What Lies Behind the Anti-Israel Position of Some Mainline Churches in America?
An Interview with Dexter Van Zile of CAMERA
by Jerry Gordon and Dexter Van Zile (August 2012)
Some mainline Protestant Churches have strayed far from the origins of their support for Christian Zionism. Puritan John Winthrop spoke of "We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us...". He used imagery of the Promised Land as New Israel upon landing in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. This was the cornerstone of what became known as American Exceptionalism, a furtherance of the Judeo-Christian heritage. He and the Pilgrims took this as an article of faith. Winthrop and his Congregationalist followers would likely be offended by the anti-Israel resolutions of the successor United Church of Christ (UCC) in the 21st Century. So would philo-Semitic Ezra Stiles, Congregationalist Minister and Fifth President of Yale University whose seal is emblazoned with Hebrew words “urim v thummin,” translated as the Latin “Lux et Veritas,” Light and Truth. Stiles was a supporter of restorationism, the return of Jews to their ancient homeland. Another similarly minded personality was Asa McFarland, a Presbyterian who in the early 19th Century believed that the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Fourth Caliphate, would result in the founding of a Jewish Commonwealth. Whitaker would likely be troubled by the Presbyterian Church (USA) resolutions in the past decade seeking divestments from American firms doing business in the Jewish State of Israel founded in 1948.
In Southwestern New York State near Jamestown lies the idyllic setting on more than 740 acres of the Chautauqua Institution (Chautauqua). Chautauqua was established as a summer retreat tent camp for the education of adults by inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Hayl Vincent in 1884. Original visitors could attend lectures at Palestine Park, undertake Bible study and learn the geography of the Holy Land using the park’s relief maps. Miller and Vincent might question the United Methodist Church conventions where members support divestment of Caterpillar, Inc. stock, exhorted by anti-Semitic imagery comparing this to German firms profiting from Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. So might Methodist businessman William Eugene Blackstone, an ardent Evangelist and Christian Zionist who presented a document, the Blackstone Memorial, to President Harrison in 1891 signed by 491 prominent Americans, business moguls like John D. Rockefeller, Cyrus McCormick, Senators, Congressmen, clergymen and some Jewish leaders. His Memorial followed a Conference in 1890 convened to discuss virulent Russian antisemitism. The Conference extolled the voluntary resettlement of oppressed Jews in Palestine. Like many Christian Zionists in the 19th Century, Blackstone believed that the resettlement of the ancient Jewish homeland would lead to the Second Coming of Christ and the conversion of Jews, premillennial dispensationalism. Ultimately, he favored the merits of Jewish Zionism. Blackstone was a precursor of Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel that represents tens of millions of committed Christian Zionist supporters of Israel in 21st Century America.
All of these historic figures of American Christian Zionism would be troubled by positions of Middle East Christian clerics and allies in the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches who condemn Israel for not coming to terms with the Palestinian plight. These clerics espouse views of supersessionism denying G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people and their restoration to their ancient homeland because they rejected acceptance of Jesus Christ. They are silent about the menacing threat of Islamic supersessionism oppressing and terrorizing Christians in Muslim majority countries in the Ummah. Yet, these clerics and international liberal church bureaucrats do not speak out forcefully against the Jihad by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in dispossessing beleaguered Christian Middle East communities like the Assyrians in Iraq, the Syriacs in bloody Syria and the significant Coptic minority in Egypt. It is ironic that these Middle East Christian clerics can convene conferences in the West Bank, while the remnant of Christians there and in Gaza are being subjected to razzias, forced conversions and expropriation of property sending adherents fleeing to Diasporas in the West.
Dexter Van Zile, the Christian Media Analyst for the Boston-based Committee for Middle East Reporting Accuracy in America (CAMERA) is in a unique position, as both a journalist and activist exposing the anti-Israel and antisemitic calumnies of some mainline Church groups in America, the Middle East and the World. He has observed first hand at national conferences, assemblies and synods and built a dossier. He considers dhimmified Christian behavior excoriating the Jewish State of Israel to be reprehensible in the face of Islamist oppression in the Middle East and North Africa which means the potential ethnic cleansing of the region’s remaining Christian communities.
Seven years ago, we worked together with an activist group, the Coalition for Responsible Peace in the Middle East (C4RPME). We challenged anti-Israel resolutions at the Annual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) in Orlando in 2005. Those resolutions were directed at opposing Israel’s security barrier that ended the Second Intifada. The resolutions were softened with the aid of American Lutheran pastors and bishops engaged in Jewish outreach. At informal luncheons and sessions with C4RPME team members outside of the Synod’s assembly halls, these Lutheran Bishops and pastors were presented with first hand evidence by a leader in the World Maronite Diaspora of the oppression of Middle East Christian communities.
