A damaging document

By Oliver Kamm, May 12, 2013

'All men," wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant ethicist, "are naturally inclined to obscure the
morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm."

Niebuhr was a steadfast friend of Israel. His warnings about the temptations of deploying religion in political argument are confirmed by a document arguing a very different position.

As revealed in the JC last week, the Church of Scotland is considering a report from its "church and society council" that challenges the Jewish national claim to the land of Israel. The Church stresses defensively that the paper (tellingly entitled The inheritance of Abraham? A report on the "promised land") has yet to be debated by its general assembly.

The damage has been done, however. This isn't a rogue opinion-piece: it exemplifies an approach that has become common in recent Christian thinking. Eschewing historical scholarship and running to just 10 pages, the report does little more than apply a radical patina to some highly traditional stereotypes. It obsequiously commends an American activist called Mark Braverman for being "adamant that Christians must not sacrifice the universalist, inclusive dimension of Christianity and revert to the particular exclusivism of the Jewish faith because we feel guilty about the Holocaust".

It's as if the 20th century never happened. As late as 1939, Jacques Maritain, the Thomist philosopher, could write a book entitled A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question that perplexedly treated the Jews as a historical aberration. In spite of a historic catastrophe in which the Jews' resilience was not some abstruse theological conundrum but a matter of bare survival amid barbarism, a major Protestant denomination is now reprising the dismal philosophy of counterposing Christian universalism to Jewish particularism.

The Church of Scotland's report is tendentious and inflammatory but it has recognisable ideological roots. While denouncing the biblical literalism that it claims underlies the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, it derives from a reactionary and atavistic theology. According to the paper's authors, Zionism holds that "God promises the land to Abraham and his descendants". That's so crude a depiction of the Jewish national movement that it doesn't even reach the level of caricature. Many early Zionists were reacting against the notion that the Jews were a people engaged in prayer and scriptural study till the Messiah returned. One of the deepest fissures in modern Israeli society is between an ultra-religious minority and a far bigger constituency that supports pluralism.

As a commentator sympathetic to Israel, I pay precisely no attention to sacred texts. I'm swayed instead by Israel's status as a democracy in a region where that form of government is scarce, as a force for scientific inquiry and secularism, and as a polyglot and multi-ethnic society. Under armed siege since its birth, the Jewish state has perpetrated mistakes, injustices and crimes. These tarnish its history but do not invalidate its ethos, whose commitment to pluralism would be exemplified in a pacific two-state solution with a sovereign Palestine.

The Church of Scotland declares portentously that it "is called to speak out against injustice" yet is heedless of the implications. Niebuhr noted "a pitiless perfectionism" within liberal Protestantism that imagines there is a simple method of resolving conflict. In considering the tragic clash of national claims between Israelis and Palestinians, the churches should understand that peace will not be advanced by calumnious sanctimony.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 11:45am, May 12 2013