Theology Fail in Christian Statement on Israel, Judaism, Palestine

American Jews and Christians are again embroiled in a painful and divisive debate. The just-released statement “A Call to Action: A U.S. Response to Kairos Palestine” offers a Christian theological critique of the state of Israel and the Jewish religious beliefs that supposedly buttress its policies. Unlike the much-publicized Kairos Palestine statement from 2009, to which this new statement responds, the authors of Kairos USA are American Christian theologians, activists, and church leaders who aim to “mobilize the churches in the United States” to engage in pro-Palestinian activism using “biblically- and theologically-based principles.”

This latest statement’s American context is important. Most authors are from major Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches. These Christian traditions have, in a remarkable break with centuries of hateful teachings, opposed both Christian hostility toward Judaism and polemics about Jews’ unfaithfulness to God. They also endorse a two-state solution in the conflict.

In their advocacy for the Palestinian cause, however, the Kairos USA authors have rolled back the clock. In its critique of Israeli policies, the statement troublingly undermines these positive Christian views and takes a zero-sum attitude toward the conflict. Out of a reasonable desire to support the Palestinians, they jeopardize these remarkable interreligious gains by issuing one-sided indictments and by failing to honor Jewish religious and historical perspectives. Where other Christians have wisely tried to balance competing but legitimate goals, the authors of Kairos USA do not.

While their political ideas are highly controversial, I want to focus on their theological and historical views of Jews and Judaism, which have potentially serious implications for Jewish-Christian relations, especially because the Kairos Palestine document has been very extensively studied in churches. Understandably, the authors as Christians cast many of their critiques in religious and biblical terms. However, their arguments against Israeli policies rest on a contradictory and confused approach to Judaism and the religious status of the state.

On the one hand, the authors refuse to grant Israel any religious legitimacy. (This view is not itself objectionable and is shared by some Jews and Christians.) They write, “We reject the idea that God’s ongoing covenantal faithfulness to the Jewish people can be legitimately bound up with such claims [to the land].” Out of their sympathy for the Palestinian side, they oppose any biblical statements about, for example, God’s promises to the Jews that might support the state of Israel. There is, they say, no biblical “theology of entitlement” for Jews in the land, and they insist that Scripture focused only on ancient Israel and offers no warrant for a modern Jewish state or its policies.

Yet they repeatedly use biblical texts against the state. Likening themselves to modern-day prophets, “calling states and peoples to the core principles of God’s rule,” they evaluate the state and its policies according to religious criteria. While they say that God’s promises to ancient Israelites are not applicable to modern Israelis as Jews, they repeatedly re-apply God’s ethical demands of ancient Israelites to modern Israelis as Jews.

In their view, Israelis do not just implement bad policies when judged by a secular standard; as Jews, they act in ways that “would deeply trouble Jesus and the prophets.” The authors’ explicitly religious argument only works in one direction: against Jews and Israel. It’s not criticism itself but this inconsistent application of religious standards that’s problematic. It recalls a now widely-rejected traditional Christian trope of applying only divine demands and threats, but not promises, to Jews. Once used to explain God’s repudiation of disobedient Jews, it is now used to signal God’s displeasure for Israel’s actions in the conflict.

But the contradictions don’t end there. Jews are also accused both of betraying the good (i.e., universalistic) demands of their own Bible, like those cited above, and of heeding its bad (i.e., particularistic) elements. The authors bemoan traditions in the Hebrew Bible that supposedly evince exclusivism and hostility to outsiders, such as the biblical promise of land that “elevate[s] one people or one race over another.” Likewise, what they call theologies “that privilege one nation with political entitlements to the exclusion of others,” even when grounded in Scripture, are to them also unacceptably particularistic. It is therefore wrong to prefer these parts of Scripture, and specifically to neglect universalistic themes about God’s love for all humanity.

In constructing a dichotomy between particularism and universalism, however, they also privilege some biblical themes over others. They support their opposition to Israel by unfavorably contrasting texts that speak of God’s promises to the Jews with texts that speak of God’s “gracious presence in all the world.” Despite making their own judgments, the authors then chastise Jews for “misunderstandings or erroneous readings of the Scriptures” when Jews supposedly emphasize texts that focus on one people.