An ad prepared by CAMERA and published during the ELCA synod in USA Today was left under the hotel room door of each delegate explaining why Israel’s security barrier saved lives, both Jewish and Palestinian. That overcame the exhortations of Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem and the Holy Land Munib Younan who told the 1300 delegates by phone, “The wall does not create peace, it breeds despair,” while acknowledging that “Israel's security is tied to Palestinian freedom and Palestinian freedom is tied to Israel's security.”
In an unpublished article on the episode, we noted the impact of the CAMERA Ad on the ELCA delegates.
The ad was also wisely published in two large markets with heavy concentrations of Lutheran churches and members: Chicago and Minnesota. One question voting members had about the ad was “Did this run in my home town?” For many, it did.
The ad was an open letter that urged fair treatment of Israel’s right to self defense, and to acknowledge the more than 1,000 innocent Israeli lives taken by Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers that prompted construction of the security barrier. The ad reviewed the salient efforts that Israel had undertaken to alleviate hardships imposed on Palestinians by the construction of the passive security barrier. The open letter criticized the ELCA church council by ignoring the role of Palestinians “themselves in fostering hatred and violence in the resolution and related materials.” It also quoted a Palestinian Muslim cleric preaching destruction of Jews as an example of the hostility that contravened the “spirit of peace” sought by the ELCA resolution.
We noted in conclusion:
Something good came out of the Coalition’s effort. Consciousness of both Israel's predicament and that of Christian minorities in the Middle East was raised. Perhaps some Protestants in the U.S. will lift up their voice to oppose the one group of Christians in the Middle East who blame the Jewish state for their suffering. Time will tell.
Against this background we reached out to Dexter Van Zile, the Christian Media Analyst at Boston-based, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
Jerry Gordon: Dexter Van Zile, thank you for consenting to this interview.
Dexter Van Zile: Thank you for inviting me.
Gordon: What defining moment lead to your career attacking Christian antisemitism?
Van Zile: My life history prepared me for this work without me knowing it. I inherited a fear of antisemitism from my father who lost his brother on Iwo Jima in World War II and he himself was set to invade Japan. He was part of the invasion force. He was in the Philippines when they dropped the bomb. He was part of the generation of people who went through World War II and had a fear of antisemitism because they understood that Hitler's antisemitism was one of the reasons why that whole war took place. They passed that fear onto their children, the next generation. I am part of that generational echo. In many respects that fear is fading. I didn’t have to explain to fellow high school students why antisemitism was bad. They learned that from their parents and relatives. I think that the generation that came after us did not pick up this fear of antisemitism by osmosis. It also helped that I had a mentor as a teenager who I met through Boy Scouts. He was Jewish and told me about Christian antisemitism and supersessionism as a teenager. He also taught me about Muslim supersessionism. That was in the 1980's. I had long conversations with him about antisemitism in my youth. When the attack on September 11, 2001 happened it wasn't news to me. I understood that it had to do with Islamic doctrine that contributed to this violence. But there was another influence. My grandfather on my father's side was an ardent anti-Communist. He was always fighting with intellectuals in New Hampshire. He would write letters to the Manchester Union Leader complaining about people appeasing communists. It wasn't just opposition to antisemitism for me but it was also a family tradition of being suspicious of fascism and authoritarianism in all its forms. It was more of a process than a defining moment.
Gordon: What career path led to your current position as Christian Media Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)?
Van Zile: I started work for the David Project in Boston on Christian issues in 2005. I was provoked when I saw that the churches were raising concerns about Islamophobia, however, they didn’t say anything about the murder of Christians in the Sudan and elsewhere. I knew it had to do with Islamic doctrine regarding non-Muslims that was being used to justify violence. I couldn't understand it. That led me to an educational process and the career path that I have now. I moved to CAMERA in 2006 because it gave me a chance to really document the dishonest narrative used to demonize Israel by mainline churches and the institutions they supported like the World Council of Churches.
Gordon: Why have many mainstream liberal Christian denominations abandoned their original Zionist ethos?
Van Zile: I think that the mainline churches that have been giving Israel the hardest time over the past couple of decades have drunk from the waters of anti-Americanism. For most of their history these churches had typically been guardians of American civil religion based on the view that the American people were the “New Israel.” An “almost chosen” people who had a positive role to play on the world stage. At the same time they understood that the American people harbored guilt. However, the American people were called to be a force for good in the world and would stand under God’s judgment and guidance. In the 1960's and ‘70’s they abandoned the notion that the American people had a positive role to play in favor of what historian George McKenna of George Mason University calls “reverse election.” Instead of having a positive role to play on the world stage the American people and the United States had become a unique source of violence and oppression and injustice in the world. For people who embraced the doctrine of reverse election, the American people decimated the Indians, enslaved Africans, bombed Hiroshima, Nagasaki and were attacking third world peoples in Vietnam and oppressing people all over the world. They forgot that we had fought a war to end slavery, and defeated fascism in World War II. For the leaders of the churches that espoused reverse election from the 1960's on, the notion of American exceptionalism and the legitimacy of anti-Communism was a bad joke. The doctrine of reverse election espoused by mainline church leaders was one of the factors that emboldened them to embrace an anti-Israel narrative. Israel was an easier target for them to attack. Israel ended up becoming the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the United States. For these followers, anti-Zionism was a proxy for anti-Americanism.
