It made headlines in many Jewish outlets, even if it was ignored by the secular press. Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), gave a sermon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in which he said: “The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately.”
What really drew attention to his statement was his claim that Israel was employing “enslavement.” This is a piece of libelous fiction. The term “slavery” is not a metaphor. That is especially true when it is invoked on a day to commemorate King’s life and the way America dealt with the legacy of actual slavery. To throw that word around in a religious statement in which Israel is being declared evil is more than a garden-variety piece of criticism rooted in intersectional myths, falsely claiming that the Palestinian war against the existence of the Jewish state is considered morally equivalent to the struggle for civil rights in America.
In fact, it’s the sort of provocation that is akin to traditional anti-Semitic blood libels. And for a religious figure to utter those words only two days after a Muslim terrorist attacked a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, only compounded the harm.
So it was understandable that the statement drew outrage from across the spectrum of organized Jewish life, including liberal groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which prize interfaith dialogue.
Still, for those who have followed the troubled relationship between the Jewish community and the PCUSA, it was hardly a surprise.
The denomination, which claims more than 1.2 million active members and nearly 9,000 local congregations, is a longtime foe of Israel and Zionism. Its national assembly has repeatedly endorsed the BDS measures and has been the spearhead for efforts to legitimize the anti-Semitic movement. In one example, not even the intervention of a liberal Jewish ally—Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Judaism—in 2014 could persuade them to reconsider or even pause their crusade against the Jewish state.
As for Nelson’s latest comment, that a leading Protestant cleric should speak of “occupation” going on in “Israel/Palestine” was a tipoff that he drew no distinction—as some of Israel’s critics do—between what happens in Israel and its policies in the West Bank. So like the Palestinians, as well as most supporters of the BDS movement, Nelson used language that can be interpreted as regarding all of Israel as being “occupied,” which is to say that a Jewish state has no right to exist no matter where its borders are drawn.
This is in line with PCUSA doctrine that, in the same year that they spurned Jacobs’ efforts, the church issued a study guide and companion DVD for those who receive a religious education from their congregations called “Zionism Unsettled,” which denounced the whole idea of a Jewish state and even criticized the Catholic Church for its efforts to achieve a reconciliation with Jews and to drop the deicide myth in its 1965 Nostra Aetate document.
While liberal Jewish organizations often give their allies, especially African-Americans, a pass for their domestic views on Israel, the Jewish world has been largely united in their outrage against the PCUSA.
Seen in the context of past offenses, Nelson’s vile sermon wasn’t a surprise. Yet we should care about it not just because it is one more piece of evidence of the legitimization of anti-Semitic rhetoric at a time when attacks on Jews are increasing. It is even more important to understand that this is something that should cause Jews to rethink their assumptions about anti-Semitism and draw some conclusions about who and what is fueling a culture of hatred against them.
For most American Jews who identify as Democrats and are largely secular in their orientation, the beliefs of mainstream liberal Protestant denominations like the PCUSA are not something they worry much about. While they may know that some church groups are more hostile to Israel than others, they feel comfortable around them because they see them as allies on so many other issues, like abortion or immigration. They also understand that members of these churches tend to be aligned with most Jews politically and view conservatives with hostility.
If they worry about Christian anti-Semitism, their assumption is that the problem comes from evangelicals, who tend to be conservative politically. That evangelicals tend to be steadfast supporters of Israel is largely dismissed as insignificant or put down as a function of millennial beliefs about the Second Coming. For most liberals, distrust of Christian Zionists is instinctual. Their religious fervor and general unwillingness to speak in the partisan language of social-justice movements—irrespective of their philanthropic or philo-Semitic actions—marks them down as alien to Jews, who, to be frank, regard conservative Christians with the sort of contempt for flyover country “deplorables” that is typical for most coastal demographics.
That’s largely a product of the political tribal culture war that has infected every aspect of American society and discourse. Yet it is also why so many Jews are so alarmed about anti-Semitic far-right extremist groups with small followings and zero influence in the corridors of power, though find it difficult to regard left-wing and progressive anti-Semites—whether in clerical garb like Nelson or activist heroines like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—with the same kind of concern.
That anti-Semitism exists on both the far-right and far-left is a fact; the existence of one threat doesn’t negate those that come from the other end of the political spectrum. Yet it also remains a fact that most Jews continue to regard small scattered groups of neo-Nazis with horror, while either remaining indifferent to or complacent about the influence of Jew-hatred coming from the more respectable precincts of mainstream Protestantism or even the radicals of the Democratic Socialists of America. The same applies to the refusal to understand that a group like the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) fuels anti-Semitism among Muslims even if it masquerades as a civil-rights group opposing “Islamophobia.”
That Nelson’s sermon was barely noticed outside of the Jewish world is important because it reflects the way mainstream liberal media enables the way most Jews misunderstand both the nature and source of threats to their own lives. The same was also true for the way the latest proof of CAIR’s anti-Semitism didn’t elicit much coverage.
Many, if not most, Jews continue to see pro-Israel evangelicals as a threat because they voted for former President Donald Trump or oppose abortion. Yet they merely shrug about virulent hate coming from groups or institutions that they are oriented to view as allies, even if they are opposed to Israel’s existence. As long as that is true, American Jewry will continue to be blind to the forces that are actually legitimizing anti-Semitism and posing threats to their security.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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