The Religious Left in America and internationally is viscerally opposed to Israel, whom it exclusively faults for nearly all Middle East turmoil. But liberal churchmen in the West used to support Israel, welcoming its creation as a providential reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The infamously controversial Episcopal clergyman James Pike, as dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York hailed Israel in 1958 as an “oasis of freedom and democracy” in the Middle East. Then about to become the Episcopal Bishop of California, Pike was a flamboyant icon of left-wing Protestantism. At a farewell luncheon for him in New York, the American Christian Palestine Committee presented him with an Israeli Bible and saluted him for his “leadership both in the creative understanding of Israel and the gallant furtherance of a Middle East at peace.”
Pike responded that Israel’s 10th anniversary was of “significance to Christians not only because of Christian communities in Israel, but because the heritage of Judaism – which is our heritage, too – is made more vivid by the restoration of Jewish life and culture in the place of its original development.” Ironically, Pike would later die of exposure while wondering lost in an Israeli desert in 1969.
The American Christian Palestine Committee that commended Pike was founded in 1946 to foster support for Zionism and Israel, especially among liberal-leaning Mainline Protestant clergy. Its executive secretary, Karl Baehr, returned from Israel in 1949 and told The New York Times that the “vast majority of the citizens of Israel want peace” and the “recent war with the several Arab states is considered a shameful and needless waste of life and property.” But “most Israelis, Baehr noted,” also perceive that “Arab nations, and their behind-the scenes supporters, do not want peace,” fueling an Israeli expectation of a “renewed attempt to crush their infant democracy.”
Baehr, a Mennonite, recalled Arab Ramallah Radio’s broadcast of “threatening and hostile statements, including a screed from the Arab military governor of the Old City of Jerusalem, declaring, ‘The time for revenge will come.’” Another similar broadcast threat was: “There will be no freedom from fear in Israel. Forty-five million Arabs will see to that.” Other Arab broadcasts explained that the temporary peace would only facilitate Arab planning for renewed hostilities. Noting that the new Israeli government was offering concessions, Baehr observed that the Arab states offered none in return.
Quoting a Methodist missions official, Baehr wrote: “Arab liberals and intelligentsia are organizing to take over the leadership which has often been left to incapable and venal rulers. The end in view is to strengthen the Arab nations to the place that they will be able to expel the Jews from Palestine.” In light of “inflammable circumstances,” Baehr wondered whether Israel could ever realistically be expected to take back “masses of Arab refugees” before a “firm and final peace.” Baehr also wondered, if war was renewed, if Israel would “again be blamed for the refugees inevitably created, and for the destroyed villages which usually accompany fighting.”
Baehr concluded his letter to The New York Times: “In view of this obvious hostile attitude on the part of the Arab states, why has our State Department brought no pressure to bear upon them to change their position and negotiate a peace?” This question largely went unanswered, of course.
Several years later, in 1954, several prominent Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian leaders endorsed an appeal to President Eisenhower for a special $500 million fund for development in the Middle East, contingent on the Arab nations recognizing Israel and absorbing the displaced Arab refugees. These refugees had been “led into flight from their homes by Arab leaders, [and] they are prevented from seeking permanent rehabilitation by these same leaders, who use the existence of the problem as a weapon against the West and against Israel.” The proposal from the church officials to gain acceptance for Israel and a permanent home for displaced Palestinians never gained traction.
In 1948, shortly after Israel’s founding, New York Methodists deplored the “vacillating policy taken in relation to partition of Palestine” but “commend[ed] the action of our president in officially recognizing de facto the provisional Government of Israel. We urge the United Nations to act quickly to effect a just settlement of the conflict, both for the sake of the new nation of Israel and also for the sake of the prestige of the United Nations in the eyes of the minority groups of the world.” If the Arab states did not halt their attacks against Israel, the New York Methodists urged that the UN Security Council “treat it as a threat to peace” and that member nations withdraw their diplomats from Arab countries and impose economic sanctions against them.
Also in 1948, Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam led the Churchman magazine for liberal Mainline Protestants in honoring Israel for giving refuge to persecuted Jews from Europe and for “its stand on the dignity of man and equality of opportunity,” as The New York Times described it. A representative of the Zionist Organization of America received the award on behalf of Israel, saying: “The understanding and forthright support which The Churchman has consistently given to the program of the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine have been a source of encouragement.”
Twelve years later, Bishop Oxnam joined the National Committee for Israel Bond’s “Man of the Century” dinner in Chicago of 1960, which honored former President Truman for his “world wide leadership on behalf of humanitarian causes and in recognition of his friendship to the state of Israel and the Jewish people,” as a Chicago newspaper reported. But during the 1960’s, the liberal Mainline Protestant churches would be radicalized and became hostile to Israel, portraying it as a Western colonial power that oppressed its Third World victims. In the wake of the 1967 war, precipitated by Arab plans to attack Israel, the National Council of Churches blandly condemned generic “aggression” and warned against being “too exclusively ‘pro-Arab’ or ‘pro-Israel.’” It also warned that it could not “condone by silence territorial expansion by armed force,” implicitly criticizing Israel rather than the Arab states.
During the 1970’s, the influence of Liberation Theology only pushed the Religious Left even further into anti-Israel hostility and partiality to Palestinian “liberation” movements. Over the last 35 years, the Religious Left, further infuriated by Israel’s close relations with the U.S., the other favorite bête noir, has only accelerated its animosity towards Israel. But there was a time, 40 and 50 years ago, when liberal churchmen in America were more equitable when they looked at the Middle East.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.