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Anti-BDS activists decry Lutherans’ ‘obsession’ with Israel

ELCA Presiding Bishop the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton. Credit: ELCA.
ELCA Presiding Bishop the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton. Credit: ELCA.

By Rafael Medoff/

While some pro-Israel groups are decrying the Lutheran church’s “scapegoating of Israel” and its apparent movement towards embracing divestment, other Jewish leaders detect hopeful signs with the church’s most recent positions.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., passed two Israel-related resolutions earlier this month at its triennial assembly in New Orleans, La. One resolution established an “investment screen” that will recommend where Lutherans should invest their money with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. The other urged a cutoff of U.S. aid to Israel unless Israel meets a series of conditions and calls for the immediate U.S. recognition of “the state of Palestine.”

Dexter Van Zile, a Catholic pro-Israel activist, who monitors and analyzes the Christian media for the Committee on Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) said, “the Lutheran Church has an outrageous obsession with Israel.” He told the group “has been beating up on Israel for a long time, and this is just the latest example.”

David Brog, of Christians United for Israel, said in a statement that the resolutions “blame Israel and only Israel for the conflict in the Middle East. Such one-sided scapegoating of the Jewish state will only fuel further Palestinian rejection and violence.”

Lutheran student activist Austin Reid told the church’s resolutions “send a message of discrimination against Israel and neglect to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for misguiding the Palestinian people.” Reid is an Emerson Fellow at StandWithUs and attends the ELCA-affiliated Capital University in Ohio.

Other observers are more hopeful.

The church setting up an “investment screen,” rather than directly calling for a boycott of Israeli products, is a positive development, according to Emily Soloff, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) associate director of Interreligious and Intergroup relations.

Soloff, who attended the Lutheran conference, called the resolutions “problematic” and come across as one-sided. But, she emphasized, the assembly did not adopt the explicitly pro-BDS language which was proposed by a number of individual church synods, or branches.

Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), conducted a workshop on Lutheran-Jewish relations at the New Orleans conference. He said he was “not thrilled” by the resolutions, but whether the investment screen will lead to divestment “depends on how [it] is structured, and that is not spelled out.” He added that the Jewish community “should not leap to conclusions while the jury is still out.”

Will “screen” lead to divestment?

Some Israel advocates are pessimistic about the “investment screen.”

“[It] is just a step away from boycotting,” CAMERA’s Van Zile said. “The Lutherans seem to be doing something similar to what the Presbyterians did a few years ago. First, they set up criteria that would disqualify Israel from investments. Then they declared they can’t invest in Israel because it doesn’t meet the criteria.”

An investment screen translates to divestment from Israel, according to the website, Exposing the ELCA, run by Conservative Lutheran dissidents.

“This resolution will be used by the ELCA to divest from Israel and select companies that do business with Israel.”

They go further. The resolution says the investment screen must develop “human rights social criteria,” which will determine where the church’s social-purpose funds should be invested. This is based on concerns raised in an official Lutheran church report.

The report, called the ELCA Middle East Strategy is a 2005 church document that recommended “making consumer decisions that favor support to those in greatest need, e.g. Palestinian providers as distinct from Israel settlers on Palestinian territory.”

The document accused Israel of fostering an “environment of oppression,” and claimed that Israel’s security fence “poses an imminent threat to the future of the church in the Holy Land.” The document also complained about the “destructive effect” of Israeli policies on “the ability of Palestinians to marry and raise families.”

The marriage and families reference could lay the groundwork for falsely accusing Israel of “genocide,” according to some experts. Article two of the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1948 includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a targeted] group.”

The language choice raises the danger that the Lutheran church “may falsely allege, or at least imply, that Israel is guilty of genocide,” Prof. Elihu Richter, director of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention, told That allegation could then be used as a basis for denying U.S. aid to Israel and justifying a Lutheran boycott of Israeli companies or products.

Ignoring Palestinian abuses

The second ELCA resolution calls on the Obama administration to present a plan for establishing an “independent” and “viable” Palestinian state, with a “shared Jerusalem” as its capital. The Lutherans also urge the president to extend diplomatic recognition to the “state of Palestine” immediately, rather than wait for the issue to be negotiated between the parties, as the U.S. and Israel prefer.

On U.S. aid to Israel, the resolution asserts the U.S. should halt all military and financial assistance unless Israel agrees to “comply with internationally recognized human rights standards as specified in existing U.S. law, stop settlement building and the expansion of existing settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, end its occupation of Palestinian territory, and enable an independent Palestinian state.”