There was also the problem of white liberal self-hate that took root in some church communities. I read the writings of James Cone, the black liberation theologian of the Union Theological Seminary. It was like being on an archeological dig. Cone promoted antipathy towards white people as being part of the cause of justice. It wasn’t African Americans that bought into this notion. Rather it was liberal white baby boomers who came of age during the 1960's and 70's that embraced this agenda. Cone's writings had a huge impact on Protestant seminaries. Students at these seminaries who bought Cone’s line became pastors in pulpits and were contemptuous of the white Americans who had been the backbone of these mainline Protestant churches. That helps explain why the membership in these churches have declined since the 1960's. They became hostile to their own mission field. It also helps explain why some have embraced anti-Zionism. Activists and intellectuals in these mainline communities have used Israel as a scapegoat. Israel became a safer target for this anti-Western, anti-American and frankly anti-white ideology. Israel was portrayed as a white racist nation oppressing dark-skinned peoples in the Third World and everything that we don't like about ourselves, our country and the civilization we've inherited. I had a conversation with Roberto Miranda who is Pastor at Leon de Judah church in Boston. He told me that when he came in contact with white Americans that he tells them to get over their guilt. He reminds them that God is not finished with the United States of America and the American people. This came from a Pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation who serves the Latino community. He has no use for white liberal guilt. And guess what? He is an ardent supporter of Israel. What we see behind this anti-Israelism is this anti-Western, anti-American self hating ideology on the part of white liberals that have been calling the shots in some mainline churches. That doctrine has created an environment in which anti-Zionism has taken root.
Gordon: Why has evangelical Christianity emerged as the leading contemporary supporter of the Jewish State of Israel?
Van Zile: Some of it has to do with their belief in premillennial dispensationalism. This doctrine ties the restoration of the Jewish state to the second coming of Christ. However it is more than that. It is also that God's promises to the Jewish people are considered reliable. Evangelicals understand that if these promises to the Jewish people are not reliable then ultimately there is something precarious about the Christian faith. They also understand that Islamism is a huge threat to Christians, Jews and world peace. There is something else. Evangelicals have not bought into the self-hate and the anti-Americanism that some mainline Protestants have espoused. They have a reservoir of optimism about themselves and the country they live in. As a result it is much easier for them to see Israel as the moral achievement it is. They don’t believe that Western civilization is just one long story of murder and oppression. They value the Judeo-Christian heritage that they come from. They value the civil society that the United States offers as a model to the world. They recognize Israel's creation as both a moral achievement and great success.
Gordon: You have written extensively about mainstream Protestant denominations, adopting resolutions condemning Israel for alleged human rights violations and occupation of Palestinian territory. Why has that occurred and which groups have been proponents of this anti-Israel agenda?
Van Zile: I think at the forefront of this anti-Israel agenda has been the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center lead by an Anglican Canon Naim Ateek. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was no longer viewed as the underdog. These churches perceived the Palestinians as innocent victims of Jewish and Israeli aggression. They were fundamentally ignorant of Islamic doctrine and hostile towards the Jewish state. I didn't even hear the word "dhimmi" until 2004. When I heard the word and started to read about the reality of dhimmitude and the life that Christians endured under Muslim majority rule, I was shocked. I had a sense that there was a problem with Muslim attitudes towards non-Muslims. However, I didn't know that it had been systematized and few in these churches knew that. It was one of the reasons why they were so vulnerable to the activism of Palestinian Christians, the meta-narrative, that these churches told particularly in the last decade. They espouse that Israel could bring a unilateral end to the Arab-Israeli Conflict if only they came up with the magical formula of concessions in peace talks. The problem with that view was Israel had been attacked from all the territories it withdrew from over the past several decades. This was a very troublesome reality for these churches.
Gordon: Why have Middle East Christian clerics supported anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns?
Van Zile: They want to demonstrate their value to the countries in which they live. They want to influence public opinion in the United States regarding the Jewish state. If you look at institutions like Sabeel in the Middle East, the World and National Council of Churches they have taken an anti-Zionist stand. They don’t speak honestly about the status of Christians living in Muslim-majority countries because it is not really safe for them to do so. That is the underlying concern. As a result, some mainline churches have spoken up on behalf of a group of Christians in the Middle East that blame the Jewish state for their suffering. Blaming Jews and their state is safe. Confronting Muslim oppression is not. The only group that these churches will advocate for are Palestinian Christians. For example, at the last General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) there were about a dozen resolutions related to the Arab-Israeli Conflict and none whatsoever related to the murder of Christians in Egypt, Iraq or Nigeria. In 2011 the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, both passed resolutions condemning Islamophobia, but none about attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt or against Assyrian Christians in Iraq. That is shameful. Coptic Christians had their heads literally crushed by armored personnel carriers driven by Egyptian military supported by U.S. tax dollars. Yet these churches couldn't offer a word of condemnation about it.
