Institutions Politics

Yale chaplain’s resignation reflects larger mainline tensions over Israel

Harkness Tower Canopy Highsmith, on the Yale campus.
Harkness Tower Canopy Highsmith, on the Yale campus.

"Harkness Tower Canopy Highsmith" by Carol M. Highsmith - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Harkness Tower Canopy Highsmith, on the Yale campus

(RNS) When an Episcopal chaplain at Yale University seemed to suggest that Jews were culpable for Israel’s actions against Palestinians and a related rise in global anti-Semitism, his comments not only led to his resignation but rekindled a debate within mainline Protestant churches about how to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a letter to The New York Times responding to an op-ed by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt about rising European anti-Semitism, the Rev. Bruce Shipman wrote that “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”

Several readers interpreted Shipman’s letter as an attempt to hold all Jews across the globe responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 4, he resigned his post in New Haven.

While the Episcopal Church supports a two-state solution and advocates for peace and reconciliation between both sides, Shipman’s flare-up reflects ongoing debate within several mainline denominations about divestment from Israel, sensitivities around anti-Semitism and uneasy attempts to strike a balance.

Advocates for peace between Palestine and Israel within the Episcopal Church see a growing divide, said Linda Gaither of the Palestine Israel Network within the independent group Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

“There’s a gap between the leadership of the church and networks within the church,” said Gaither, whose group has defended Shipman’s comments. “It is not anti-Semitism to raise the question of the actions of the state of Israel. We must differentiate between the need for all of us to stand firm against anti-Semitism (and) the need to continue the Episcopal Church’s stance against occupation.”

The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted earlier this summer to divest pension funds from three companies that sell nonlethal equipment to the Israeli military. Jewish groups denounced the move as biased against Israel and damaging to interfaith relations.

“These denominations that used to be uniformly pro-Israel are having significant pressure from groups to be critical of Israel,” said Jeff Walton, communications manager for the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank that is frequently critical of mainline denominations.

“This is most pronounced in the PC(USA), but we’re seeing signs in the Episcopal Church, and Shipman’s letter is an example of that.”

Mainline denominations have been debating divestment for a decade or more. In 2012, the United Methodist Church defeated by a 2-1 margin divestment from companies accused of contributing to “Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories” at its General Conference. The same year, the Episcopal Church declined to offload holdings in companies that sell nonlethal equipment to Israeli military.

“When an advocate for divestment contacts a clergy person, that probably has less weight than the local rabbi who meets the Episcopal priest at the golf club,” said Walton, whose group has worked against divestment. “The organic social relationships between clergy probably lead to strong interfaith relationships that they wish to preserve.”

In a survey released in July by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of white mainline Protestants sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, compared with 70 percent of white evangelicals. Americans overall are more sympathetic to Israel over the Palestinians, 51 percent to 14 percent.

Shipman, who could not be reached for an interview, was not employed by Yale, beginning his second year of a two-year interim appointment from the Episcopal Church.

Connecticut Episcopal Bishop Ian T. Douglas said tensions between Shipman and other Episcopal leaders at Yale predated Shipman’s letter to the Times.

“It causes me chagrin that people on both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel sides would jump on this circumstance and politicize it to their own ends, often neglecting to appreciate the institutional dynamics that predated any of this,” Douglas said.

However, Shipman said in an interview with Time that the letter was the tipping point. “This story cannot be simply dismissed as the inner problems of the Episcopal Church at Yale. It was not,” he said. “It was this letter that set off the firestorm.”

Douglas said that other members of the Episcopal Church at Yale’s board of governors had supported Shipman’s position on Israel.

“I do not think Bruce is anti-Semitic,” Douglas said. “I’ve never experienced himself as such. That’s my interpretation, but I’m not a Jew.”

Shipman didn’t understand Jewish connections to Israel, argued religion writer Mark Oppenheimer in a column for Tablet. Oppenheimer said Shipman failed to understand the difference between Israel and the action of Jews and anti-Semitism.

“You don’t say to Muslims, ‘If you have a problem with anti-Muslim bigotry, take it up with al-Qaida,'” Oppenheimer said in an interview. “That’s not the way American dialogue should proceed.”

However, Oppenheimer, who teaches a class at Yale, does not believe Shipman should have had to resign.

“I’m opposed to drumming people out of communities,” he said. “I don’t think the answer is to call for someone’s scalp.”


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


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  • Linda Gaither: “It is not anti-Semitism to raise the question of the actions of the state of Israel.”

