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When people of faith lie about Israel

Remember ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’? Some faith leaders need a brush-up.

Logos for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, left, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Courtesy images

(RNS) — Could it have been worse timing — the week after the hostage crisis in Colleyville, Texas, when every American Jew felt raw and threatened?

Could the timing have been more ironic — to make this statement during the week that Jews read the Ten Commandments in the Torah?

Especially that one about “not bearing false witness”?

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has urged American Jews to help end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. 

His words: “The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st century slavery and should be abolished immediately.”

You read that right: “21st century slavery.”

To accuse the Jewish state of engaging in slavery is to flip the ancient Jewish narrative. It is to say to us: “Once upon a time, you were slaves in Egypt. Now, you are Pharaoh.”

Nelson’s ignorance is matched only by his malevolence.

Since we are talking about bad timing — he offered those words on the holiday marking the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a friend of the American Jewish community and of Israel.

I accuse Nelson of bearing false witness against the state of Israel, and by extension, against Jews. Because his statement contains echoes of classic antisemitism.

This is the pushback from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations:

To use the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make claims linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enslavement and then call on the American Jewish community to use its ‘influence’ with the American government is not only unfair, but it is also dangerous. It is a long-standing antisemitic trope about Jews. In fact, the perception of ‘Jewish Power’ appears to have been a key part of the distorted motivation of the terrorist who held four people hostage less than 48 hours before Rev. Nelson’s hateful attack. Blaming American Jews for the actions of the Israeli government is a clear example of the ‘modern antisemitism’ defined in the internationally-accepted international holocaust remembrance alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

We also note with sadness this is hardly the first time the Presbyterian Church USA has shown this ugly side of itself. We pray for more from a self-professed God-fearing Church.

Exactly right. There is a troubling history here, which my Religion News Service colleague Yonat Shimron outlined.

In 2014, the denomination voted to divest from three companies that it says supply Israel with equipment used in the occupation of Palestinian territory.

That same year, its Israel/Palestine Mission Network published “Zionism Unsettled,” a study guide calling Zionism — the movement undergirding the founding of Israel as a Jewish homeland — a “pathology” and “a doctrine that promotes death rather than life.”

The screenwriter Ben Hecht once said: “In the warmest of hearts, there is a cold spot for the Jews.”

He was right — especially when it comes to mainstream Christian denominations, who are our allies in other matters, but who constantly disappoint us with their anti-Israel comments.

I am heartsick over this. For almost 70 years, Jewish leaders have engaged in vigorous interfaith dialogue — sharing, bridge building, local and national projects, with our clergy and lay partners. We all have local stories of success. I count Christian (and Muslim) colleagues among my closest friends. In some cases, they are like family to me.

But we American Jews know about other statements supporting the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement that have emerged from Christian groups or have been contemplated by them. Frankly, they hurt us deeply.

We wince over the raw Jew-hatred that has become part of our culture. Compare the ease of entry into a Christian church with the security guards, walls and gates with keypad locks at synagogues.

I am not sure that the Presbyterians in the pew know what their leaders are saying in their name. Neither am I sure that if they knew, that they would approve.

Those Presbyterians deserve to let their leaders know precisely that.

Consider this welcome, redemptive statement from Pastor Todd Stavrakos, convenor of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.

He expressed disappointment that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remained mute during the Colleyville hostage crisis.

Then, he continued:

However, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of our denomination, took time to extol the need to be vigilant against injustice in the world as well as pursue the unity that Dr. King sought. Unfortunately, with all the injustices in the world (China, Myanmar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.), he wrote only of the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians…

The Rev. Dr. Nelson‘s actions in lashing out at the U.S. and global Jewish community is beyond the pale. Gratefully, his actions and words do not match the work of local PCUSA and Jewish congregations in communities across the nation. At the grassroots, Presbyterians work for justice alongside Jews, rather than engaging in polarizing polemics. If Rev. Dr. Nelson spent time with the American Jewish community, as locally based Presbyterians do, he would know that American Jews are diverse and extremely concerned about what is happening in Israel and Palestine. He would also know that many live in fear of violence – and that words matter. We hope the Stated Clerk will spend more time talking and working with American Jewish community leaders and less time writing blasts filled with reprehensible misrepresentations of our Jewish neighbors.  

For the sake of statements and sentiments like this, we American Jews might choose to reconfirm our commitment to interfaith dialogue. Because so much is at stake.

You might remember that classic Hasidic tale.

A rebbe is talking to one of his students. “Do you love me?” he asks.

“Of course I love you, Rebbe,” the student replied.

“Really? Do you know what gives me pain?”

“How can I know what gives you pain?”

To which the rebbe replied: “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you love me?”

Sincere interfaith dialogue means that we can know what gives pain to the other.

Because, without that, you cannot say that you love me.