Gordon: You have been critical of Anglican Canon Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. What aspects of both Ateek and Sabeel are particularly troubling to you?
Van Zile: In 2005, I discovered statements he made at the beginning of the Second Intifada that made it clear that he was using imagery from the New Testament to incite enmity towards the Jewish state. Ateek compared Israeli officials to modern day Herods. Herod does not come off well in the New Testament. He was responsible for the murder of the infants in Bethlehem in an effort to find and kill the baby Jesus. He also said that the Israeli Crucifixion System is operating daily in the occupied territories. That was very troublesome language. He compared the occupation to the stone blocking Christ's tomb. That language didn’t appear to bother some people within the mainline community for several years. He said those statements in 2000 and 2001. When I came along in 2005 and read those passages I found it a recycling of classical anti-Semitic charges. Look at Ateek's book, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, which was a treatment of his doctoral dissertation. The book denigrated the notion that the Jews were entitled to a sovereign state of their own. He depicted Zionism as a retrograde expression of the Jewish faith. The Jewish people, who are entitled to a sovereign state, needed one because after the Holocaust Jews could not live in safety in non-Jewish settings. That is true in Europe and it has proven to be the case in the Middle East. Ateek invoked the Book of Jonah as an anti-nationalist text. He used the scriptures to assail modern day Jews. He doesn't use the same scriptures to assail or condemn Muslim or Arab behavior. That is a double standard. I found even more troubling that the experts in interfaith dialogue had largely been silent about what he was doing. Some folks regarded this as peacemaking! He provided a model for anti-Israel peacemaking polemics that still remains in force.
Gordon: You have also written critically of the Kairos Political Document. What is it and who supports its positions among church leaders in the Middle East and in the West?
Van Zile: The Kairos Palestine Document (KPD) was issued in December of 2009 by a group of Palestinian Christian leaders of varying degrees of influence in the Palestinian Christian community. The KPD assailed Israel with same scriptural double standard that Naim Ateek had introduced. At one point they referred to Palestinian violence as legal resistance and they didn't mention that suicide bombings were directed at civilians. The World Council of Churches and some of the more hard core anti-Zionists in mainline churches here in the United States helped publicize it. When the KPD came out in 2009 the Jewish community in the United States recognized it for what it was. The Central Conference of American Rabbis came out against it declaring it supersessionist and antisemitic. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has done a very good job of educating people about the problems with that hateful text. Now there are people who know what the Sabeel doctrine is and don't endorse it. By 2009 the Jewish community and even the mainstream leadership realized what was going on and they came out against the KPD. I have witnessed growing ability on the part of mainstream Jewish leaders to respond to mainline anti-Zionism. In the middle of the last decade -- in 2004 and 2005 – they got caught flat footed. They thought liberal Protestants would deal with Israel fairly, that Israel would get a fair shake and would deal with the Jewish community in the United States in a transparent manner. What happened was at the 2005 Synod of the United Church of Christ the leaders of the church inserted divestment language into a resolution that had been sent by a committee that did not include divestment language and that changed everything. That woke up the Jewish community in the United States. It took a few years but eventually they got the message across to the mainline churches that if the latter kept attacking Israel Jewish leaders weren't going to take that lying down.
Gordon: The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) has been active in espousing divestment against companies doing business in Israel. What has happened to possibly change that position at the recent General Assembly?
Van Zile: Going into the 2012 General Assembly of the PCUSA, the sense was that the resolution calling for divestment from Motorola, Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar was going to pass. That was the signal that many were getting. What happened was that someone made a motion to substitute positive investment in place of disinvestment on the floor of the General Assembly. In 2005 the anti-Israel sponsors put in a substitute motion. In 2012 it was the other way around. The people who were opposed to demonizing Israel and applying a double standard to it have become much savvier in responding to these challenges. There is a hard core group of anti-Israel activists, many of them from Christians from the Middle East, who are going to keep pushing for divestment and targeting Israel with resolutions like this and so the fight is not over. One of the most prominent anti-Israel activists in the Presbyterian Church is a woman of Armenian descent who spent the first couple of decades of her life in Iran. Her grandparents suffered as a result of the Armenian genocide in what is now modern day Turkey under the last gasp of the Ottoman Empire. She came to the United States from Iran. However, her peacemaking activism was directed almost exclusively at the Jewish State of Israel. The irony is, her grandparents suffered and endured a genocide perpetrated by Turkish Muslims. Ironically she grew up in a country, Iran, where Christians are brutally repressed and then she came to the United States and attacked Israel. On a logical level it doesn't make any sense.
