Zionism is a “false theology,” says new Presbyterian study guide

31 January 2014

In five months, the Presbyterian Church (USA) will consider divestment from three US companies with Israeli military contracts, at its general assembly in Detroit.

A new study guide published by the church and compiled by its Israel/Palestine Mission Network has turned a critical eye on the Zionist ideology behind the Israeli policies the divestment measure aims to challenge.

Zionism Unsettled, as the pamphlet is titled, offers much value to any Palestine activist who has not considered the ramifications of Zionism as an ideology.

Its 74 pages sketch both Zionism’s historical outlines and its complex relationships with the Christian and Jewish faiths. A companion DVD offers further commentary.

“With Zionism Unsettled, we are hoping to shine a light on the effects of Zionism as a political ideology that is justified by appeal to selective biblical texts,” Walt Davis, co-chairperson of the IPMN’s education committee and Zionism Unsettled project coordinator, told The Electronic Intifada.

“There’s a good deal of examination of various theologies in Zionism Unsettled, but through the lens of how they have been affected by a nationalist ideology,” Davis added.

“The problem now is that the issue is no longer just a secular political ideology; it has become an ideology infused with biblical and theological justifications. Therefore it now needs to be examined through a theological lens too.”

“Cloak of silence”

Davis added that because the US is a highly religious society, “we want to open a dialogue about this symbiotic relationship that has been shrouded in a cloak of silence. This is what the churches have done in the past when oppressive ideologies like Jim Crow segregation in the US and apartheid in South Africa had become theologies of self-identity for their supporters.”

The publication of Zionism Unsettled does not mark a theological breakthrough. The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s liberal Reformed tradition has rarely offered fertile ground for the growth of Christian Zionism as a religious tendency.

As Zionism Unsettled says, “For decades the [Presbyterian Church (USA)] has opposed the evangelical blend of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism because it fuses religion with politics, distorts faith, and imperils peace in the Middle East.”

Rather, it indicates a political shift, a breach of what Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis calls “the interfaith ecumenical deal,” under which a significant number of Christians have supported Israel.

“In its liberal Christian manifestations, Zionism serves as a ‘price-tag’ theology providing Christians with a vehicle of repentance for the guilt accrued during centuries of European Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust,” Naim Ateek, co-founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, writes in Zionism Unsettled.

The study guide also analyzes the disparate threads of Jewish Zionism, first cultural and political, then political and religious, culminating in the fusion of the latter two after Israel’s military occupation of the Gaza StripWest Bank and other territories in 1967 — and the subsequent launch of its settlement project.

It also suggests the United States’ own history of settler colonialism as a crucial reason for its support, both political and religious, of the similar process of Zionism.

Myths of origin

“Israeli and American myths of origin are similar and derived from the same biblical sources,” Zionism Unsettled says, noting that “the history and ideology of settler colonialism have been so central to the political history of the United States that it is not surprising the political and religious leadership in the US has been predisposed to uncritical support for the Zionist movement.”

Much church activism for Palestine, like past divestment efforts within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church, has remained within the parameters of the Oslo accords, focusing on the post-1967 occupation and aiming for a negotiated two-state solution.

Zionism Unsettled breaks this frame by also considering the ethnic cleansing of 1948, the apartheid facing Palestinian citizens of Israel and the one-state reality.

“The so-called peace process has devolved into a cover under which irreversible territorial and demographic facts on the ground are being implemented with impunity by Israel,” Zionism Unsettled begins. “Israel’s expansion into territory classified under international law as occupied has brought about a de facto one-state entity under Israeli jurisdiction.”

Later it reports “a growing consensus — except, notably, in the US and Israel — that the existing de facto one-state situation/solution is irreversible and that the Israeli form of apartheid (segregation and separate development) is becoming increasingly entrenched.”

“Colonizing minds”

But Zionism Unsettled’s focus remains on ideology, not the policies it inspires. Its authors quote the Palestinian writer and academic Nur Masalha: “Zionism was (and remains) not just about the colonization of Palestinian land, but also about colonizing minds — Jewish, Arab, European, American.”

Through their text, they attempt to decolonize one corner of America’s mainstream Protestant mind.

“What has been almost entirely absent from the mainstream conversation about Israel/Palestine is open, frank discussion about the ways in which ideology — that is, political and religious doctrine — has been a driving force of the conflict,” they write.

“Zionism is the problem,” Ateek states in Zionism Unsettled. “For Palestinians and a growing number of internationals around the world it is clear that Zionism is a false theology.”

Both a political ideology and a theology, Zionism has shaped and been shaped by the main religious traditions — Christianity and Judaism — it has engaged.

Zionism Unsettled is not an activist handbook. It is very much a work of theology, albeit political theology. Little of its content is prescriptive, rather than descriptive. Church members and others seeking practical steps to apply its knowledge will need to look elsewhere.

As the study guide was released, a delegation of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship members traveled through present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank on an Interfaith Peace-Builders (IFPB) tour. Over 12 days, its two dozen participants met activists on both sides of the green line (the internationally-recognized armistice line between present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank), posted updates to the delegation’s blog, and tweeted their experiences with the hashtag #PPFinAction.

“Moral obligation”

“The goal was to prepare a cadre of articulate, better informed, creative, passionate spokespersons from within the Presbyterian Church,” Mark C. Johnson, an IFPB board member who co-led the delegation, told The Electronic Intifada.

Delegates who have traveled to Palestine, spoken with residents and seen conditions firsthand can more convincingly say, “I believe the Presbyterian Church is legitimate in its witness when it supports the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] call,’” he remarked.

“Ending one’s complicity in crime is not heroic,” Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) told the group.

“I think the delegation’s visit will help familiarize them, and many other Presbyterians through them, with the brutal reality of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people,” Barghouti later told The Electronic Intifada.

He added that he hopes their experiences “will convince a much wider segment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that divesting their funds from companies that are complicit in Israel’s decades-old occupation and denial of Palestinian rights is indeed a profound moral obligation.”

Barghouti added, “All Palestinians were inspired and moved to tears when a decade ago the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the first mainstream institution in the US to support divestment … For ten years, however, the church’s moves towards divestment have been held hostage to Zionist blackmail, including through so-called ‘interfaith’ groups and the unfounded, chilling and false accusations of anti-Semitism, preventing the Presbyterian Church (USA) from doing the right thing.”

Johnson also hopes the delegation’s participation will affect the divestment debate. “There is a division within the body, but the majority already have given evidence of supporting BDS and positive investment,” he said. “As long as the latter is not used to undermine the legitimacy of the former, this new wave of recruits can make a good deal of difference both prior to the GA [general assembly] and at the GA.”

On 24 January, the delegates issued a unanimous statement supporting a recommendation by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee (MRTI) for divestment.

It quotes Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour, who warned against efforts to substitute investment in Palestinian enterprises for divestment from the occupation. “Investing in our economy is an act of resistance that helps Palestinians not to give up,” he told the group. “But don’t be fooled into thinking that it will help us to end the occupation. BDS is an important tool for that” (“Presbyterian delegation unanimously supports MRTI call to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard,” Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, 24 January 2014).

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 2012 general assembly approved a church-wide boycott of Israeli settlement products by 71 percent. A motion to divest the church’s own holdings in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola, all of which have business connections with the Israeli occupation, was replaced by a margin of two votes out of 666.

With divestment set to return to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s agenda in Detroit this summer, two years of dialogue, e­ducation, and organizing by activists within the church may be nearing fruition.

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange, and is a member of the Palestine Israel Network in the Episcopal Church.