Taking Israel’s side

Seeking justice for Palestinians is not anti-Israel

Jul 31, 2017 by

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The Mennonite Church USA resolution on Israel-Palestine is not anti-Israel. That is one of the first things advocates of the statement want everyone to know. They call it a third way, a recognition that neither Jews nor Palestinians can thrive under a cloud of injustice.

Approved July 6 at the denomination’s convention in Orlando, Fla., the statement intends to be both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. Some might consider such a stance impossible. But the writers of the resolution, and the 98 percent of delegates who voted for it, refuse to accept that a friend of one must be an enemy of the other.

The resolution protests a specific Israeli policy: the military occupation of Palestinian land. Regarding Israel in general, the document comes from a place of hope in the hearts of its writers that Israel will flourish as a strong, safe, just nation.

Simultaneous critique of Israel and solidarity with the Jewish people arises from several beliefs that Mennonite supporters of the resolution and many other Christians would affirm: We believe that the Jewish people, who suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, need a homeland that affirms their identity and history and protects their security. We admire the Jewish faith and cherish the Hebrew scriptures as our own. We pray to the God of Abraham.

At the same time, we want Palestinians, some of whom trace their Christian lineage to ancient times, to live securely in their ancestral land. Mennonites are pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.

But it has not always been so. Mennonite history is scarred by anti-Semitism. The MC USA resolution plays an important educational role by acknowledging a legacy of prejudice that many know little about.

The statement frames its confessions of sin in both contemporary and historical terms. It says Mennonites have ignored the gravity of ongoing anti-Semitic violence, neglected to build relationships with Jewish communities and adopted negative attitudes toward Jews from the Christian culture that surrounds us.

How much of the sin to be confessed is contemporary, and how much is in the past? Each of us can judge for ourselves, but all should welcome the call to greater sensitivity, wider relationships and better knowledge of neglected history.

Strictly speaking, no one can repent of the sins of others, but the resolution rightly calls for lamenting something most Mennonites probably never have thought to confess: “bearing complicity in the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews . . . and failing to fully examine the historic record of Mennonite complicity in these atrocities.”

In the past couple of years, this failure has begun to be corrected, with conferences in Germany and Paraguay acknowledging collaboration with Nazis, a conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust scheduled for next March at Bethel College, and the June publication of Benjamin W. Goossen’s Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era. The latter sheds new light on complicity with Hitler’s industry of death as Russian Mennonites welcomed the Nazi conquest of Ukraine, received goods taken from murdered Jewish neighbors and even aided Nazi death squads, inspired by visions of a German-ruled Mennonite homeland freed from Communist oppression.

Can we read Scripture in light of the Holocaust? What does it mean to confess that Mennonites bear a portion of guilt for genocide and anti-Semitism? How would it change us if we built relationships with the people of a local synagogue? These are just a few of the questions that make the MC USA resolution’s pro-Jewish emphasis a challenging and prophetic call.

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  • Bruce Leichty

    I was among the two per cent who didn’t vote for the resolution at Orlando, but I also agree that the resolution was intended to be both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. And I count myself as among those who love the people of Israel and the adherents of Judaism. This is not so much a feeling as a calling. The question for Christians, as always, is how ought that love be expressed and take form? It will require much more from us than we make friends with the folks at our local synagogues. It will require the same kind of love, and calls to accountability, that Jesus modeled.

    I caution Mennonites against following the lead of certain mainstream Judaic organizations and leaders who would impose requirements and collective guilt on Christians, and on America, based on the Holocaust, a term with a malleable definition connoting events and strategies and numbers which have assumed the role of unassailable orthodoxy in this country and certain European countries — even to the point in some of the latter nations where historical dissent is punished with imprisonment. A totalitarian Holocaust-centered orthodoxy is antithetical to the spirit of Anabaptism. Concerning the Holocaust, love demands both solidarity with those who suffered and honesty regarding the narrative. To be honest about the narrative requires something more than blind acceptance of the victor’s version of history. And it is false teaching to suggest that Scripture should be read in light of the Holocaust, whether out of some ill-conceived acknowledgement of complicity or otherwise. (This is Bethel College indoctrination at its worst.)

    The history of Mennonite “anti-semitism” so-called is still to be written by truly neutral historians, but it bears repeating here — as I urged in flyers at Orlando — that the constituents of Mennonite Church USA and American Mennonites in general do NOT had a legacy of anti-semitism, in fact quite the opposite, notwithstanding the actions of some European and Russian and Latin American Mennonites of 70 years ago which are now characterized as anti-semitic — chiefly by Americans who lived through none of the events that shaped these individuals. I find it particularly objectionable for Editor Schrag to say that Russian Mennonites welcomed a “Nazi conquest of the Ukraine” and to imply that this was anti-semitic. Someone who has read about the treatment of Mennonites in the gulags of the 1930’s should be slower to make such statements. Certainly, let us engage with and study these acts and events, this “neglected history” as it is referred to, and let us understand this history in all its nuance, but let us as an American communion decline to be painted with the brushes used to tar other brothers deemed less discerning or loving.

