Israel Report

June 2002         

Taking Sides In Mideast Conflict

By By Ron Csillag - May 25, 2002

Mainline churches may criticize Israel, but many evangelicals offer full support.

There's an old saying that Jews who think they have no enemies are fools. But Jews who think they have no friends are also fools.

It's just that sometimes, the friends tend to be drowned out by the critics. But not always. Even as mainline Christian churches pin the blame on the Middle East conflict squarely on Israel, potentially setting back years of domestic interfaith work with the Jewish community, others – for the most part evangelicals spurred by biblical conviction – are lining up to support the Jewish state.

“As Christians, we recognize that God came to Israel first and that we are grafted onto that covenant,” says Ian Gillingham, a member of the Salvation Army who walked in last weekend's March For Israel, along with an estimated 25,000 Jews, some of whom made a point of thanking Gillingham for his support.

He carried a sign that read, “Arise O Israel. Be a light to us Gentiles as well. We need you.” Gillingham effortlessly quoted Genesis, where God tells Abraham that those who bless the patriarch's progeny will be blessed, but that those who curse them will be cursed.

“The Jewish people gave us the Scriptures,” he says “and we don't want to take that for granted.”

Christian Zionists were evident throughout the rally. On hand were Canadian members of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Another banner cited God's promise to the Jewish nation, in the Book of Isaiah, that it would be “a light of the Gentiles.”

Christians for Israel, a Cambridge, Ontario based group, was there too, “to declare God's redemptive purposes and urge support for Israel through prayer and action,” said the group's Canadian executive director, Dean Bye.

The organization has released a “declaration of solidarity with the Jewish people,” committing followers to “living a more disciplined Christian lifestyle that includes prayer and action for God's chosen people. We will endeavour to be faithful to proclaim God's promises to the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and Jerusalem.”

To many Jewish observers, these outpourings of warm support for Israel stand in chilling contrast to recent statement by two of Canada's largest churches. Last month, the leaders of both the Anglican and United churches, in no uncertain terms, blamed Israel and its occupation of Palestinian lands for the current turmoil in the region. The root of the violence and instability is Israel's “illegal occupation of Palestinian territories,” said United Church moderator Marion Pardy, adding that Israel “will ultimately have to withdraw from Palestinian territories” if peace is truly desired.

Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, sounded similar sentiments, saying the current violence has deep roots, but that Israel's occupation “is at its heart… When Israel withdraws from its illegal occupation of Palestine, when Palestinians are free to return in peace to their homeland, when civilians are no longer the targets of terror, either for suicide bombers or government tanks, then healing will begin.”

A week later, Terence Finlay, Anglican archbishop of Toronto, issued a much more conciliatory statement, saying Christians are called “not to turn and abandon those trapped in this, but rather to draw near and join in prayer with those who hold the beliefs of Abraham, Mohammad and Jesus Christ.”

Nevertheless, the Canadian-Jewish Congress called Peers' pastoral letter the last straw, and announced that it was pulling out of the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation, which has brought together leaders from both camps about three times a year for 30 years. The congress slammed the statements as clearly anti-Israel, and wondered why the churches have been silent in the wake of suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. (After the May 7 bombing of a pool hall in Rishon Letzion that killed 15 Israelis, the United Church issued a statement expressing its “profound sorrow,” but repeated its conviction that Israel's occupation was to blame for the conflict.)

In the meantime, the congress will remain, for now, in Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto, which focuses on more local concerns.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, by contrast, issued an innocuous statement on the Middle East, saying it views the conflict “with sadness and concern,” without mentioning Israel or Palestinians at all.

While the United Church has made a heartfelt effort to reach out to Jews (its 1998 document Bearing Faithful Witness, a far-reaching attempt to get members to re-examine their relations with Jews, will likely be adopted as official church policy next year), the Jewish community has had uneasy relations with the Anglican Church.

Things took a downward turn a year ago, when the Anglican Journal reported on a five-day visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Canadian church leaders, and repeated Palestinian comparisons of the situation “to a second holocaust.”

Also, the Anglican Church in Canada has close ties with Sabeel, a Jerusalem ecumenical centre for Palestinian liberation theology. Bye, of Christians for Israel, said he was “personally appalled” by the Anglican and United Church statements. “Christians have a long way to go,” he sighed. “There needs to be a lot of repentance. We're trying to do our best, but it's not easy. I think God is changing the hearts of Christians, more and more every year.”

And not everyone is toeing the official line.

Rev. Doug McKenzie, spiritual leader of Asbury & West United Church in Toronto, said it's “simplistic and naïve” to think peace will come to the Mideast if only Israel pulled back to its pre-1967 boundaries. The feelings in his church run the gamut, as they do among many Christians.

On the other hand, he drew a distinction between Israeli occupation, and settlements, for which “there's very little support among Christians, as well as among many liberal Jews.”

But not, evidently, among evangelicals, who rely on a philosophy called dispensationalism, part of which is anchored in the passage in Genesis where God promises the Holy Land, including Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank) to Abraham and his “seed forever.” Such beliefs are a part of the theology of millions of evangelical Christians, including high-ranking U.S. government officials.

Jews tend to have a queasy feeling about all this because it appears evangelicals' support for Israel is based on biblical prophecy rather than respect for Jews or Judaism. According to evangelical theology, the return of the messiah, heralded by the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, will signal the end of the Jewish people, who will either be converted or damned for eternity.

In any event, the Old Testament “is a self-convincing document,” believes Alan Lazerte, president of Christian Action for Israel, which runs a Web site out of Oakville. “It's clear that God's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not temporary.” Lazerte, a born-again Christian, and long-time supporter of Israel, said he was “disappointed and disgusted” by the Anglican and United Church statements.

In a less pointed way, so was Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who chairs the interfaith committee of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Bulka rued that he's realized, “painfully, that all these years (of dialogue with Christians) have gotten us absolutely nowhere. We're not even at square one. We're at minus, a really critical moment where we have to seriously ask ourselves whether this is a waste of time.”

But Prof. David Novak, a University of Toronto expert on Jewish-Christian relations, sees it differently. For one, he thinks the statements by the Anglican and United churches were fuelled more by leftist political leanings than by classical Christian theology. He wonders, too, whether the churches have anything to say about Northern Ireland or the India-Pakistan conflict.

When it comes to Israel, many Jews today are finding support among political and religious conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic – a major shift from years past, Novak pointed out.

While Christian-Jewish relations in this country should focus on how to live together here in Canada, “if the main question continues to be Israel, we won't have much of a dialogue,” said Novak.

“But there are lots of other folks out there, and there are many Christians who want good relations with Jews. You just have to know who your friends are.”

Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer specializing in religion.

©2002 - The Toronto Star

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