IRD Gets “Whiff” from from Critics of Israel

As Pat Robertson rebukes the idea of Palestinian statehood as “Satan’s Plan”, the Institute on Religion and Democracy has produced a report titled Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches (2000-2003): A Critical Analysis. The tone is, on the surface, balanced, and the authors include discursive considerations of what their data means, but the report reaches harsh conclusions:

The mainline churches are not adequately addressing the wide range of human rights abuses taking place around the world. The greatest energy is spent in criticizing the United States and Israel, while far less energy is spent in criticizing other nations with human rights abuses that are greater in both number and severity. Some areas of the globe are ignored by the church, despite being the home of some of the worst human rights abusers.

The authors, Erik A Nelson and Alan FH Wisdom, charge that:

One cannot help but recognize that the pattern of church human rights activism shares the same contours as the anti-Americanism evident in other secular leftist movements such as the anti-globalization and anti-war movements. In many ways, the church elite shares the same basic anti-American sentiment common not only on the European Left, but the Islamic Right as well. This thinking could partially explain the reluctance on the part of these church bodies to actively criticize Arab or Muslim nations.


But we do catch occasional whiffs of anti-Jewish animus in mainline circles. Most often it arises in private conversations. But we have heard occasional outbreaks of rhetoric borrowed from anti-Semitic sources. And we see alignments developing with movements elsewhere, in Europe and the Arab world, that are openly hostile to the Jewish people.

As evidence, the authors cite Methodist official Jim Winkler, who spoke of neoconservatives thus:

Their plans were not to remake the Middle East into a bunch of democracies—they really have no objection to several of the royal autocracies and dictatorships in the region—but to ensure Israel could continue to act with impunity against the Palestinian people.

Nelson and Wisdom tell us that “neoconservative” is “widely used as a code word for Jews”, and that, besides:

Anyone at all familiar with the neoconservative movement knows that this characterization is simply wrong. The movement—which began when former leftists became aware of the abuses of Marxist-Leninist regimes and so became anti-communists—is marked by a deep concern to expand human freedom and democracy everywhere.

No doubt the authors have an explanation for Daniel Pipes’ statement that “Our goal is not a free Iraq…Our goal is an Iraq that does not endanger us. [We need a] democratic-minded strongman”, but they keep that to themselves. The other example given is an immoderate and bombastic letter posted on the website of the Witherspoon Society. Nelson and Wisdom then link the WCC with the European left and go on to cite Gabriel Schoenfeld’s book The Return of Anti-Semitism:

Today, a new chapter [in anti-Semitism] is being written. Among those burning the Star of David and chanting obscene slogans against the Jewish state in the streets of Europe, there are surely some neo-Nazis, but a greater host of environmentalists, pacifists, anarchists, anti-globalists and socialists. (Shoenfeld, 86).

I suppose I had better not add that Schoenfeld is senior editor at Commentary, a magazine that describes itself (in its web description) as “the home of neoconservatism”, in case that makes me an anti-Semite. But it’s odd that the authors rely on this very partisan and qualitative book, when their own report is so heavy on the number-crunching. According to this critical review from someone sympathetic to Israel reposted from American Outlook:

The book is virtually bereft of hard data. Readers will find no polling results, no crime or employment statistics, no evidence of discrimination, and little history. Moreover, the conclusion acknowledges that what the author describes as anti-Semitism accelerated at the time of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 and “does appear to be an epiphenomenon of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” A book with such an ill-founded premise is unlikely to yield much light, though this one does generate a good deal of heat.

Nelson and Wisdom recommend that:

Rather than pass resolutions critical of Israel at nearly every church meeting or at every mention of the Middle East crisis—resolutions which often offer no new insight into the conflict—it might benefit oppressed and persecuted minorities around the world more if the churches spread their human rights advocacy more broadly. In places like Central Asia and the Middle East, where church attention has been particularly lacking, progress can be made. A broader human rights advocacy which encompasses a more diverse set of nations and concerns would not only help those who are oppressed, but make the mainline churches’ witness more credible.

What the report lacks (to start with), is any sort of wider context. How, for example, does the breadth of human rights advocacy in the mainline churches compare with that of the conservative groups? And how do the two interact? Is it surprising that mainline churches are pro-Palestinian, when conservative leaders continually assert that Israeli policy is guided by God? Or that they criticize their own government when conservatives reject any real substantial self-criticism, complacent that their might means they must be right? The authors also accuse the mainline churches of having supported “Marxist-Leninists” in South America and elsewhere. But is that a surprise, when the conservatives have supported the likes of Riot Montt simply because he was a co-religionist, and were happy to advocate Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa and Chiang Kai-shek in the name of anti-Communism? A special concern about Israel hardly requires delving into unconscious motives, either. America is deeply involved with Israel, Israel is continually on the news, and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to regional stability. Of course, then, Christians are going to have more to say about Ariel Sharon than about the Turkmenbashi.

