This past September, ten days after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip as part of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, an unusual meeting took place in East Jerusalem. Seventeen representatives from various American Jewish organizations and from several American Protestant denominations filed in to the headquarters of Sabeel–a Palestinian “liberation theology center” headed by Palestinian Christian activist Rev. Naim Ateek, whose activities had become a source of intense controversy among his guests. Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Anti-Defamation League confronted Ateek on his position that he did not accept Israel’s right to exist. Ateek refused to repudiate it, quoting an Israeli writer’s statement that if the Jewish people had a right to a homeland it should be in Germany, not Palestine. Bretton-Granatoor and other Jewish leaders pressed Ateek on his writings, accusing him of anti-Semitism in speaking of the Israeli government as “Herods” and of its “crucifixion” of Palestinians. Ateek brushed the suggestion aside, claiming that his use of biblical imagery in the struggle against oppression was justified. As the debate grew more heated, the American Christian leaders remained silent, watching Ateek and their Jewish counterparts trade accusations.
The contentious meeting at Sabeel was the last stop on a trip to Israel and Palestine intended to mend fences between American Jews and mainstream Protestant denominations. The trip came after more than a year of hostility between the traditional communal allies over an increasingly activist pro-Palestinian stance among mainline Christians, and particularly over their moves toward divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in 1967. The controversy began in July 2004, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to adopt a policy of divestment from such companies and other companies doing business with Israel, prompting outrage from the mainstream Jewish community. By the time of the interfaith trip, the United Church of Christ (UCC) had adopted a similar policy and the Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran denominations were seriously considering doing the same.
Advocates for Palestinian rights argue that divestment is an effective tool to protest Israel’s policies where previous actions have failed, putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation and move toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. They feel it is well past time for the churches to take a stand and stop deferring to pro-Israel feelings in the Jewish community. Jewish critics and other supporters of Israel argue that it is a thinly veiled attack on Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state that has no hope of being effective and only creates more hostility. Some leaders of the American Jewish community have even threatened to abandon partnership with mainline Protestants altogether, jeopardizing a longstanding progressive alliance.
America’s mainline Protestant denominations supported Israel’s founding in 1948 and remained supportive of the Jewish state through its early years while building a solid progressive partnership with US Jewish groups on domestic issues such as civil rights and poverty. But since Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, these denominations have become progressively more critical of the occupation and ever more sympathetic to Palestinian claims.
This shift did not escape the attention of Israel’s government and of US Jewish organizations, which in the early 1970s began cultivating evangelical Christian support for Israel. Informed by an “end time” theology in which Christ’s return, the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment are contingent on an “ingathering of the exiles”–the Jewish people–to biblical Israel, the increasingly powerful evangelical movement saw the state’s creation and its victory in the 1967 war as fulfillments of prophecy. For Israel and its US Jewish supporters, these “Christian Zionists” quickly became an attractive alternative to mainline denominations.