For Israel’s 70th anniversary the Israeli Embassy released a list of the 70 most important American friends of Israel, which surprisingly included a Methodist minister. The list is eclectically fun. Leonard Bernstein and Albert Einstein. Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey. Bayard Rustin and James Angleton. Harry Truman and George Shultz. Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Lieberman. Frank Sinatra and Donald Trump.
There are only three Christian clergy included, two of whom are well known, Protestant “Christian Realist” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and Christians United for Israel Pastor John Hagee. (Surprisingly Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Zionist, is not included.) The third is largely forgotten: John Stanley Grauel.
Who’s Grauel?? He was a Methodist minister from Massachusetts who was aboard the famous 1947 Palestine-bound European Jewish refugee ship the SS Exodus, helped ship guns to early Israel as a “Haganah” operative, and testified for the Jewish cause to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. Golda Meir credited his testimony as crucial, coming from a “priest, a perfectly worthy gentile, a priori, no Jewish witness was to be believed.”
Modern Methodism has not for decades been known as friendly to Israel. United Methodist agencies and prelates for at least four decades have routinely condemned Israel without similar negative attention to the human rights records of any other overseas governments. Sometimes the World Methodist Council has been similarly negative.
Much of this Methodist critique has been rooted in a Liberation Theology perspective that portrays Israeli Jews as Western colonizers and Palestinians as Third World oppressed victims to whom the church owes solidarity. Of course, this simplistic narrative, like the rest of mostly discredited and forgotten Cold War-era Liberation Theology, offers a distorted Christian perspective on justice and solidarity.
United Methodist clerics and prelates were not always reflexively anti-Israel. Many in the 1940s and 1950s supported the Jewish right to a restored homeland. But I confess I had never before heard of Rev. Grauel until the Israel Embassy, whose celebration I attended, saluted him last week.
Examining Grauel’s work for Israel is instructive. Born in 1917, he was from a Methodist family in Massachusetts. His trajectory towards Zionism originated with his devout mother, who taught him the Jews were a chosen people who would persevere through all persecutions. She was also a defender of the rights of black people in pre-WWII America. He attended Randolph Macon College, a Methodist school in Virginia, afterwards attending Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, which was Congregationalist and, after becoming very liberal across decades, finally closed in 2013. While in seminary his wife died while birthing his only child, who also died, after which he never remarried, devoting himself instead to causes of conviction.
Initially Grauel, who was active in Democratic Party politics and friendly with the Kennedys, pastored small churches in Massachusetts, until the plight of the Jews captured his attention:
All during this time I was following the news from Germany and was very distressed by pictures on the papers of Nazi thugs standing over old Jews scrubbing the streets of Berlin. While suffering this abuse and other indignities, the Jews were wearing their Iron Crosses won in defense of Germany during World War I. …Perhaps I was more sensitive to what was happening to the Jewish community because of my friendship with Judge Joseph Goldberg of Worcester. He was of Russian–Jewish background and vice president of a national Zionist organization. In answer to my questions he gave me books to read on Zionism and awakened my interest in the search for a Jewish homeland.
Motivated by stories of the Holocaust, Grauel left local church ministry in 1943 and joined the America Christian Palestine Committee, a Zionist group with support from many Mainline Protestants, including Reinhold Niebuhr and Methodist bishops. In his memoir he recalled:
One day, somewhere late in 1944 or early ’45, I had the opportunity to attend my first Zionist conference, which was held in Princeton, N.J. The conference had a profound impact on me….A distinguished rabbi, Stephen Wise, reported that at least seven hundred thousand Jews had been murdered by Hitler. Had he reported that figure anywhere near six million, he would have been carted away as demented…..for me the most electrifying portion of that conference was when David Ben Gurion12 spoke….later on I was introduced to Ben Gurion and sat around among others just listening to him. I caught an occasional reference to the Haganah, but it had no particular significance for me at the time….
Becoming a U.S. agent of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force fighting in Palestine, Grauel helped facilitate arms shipments for Jews in Palestine. As he recalled:
….I discovered that with discretion I could continue to function as executive director of the American-Christian Palestine Committee in public, while in private I was moving around meeting people on Zionist business as discreetly as possible. I was helping to raise funds to buy guns, bullets and ships needed for the creation of a new state.
Grauel’s most famous episode was as the only American non-Jew aboard the Exodus in 1947 with about 4,500 Jewish immigrants until the ship was intercepted and interned off the coast of Palestine by the British navy, which was blocking Jewish immigration. As he later recalled of the sea journey on Passover, April 5:
Prayers were said, the traditional questions of the seder were asked and answered, and suddenly I found myself close to tears. The reader has recited the traditional words, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Here I was a, country preacher, a Methodist seated aboard a rolling ship in the mid-Atlantic with a group of Jewish chaverim (friends) in celebration of the self-same festival Jesus celebrated so many years before. What made the moment even more moving for me was that we were on our way as instruments of deliverance in assisting those of the second Exodus to return to their land, Eretz Israel.
After the British attacked and detained the ship, Grauel was taken ashore to the Hotel Savoy in Tel Aviv, where he darted for a room full of U.S. reporters, including Clif Daniels of The New York Times, later President Truman’s son-in-law. Grauel knew many of them already, and, amid flashing light bulbs, told the story of the SS Exodus and its suffering passengers of Holocaust survivors, making international news.
Afterwards Grauel testified before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine meeting in Tel Aviv, arguing for Jewish immigration to Palestine and for a Jewish state. As he recalled:
I made one closing statement, ‘I have watched these people. I know what they are. And I tell you, the Jews in the European Displaced Persons camps insist on coming to Palestine, they will come to Palestine, and nothing short of open warfare and complete destruction will halt them.’ There was great gratification for me in knowing that my eyewitness report was now a matter of record. Inherent in the nature of the relationship between Christians and Jews was the fact that because I was a Christian, in this situation my testimony would be given greater credence than that of a Jewish crew member.
Grauel’s appeals to the media and to the UN are considered crucial in shaping public opinion in favor of modern Israel’s creation in 1948. In later years Grauel continued his humanitarian work in support of the Civil Rights Movement and for Americans Indians, plus advocating on behalf of Jews in Arab lands. He led tour groups to Israel and frequently spoke to groups in the U.S. about his role in helping to restore Israel, especially his voyage with the SS Exodus. He died in 1986 and is buried in Jerusalem, where he was interred with full Israeli Naval military honors.
So Grauel is well remembered by Israel, signified by his inclusion among Israel’s 70 most important American friends. But he’s forgotten in America as is almost entirely the once strong Mainline Protestant support for Zionism. That commitment to the Jewish people and their homeland was partly theological reverence for their biblical role but also Christian humanitarianism. Knowing the Jews were not safe elsewhere as a people, many Mainline Protestants saw the restoration and defense of Israel as a social justice imperative. Maybe someday they will again.