OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Theological anti-Semitism at home in the Presbyterian Church

PCUSA has suffered a sizable decline in its churches and membership. Perhaps this is because people realize that it’s as spiritually and theologically vacant as its pews.

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Source: Facebook.
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Source: Facebook.
Michael L. Brown and Jonathan Feldstein

In a recent statement published on the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), not only misrepresented and defamed King’s legacy, but he did so using some of the most vile anti-Semitic tropes singling out the Jewish people and Israel.

In his statement, Nelson wrote of King’s legacy and overcoming societal inequities in the United States and all over the world. Listing a broad range of social problems, he then seamlessly pivoted into anti-Semitic lies, mentioning only Israel in a whole world of injustice.

“The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately,” he wrote. “Given the history of Jewish humble beginnings and persecution, there should be no ambiguity as to the ethical, moral, and dehumanizing marginalization and enslavement of other human beings. The United States of America must be a major influencer of calling this injustice both immoral and intolerable. I … hope that the Jewish community in the United States would influence the call to join the U.S. government in ending the immoral enslavement.”

In fewer than 100 words, Nelson crossed about every red line imaginable. First, there not only is no slavery in Israel, but Israel is the only country in the world to ever rescue black Africans from persecution to freedom. Israel is a beacon for black Africa, with tens of thousands of refugees streaming in to find a life away from persecution in their countries.

Days after the Jan. 15 anti-Semitic hostage event in a Texas synagogue, Nelson doubled down on the conspiracy theory of Jewish influence that “drove” the Texas terrorist. How many others will be inspired by Nelson’s anti-Semitic stereotype?

Referencing “occupation in Palestine/Israel,” Nelson crossed another line, suggesting that Israel has no legitimacy and should be “abolished.”

Voicing this as he did is bad enough. Doing so on the day on which we celebrate King’s legacy could not be more egregious and dishonest, misrepresenting and tarnishing King’s actual beliefs. King was unambiguous in his understanding of Israel’s significance theologically and said so on multiple occasions.

“How easy it should be to understand and support the right of the Jewish people to live in their ancient Land of Israel,” said King. “All men of goodwill exalt in the fulfillment of God’s promise that His people should return in joy to rebuild their plundered land. This is Zionism. Nothing more and nothing less.”

And noting Israel as a beacon of democracy, the antithesis of slavery, he said, “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

As if he were rebuking Nelson directly, King was succinct: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews; you’re talking anti-Semitism.”

Of all the injustice in the world, the PCUSA statement uniquely singles out alleged injustice only in Israel, doing so in a way that’s dishonest. Arab Israelis are not only not enslaved; they are thriving, equal citizens, leaders in many areas throughout Israeli society. There is no case, ever, anywhere, of a slave exalted to be a member of the parliament of the enslaving society, a judge on its Supreme Court, a media personality, doctor, lawyer and even in the military.

When Nelson calls the unresolved conflict in parts of the biblical land of Israel “occupied,” he is disregarding the fact that for decades there have been peace offers and territorial compromises on the table that the Palestinian-Arab leadership has rejected, one after the other. Not only that; those who commit daily acts of terrorism against Israelis are hailed by the Palestinian Authority as heroes. That’s too inconvenient for Nelson to acknowledge, not to mention the antithesis of King’s anti-violence stance.

Among the responses to the PCUSA statement was a letter to Nelson (unanswered) by the Kentucky Jewish Council, which “condemn[ed] the libelous, deeply anti-Semitic letter [whose] singular focus is on Israel while ignoring genuine human rights abuses around the world from the Uyghur genocide in China to … international terror by Iran show[ing] that your focus rather than on civil rights is on the Jewish people. [Using] Dr. King‘s name and legacy [like this] is a treacherous betrayal of his memory.”

Signed by Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, the letter concluded, “These words of division and bigotry have no place in our beloved community that Dr. King sought to build, and I urge you to retract them and to repent from the prejudice with which it was written.”

Over the past decade, PCUSA has suffered a sizable decline in its churches and membership. Perhaps this is because people realize that it’s as spiritually and theologically vacant as its pews. Or perhaps it is the affirmation of God’s clear statement that He will curse those who curse Israel. Of course, we are not God, but we also don’t believe in coincidences.

PCUSA spins its decline in a positive way, showing “no change in decline rate for membership,” which essentially acknowledges that it’s a sinking ship. When asked why its churches are disaffiliating with PCUSA, one main reason cited is that its ministers regularly suggest that the Bible is fiction. And if the Bible is fiction, then the biblical promises to Israel are fictional, as well.

PCUSA has seen a decline in membership of more than 15% since 2016, slightly outpacing the drop in the number of PCUSA-affiliated churches with a more than 10% decrease in the same period. It’s not surprising, then, that the total number of “professions of faith” in PCUSA has dropped by more than 50%.

In 1987, PCUSA acknowledged its long history of Jew-hatred and complicity in crimes against the Jewish people and sought to repent. It seems that it still has some penitence to do.

Michael L. Brown, Ph.D., is host of the “Line of Fire” radio broadcast and author of “Resurrection.”

Jonathan Feldstein is president and CEO of the Genesis 123 Foundation, Genesis123.co and RunforZion.com.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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