    Finally, I would urge Mennonites to think carefully about the extra-biblical theology contained in Editor Schrag’s statement that “we believe the Jewish people need a homeland….” It was that ardent belief by other Christians, nowhere evidenced in the teachings of Jesus, that led to the expulsion of the Palestinian people in 1948, to “the Nakba,” that may have solved some Jewish problems but has created many more. Quite to the contrary, Jesus called the Jews of his day to a kingdom that was not a bordered homeland, and his followers are the ones who stayed true to the essence of Jewish teaching and who echo that call today.

  • Berry Friesen

    Editor Schrag, the comment from Bruce Leichty caused me to re-read your editorial, particularly this sentence: “We believe that the Jewish people, who suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, need a homeland that affirms their identity and history and protects their security.”

    1. The “we” in your sentence claims to speak for “Mennonite supporters of the resolution.” Where in that resolution do you find support for the sentence you wrote? The resolution does not ever use the word “homeland.”

    2. Your sentence appears to endorse Zionism. Is that the editorial position of MWR? Do you mean to say that the resolution passed by MCUSA endorses Zionism?

    • Paul Schrag

      The sentence, and the paragraph that surrounds it, is not based on the words of the resolution. It states my opinion, which, as I wrote, many Mennonites and other Christians share, that it is right for the Jewish people to have a homeland, that Israel has a right to exist. The resolution does not take a position on Israel’s existence, and I did not say that it did.

      • Berry Friesen

        Zionism—the belief that justice requires that the Jewish people have their own “homeland”—has legitimized the terrorism, theft and domination experienced by Palestinian people over the past 70 years. It is why Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and imposition of imprisonment on Gaza have been allowed to continue.

        This nexus between Zionism and rampant injustice is why the MCUSA resolution urges “pastors, teachers, and appropriate church agencies to engage Christian Zionism within our own church and in the broader American Christian community, encouraging Christian Zionists to enter into conversation and relationship with our Palestinian Christian partners and, as followers of Jesus, to pursue a nonviolent, inclusive, and just vision for Jewish and Palestinian coexistence in the Holy Land.”

        From what you’ve written, Paul, this work should be on MWR’s agenda too.

        • Matthew Froese

          Doesn’t the MCUSA resolution specifically use “Christian Zionism” as a theological stance as distinct from the broader use of “Zionism” with respect to political/legal existence of the state of Israel?

          • Berry Friesen

            What makes Christian Zionism “distinct” is that it regards the historical fulfillment of Zionism’s purposes to be a prerequisite for the return to Earth of Messiah Jesus. Thus, both contemporary Zionism and Christian Zionism insist on the same political/legal development: an autonomous state along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean ruled by Jews for the primary benefit of Jews.

          • Matthew Froese

            I suppose I have considered this a bit differently, while I’m not sure if I’m on the same page as anyone else in particular: that the theological “Christian Zionism” is particularly problematic because it tends to drive people to a strictly binary view, that an “end-times justify any means” view makes support and accountability mutually exclusive. I would hold that taking a pragmatic, non-theological view makes it possible to include both support for the political/legal existence of a state and criticism of harmful actions of that state without being hypocritical. I think that would be the default relationship of most Anabaptists to their own nations as well (practical support with moral reservations) but I might be projecting my understanding on to others there.

          • Berry Friesen

            Zionism resists being held accountable to the demands of justice by insisting first and foremost that Israel be ruled by Jews for the benefit of Jews. The recent letter of Israeli historian Shlomo Sand to French President Macron explains: “The Israeli Interior Ministry counts 75% of the country’s citizens as Jewish, 21% as Arab Muslims and Christians and 4% as ‘others’ (sic). Yet according to the spirit of its laws, Israel does not belong to Israelis as a whole, whereas it does belong even to all those Jews worldwide who have no intention of coming to live there.” See https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/08/11/why-i-cannot-be-a-zionist-an-open-letter-to-emmanuel-macron/

          • Matthew Froese

            Thanks for sharing that letter – having read it I think I have a better understanding of what you’re getting at.

          • Bruce Leichty

            Meaning that as long as Editor Schrag isn’t advocating for a Jewish homeland as a matter of religion but instead as a matter of politics, it’s OK?

          • Matthew Froese

            I didn’t say anything about a particular perspective being OK.

  • Rainer Moeller

    “Market dominant minorities” are in history often alternately upper dogs und underdogs. (Take Indians in Africa.) This produces a lot of resentment on both sides – and requires a certain equity of mind on our side. treating everyone according to the principle of “ne quid nimis” (nobody should be burdened too much).

    Equity of mind allows for discernment of political and moral conditions. For example the conditions were completely different in Paraguay and in Ukraine. What exactly are the Paraguyaian Mennonites accused for? Isn’t Goossen’s accusation of Paraguayan Mennonites a hidden attack on U.S. American Mennonites? And doesn’t this kind of antifa logic inevitably end in the conclusion that Mennonites failed the Jews by not supporting WWII? Then we have to make some hard decisions …

  • David Bontrager

    Where does the Mennonite leadership obtain the right of nation building. God alone judges ,creates and destroys nations. Isn’t financial warfare also anti pacifism? Isn’t the calling of the church to spread the gospel to the people and let God provide the results. Are our efforts misdirected? Are we failing?

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