Pro-Israel activists see those terms as blatantly one-sided. Former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, writing in Newsweek, called the ELCA “a church in decline but one whose enthusiasm for attacks on Israel never wanes.” He noted when the Lutherans refer to construction in eastern Jerusalem, they are referring to “just construction by Jews,” with no mention of Palestinian construction in the city. Likewise, the resolution targets U.S. aid to Israel, but ignores U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is approximately $500 million annually.

The church’s reference to “human rights standards” likewise reflects a double standard, Abrams writes. “These requirements apply to one single country: Israel. In a world awash in repression and human rights violations, only Israel.”

In its latest annual report on global human rights, the U.S. State Department found that the Palestinian Authority carries out “arbitrary arrests based on political affiliation,” engages in “torture and abuse” of prisoners, “restricts freedom of speech and press…through harassment, intimidation and arrest, discriminates against women,” accuses victims of sexual harassment of “provoking men’s harassing behavior,” and “rarely punishes perpetrators of family violence.”

In the Lutheran resolutions, there was no mention of the PA’s behavior.

The ADL’s Rabbi Sandmel said Palestinian human rights violations were “not mentioned” either by the delegates, who attended his workshop, nor the Lutheran church professionals with whom he spoke individually. It would have been “helpful” and “more balanced” if the Lutherans “showed as much interest in Palestinian violations as they do in Israeli violations,” he added.

Soloff, of the AJC Committee, told that she did not hear any delegates discussing Palestinian human rights violations during the sessions she attended. She believes “there was a consciousness of Palestinian corruption” that was not articulated. Soloff said the failure to acknowledge the PA’s human rights abuses was “disappointing,” but “in the larger picture, the ELCA did demonstrate a much more nuanced and balanced approach between Israel and the Palestinians than some other mainline Protestant churches have done.”

Pro-Palestinian activists pleased

Supporters of the resolutions see the ELCA’s positions as consistent with the pro-BDS stance of other churches. The group, Isaiah 58, a Lutheran faction that lobbied for the resolutions, issued a statement declaring, “the ELCA adds its own voice and approach to the growing number of U.S. churches that have endorsed economic acts of conscience in support of Palestinian freedom and human rights.”

The group hailed the “investment screen” resolution as “an important step to ensure that we are not profiting from” Israel’s “nearly half-century-old military occupation of Palestinian lands,” according to a prepared statement.

Similarly, The Electronic Intifada, a leading pro-Palestinian website, praised the resolutions as “a massive shift” demonstrating “the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become the latest U.S. denomination to take economic action against the Israeli occupation.” In 2013 at the previous ELCA assembly, 70 percent of the delegates voted against an “investment screen” resolution, the website pointed out.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, and the Quakers have all endorsed divesting from Israel. The Episcopal Church has rejected divestment, while the Mennonite Church has delayed a decision until 2017. The United Methodist Church’s pension fund dropped five Israeli banks from its investment portfolio in January. However, in May, the Methodists’ national conference voted to reject BDS.

Future of Lutheran-Jewish relations

The ADL’s Rabbi Sandmel is focused on what he sees as indications that “there is opportunity for conversation [with Lutheran leaders] about some of these issues.” He said “for someone like me, who has pretty close relationships with these folks, it’s important to recognize it’s not just the text of the resolutions that matter, but also their broader context and how the dynamics within the church will affect future contacts between church leaders and the Jewish community.”

Some activists are skeptical about those relationships.

CAMERA’s Van Zile said, “Some Jewish leaders are reluctant to criticize the Lutherans, because they want to maintain good relations with their few remaining allies within the denomination. But nobody should be fooled. The anti-Israel activists within the Lutheran Church have been in the driver’s seat for a long time.”

Still, Sandmel said he’s encouraged that in the background material for the Israel-Palestinian resolutions, the ELCA acknowledged that “some Jewish leaders have interceded with the U.S. government, some directly with the government of Israel” in connection with “the critical funding for the ministries of Augusta Victoria Hospital,” a Lutheran-sponsored medical center in east Jerusalem.

The hospital was in danger of closing in 2014 because the Palestinian Authority refused to pay the more than $25 million that was owed in unpaid bills for treatment of Palestinians whom the PA sent there. ELCA officials successfully lobbied the Obama administration and the European Union to pay the PA’s bill.

It has not been previously reported that Jewish leaders were involved in that lobbying effort, nor have those leaders or their organizations been identified.

The ELCA cited the episode as evidence of the benefits resulting from having the church “serve as a place where the concerns of Palestinian Lutherans and the concerns of American Jews have been in conversation.”

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