And when it comes to Israel, Nelson and Wisdom are guilty of their own distortions:

We do not assert that it is inherently anti-Semitic to criticize actions or policies of the state of Israel. Many of Israel’s own citizens do so on occasion.

Their argument seems to be that is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, just that one should not do it too often, and one should only do it after having ticked off a list of far worse countries. But what does this “on occasion” mean? Are they talking about the long-standing and continuing work of Israeli human rights and dissident groups such as B’Tselem, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, Gush Shalom, not to mention the Refusniks? But there’s more:

It is true that many Arab Christians share the grievances of their Muslim compatriots against Israel. But there are also other Christians in Israel and the West Bank who have made their peace with the Jewish state, and who have no appetite for further attacks on it. Here in the Middle East, as elsewhere, the church is not monolithic. In a situation of human rights abuses, different groups of Christians have different responses.

So there are two kinds of Palestinian Christian: those happy with the occupation, and those who wish to “attack” Israel. But the MECC and Sabeel hardly seem to represent either pole. There’s also a double standard (an accusation made throughout the report, as it happens). The authors accuse the mainstream churches of prevarication when it comes to situations like Cuba or the Muslim world, when

we would expect churches to pay particular attention to nations with large or historic Christian communities. The ties of solidarity with fellow believers abroad ought to make U.S. Christians more conscious of their sufferings and more strongly obligated to speak about those sufferings.

Unless, it seems, those Christians are Palestinian Christians, in which case one should try to find the voices most compliant with Israel.

Of course, Nelson and Wisdom raise some valid points. Anyone who has been to an antiwar or pro-Palestinian meeting will wince at some of the oversimplifications and conspiracy theories sometimes expounded. But I’ve always found (in London) anti-Semitism to be rare, if you discount the rantings of the unwelcome Islamic fundies who always show up. Other instances are more often than not silly comments by people who have failed to think things through. And in nearly all cases, such comments are challenged vigorously – not least by the many Jews committed to justice for Palestinians.

The IRD itself was profiled by the New York Times back in May:

With financing from a handful of conservative donors, including the Scaife family foundations, the Bradley and Olin Foundations and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson’s Fieldstead & Company, the 23-year-old institute is now playing a pivotal role in the biggest battle over the future of American Protestantism since churches split over slavery at the time of the Civil War.

[Institute President Diane] Knippers…and Mrs. [Roberta] Ahmanson both noted that the impetus for the founding of the institute came from a labor union activist, not right-wing financiers. Mrs. Knippers said the initial idea came from David Jessup, a staunchly anti-communist union activist and Methodist who objected to church aid to Vietnam and Nicaragua under their leftist regimes.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest and former Lutheran minister, wrote its founding statement and other neoconservatives joined an advisory board. (In addition to Father Neuhaus, the institute’s board of directors currently includes Mary Ellen Bork, wife of Judge Robert H. Bork, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and Fox News, and Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute.)


More liberal Protestants argue that the institute’s financial backers are interfering with the theological disputes mainly for broader, secular political reasons. “The mainline denominations are a strategic piece on the chess board that the right wing is trying to dominate,” said Alfred F. Ross, president and founder of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a liberal New York-based think tank which produced a research report in 2000 on the Institute’s influence in the Presbyterian Church.

UPDATE (14 Oct): Pundits weigh in.

5 Responses

  1. […] for criticising Israel and the USA (I critiqued the report’s failings and biases here). Rod Dreher, in the Dallas Morning News: Last month, the Institute released the disturbing results […]

  2. […] up reconstructing all the justification of anti-Semitism”. I’ve touched on the subject before, when the Institute on Religion and Democracy produced a report that considered the topic. Of […]

  3. […] on Religion and Democracy, with which Dreher is greatly enamoured: when the IRD published a wretched report last year denouncing mainline Christian criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, Dreher was the chief […]

  4. […] a report criticising the human rights activism of mainline churches, which I in turn critiqued at the time. Tooley follows the same line: some soft criticism of Israel is allowed, but not much, and unless […]

  5. […] (Hat tip to Jews Sans Frontieres for Gledhill links. Back in 2004 the Institute on Religion and Democracy produced a report critical of mainstream churches’ support for the Palestinians; I critiqued that here.) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.