By David Michael Goldberg
After the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh, released a statement inviting Episcopalians “to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.” In the spirit of McConnell’s call for self-examination and repentance, perhaps it is time for the Episcopal Church to reflect on its complicity in anti-Semitism.
This may strike some as surprising since the Episcopal Church seems to be the vanguard of progressive mainline Christianity. Citing the single most-quoted clause of the Baptismal Covenant, Episcopalians have been quick to condemn instances when racists or neo-nationalists have violated the dignity of human beings. Robert Bowers’ deranged attack at the Tree of Life synagogue seems to have been motivated by these forces, lately given new life by the populist politics of the extreme right. However, anti-Semitism is not only a problem of the neo-nationalist right; it is increasingly a problem of the progressive left.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, describes anti-Semitism, or the attitude that denies the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews, as a “virus that has survived over time by mutating.” He continues,
And just as anti-Semitism has mutated, so has its legitimization. Each time … persecutors reached for the highest form of justification available. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science: the so-called scientific study of race. Today it is human rights.
Here one encounters anti-Semitism in the guise of human rights discourse that is focused on the policies of the State of Israel but is also often subtly critical of Jewish peoplehood. In the name of human rights, one sees Jewish history, memory of past trauma, and religious experience, including a devotion to a land that Jews were the first to call holy, challenged or repudiated. The Episcopal Church is not immune to this strain of anti-Semitism. At times, the oft-cited clause of the Baptismal Covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being” has mutated into a zero-sum game such that human dignity comes at the expense of Jewish dignity.
Examples of unchallenged anti-Semitism were clear during the proceedings of the House of Deputies at the 2018 General Convention. Much of the discussion about peace in the Holy Land lacked the nuance that one would expect from faithful Episcopalians. Numerous resolutions touted the agenda of the Boycott Divestment Sanction movement, which regularly describes Israel as complicit in occupation, apartheid, colonialism, and genocide, while ignoring the real security concerns that led to the status quo.
This is not to say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s draconian security measures do not deserve criticism or that the Episcopal Church is not obliged to voice its concern for the plight of Palestinian Arabs — especially our Anglican sisters and brothers. However, holding the Jewish State to one standard and Arab authorities to another is unjust. Palestinian rights to homeland, self-determination, and security should not come at the expense of Israel’s rights. Resolutions did not consider Palestinian contributions to peacemaking, though peace is jeopardized by the refusal of Palestinian organizations, including the Palestinian National Authority, to recognize without equivocation Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, General Convention was silent on other human rights issues. No proposed resolution condemned regimes in the Middle East, South East Asia, and Africa that actively oppress Anglicans and other religious minorities. Only Israel was subject to censure. The double standard betrays a fixation with Jewish culpability.
Anti-Semitic tropes involving Jewish guilt have been recycled by Episcopalians in positions of influence. At General Convention, the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris claimed to have witnessed the arrest and murder of an innocent Palestinian child by Israeli soldiers. Her account was subsequently refuted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which called it “close to blood libel.” Harris later issued a thoughtful apology.
The Rev. Winnie Varghese, another deputy, lamented in The Huffington Post in 2015 that the bishops rejected resolutions critical of Israel because of the “power and money” of the Israeli lobby. The Israelis’ alleged tactics included an invitation to an exclusive dinner “hosted by an AIPAC rabbi,” possible “first class airfare to Israel and those awesome international frequent flyers miles” on the part of a “grateful lobbyist,” and a message of “blackmail” by the Israeli government delivered by an anonymous Church Center employee “who looked like a cast member from Mad Men … [and] seemed to be crying behind thick plastic frames.” Rather than offer reasoned criticism, the deputy’s opinion piece descended into assumptions and stereotypes.
Of course, instances of anti-Semitism are not limited to churchwide conversations about modern Israel. A proposed inclusive-language revision of Eucharistic Prayer B replaced Israel with all nations in this prayer: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of all nations to be your people.” One hopes that the modification was not intended to marginalize Jews per se, even if the effects would have been to undermine the privileged place of Israel in salvation history. The Church should teach that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, but not at the expense of God’s love for the Chosen People through whom salvation has come to the whole world.
In the wake of the tragedy at Squirrel Hill, Episcopalians have the opportunity to be bold in echoing St. Paul, who reverently said of his Jewish sisters and brothers, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). Perhaps Episcopalians should add upon reflection, “to them belong the human rights, the respect, and the dignity that every human being should be accorded without compromise or prejudice.”
The Rev. David Michael Goldberg is curate at Iglesia Episcopal San Pedro, Pasadena, Texas.