Gordon: You attended the Christ at the 2012 Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem along with 600 Evangelical Protestants. Who sponsored it and what did it illustrate about the underlying antisemitic agenda of a number of Middle East Christian clerics and denominations?
Van Zile: The Conference was organized by the Bethlehem Bible College which is currently lead by Bishara Awad. He is retiring from his position but the Awad family has been engaged in anti-Israel activism for a long time. What happened at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference was that the Awad family, Bishara and his brothers Mubarak and Sami, were trying to pass the torch of so-called peacemaking activism to the next generation of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank. That includes Bishara's son Sami, and other Palestinian Christians like Munther Isaac and Yohanna Katanacho. In 2010, there was a previous Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. Canon Naim Ateek was at the 2010 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. The organizers realized that his message didn't work and he wasn't invited back to the 2012 Conference. The Christ at the Checkpoint Conference challenged Evangelical Protestants. The message they conveyed went something like this: “You want to spread the gospel. That is what evangelicalism is all about, spreading the gospel and sharing the faith. The problem is that your support for the Jewish State is making it difficult for Christians in the Middle East to share their faith and be able to evangelicalize Muslims in the region and yet you continue to support Israel.” They were positing a choice between spreading the gospel and standing in solidarity with the Jewish people as they face the threat of Islamism. It is a very shrewd tactic because that message is going to resonate with a fair number of Evangelical Protestants who are truly committed to spreading the gospel. One of the other messages they emphasized was that the Jewish state is a homeland to people who have rejected Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The question the Conference posed to Evangelical Protestants was do you really want to support a Jewish state? They were not as explicitly hostile as Naim Ateek was during the Second Intifada. Nevertheless, the message was that Christianity has replaced Judaism. The Jewish people no longer have a claim to God's promises made to them in the Old Testament. Israel, by providing a homeland to Jews is an abomination. Every one of the main speeches at the Conference took place in front of a banner depicting a security barrier and observation tower standing in opposition to a church that had a cross. There were two messages conveyed. One was that the cross stands in judgment of Jewish sovereignty and the other that the Israeli security barrier stands as an obstacle to the Christian faith. That symbol was straight out of Leni Riefenstahl’s films from the 1930’s. It was very powerful visual rhetoric. The malevolent Jewish state stands in opposition to Christianity. Even if a speaker didn't say anything at all about the Arab-Israeli Conflict and just gave a straight up Bible study, the overall effect was to use Christianity to highlight the sins of the Jewish state and Jewish power. I went on a tour of the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. A New Testament scholar went with me. We looked at the Palestinian men who were in line going through the checkpoint. We were saddened by what we saw because these men were suffering. The New Testament scholar pointed to a man, and asked me "do you think this legitimate? Do you think this justified?” I told him, “A lot of people were killed during the Second Intifada." He responded: “That was seven years ago.” To the attendees at this conference, the horror of the Second Intifada is ancient history. However, it is not for Israelis. What bothers me is there is tendency to ignore the suffering that Israelis have endured that preceded the construction of the security barrier. The problem is activists associated with this conference have never condemned Palestinian violence and Islamic ideology regarding Jews with the same force with which they have attacked Israel. Christians always like to talk about how Jesus confounded the Jewish millennial expectations of the Messiah. We talk about how the Jews were expecting a conqueror and a king to save the Jewish nation and re-establish sovereignty for the Jewish people. Christians rarely talk about how Jesus Christ contradicts what Mohammad said in the Qur’an or did in his biography. Jesus Christ stands in clear opposition to the behavior of the prophet Mohammad. Jesus Christ offers up a fundamentally different response to the human condition than Mohammad. Many Christians will not acknowledge that. As a former member of the UCC, I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot profess the difference between Mohammad and Jesus Christ you have abandoned one of the central tenants of the Christian faith.
Gordon: Why in your view has there been a monomaniacal focus of mainline Protestant churches on Israel while ignoring the human rights abuses of Islamists in the Middle East? Why are these groups so myopic and can anything be done to change their positions?
