it’s in its DNA. It’s an obsession that has never allowed the church to be comfortable, that continues to produce leaders and movements that bear witness to oppression and then act to change the political wind. It was the reality of state evil and church complicity that drove Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final years and led to his sacrifice. It was the system of structural and murderous racism that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to his knees in his kitchen that night in 1956. It was what brought James Baldwin (the son of a preacher) before the World Council of Churches in 1968, charging the world body to take on racism as the issue of the times, leading to the establishment of the WCC’s Program to Combat Racism, providing material support to national liberation movements throughout Africa.
For the UCC and for churches throughout the world, facing the reality of Palestine and all that it means for the world at large, it is the obsession that shatters their complacency and disturbs their leadership, as Jesus challenged the Jewish establishment of his time over its complicity with Empire, calling his people to be faithful to the social justice imperative of the Torah and the prophets.
Others will follow! Yes, they will. Like the action of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1982, when the world body declared the theological justification for apartheid a heresy and suspended the South African member churches practicing racial separation, this resolution will someday be seen as the beginning of the end of apartheid in our time. May it come, as the Jewish prayer says,
speedily and in our days.
Mark Braverman is Portland Oregon-based author of “Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land” and “A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine.” He is Executive Director of Kairos USA, founded in response to the 2009 Kairos call of the Palestinian Christians. He is Research Fellow in Theology at Stellenbosch University.