An Exodus of Members Doesn’t Stop the UCC from Attacking Israel
Dexter Van Zile | June 25, 2015
During the last four days of June, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ will meet in Cleveland, Ohio to decide if their denomination will enlist in the economic and propaganda war against Israel. The question will be presented to the delegates at the general synod in resolutions that call on the church to boycott Israeli products produced in the West Bank and that sell stock in companies that do business with Israel. Another item on the agenda declares Israel to be an “apartheid” state. These resolutions – rooted in a world view in which Westerners are always guilty and Arabs and Muslims can do no wrong – were put on the agenda by a small, relentless cadre of anti-Israel activists in the UCC who are more intent on singling out Israel for condemnation than they are in addressing real human rights problems in the Middle East and serving the actual needs of the UCC.
The denomination is clearly in trouble. Numerically speaking, its membership is free-falling. The decline is documented in a statistical profile published by the denomination in 2014 and a set of FAQs released earlier this year. In 1954, the two denominations that had merged in 1957 to create the UCC boasted 8,326 churches and 2,084,849 members. At the end of 2014, the denomination had shrunk to 5,062 churches and 943,521 members. That’s a 55 percent decrease in membership.
In 2006 and 2007, the UCC lost an average of 2.9 churches per week. Between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2013 – when the denomination lost only 1.2 churches per week – 392 churches had left the denomination. “From 2000 to 2010 alone, the UCC encountered a net loss of 696 congregations and 318,897 members,” reads the statistical profile.
Despite these numbers, the profile begins by describing the UCC as “a dynamic, evolving movement of people and institutions.” “Dynamic and evolving” is a funny way of describing a church that just sold its headquarters for badly needed cash and whose pastors currently perform five funerals for every three baptisms. Simply put, the UCC, whose roots go back to the Mayflower, is clearly having a tough time bringing the Gospel to the American people. It is estranged from the people to whom it is called to serve.
It is also estranged from Christians who are suffering at the hands of Muslim extremists in the Middle East and North Africa. The denomination’s general synod has said very little about acts of anti-Christian violence perpetrated by jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011. It did however, pass a resolution condemning Islamophobia in 2011. The resolution denounced “actions against Islam or Muslims based on ignorance or fear.”
That is an odd text to read in light of the beheadings, massacres and kidnappings that have been taking place in the Middle East and North Africa during the past few years. In an astounding inversion of cause and effect, the text tells us that “attacks on Christians and churches in Muslim-majority countries” are the consequence of “ill treatment of Muslims in the United States.”
The UCC’s resolution on Islamophobia implicitly and yet inadvertently underscores a sad reality about Christians and other religious minorities living in Muslim-majority countries: They are hostages subject to mistreatment whenever a Westerner opens his mouth and says something that jihadists do not like.
In an apparent effort to deflect accusations that the UCC is fixated on Israel and indifferent to jihadist violence, the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC recently approved an emergency resolution condemning religious violence with a particular mention of violence against Christians in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Resolutions usually have to be submitted 120 days before the yearly meeting, “unless the subject matter is such that it could not have been anticipated at that time.”
It is hard to understand why the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC waived the 120-day rule for this particular resolution. It is not as if religious violence against Christians was unheard of in mid-February. People have known about anti-Christian violence for years; even the resolution against Islamophobia by the UCC’s General Synod in 2011 mentioned it. The denomination’s silence about anti-Christian violence and obsession with Israel makes it the perfect candidate to join the BDS anti-Israel movement that has been singling out the Jewish State for condemnation for more than a decade, while remaining silent about the human rights catastrophe taking place in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
The BDS campaign’s obsession with Israel and the silence about human rights abuses in Muslim countries is no accident, but a central feature of the movement, which started to get real traction in the West at the United Nations’ anti-racism conference in Durban South Africa in 2001. At this conference, so-called human rights activists demonized Israel while ignoring the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Muslim-majority countries. “Discrimination against ethnic groups within the Arab and historical Muslim world wasn’t even on the agenda,” reported Walid Phares, author of “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.”
It is tough to say whether the general synod will approve the resolutions targeting Israel with divestment and boycotts and declaring Israel an apartheid state. Such resolutions require a two-third’s majority and a few local churches have come out against the proposal. One prominent and avowedly liberal UCC leader, the Rev. Chuck Currie from Oregon, has come out against BDS in a piece published in the Huffington Post.
Moreover, the people who control the denomination’s investments and pension funds are likely to oppose the passage of the resolution because it interferes with their ability to manage the assets they are charged with protecting.