Van Zile: The reason why there has been such a monomaniacal focus on Israel while ignoring the human rights abuses of Islamists in the Middle East comes down to one word. Fear. If you condemn Israel, say bad things or lie about Israel you are going to get a letter from the ADL. If you offend Muslim sensibilities there is a possibility that somebody is going to issue a fatwa calling for you to be executed or killed. There was a journalist in Seattle by the name of Molly Norris, she said “Let's draw pictures of Mohammed.” There was a cleric in Yemen who said she needs to be killed. At the urging of the FBI Ms. Norris went underground into virtual witness protection. There is great fear associated with speaking the truth about Islamic doctrine. Not every Muslim wants to oppress Christians and Jews. However, the problem is that there aren’t a sufficient number of them that oppose this. I have come to the conclusion that Islamic ideology represents the great human rights challenge to humanity and world peace in the 21st century. That is reflected in doctrinal treatment of non-Muslims and women. Just the same way those Christian teachings about the Jewish people represented a great theological challenge during the 20th century. Let me illustrate what I mean. Take a look at a book called Christians and Muslims - the Dialogue Activities of the World Council of Churches and the Theological Foundation. It was published in 2000 and written by a woman named Jutta Sperber. If you read this book it provides a frightening summary of the impact of Islam on non-Muslims. It lays out how some of these teachings really do encourage the oppression of Christians in Muslim majority countries. Today if you were to read this book some people would accuse the author of being Islamophobic. Yet, this book was published and translated from the German with support from the World Council of Churches in 2000. In the years since 2001, the World Council of Churches has virtually forgotten what was published in this book that it helped publish. The book talks about how extreme Islamists are trying to take over Indonesia. It talked about how Christian men who married Muslim women in the Philippines were attacked and castrated by Muslim extremists in that country. It talked about how Coptic Christians suffered under Muslim majority rule in Egypt. Since 2001 Islamist violence and charges of blasphemy for criticizing Islam have rendered discussion of these subjects taboo.
Gordon: The United Methodist General Convention in Tampa in May 2012 went on record boycotting Israeli goods from Judea and Samaria. There was an antisemitic outburst that occurred at the convention which was not challenged. Why did this occur and who was behind it?
Van Zile: The Methodists aren't the only church with such positions. The Presbyterians also passed a resolution boycotting goods from the West Bank. At one point during the Methodist debate when it was clear that a resolution targeting Caterpillar for divestment was going to fail, a woman got up and said would we make money off of the Holocaust? Would we make money off the construction of the death camps in Europe? Clearly, what she was trying to do was to compare Israeli policies in the West Bank to the genocide of Jews in Europe. I watched that unfold on the web cast live streaming. I was stunned because no one got up and offered any objection. They just moved on as if nothing had happened. I think that there were some people that probably understood that was a problem. People on Twitter who were watching it at the same time said, “We're sorry, it was wrong.” Why did this occur? For some people anti-Israelism and hostility towards the Jewish people is a second skin. They don't even realize it. Catherine Chatterley, founder of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at the University of Manitoba in Canada, talks about how antisemitism is a second skin for Western civilization. She writes that some of her students in Canada are afraid to use the word “Jew” in their writings. They will use the word Jewish as if it's a noun. The reason behind this is the word “Jew” has such connotations as to be an insult to call somebody a Jew. That helps explain why we find Muslim hostility towards Jews unremarkable. The reason why is we've embraced a supersessionist attitude towards Jews on our own as Christians. We find Muslim hostility towards Jews equally unremarkable. We may not like it. However, it is not something that we really express outrage over largely because it affirms some of the subconscious attitudes that we have about the Jewish people and their institutions. Even if we explicitly rejected antisemitism and racism in all its forms it is easier for some people to stay quiet when other people say terrible things about the Jews. That is what we are contending with. We are stuck between two supersessionist impulses. Christian supersessionism towards Judaism and the Jewish people declares that the Jewish people no longer have a role to play in history. The other supersessionism is Islamist hostility towards Jews, Christians and other unbelievers. Because we cannot speak openly about Muslim hostility towards Jews we are unable to acknowledge the mistreatment of Christians in Muslim majority countries.
Gordon: Why have groups like the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the National Council of Churches failed to confront Islamic antisemitism and violence against Israel and Jews worldwide?
Van Zile: I believe that these institutions, led by the WCC have been captured by dhimmified Christians from the Middle East. This is not the first time this has happened. During the Cold War, the World Council of Churches was captured by the Russian Orthodox Church which said you may not criticize the Soviet Union, you may not condemn the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. If you do, we will leave the WCC and will no longer be able to participate. What happened was the Orthodox Churches held the WCC hostage. Those Christians were held hostage by the Soviet Union. If they dared speak about human rights behind the Iron Curtain there was a good chance they were going to be thrown in the gulag. A similar process is taking place today with Christians from the Middle East. Christians who are held hostage in Muslim-majority countries where they live have made it clear to the WCC, do not speak about Islamism. Do not speak about the mistreatment of Christians under Muslim rule because you are going to make life difficult for us. Instead, we think you should attack Israel because of all of the terrible things that it has done to the Palestinians. This same process took place during the Cold War. The WCC dealt with Communism and the Soviet Union with kid gloves and attacked the West with the cooperation of clergy from the United States. The same process has taken place today. WCC does not want to talk about the human rights problems that Islamic doctrine presents. Nevertheless they condemn Israel morning, noon and night. In the National Council of Churches a similar process has taken place. Here, I believe it has to do with the NCC desire to stay in dialogue with Muslims and their alleged concern about Islamophobia. The NCC believes that greatest threat to civil society in the United States is Islamophobia. The NCC doesn’t express the same concern for Jews that they do for Muslims here in the U.S. Similarly the NCC does not accord Israel the same concern that they have for Palestinians. The NCC wants to stay in dialogue with Muslim leaders in the United States, however, they are not willing to have honest dialogue. Christians overall have to really start dealing with how Islamic doctrine contributes to the mistreatment of women and non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries. Just as Christians came to grips with the role Christian doctrine played in preparing the ground for the Holocaust in Europe, they have to confront how Islamic doctrine has set the stage for the oppression of women and ethnic cleansing of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. The NCC and mainline churches have subjected Christian Zionism and Jewish identity to intense scrutiny. It is time that these churches subject Islamic doctrine to the same scrutiny. If they can't do that than they really can't say that they are the prophetic institutions they claim to be.