    How about what Shipman actually wrote? How about claiming that anti-Semitism is caused by Israel’s actions and can be ended by Israel doing the right thing, whatever that thing may be? How about ignoring the fact that anti-Semitism is quite a bit older than Israel itself, and is actually the reason WHY Israel exists?

    Mark Oppenheimer: “I don’t think the answer is to call for someone’s scalp.”

    Did anyone do this? Does Shipman still have his scalp?

  • Mossad CONTROLS the media??? Someone has been spending too much time with his nose in hate-drenched books like “The Protocols of the Elder of Zion”

  • If Mr. Shipman fancies that the Government of Israel is the impediment to a ‘two-state solution’, he’s too ignorant to be commenting on politics in the Near East.

    Ya figure maybe he’s just a bog standard clergyman: inclined to favor cruelty to the kind and kindness to the cruel?

  • The only way Rev. Shipman’s comments can be conceived of as anti-semitic is if his reference to the supporters of Israel’s policies are presumed to be only the Jewish community worldwide. In fact the supporters of Israel in the dispute are many and varied, but also notably many Christians. It seems to me that his letter is careful to discern the difference between Jew and Israeli, and between Judaism and and the real world political state of Israel.

    Without knowing him, I find those calling this writing of his anti-semitic are jumping the gun. If they knew the differences in the views of Bibi Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni they would know criticising Israeli policy is not anti-semitic.

  • As a Jew living in Toronto, I feel the antisemitism. I can not wear my Star of David on the UofT campus. Strangers come up to be and start calling me names. That I killed Palestinians children. As a senior citizen, I do not like having someone spit in my face or not allow me to speak.
    It is pure hate because I am Jewish and it is easy to spread that hate to Israel.
    My parents taught me to respect those who are different. I now have learned TO HATE those who want to destroy my life and that of my family.

  • I… don’t get the dual-logic here.

    Priest says Jews need to hold Israel accountable for its actions, gets denounced because it is wrong to hold a whole group responsible for the crimes of a few.

    Religion cuts supply to Israeli military, gets denounced as an attack against the Jewish faith as a whole.

    I don’t get why Israel sometimes represents all Jews and sometimes does not, in the eyes of some Jewish activist groups…

  • If ignoramuses start insulting the Star of David around here, I will wear one next to my Celtic cross.

  • What is the likelihood that the Episcopal priest and the rabbi would meet at the same country club? This conversation should not go on without an acknowledgement of the history of anti-Semitism in American institutions and culture.

  • This is a classic example of how crticism of Israel and criticism of those who BLINDLY support Israel, is stifled. Israel has extremely wealthy and powerful supporters abroad, who help maintain support from Western countries and who help shut down debate that is unfavorable to Israel, The New Yorker of Sept 1, has an excellent article (“Friends of Israel”) on this topic.

    Rev Shipman merely said these friends of Israel should use their influence to help resolve the perpetual conflic which is costing tens of thousands of Palestinian dead and many times more, maimed…paid for, by our tax dollars. Instead of a discussion on this subject, the Blind supporters of Israel tarred him, feathered him and ran him out of his job, quite possibly, as an object lesson for others who may be thinking along humane lines as well.

  • Maybe the wealthy supporters of the Palestinians (such as the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran) should seek to influence their proxy forces and seek peaceful resolution with Israel. Send more food and medicine and fewer AK’s and rockets.

    Wouldn’t that be nice. 🙂

    There is nothing more myopic and disingenuous than placing the blame for the Israel/Palestinian conflict entirely on the backs of Israel.

  • People aren’t hating on you because you are Jewish, they are hating on you for being a part of a country that supports the murder of women and children for land. That bulldozes homes and refuses to allow building supplies into an occupied country. That disingenuously argues it is protecting itself while doing all these things. Stand up and be counted with the right people and most will stop abusing you. Oh, and quit calling it ‘anti-semitism’ because that’s not the case. If anyone complains about a Jew or their motherland suddenly that one is called ‘anti-semitic’, to the Jew could the issue actually be something other than it’s because you’re Jewish?

  • Hey deacon, nobody is insulting anyone for their faith! I have no problem insulting someone for genocide, theft, and moral ineptitude. Support for Israel at this point is just that.

  • It is a shame that the Jews who suffered too much have now become the persecutors and cause of the poverty in Palestine.

  • OMAGOD -those” wealthy and powerful “Jews. Never mind all the Arab wealth floating on oil. But instead of helping the Palestinians with it they use their wealth to do anything else but help them –except to finance tunnels and rockets to kill Israelis–but if the Israeli’s try to defend themselves they are the bad guys. It is amazing how many anti-Semitic code words fill the comboxes.

