In the wake of the synagogue shooting last week in Pittsburgh, activists from several mainline Protestant churches came under fire for promoting a culture of anti-Semitism in their churches, especially the United Methodist Church.
The worst offenders are usually activists affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). But this year, the activists and officials from the United Methodist Church took on a leading role by hosting the controversial “Christ at the Checkpoint Conference” in Oklahoma.
The political goal of the conference was to flip American Christian support for Israel to the Palestinians. The conference soon took on a more sinister tone.
At one point, a speaker put up a slide of U.S. President Donald Trump surrounded by three of his advisers. The speaker asked the audience what was wrong with the picture.
Audience members answered that the problem was that they were Jews, apparently angry that the American president had Jewish advisors involved in the effort to achieve a peace deal.
Dexter Van Zile, a Christian scholar for CAMERA, reported about the conference. He told JNS: “At the time, when the audience was complaining about Jews in the Trump administration, I was disgusted at their flagrant anti-Semitism. But now, after hearing that the Pittsburgh gunman said the American government was ‘infested’ with Jews, I feel more than shaken by how it echoes what I heard at the Methodist-organized conference.”
“The notions of Jewish cruelty, corruption and infestation—those were all themes at the conference,” said Van Zile. “It’s now, literally, lethal rhetoric.”
The United Methodist Church’s struggle with anti-Semitism goes back several years. Methodist Pastor James M. Wall, for example, was an editor of the popular mainline magazine Christian Century while also being affiliated with an anti-Semitic website called Veterans News Now, which promoted the writings of David Duke.
In response, Van Zile has written a letter to Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck, asking her to “consider the possibility that the United Methodist Church has helped create an atmosphere in which anti-Semitic rhetoric has become normalized in American society.”
Asked why he sent the letter, Van Zile replied: “It’s too dangerous for me to keep silent about.”
“The drumbeat of one-sided, anti-Israel stories in mainline churches is producing a climate of anti-Jewish suspicion and hate,” he said. “The connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is becoming too obvious to deny. It’s time for a reckoning.”
Here is the full letter:
The full text of the letter, which was emailed to Dyck on Oct. 30, 2018 is below:
Dear Bishop Sally Dyck:
This is Dexter Van Zile. You probably remember me. I am the researcher from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) who filed a complaint against Rev. James M. Wall a few years ago.
In particular, I complained about his decision to serve on the editorial board of Veterans News Now, an antisemitic website that among other things, promoted the writings of David Duke.
In short, I asked you to rule on whether or not Rev. Wall could remain an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church while serving on the editorial board of a website that promoted hate and hostility toward Jews in such an explicit manner.
Eventually, Wall’s name was removed from VNN’s editorial board and apparently, he retained his status as a UMC pastor. This was a step in the right direction, but I would liked to have seen you administer some type of public rebuke to Rev. Wall over his decision to affiliate publicly with a website such as VNN, which posted commentary and imagery worthy of Der Sturmer and Der Volkische Beobachter.
You were not the only Christian official I corresponded with about Rev. Wall’s affiliation with VNN. I also wrote to the people who run Christian Century, where Rev. Wall served for many years as editor and where he was listed as contributing editor after he retired. It took a while, but eventually, Rev. Wall’s name was removed from the masthead at Christian Century. There has however, been no public reckoning of Wall’s affiliation with Veterans News Now.
This is troubling. Wall’s affiliation with VNN was, simply put, a disgrace.
You know where I am headed with this. I write this letter a few days after a gunman marched into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 Jews and injured six others (four of them police officers). In one social media posting, the killer declared that he was angry over [Jews] “infesting” the Trump Administration.
That is exactly the type of rhetoric that was promoted in Veterans News Now where Wall served as editor. I am not drawing a straight line between Wall’s affiliation with VNN and the massacre in Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, Wall’s willingness to serve on the editorial board of VNN served to legitimize the website’s hateful commentary and the same ideas that the gunman in Pittsburgh used to justify his attack.
Yes, Wall was “a man of the left” and the shooter was “right-wing.” But the fact is, Wall, who early in his career, lauded the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., affiliated with a right-wing antisemitic website because that is where his anti-Israel animus brought him.
What am I asking for? I am asking that as you preach about the shooting in Pittsburgh in the days ahead that you consider the possibility that the United Methodist Church has helped create an atmosphere in which antisemitic rhetoric has become normalized in American society.
I make this request two weeks after attending a Methodist-organized “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference where Alex Awad, a Methodist Missionary, displayed a picture of President Donald Trump on the screen surrounded by three of his staffers. Awad asked his audience what was wrong and the answer was that Trump was surrounded by Jews. Awad didn’t say the Trump Administration was “infested” by Jews, but he might as well have.
There are other examples.
In 2012, a delegate to the United Methodist Church’s General Convention testified in favor of a divestment resolution by comparing Israeli businesses in the West Bank to “the very successful manufacturing firms in Germany that bid and received the bids to manufacture the ovens for the concentration camps,” before asking, “How much evidence would we ask for before it was time to stop the wholesale destruction of people?” The Israel-Palestinian conflict is tragic enough, but for a prominent Methodist to compare Israel to Nazi Germany is simply abhorrent.
And in 2008, the United Methodist Church published a manual written by a Jewish convert to the UMC about the conflict. This text, which I wrote about here, serves to demonize Israeli Jews, and by extension, American Jews who support Israel. It portrays Israel as singularly responsible for the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and portrays Israeli Jews as being too damaged to make peace with their enemies, as if the Palestinians do not have any responsibility to bear for the suffering the war between them and Israel has caused.
That same year, the UMC published a children’s text about the conflict that qualifies as rank anti-Israel propaganda. Like the text I described above, this children’s book demonizes Israel and by extension, its Jewish supporters. As I documented here, the book portrays Palestinian violence as if it can be magically ended by Israeli peace offers and concessions.
Mainline churches have produced dozens of books like that — all of which serve to problematize Jewish life, not only in Israel, but in the United States as well. By producing texts like this, which serve to portray Israeli and American Jews as “the repugnant other,” mainline churches did not promote peace, but instead became parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead of making things better in the Middle East, they help make things worse in American society. The stated goal is “peacemaking” but the result was the direct opposite.
Several days before the massacre in Pittsburgh, Mae Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace spoke to the audience at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. During her presentation, she stated that attendees of the conference need to be on guard against promoting hostility toward anyone. “And I’m talking specifically to our community about antisemitism and statements that summarize and characterize the Jewish people with negative stereotypes that are dehumanizing,” she said.
Cannon continued: “I actually got a note from an orthodox Jewish friend of mine on day two of this conference. And they said, ‘Are you listening to some of these conversations? Because some of them sound very antisemitic.’”
In response to these concerns, Cannon stated that even as attendees seek to address Israeli-perpetrated injustices, “may we not demonize the Jewish people of Israel.”
That is why I am writing this letter. I ask that you speak to your fellow Bishops in the United Methodist Church and ask them to consider how what Methodist peace activists have said and done over the years have “othered” Israeli and American Jews.
Dexter Van Zile
Christian Media Analyst