Gordon: Middle East Christian minorities in the wake of the Arab-Spring face existential threats from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Late last year Christian Solidarity International issued a genocide warning. Why have mainstream Christian bureaucracies been silent about their coreligionists in the face of this evidence?
Van Zile: I believe it goes back to what we have been talking about previously. They are so used to condemning the United States and the West as the source of all the suffering in the world keyed into the problems of white racism. They have yet to make the leap to contend with Islamic supremacy. If you look at the WCC, they were strong supporters of the UN Anti-Racism Conference in 2001 that took place in Durban, South Africa. The real issue that people needed to contend with was Islamism and its impact on minorities in the Middle East, but nobody wanted to talk about it. We are dealing with institutions that still are living in a mindset from the 1960's, 70's and 80's; that white racism and imperialism were the big problems facing the world. They have to move on because at this time the underlying problem is Islamic supremacy. That is a very difficult change for a lot of people to make at a cognitive level. Until these church leaders retire and are replaced by a younger generation of people who have witnessed a decade’s worth of headlines of violence against Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and now sadly enough in Syria, we won’t see a change in these bureaucracies. They have been captured or dominated by people that have an ideology that just makes it impossible for them to speak about the problems that confront us today.
Gordon: The United States is witnessing an increase in what you have called cognitive warfare by Islamists in this country. Terms like Islamophobia and Muslim witch hunt are bandied about seeking to intimidate Christian and Jewish groups. What triggered this and how dangerous is it to the future of America?
Van Zile: I think there are two things going on. One of the things is that the West has embraced the notion of self-criticism. We hold ourselves accountable for the things that we have done wrong. Often when you speak with people that are in conflict you say “I have to clean up my side of the street. I have to look at my part in this.” That is a very important aspect of Western Civilization. It is one of the reasons why we have reform in our civilization. We are willing to look at our own guilt and sin. Contrast that aspect of our civilization with Islam. Islam cannot tolerate criticism very well. Take a look at what happened after Pope Benedict made statements critical of Islam in Regensburg in 2006. What did Muslims do? They set churches on fire and attacked Christians throughout the Muslim world. If you were to get up in front of a large audience in Bethlehem and say, “Jesus Christ offers up a completely and better response to the human condition than Mohammed who killed people, jeered and shamed them, while Jesus Christ forgave them even while he was on the cross,” there's a good chance that you would offend some Muslims and a distinct possibility that they would respond violently. That is historically what the reality has been. There is a structure in place that pits Western and Christian self-criticism against Muslim refusal to engage in the same level of self-criticism and to respond with anger when they feel like they have been shamed. For example did you watch the video that MEMRI recently translated from an Egyptian television show where they brought some people on, it was like Egyptian Candid Camera. Have you seen that Jerry?
Gordon: I have.
Van Zile: What happened was they were given the impression that they were actually appearing on a Jewish television show in Israel. They felt shamed and how did they respond? They responded violently and they were praised for doing so even by one of the hosts, a woman, who was hit by one of the actors who had been fooled into participating in this faux Israeli production. That is a very dangerous combination of Western self-criticism, confronted by Islamists' shame. The impulse is to continually think that we are in the wrong and that we need to make more concessions. Over the long haul that is dangerous to the future of American and Western Civilization. I think in the long run, I am a lot more optimistic than I have been largely because people are waking up. A lot of our intellectuals are afraid of dealing with these issues. However, the average man or woman in the street knows better. They haven't been educated beyond their ability to comprehend the world as it is.
Gordon: Why has the membership in mainstream Protestant denominations declined while the Evangelical movement has grown in the U.S?
