Submitted Under Protest

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a review by Ardie Geldman (November 2016)

 

Submitted Under Protest: Essays Written in Defense of Western Freedom
by Dexter Van Zile

Kazadi Publications, December 2015
230 pages

 

In June 2005 Dexter Van Zile, then a member of the United Church of Christ, was sitting at a desk in an Atlanta hotel room reviewing a resolution, condemning the State of Israel’s security barrier, which had been presented to the church’s General Synod at its biannual meeting. The text called on Israel to dismantle the controversial barrier that it erected in response to the Second Intifada and to provide monetary compensation to some untold number of Palestinians for the damage it had caused to their property. The resolution, writes Van Zile, “had been prepared with little regard for the Israelis who had been murdered by the Palestinian suicide bombers….” The draft “described in great detail the suffering endured by the Palestinians as a result of the barrier, but made no mention of Israeli victims of terror attacks. It portrayed the hardships suffered by the Palestinians as a result of the barriers as a bigger problem than the loss of Israeli lives.” Van Zile assumed that the resolution somewhere included at least a pro-forma censure of this terrorism. He describes in detail how he searched and searched for some expression of condemnation. He rubbed his eyes; he reviewed the resolution word by word, even using a pen cap as a guide. “And when I was through, I had to admit the truth about the pro-forma condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. It wasn’t there.” 

Dexter Van Zile is a modern-day Christian crusader seeking to redeem, ironically, Christian churches. He battles mostly from an office in Boston where he serves as the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) since 2006.

Submitted Under Protest: Essays Written in Defense of Western Freedom (2000 – 2015) is a collection of 28 previously published short essays, 230 pages in paperback, including a commendable Foreword by historian Richard Landes. The author brings to light a matter of no little consequence for all fair-minded people. It is not surprising that within a compilation of related essays written over a 16-year period the reader will discover that some statements and ideas appear more than once. However, each essay is sufficiently independent to merit its presence. The book’s somewhat curious designation is obfuscating. The sum of the book, however, correctly reflects its title, albeit in an unexpected way.

“Western Freedom” does not, as readers might infer, specifically refer to the United States, North America, or the other familiar Western-style democracies. Rather, Van Zile defends a fundamental value that is shared by all these countries including the State of Israel. That value is human freedom. Van Zile openly acknowledges his admiration for the Jewish state. Though he concedes that neither the United States nor Israel is the perfect society, both are what he calls “self-correcting” democracies. He recognizes both as champions of freedom in a world filled with countries in which freedom is either limited or non-existent.

That the United States and Israel (1) both uphold this value whose origins the founders’ of each ascribe to the Hebrew Bible, (2) are both comprised mainly of immigrant populations, many who sought refuge, (3) are both world leaders in science, medicine and cutting-edge technology, and (4) in more recent decades have developed key inter-dependent security relations, affords the author the opportunity to discuss these two countries’ shared affinities from any of these directions.

What he has chosen to do, however, is unusual, as unusual as his status as the foremost and most prolific, full-time professional non-Jewish[1] Israel advocate working within the American Jewish community. It is in this capacity that he dedicates this volume to naming and shaming churches and parachurch organizations in the United States and Europe that engage in anti-Zionist, and in some cases anti-Semitic, programs and activities, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Some church groups mentioned attempt to add credibility to their protestations by collaborating with such putative “Jewish” organizations as Jewish Voice for Peace or Jews for Justice in Palestine. The resulting slander of and efforts to delegitimize Israel, Van Zile is convinced, is no less an attack on the values of American society. In this respect, Van Zile evokes American Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis who said: “It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century….Zionism is the Pilgrim inspiration and impulse all over again….To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”

Van Zile directs his withering criticism primarily at mainline and progressive, or liberal, Protestant churches. Among these are the (1) Episcopal Church, (2) Congregationalists, (3) United Church of Christ, (4) Lutherans, (5) Northern Baptists, (6) Methodists, (7) Mennonites and (8) Quakers. He also takes aim at the World Council of Churches, an international ecumenical organization whose hostility towards Israel is a matter of record. These congregations, says the author, were historically “the backbone of American civil society (that) had been on the winning side of the great debates that dominated US history. They helped write the US Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, started the Abolitionist movement, fought for civil rights in the 1960s and demonstrated against the US involvement in Viet Nam.”  He chides their current leaders and activists for surrendering to dhimmitude, a subservient attitude vis-à-vis Islam. What these churches once stood for when compared to what they have become he finds painful.

It is not just that these churches continuously assail the Jewish state and its perceived treatment of Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. They also virtually ignore the horrific terrorist acts committed by Palestinians against Israelis and by Islamist terrorist groups, such as ISIS, against Christians throughout the Middle-East. “The implicit message offered by mainline peace and justice activists (of these churches) is that Israel – which has been subject to attack by its neighbors virtually every year of its existence – is not entitled to the sympathy or support from right-minded people in the United States and that maybe the world would be better off if the Jewish nation were banished from the community of nations and ultimately dismantled.” The mainline peacemaking narrative, Van Zile informs us, portrays Jewish sovereignty – not the violence and rhetoric used to undermine it – as the ultimate source of suffering in the Holy Land.

Van Zile’s forthright expose opens a world onto readers, and particularly to Jewish readers, who have little if any insight into some of the theological divisions and polemics that separate different Christian churches. Many Jewish readers will be shocked to discover how openly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic many are. 