But the annual meetings of a number of conferences have endorsed BDS and the denomination’s leadership in Cleveland has tipped its hand in favor of Israel-targeted divestment. A recent article published by the denomination’s news service about the resolution is a shameless press release for the BDS movement.
Another sign that UCC’s leaders in Cleveland want the resolution to pass is the invitation they extended to the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran from Bethlehem, to speak at the general synod. Raheb has promoted the fraudulent claim that European Jews have no genetic connection to the land of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages,” he has said. A few decades ago, talk like this would have been spurned in UCC circles. Not today.
Much of the agitation in favor of divestment at the denomination’s upcoming synod will likely come from American Jews associated with a group called Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP played a significant role in the passage of a divestment overture at the 2014 meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly, and the organization is reportedly sending staffers to the upcoming UCC synod. This group has no influence on public opinion in Israel or on the Jewish community of the United States, but plays an outsized role in American mainline Protestant discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict because it tells non-Jewish anti-Zionists what they want to hear: that Israel can unilaterally bring an end to its conflict with the Palestinians, but will not because of some flaw in its national character.
With its activism, JVP opens the gate for some pretty ugly rhetoric. In Boston last summer, JVP publicized rallies during which Israelis were described as “vampires,” Israel was accused of murdering children, and protesters were seen carried signs equating the Star of David with the Nazi swastika.
In 2012, JVP co-sponsored a Skype presentation by Khader Adhnan, a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who has called on Palestinians to become suicide bombers. JVP’s willingness to promote haters like this renders the group anathema to the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. And in 2014, activists from the organization posed as volunteers at a Jewish Federation food pantry in Philadelphia and then engaged in anti-Israel protests associated with the fighting in Gaza. Actions like this reveal just how desperate and marginal the organization is within the American Jewish community. It has very little support.
Nevertheless, mainline peace activists hide behind JVP when they are challenged about their fixation on the Jewish State and their silence about the mistreatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. For this reason, JVP activists were accorded access to delegates at the PCUSA’s 2014 General Assembly that pro-Israel Jews were denied. JVP is one Jewish lobby that mainline church officials and peace activists will embrace. For all their talk about respecting and caring about Jews, mainline leaders (particularly those within the UCC) have, with the help of groups like JVP, cooperated with a long, drawn-out campaign to portray Israel as a monstrous, genocidal nation and American Jews who support Israel and claim it as their homeland as moral and ethical reprobates.
In sum, pro-Israel Jews in the U.S. have been othered. They have been placed beyond the pale of polite society and legitimate discourse in the United States.
As a result of this Judeophobic othering, mainstream Jewish groups are in a bind. If they show up in Cleveland to oppose the BDS resolution, their presence will be invoked as evidence of malign Jewish meddling in the affairs of the denomination. If they do not show up, they will leave the field to proponents of BDS.
Considering the implicit support the UCC leadership has given to the anti-Israel resolutions, unless there is some sort of miracle and a significant number of delegates come to their senses, its entirely possible that the apartheid and BDS resolutions will pass at the UCC’s upcoming synod, even if they do require a two-third’s vote.
“Yes” votes on these resolutions will do nothing to bring peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians. It will however, harm the church. Take a look at what has happened to the Presbyterian Church (USA), another shrinking denomination whose general assembly passed a divestment resolution in 2014. In the aftermath of the vote, Heath Rada, the denomination’s newly elected stated clerk, was roasted over the coals – on CNN no less – regarding the propaganda broadcast by anti-Israel activists in the PCUSA.
By all accounts, Rada is a good man and a solid Presbyterian who loves his church, but he was still unable to defend the indefensible on CNN. As a result of the hammering he endured on CNN, Rada himself has reportedly become suspicious of the so-called peace activists within his denomination. But the damage has been done. Mainstream Jewish groups expressed anger at the denomination’s leaders in Louisville for failing to constrain its anti-Israel community in their church. And the fighting will continue, as there will likely be another debate about divestment at the PCUSA’s next general assembly.
Will the UCC learn from the PCUSA’s mistake? Maybe a miracle will take place in Cleveland during the last four days of June. Maybe delegates to the UCC’s General Synod will get an accurate and true bearing of where their church is located and where it is headed. Maybe they will steer their beloved church away from the treacherous shoals of anti-Zionism that has made a shipwreck of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And maybe they will set a new heading that will lead the UCC to a place of true dynamism and vibrancy.