Van Zile: It has to do with the Evangelical Protestant churches that are non-denominational. They make more demands doctrinally on members’ behavior and time. Researchers have discovered that is one of the reasons why these churches grow because people looking to have a religious experience generally do it in part because they need something to order their lives. After attending the national gatherings of a number of mainline churches I realized that some of these churches weren't very religious, especially in my case, the United Church of Christ. The Lutherans and the Episcopalians and to a lesser extent, the Methodists were much more religious. However, overall they don't make the same demands on their members that the Evangelicals do. People who are looking for religious experience will likely leave the mainline Church communities. That is why the mainline churches are dying when people don't go back to their churches after they have graduated from college. Typically what happens is, somebody graduates from high school, they go off to college, they stop attending church and then after college they start a family. Then they realize there is something missing in their lives and they return back to the church of their youth. Ultimately churches die because they don't give people what they need and don't connect them to this sense that their everyday lives are somehow connected with God's eternal purposes for humanity in the universe. Churches grow because they provide that benefit.
Gordon: Why do Evangelical Christian denominations support Israel and evince concerns about the Grand Jihad agenda of Islam in America?
Van Zile: I think part of it goes back to the optimism about the American project that Evangelical Protestants seem to have. They still think that the United States is a wonderful place and they actually like the country in which they live and they are not estranged from it. In an odd way some of them may separate themselves from parts of the American culture that they find disdainful. At the same time they understand they respect the basic freedoms here in the United States. They like the United States which means they are more concerned about the threats that this country faces. I think this is really an important aspect of American civil religion and even secularism in the United States. I have come to the conclusion that in many respects, secularists are the least capable of actually protecting this country from outside threats. All of these people who were active in the 1960's and 70's benefitted from the liberal commitment to personal freedom. Given Islamist assaults on human rights on the world stage where are these same people? I see the Evangelicals as the ones who actually end up responding to the threats in the public square in much more proactive way.
Gordon: Why do both Christian and Jewish denominations support Muslim interfaith dialogue programs and what are the consequences?
Van Zile: I think a lot of it has to do with their being ecumenically minded and they learned that from coming to grips with the Holocaust. This is one of the great ironies that we contend with. This desire to maintain interfaith dialogue and to engage in this type of dialogue is largely a response to the Holocaust that took place in the 20th century. There was this notion that we must talk to each other so that we don't murder each other. That was the underlying truth. Now we have a difficult time stating publicly that there are aspects about Islamic doctrine that frighten us. We need to be able to ask publicly, ”Can Muslims treat us as equals regardless of what their scripture says about us?“ That was the question asked of Christians after the Holocaust. “Can you treat the Jewish people with the humanity that they deserve despite the fact that your doctrine expresses anger over the fact that they rejected Jesus Christ?” The answer, if there is going to be any peace between us, was yes. A similar question has to be answered by Muslims. If we refuse to state explicitly what our concerns are, we are not going to give Muslim intellectuals any reason to challenge some of the basic teachings they have towards non-Muslims.
Gordon: How troubling are current efforts by our government to combat criticism of underlying Islamic antisemitic and misogynist doctrine?
Van Zile: I am concerned about the overall failure to address these issues. It's not just the government. There are people in our churches, colleges and universities and among some of our elected leaders that just don't really want to speak openly about these teachings. The problem is that a lot of it is rooted in the First Amendment. You and I have spoken about this. When we acknowledge people's right to practice their religion does that right allow them to oppress non-believers or women? I personally don’t believe the First Amendment establishes that right. Rather the First Amendment should be used to protect the right to speak honestly about religion, about the way Voltaire did during the Enlightenment. Christianity has withstood harsh criticism. The Testament of Jean Meslier, an atheist priest in France, has some of the most scathing criticism I have ever read of the Christian faith. It was a testament written in secret not published until after he died. He might have been killed if it was published during his lifetime. We have a basic right guaranteed in our Constitution to speak openly about religion and not expect to be threatened with murder or some sort of fine or imprisonment. Those are the ultimate consequences of the efforts to promote blasphemy laws on the international stage at the United Nations. That is catastrophically stupid. We know that those laws will be used to silence debate about the future of Islam which is one of the great issues facing humanity. The people who are going to suffer the most as a result of those Islamic blasphemy laws are Muslims themselves who don't want to live under the medieval doctrine of Sharia.
Gordon: Do you see any prevailing trends among Christian denominations in America that might revive traditional Zionist ethos and support for Israel?
Van Zile: In the long run churches that are not estranged from the American people and can speak forcefully in defense of the Christian faith and American civil society are going to attract followers. Those churches are going to be pro-Israel, concerned about the threats this country faces and will respond to the challenge of Islamism. Those churches that can't get over their anti-Americanism, and can't get over their anti-Zionism I think in the long-run are just going to continue to wither and shrink.
Gordon: Dexter, I want to thank you for this riveting, comprehensive and in many ways emboldening discussion about some topics that need vital airing when it comes to the civil society of religion here in the United States.
Van Zile: Thank you for affording me this opportunity to express my views.
Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of intervews, The West Speaks.
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