Re-post: Letter to Rev. John H. Thomas, U.C.C. from Dexter Van Zile, The David Project

Thursday, January 26, 2006
The Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ
700 Prospect Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115-1000

Rev. Thomas:
I write to you both in my capacity as Christian Outreach Director for the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership and as a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ. As you are aware, I have been highly critical of the stance the UCC and other mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. have taken in regards to the Arab/Israeli conflict. The failure of Protestants in the U.S. to speak honestly about problems in Arab and Muslim societies that inhibit the prospects for peace in the Middle East, coupled with an undeniable tendency to blame Israel – and only Israel – for the conflict’s existence raises troubling questions about Protestant attitudes toward Judaism as a religion and the Jews as a people. For one reason or another, mainline Protestant leaders in the U.S. are gripped by a tendency to think the worst about the Jewish State its policies and its motives, without taking into consideration the circumstances its leaders – and people – confront on a daily basis.
The recent outcome of the recent elections in the Palestinian Authority has prompted me to write. Hamas, an organization dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel, has won a large majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.Hamas’ victory, though no surprise, raises grave concerns about Israeli security, the welfare of Christians in Palestinian society and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
The corruption of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat (an ongoing problem which was ignored by the peace-making resolutions passed at the UCC’s General Synod in July) and the subsequent failure of Mahmoud Abbas to rein in this corruption is one factor in the Hamas success.
It is not, however, the only factor. Many Palestinians are committed to the destruction of Israel as a Jewish State and for this reason, Hamas was their logical choice. Regardless of the motivations behind the Hamas victory, it does not bode well for Israeli security or for Palestinian welfare. Hamas’ founding document calls for the destruction of Israel and the imposition of sharia law in the Palestinian State. Such an agenda has profound implications for the safety of Jews in Israel, for the status of women and the welfare of Christians in areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Ominously, Hamas leaders have stated that they will not change one word of their covenant calling for Israel’s destruction – despite their success at the polls. It does not appear that the acquisition of power will result in Hamas’ moderation as some would have hoped.
Sadly, the public pronouncements issued by the UCC’s leadership in Cleveland and by its General Synod provide little if any context for Hamas’ victory in yesterday’s elections. The resolutions, as they were written and passed, with direct input from the denomination’s leadership in Cleveland, expressed no expectations of the Palestinians to work for peace.
In particular, the Tear Down the Wall resolution, written with substantial input from Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem and professionally framed by Peter Makari, Area Executive for Middle East and Europe Global Ministries for the UCC, demanded that Israel take down the security fence it is building to prevent terror attacks emanating from the West Bank, without asking the Palestinians to stop the attacks that prompted the Israelis to build the barrier in the first place.
This is not peacemaking, but a clear effort to place the onus for the conflict on the Israelis. It is one thing to ask that the barrier be moved to a more acceptable location, but asking Israelis to take it down altogether – without asking Palestinians to stop suicide attacks – exhibits a troubling naïveté about the Arab/Israeli conflict and an inexcusable indifference to the murder of Israeli civilians.
The Tear Down the Wall resolution embodies a persistent habit of mind exhibited by Protestant leaders in the U.S. – a tendency to portray Palestinian terrorism as an unavoidable response to suffering caused by Israeli security measures. I ask, beg and implore you to fight this impulse. Rooting Palestinian suffering almost entirely – if not entirely – in Israeli policies, as leaders from UCC and other denominations have done, denies the Palestinians moral agency and ultimately undermines their motivation to build a future for themselves and their children. It also allows leaders in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East to continue to use the Palestinians to promote radical and dictatorial agendas in their own countries without so much as a rhetorical slap on the wrist.
The failure of the UCC to express any expectations of the Palestinians to work for peace is rooted in unwillingness on the part of the UCC to speak prophetically about problems endemic to the Middle East. In particular, there is a taboo on discussion in mainline Protestant circles about the religious motivation for the war against Israel. For many Muslim scholars and their followers in the Middle East, the existence of a Jewish state on land previously governed by Islamic rulers is a theological impossibility. For Hamas, the thought of Jewish sovereignty and freedom in the Middle East is intolerable. To be sure, not every Palestinian feels this way, but it must be noted that Hamas did win a strong majority in the recent election.
If Protestant leaders in the U.S., including those in the UCC, are going to condemn Christian Zionism as a threat to peace, they have an obligation to acknowledge the religious motivation of violence against Israel. Religiously-motivated hostility toward Israel, which Hamas embodies, turns the conflict from a disagreement over borders and settlements into a fight over its existence, an issue over which their can be no compromise. Sadly, the UCC has remained silent about the religious hostility that motivates many of the terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
Hamas’ victory underscores problems in Palestinian society that help to prolong the conflict and encourage violence against Israelis. These problems include anti-Jewish incitement on Palestinian Television, hostile, anti-Semitic passages in Palestinian textbooks, and the PA’s financial support to families of suicide bombers, who, in some instances, have official soccer tournaments named in their honor. Sadly, the UCC and its leaders have offered little, if any, acknowledgement of these problems.
If UCC leaders are going to call for a two-state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict in their efforts to promote peace and improve the welfare of the Palestinian people, they have an obligation. They must acknowledge those aspects of Palestinian society that represent an obstacle to creating a state that can live in peace with Israel and secure the human rights of its citizens. Calling for the creation of a Palestinian state while remaining silent about collapse of civil order in Gaza encourages the creation of nothing more than a failed state that oppresses its own people and menaces its neighbors.
If Protestants in the U.S. are going to invoke America’s “special relationship” with Israel as justification for the focus on its misdeeds, they have an obligation to acknowledge the support terrorists targeting Israel have received from Syria, Iran and up until recently, Iraq. The UCC has remained silent about this support.
At this point, I feel compelled along with many others to ask that you rethink your unqualified support for Naim Ateek, founder and director of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. His repeated use of deicide imagery is clearly intended to evoke feelings of contempt for Israel as a Jewish state. It is not, as he and his defenders assert, merely an attempt to portray Palestinian suffering in the “Language of the Cross.” It is important to note these statements were offered at the height of the Second Intifada, which killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. The use of this imagery did not calm the flames of hostility and fear, but fueled them.
It should be noted that Ateek has, on numerous occasions, stated that he does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East and has even repeated the canard that Israel should have been created in Europe. Sadly, on this score, Ateek’s words have been echoed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who you laudably condemned for calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. This echo should be cause for concern amongst those who would defend Ateek and the group he leads as peacemakers.
Sincerely,
Dexter Van Zile
Christian Outreach Director
David Project Center for Jewish Leadership
Boston, Mass.

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