Beware hate and the hypocrite, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
For some two millennia, a strain of anti-Jewish animus within Christendom — most certainly not representative of all Christians, but toxic and persistent nonetheless — has resulted in the unspeakable dehumanization and persecution of Jews.
In our era, following the cataclysm of the Holocaust — the most systematic and documented genocide in history — many churches have engaged in noble, painful reflection and repudiated this evil that became known as anti-Semitism.
Even over long periods of intolerance, incitement and barbarism, there always existed brave, compassionate figures who, sometimes at risk to their own wellbeing, stood in defense of the shared humanity and equality of Jews.
Heartrendingly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II — current Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — is not one of those heroes.
Rather, he carries forth a tradition of leaders fueling anti-Semitism, wittingly or not, in the guise of sublime ideals. No self-respecting anti-Semite ever did otherwise — and, like other bigots, very few actually acknowledge their bigotry.
Although I am a member of a community whose suffering is exceedingly well-known, I am among those who — in part mindful of haters’ straw-man claim that Jews tarnish all “criticism” as anti-Semitism — exercise real caution in applying that charge.
However, as someone affected by Reverend Nelson’s weaponizing of his platform as a faith leader, I do not hesitate to call out this abuse for the dereliction of duty that it is. I can only pray the Stated Clerk won’t dismiss my highlighting of his actions in a way he never would a member of another long-denigrated religious or ethnic minority.
We stand at a moment when even storied figures have been held to account for their misdeeds, when the privileged are forced to grapple with misuse of their privilege, and when hard truths are spoken to those in power. In this case, power is wielded by the leader of a denomination that, its own recently decreased numbers aside, remains a pillar of the world’s dominant religious group and is the one to have claimed more presidents of the United States than any other except Episcopalianism. And that leader has conveniently taken aim at a familiar target: the Jews, and the small Jewish state, Israel.
In a statement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — that day dedicated to combating prejudice, honoring that Rev. Dr. King who epitomized a heroic tradition of speaking out also against peers demonizing and delegitimizing Jews and the Jewish state — Reverend Nelson issued what could have been a message stirring us to better empathize with all people created in the Divine image.
Instead, this leader of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not only extended his denomination’s pattern of blatantly singling out for dismay only “the occupation in Palestine/Israel” — a one-of-a-kind formulation casting aspersions on the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence — but outrageously branded that condition as “21st century slavery.”
To be clear: no actual situations of modern slavery or other, equally monstrous atrocities are mentioned by Reverend Nelson. Neither are the existential threats, perennial discrimination and horrific violence to which Israelis of all backgrounds have been endlessly subjected, with tragic consequences for the dignity and welfare of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
No, in the moral imagination of Reverend Nelson, there isn’t room for nuance, complexity and shared solidarity, praise or reproach. There is no Iranian theocracy, no Palestinian extremism or chauvinism, no Assad regime, no Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah. Just the presence of the Jew, standing in the way of peace.
No other human’s presence, in their people’s ancestral birthplace, would ever be deemed by Reverend Nelson as illegal or immoral.
But in his statement on “unity of spirit,” the world’s only Jewish state — the Middle East’s only pluralistic democracy — is the sole foreign country deserving of incendiary opprobrium and of mention altogether.
In a statement invoking the Golden Rule — not just promulgated in Luke, as he cites, but in the earlier, Hebrew Leviticus, surely formative to Jesus as a Jew in the Jewish homeland that the Stated Clerk simplistically terms occupied — Reverend Nelson finds nothing positive to say about the growing number of Arabs and Israelis actually taking steps toward coexistence, cooperation, mutual respect and even friendship.
And obscenely, the week before International Holocaust Remembrance Day — right after another traumatic attack on a synagogue, in Texas, as Jews even in America remain by far the leading target of faith-based hate crimes — Reverend Nelson had the cruel temerity to insist that American Jews do more against the Israeli policies he opposes.
Needless to say, the Stated Clerk would never apportion responsibility to the American Muslim community for the practices of Muslim states. He wouldn’t saddle African-Americans with responsibility for the practices of African states. Perhaps more to the point, he seems to see in them no practices that fall short of his high standards.
Yet Reverend Nelson’s appeal — cynically and cryptically mentioning “the history of Jewish humble beginnings and persecution,” as if no ongoing persecution continues today — precisely foments the type of more general anti-Jewish hostility that wild anti-Israeli hostility repeatedly yields.
But if only the problem were just Reverend Nelson, as dispiriting as that would be. Rather, the Stated Clerk’s betrayal of justice — by directing nothing but indifference and self-righteous double standards at Israel’s Jews — is all too common. In his circles, it has become acceptable to single out Israelis for economic warfare — but not the world’s worst human rights abusers — while tokenizing fringe Jewish voices to provide cover for this selective aggression.
Because it’s all too easy to construct a villain among the comparably “humble,” the politically outnumbered and those actually encumbered by democratic norms.
Because it’s easier to deplore others’ anti-Semitism — in past “history” — than to see it in the present, especially in the mirror.
And because the roots of the world’s oldest hatreds continue to run devastatingly deep.