In 1995, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) issued “For Peace in God’s World,” calling on Lutherans to “strengthen the will and ability to resolve conflicts peacefully” and “conciliate differences.”
On August 11, 2016, ELCA betrayed the lofty goals expressed in that document by adopting resolutions calling on the U.S. government to end all aid to Israel, and embracing BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions) tactics. Claiming that Israel is an “occupying power” that does not recognize or adhere to international human rights standards, the decision was driven by the Lutheran Isaiah 58 group, with support from a coalition of anti-Israel organizations and activists, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. These resolutions place the sole blame for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the feet of Israel, ignoring Palestinian violence and incitement.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is a U.S.-based political organization and was instrumental in engineering these decisions. JVP, which refers to itself as the “Jewish wing” of the Palestinian solidarity movement, provides the façade of significant Jewish support for BDS and other forms of demonization, while also seeking to create “a wedge” within the American Jewish community and generate general polarization over Israel.
The group romanticizes Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, referring to it as “Palestinian popular resistance” and lionizing “a new generation of Palestinians … rising up en-masse against Israel’s brutal, decades-old regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.” Such flirtations with terror are enough to show how JVP is not an appropriate partner for the ELCA.
And yet JVP is often the leading partner used by groups looking to justify their demonization of Israel and embrace of the BDS agenda. JVP’s greatest contribution to Christian groups like ELCA is to shield them from the accusation of antisemitism. JVP is so popular within Christian frameworks because they provide this critical safety net that allows others to pursue distorted, one-sided agendas.
Thanks to Isaiah 58’s influence, the church also voted to end investment in companies that profit from Israel’s “occupation.” But who is influencing Isaiah 58? An August 10, 2016 Huffington Post article co-written by ELCA and Isaiah 58 member Dale Loepp and Rabbi Michael Davis of JVP is an example of the rhetoric used by anti-Israel organizations to turn Christian denominations against the Jewish state.
The article goes on to call on Lutherans to support BDS as a duty to Christian Palestinians, while referencing the 2009 Kairos Palestine document, which calls for BDS against Israel, denies the Jewish historical connection to Israel in theological terms, and solely blames Israel for the continuation of the conflict. Kairos rationalizes and trivializes terrorism while rallying churches worldwide to demonize and delegitimize Israel.
Naim Ateek, an original signatory to the Kairos document and founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center exemplifies further why Kairos is problematic. Ateek, who frequently employs antisemitic imagery, has blamed Israel for suicide bombing attacks against its citizens. Sabeel, the group run by Ateek, is a reflection of its leader. Its anti-Israel message is often intertwined with theological antisemitism; intertwining Palestinian nationalist ideology with its narrow interpretation of Christian theology. Through Sabeel, Ateek pushes liberation theology to justify attacks on Israel. Whether it is stripping Jesus of his Jewish heritage and referring to him as a Palestinian or disparaging Judaism and its texts, calling it “tribal,” “exclusionary,” and “primitive.”
Through working with nefarious groups like JVP and relying on the problematic Kairos Palestine document, ELCA’s actions actually obstruct peace efforts. Delegitimizing Israel, rejecting Jewish connection to the land, and promoting BDS are not only ineffective but contrary to the values which they profess.
This is not to say that Christian groups do not have a role to play in the Middle East. Christians throughout the region are being persecuted in alarming numbers. People are being tortured and killed and houses of worship are being destroyed, all leading to a rapid decline of the Christian population throughout the region. That is except for Israel, where the Christian community is protected, growing, and thriving. If the ELCA is truly concerned about their brethren in the region, this might be a good place to start. A laser-like focus on Israel, promoting the immoral BDS agenda, and ignoring and justifying violence helps no one.
Sarah Chin is a researcher at NGO Monitor. She has a BA in Political Science and Global Studies from the University of Minnesota and an MA in Security Studies from the University of Denver. Prior to joining NGO Monitor, Sarah was a MASA Fellow at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Editor’s Note: Read more here about anti-Israel proceedings at the ELCA’s recent Churchwide Assembly from IRD’s Chelsen Vicari.