This church report on Israel sets the clock back 70 years

By Patrick Morrow, May 12, 2013
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'A slap in the face to the Jewish community" is how Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, responded to the report, The inheritance of Abraham? A report on the "promised land". This document comes from the Church of Scotland's church and society council, and is to be debated by the general assembly next week. As a Christian (an Anglican priest), I can sympathise. There are several contenders for its most contentious phrase. But the sharpest must be the rhetorical question: "Would the Jewish people today have a fairer claim to the land if they dealt justly with the Palestinians?"

So, has Jewish-Christian dialogue reached the end of the line, following the recent unhappiness with the Methodist Church and the Church of England? Or is there still a case for the differing parties to meet, talk, listen, and arrive at - not necessarily agreement (for why should we agree?) - but a better quality of disagreement? I have to believe the latter.

What of the substance of the report? The church and society council is clearly committed to work for justice. Its other reports are on human rights, and poverty. But when it comes to Israel, its attention slips from the modern realities.

Here are words absent from the report: Herzl, secular, Knesset, Fatah, Hamas.These absences are telling: the paper does not seriously engage with contemporary Judaism, religious or secular, or contemporary Israeli politics. Islam and Islamophobia are both mentioned only once. So it is not that the contemporary Palestinian reality is more truthfully encountered. A radical political-theological critique of Israel would have been one thing, if still controversial. But the paper barely addresses the politics. So what is really going on?

Is Jewish-Christian dialogue at an end?

The bulk of the report discusses how the Hebrew Bible and New Testament treat "the land". God's promise of the land to Abraham's descendants is held to be "literal" and "unconditional". Devastatingly wrongly, based on little more than one quote from David Ben-Gurion, the report determines: "This is the position of Zionism".

The second biblical idea is a land held in trust: God offers the land on condition that the inhabitants act justly, as the prophets insist. It is in this context that the question of the "fairness" of the Jewish claim today is raised. But even this conditional offer is held to be problematic. Drawing on the US Jewish critic of Zionism, Mark Braverman, the report finds the root problem to be Jewish notions of "separateness, vulnerability and specialness". Bluntly, the argument is not only that Zionism is bad, but so is the conviction that "the Jewish people are serving God's special purpose". It is shocking to read such a cavalier undermining of mainstream Judaism. Yet if the idea of a special vocation from God is unacceptable, orthodox Christianity is itself stymied.

The third idea is of a land with a universal mission. Evidence for this is supposedly found in the book of Jonah, which brings the message of God's universal care, from "a time when Jewish people were turning inwards". But is it really Jesus who putatively sets things right, offering "a radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism"?

So the report's basis is a good number of the tropes of Christian supersessionism. According to this Christian triumphalism, the Hebrew Bible can be portrayed as bad (promoting Zionism), or as useful preparation (the warnings of the prophets); either way, it is exclusivist and it takes the great universaliser - Jesus - to heal. In this frame, it is unsurprising that the newer "problem" of the "ethno-national" state of Israel can apparently be solved only by the universalism of Christianity. Bluntly, it is as if there had been no Jewish-Christian dialogue since the Second World War.

But there has. Other Christians' claims are not negated by this rather breathless document. The Vatican has said of the Jewish attachment to the land: "Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment ,which finds its roots in biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship." We can honour a profound theology of the land, even though it is not ours.

The most generous reading of the report is that it is struggling to say something like this: as Christians we are not compelled to have a Christian theology of the land. The real protagonist in sight is the archetypal "Christian Zionist". In any event, my prayer is that the general assembly will have the courage to listen. The dialogue needs their more-considered input.

Patrick Morrow is programme manager for the Council of Christians and Jews

Last updated: 11:45am, May 12 2013