It may come from a surprising source–the voice of liberal Protestantism, the Christian Century— but Presbyterian Ted Smith and Jew Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School have written an excellent treatment of the report by the PCUSA’s Middle East Study Committee. Their basic charge is a serious one: the the report is shot through with hostile anti-Judaism. Their evidence of that falls into several different categories:
Echoes of past interpretations: The report’s opening biblical reflections make conspicuous efforts to avoid anti-Jewish exegesis. But the report pays scant critical attention to Christianity’s long history of anti-Jewish interpretations, and so echoes of these interpretations linger. Those echoes then become amplified by other sections of the report.
Ambiguities about covenant: The report’s biblical section draws upon at least three different understandings of covenant and land. First, its analysis of the term Zion concludes that the church “fully transferred the locus of God’s concrete presence in the world of space and time from the place of Zion—that is, Jerusalem—to the person of Jesus, who had been crucified and raised from the dead just outside Jerusalem.” The covenant has been fulfilled, and its fulfillment involves a transcendence of place in the person of Jesus. Covenant no longer concerns land.
Comparative trauma and false stereotypes: The MESC report rightly refuses to engage in comparisons of suffering. It rejects attempts to compare the systematic murder of 6 million Jews (ha–Shoah) and the forcible displacement of 750,000 Palestinians (al–Nakba). Instead it argues that these two catastrophes should be regarded as parallel but incomparable “psycho-traumas.” But the report compromises this sound principle when it compares present-day suffering, calculating that the “ratio of all Israeli to Palestinian deaths [between 2000 and 2008] is 1 to 8.5 and for children it is 1 to 7.4.” Thus suffering is incomparable when comparison might speak on behalf of Israel, but quantifiable to a tenth of a life when it benefits Palestinian claims.
Narratives of replacement: The report’s longest section is a sprawling 68-page “Plea for Justice: A Historical Analysis,” written by a professor of bioethics and a professor of Old Testament. This study appears alongside a nine-page piece by a Reform rabbi titled “Notes from a Humanistic, Liberal Zionist: A Personal Perspective.” The two documents seem intended, despite the disparity in size, to balance one another….
The problem here is not simply imbalance. The problem is that neither document is rigorously historical. “Notes” is a collection of personal anecdotes. “Plea,” despite its length and footnotes, ignores violence against Jews in the region both before and after 1948 and so can be easily dismissed as partisan.
Mischaracterizing Jews: The report begins with a series of letters to groups the committee believes have a stake in the report. One letter, addressed to “Our American Jewish Friends,” laments the difficulty of working with “organizations within the mainstream Jewish community.” This difficulty should be the occasion for dialogue, not an excuse for avoiding it. Moreover, the report does not name these “mainstream” groups. The open-ended designation has the effect of suggesting that most Jews do not care about Palestinian suffering.
Erasing Israel: Breaking old habits is hard work. Guidelines can help. But guidelines become fault lines when they slip from being guides for transforming action into standards for justifying action.
There are a lot of specifics, some of which I’ve dealt with here, many I haven’t. They don’t go as far as I would on some issues (in particular, there are places where I think the report shades over into anti-Semitism rather than just anti-Judaism, especially when it suggests that Israel as a Jewish state should be held to different moral standards than any other nation), and I don’t agree with every point of their commentary. But take a look at Smith and Levine’s story, and see if it doesn’t sound like an accurate analysis of a document that should be rejected by the PCUSA General Assembly.
UPDATE: Presbyterian Voices for Justice takes note of this article, and calls its members to read it carefully, presumably so they can denounce Smith and Levine’s points when they come up at General Assembly:
Two scholars at Vanderbilt Divinity School one Protestant and the other Jewish, have published a careful and intricate critique of what they see as lingering traces of “anti-Judaism” in the report coming to GA from the Middle East Study Committee, entitled “Breaking Down the Walls.”
They are not arguing against the report as a whole, and its call a just peace in Israel/Palestine. But they see “old habits” of negative attitudes toward Judaism which must still be resisted.
Anyone who wants to support this important report may find it helpful to pay close attention to the points they make, which may well be cited in debate as reasons for opposing the report as a whole.
They may be technically correct that Smith and Levine don’t state opposition to “the report as a whole,” but their criticisms make clear that the problems in the report are pervasive, rather than incidental. Passing it will simply put the General Assembly stamp of approval on those problems.