  • Christopher Jensen, one of the few beautiful things in life is the purity of language. You dirty this most valuable resource. Look up the meaning of genocide and perhaps that will help you understand that what Israel is doing is attempting to live in peace in a very dangerous neighborhood. On the other hand, it would be correct to use the term genocide to describe what others, notably Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the Revolutionary Guards of Iran are trying to visit upon Israel. As for theft, you might consider that Jews were living in this land long before Islam even existed as a religion. Now be a good boy and study your English!

  • Many of the comments here willfully or ignorantly reinforce the straw man set up by this article. Jews don’t object to honest criticism of Israel. Jews have a problem Shipman’s absolutely bigoted assertion that attacks on Jews are OK if there is a good enough reason. I didn’t see his article on an uptick in anti-Chinese behavior due to China’s brutal occupation of Tibet, or an uptick in violent incidents against Syrians for the over 100,000 dead there. How about an uptick in anti-Sunni behavior because of ISIS- or are crucifixions, beheadings and REAL genocide not brutal enough to warrant this sort of response? No, Shipman makes too little of the relationship between ancient bigotry and anti-Semitism. You can try and put a shine on prejudice, but it still smells the same.

  • So why are you supporting Iran sponsored Islamicists and Saudi backed kleptocrats?

    Oh wait you don’t actually know or care much about the Palestinian and their leaders except that they are in conflict with Israel.

  • If you are willing to ignore a conflict spurred on by outside actors who want to see Palestinians well armed, poor and put upon but not as independent states. Also if you are willing to ignore leaders who steal aid money to spend on lavish foreign villas and engages in petty extortion of every business in their territory.

  • its not Palestinian celebrities miss using Jesus name or saying awful things about him on TV and radio programs …
    my advice to Jewish persons is stop causing Anti- Semitism..
    IF you want the US to think kindly about Israel start telling your celebrities to
    talk respectively about Jesus .. stop using him as a joke to tell, stop using his name as a cuss word .. and saying unspeakable things about him.
    most people are figuring it out the disrespect is coming from Jewish persons
    or company’s owned by Jewish person’s.. movie producers public television productions etc .. trace them and Jewish names pop up..

    and you Zionists protestants the United nations made it clear Zionism is just another form of racism .. Jewish supremacist’s is no better than white supremacist’s.. all races and people God loves..

  • IT IS also a shame there are so many filthy mouthed Jewish celebrities that ARE causing anti- Semitism by how they use Jesus name and say about his person.. on tv or movies .. read the name of the movie producers and shows that do this they are not Palestinian names

    Christians believe Jesus name and person are the most sacred of any thing there is ..its stupid for Jews to complain about world wide anti Semitism when they them selves are a major major cause of it….

    if Jewish celebrities openly miss use Jesus name and Jews are trying to win sympathy for Israel .. it makes some one think what are they saying to those they are fighting with.. What are they doing to them?

  • From what I understand children were deliberately put in obvious
    places that should have been bombed because they were using those places to launch rockets and hurt and kill Jewish citizens men women and children .. I have never heard that Israel bombed those places after they found out children were placed there.. That simply does not sound like some thing Israel would
    do.. With out warning the people to get their children out ..And if it did happen that does not make you responsible
    for the evil that some one else did.. Don’t let some peoples meanness fill you with meanness..

    I think what most of us and you also want is more hurting and killing going on.. I know as long as people are involved in war wrongs come from all sides.. yet Israel (meaning) its Jewish people if they did nothing would soon be killed off.. I honestly don’t believe that would happen if it was the other way around.. yet I also honestly believe there are many Palestinians that just want peace and would not Jewish people to be harmed also..

  • The Jewish ADL is probably Israel’s greatest foe..
    no one likes them and poor Israel get the blame its not because ADL is Jewish that there not liked..
    ITs because it always the other guys fault.. many People seem to think the ADL see’s anti Semitism behind every bush and rock this world has..and they want you to report more of it so they even have more statistics to prove their existence and points,

  • if wives remembered every thing there husbands did wrong how long would the marriage last?or vise versa..
    lets deal with the wrongs were “about to do”
    that we can change..

  • Lots of people seem to think its the Jewish org ADL and its pals that shut down discussions….
    if so lets not blame Israel for what the ADL does.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    reading between your lines

    I think your right that Israel and Palestine could get along just fine if it wasn’t for some other’s in the Islamic world THAT DONT WANT THAT TO EVER HAPPEN..

  • If everyone would realize that Episcopalians are more and more a fringe cult, that would help understand Mr Shipman’s motivation for writing.