It is no longer uncommon for church activists to conflate their ostensibly political criticism of the country Israel with something far more sinister. Recognizing this, Van Zile accuses mainline churches as having become “a storehouse of anti-Jewish invective.”

“This storehouse contains one-sided demands and criticism targeted at the Jewish state. It includes depictions of Jewish settlers as ‘killer vines’ and references to Israel as a colonialist outpost of European Jews (minus any acknowledgment that Jews from the Arab countries in the Middle East comprise approximately one-half of Israel’s population). This storehouse of invective includes implicit and explicit depictions of Jews as Nazis as having perpetrated a genocide, or intent on perpetrating a genocide against the Palestinians despite the reality that the Palestinian Arab population has quadrupled in the past sixty years. It includes false portrayals of Israel as an apartheid state and assertions that Jewish sovereignty – and not efforts to end it – is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

At the same time that church leaders and activists find reason to demonize Israel, they turn a relatively blind eye to the myriad, ongoing purposeful acts of terrorism committed by Palestinians. Van Zile, says Landes, expresses “shock at the dishonesty and malevolence of those who shaped the churches’ statements, at their inexplicable failure to condemn Palestinian terrorism even as they screamed at Israel for constructing a wall to stop attacks on their civilians.” A common response of these Christians is that they “understand” Palestinian terrorism, a loaded expression stopping just short of justification. 

Van Zile is certain that the dual posture of mainline churches, expressing unwarranted and exaggerated condemnation of Israel on the one hand, while belittling, ignoring and even denying Palestinian terrorism on the other, is not the outcome of any studied political, strategic or economic analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor is it he presumes, “the produce of study, prayer and discernment.” These churches’ disdain for Israel, he is convinced, transcends any of the policies of its government or the actions of its army vis-à-vis Palestinian Arabs.  Rather, he feels, it reflects a contempt that is much older and deeper. “For too many Protestant theologians,” he argues, “issuing one-sided condemnations of Israel is their way of demonstrating they have exorcised Christianity of the anti-Judaism that has plagued the faith since its birth.” But he sees this strategy as a form of subterfuge. “Condemning  Israel as a human rights abuser, while remaining virtually silent about oppressive human rights violations of nations that have sought its destruction for decades, does not demonstrate Christianity’s transcendence of its anti-Judaism, but rather its re-emergence in mainline Protestantism.”

Van Zile expresses his feelings about the active persistence of Christian anti-Semitism in a number of these essays. Here, for example, in “No Permanent Lessons” (2008) the reader hears Van Zile’s cynicism when he writes: “During World War II, respectable Christians throughout Europe marched two-thirds of Europe’s Jews and millions of other victims to their deaths. Baptized Christians forced Jews to dig their own graves and then shot them standing alongside the pits they dug….Eastern Europe overflowed with ash and bone put there by baptized Christians who had been exposed to Jew hatred by the very same churches that called them to Christ.”

While Christian anti-Semitism underwent a period of relative remission in the decades following the Holocaust, the emergence of Israel in 1948 as a sovereign state and all this implies regarding its use of Jewish power has resulted in the revival of powerful ancient hatreds.  Van Zile brings a plethora of examples of familiar, church-driven anti-Semitism now making the rounds among contemporary Christian critics of Israel. A particularly poignant case is the Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, “who began to invoke the antisemitic trope of Jews as Christ-killers during the Second Intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombers were murdering citizens of Israel,” and as Van Zile points out, whose narrative against Israel has served as the basis for so many Protestant resolutions against Israel in recent years. “Ateek,” reports Van Zile “has invoked the notion of the wandering, defenseless Jew as a good thing by writing that Jewish statehood contradicts the Jewish call to suffer. This type of language has been regarded as taboo by responsible Christians since the Holocaust, and its reemergence in Ateek’s writing (and speeches) is as ominous (to Jews) as a noose hanging from a tree (in the Old South is to African-Americans).”

In the end, what qualifies this polemic as nonsectarian is Van Zile’s conviction that these churches’ efforts to disenfranchise Israel in every possible way is no less than an aggression against human freedom. Human freedom is, he stresses, a basic American value, one he holds quite dear, as did his father, to whom he dedicates this book, his grandfather, an outspoken anti-Communist, and his uncle, “an artillery man in the fourth marine division,” who was killed on Iwo Jima by a Japanese mortar round. Thus, Van Zile is no less a defender of America than he is of Israel. “The American people have traditionally opposed tyrants because we believe that other nations are entitled to walk the road of history as free peoples….When leaders make mistakes, their people pay for them, one way or another. Americans know this.  Israelis know this…By becoming responsible for their own safety, Israeli Jews became just like any other sovereign people on the face of the planet. They made mistakes, caused other people to suffer, and got blood on their hands. This is the regrettable and inevitable consequence of sovereignty.” When, we readers may ask, will these churches finally divest themselves of their anti-Judaism and relate to Israel fairly, accepting that it is a country, like all countries, with both faults and merits?

 


[1] Van Zile was born and raised as a Protestant who converted to Roman Catholicism in 2008 after a falling out with the United Church of Christ in 2007 over its anti-Zionism.

 

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Ardie Geldman is a writer and public speaker who lives in Efrat, Israel. His articles on Jewish life and Israel and book reviews have appeared in the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Journal of Jewish Communal Studies, the Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.  He is currently working on “Counter Tourism,” a program to respond to pro-Palestinian protest tourism. His website is www.iTalkIsrael.com.  

 

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