The argument here moves away from doubts about whether Jews follow the Bible and opens up a larger dispute about the overall status of the Bible, specifically regarding which commandments are even binding or worth following. While I think this is appropriate for an internal Christian discussion, the authors impose these judgments on Israelis as Jews, though Jews view the Bible and its commandments very differently from Christians. The authors’ judgments reflect their specific political goals and a distinctively Christian lens on the Hebrew Bible. They fail to honor and fairly engage with the Bible as Jews understand it.

Christian standards for just behavior are especially problematic in this context as Christians are, of course, guided by Jesus’ teachings. However, the authors expect Jews who do not share Christian faith in Jesus to adhere to these standards, casting Jesus as their accuser when they fail to do so. We see, for example, that Jesus’ criticisms of those who serve wealth not God, and who respond to violence with the sword (citing Matthew 6:24; 26:52), are re-directed against modern Jews.

The authors claim that what Jesus really denounced was “the expropriation of others’ resources and taking of land” (i.e., wealth) and “trust in security maintained by violence” (i.e., the sword). The verses, which reflect Jesus’ radical, end-of-days ethic, are here used to illustrate the misdeeds of Jews in a modern nation state. The authors’ political critique veers into a religious critique, with the behavior of Jews arbitrated according to biblical standards Jews do not necessarily share with Christians. One can express reasonable concerns about Israeli policies while avoiding arguments that seem to undermine Jewish religious integrity. (By contrast, the authors do not hold Palestinians to religious standards.)

To illustrate the problems with Israeli policies, the authors gather historical examples of unprecedented brutality as parallels. These extreme examples not only foreclose constructive dialogue but in some cases sever Jews’ connections to their own history. For example, the authors look to antiquity, a time of tragic Jewish subjugation, when Jews suffered under “imperial rule” and faced threats to their “economic survival and physical health.”

Yet they then cast modern Jews as the ones now responsible for such actions. In a stark reversal, Jews are cast as foreign imperialists and persecutors, and Palestinians as persecuted Jews. Rather than simply critiquing Israel’s policies, some of which undoubtedly cause serious harm to Palestinians, the authors read Jews out of their own experiences. Using centuries of murderous oppression of Jews as a model for condemning Israel’s actions is highly disproportionate, as is invoking Jews’ suffering to then use it against them.

Some of the most dreadful acts in human history, including those in which Jews suffered terribly, are adduced as well: “the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition… genocides and ethnic cleansing.” In these events, the statement notes, people used Scripture to “elevate one people or one race over another,” and “to support conquest and oppression.” It then compares these horrors with Israeli policies, often in identical language. The choice of these pedigrees for the modern conflict, as well as their attempts to treat Israeli policies as religiously-motivated misdeeds, doom balanced discussions of a complex situation.

The Palestinians’ real grievances are less, not more, likely to be heard when paired with tragedies that took the lives of millions. Most painful for Jews, and most damaging to constructive dialogue, are Nazi parallels. To encourage wavering Christians to challenge the evil of Israeli actions, they say “churches have done this before. We recall the pastors and theologians of the German Confessing Church who opposed Nazism…” Christian resistance to Nazism (itself a much-debated historical topic) is an unsuitable parallel to mobilize Christian opposition to Israel.

As a whole, this statement illustrates a troubling trend in recent Christian statements about Israel where political critiques of the state bleed into religious critiques of Jews and Judaism. In order to rebut arguments that might support Israel (whether or not they are actually used this way), the authors question God’s promises to the Jews, challenge Jewish faithfulness to and understanding of the Bible, and employ contradictory or explicitly Christian religious critiques.

In its opposition to Jewish theologies of the land the statement reads as a challenge to Jewish religious self-identity. Jews, they write, should “express themselves as a people and a culture,” yet the authors pointedly omit religious expression. Central aspects of Judaism (such as election and covenant) that might buttress claims to the land and clash with Palestinian claims are therefore minimized or denied. Even when the authors direct their polemic against Christian Zionists, they largely cast them in a supporting role of aiding the Jews against whom they mount their harshest critique.

Building Christian support for the Palestinians should not, and need not, include such sentiments about Jews and Judaism. Our religious communities have great moral capital they can exercise in this and other conflicts. Unfortunately, the Kairos USA statement, rather than model a constructive approach to both interfaith relations and political activism, does little to advance “the blessed calling of peacemaking” to which they aspire.