by Dexter Van Zile
(CAMERA) — It’s appropriate that after a long period of isolation, suffering and polarization coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic, CAMERA can offer some qualified good news about Christian Century, historically referred to as the flagship magazine of mainline Protestantism in the United States.
The good news is that the magazine has finally come to grips with the legacy of its second-longest-running editor, James M. Wall, who inveighed against Israel and Jews with a troubling animus during his career as a journalist at the magazine and who, after his retirement as editor, threw in his lot with vicious antisemites.
The qualification is that the magazine has recently published an article about Hamas’s war against Israel that exhibits some of the same techniques Wall used to downplay Arab and Muslim hostility toward the Jewish state and portray Israel in an unfairly harsh light.
Despite this qualification, there is still reason for hope that the magazine has decisively turned the page on an ugly chapter of its history.
Christian Century Under Charles Clayton Morrison
Christian Century has had a troubled history when it comes to dealing with issues related to the Jewish people. Its longest-serving editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, exhibited an undeniable animus toward the Jewish people during their time of trial in the 1930s and 40s, portraying efforts of American Jews to alert their fellow citizens about the mass murder of their brethren during the Holocaust in malign terms. This and other examples of Clayton’s animus toward collective expressions of Jewish identity were well documented in “American Protestantism and a Jewish State” by Hertzl Fishman and “So It Was True: American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews” by Robert W. Ross.
Fortunately, the magazine’s editors acknowledged Clayton’s contempt toward the Jewish people. In 1985, the magazine published an acknowledgement by longtime senior editor Martin Marty that “Charles Clayton Morrison and the Christian Century were deeply flawed.”
Enter James M. Wall
Morrison was not the only editor associated with Christian Century to run into problems when dealing with issues related to the Jewish people. James M. Wall, who served as editor of the magazine from 1972 to 1999, exhibited a tendency to problematize Jewish self-defense and give Palestinian hostility and violence toward Jews and Israel a pass.
Wall’s tendency to problematize Jewish self-defense and whitewash hostility toward Israel became even more pronounced during his tenure as a senior contributing editor at the magazine, which lasted from 1999 to 2008. In one article, Wall described Hamas and Hezbollah, both organizations that seek Israel’s destruction and have targeted Israeli civilians for murder to achieve this goal, as “Muslim non-governmental groups.” It’s a deceptive way to refer to terrorist organizations.
Wall did it to exaggerate the prospects of peace with Hamas and to blame Israel for the lack of peace. These were persistent themes in Wall’s writing. In one piece, Wall laughably called on Israel to “Give Hudna a Chance,” as if a temporary truce were the same thing as a final peace settlement.
In another article, published in September 2006, Wall portrayed Israel as having launched rockets into Lebanon as a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah, writing, “It was not until after Israeli attacks inside Lebanon that Hezbollah began to fire rockets into northern Israel.”
Wall was wrong and demonstrably so. The New York Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Ha’aretz, and United Press International all reported that the hostilities, which began on July 12, initiated with Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel.
Despite CAMERA’s providing the Christian Century with irrefutable proof of this fact, the magazine’s executive editor at the time of the error, David Heim, refused to print a correction, declaring at various points that the chronology was too “murky,” the issue too “technical” and not “crucial” enough to merit a correction in the magazine. (CAMERA documented the episode, which revealed the magazine’s characteristic unwillingness to hold Wall accountable, here.)
Things got worse, however, when Wall retired as senior contributing editor for Christian Century and started his own blog, Wall Writings, in 2008.
At Christian Century, Wall downplayed Hamas’s hostility toward Israel, but in 2011 he used his blog to lionize terrorists. In particular, he offered sympathetic coverage to Ahlan Tamimi, a terrorist responsible for the Sbarro Pizzeria attack that killed 15 civilians including several children and a pregnant woman. One of the children killed was Malki Roth, whose father, Arnold expressed horror at Wall’s lionization of Tamimi in a moving post here.
Things got really weird in 2012, four years after his final retirement from Christian Century, when Wall became associate editor of Veterans News Now, a now-defunct website that trafficked in naked antisemitism. VNN, for example, promoted an illustrated version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” prepared by, of all people, David Duke. (This is only one data point of many that demonstrated the site’s hostility toward Jews.)
Wall’s involvement with VNN was a disgrace for two reasons. First, Wall’s name remained on the masthead of the Christian Century as editor emeritus even as he associated openly with an antisemitic publication.
Second, Wall was also an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church.
His status as editor emeritus of Christian Century and as a UMC pastor gave mainline respectability to a website that promoted naked contempt for Jews.
Despite numerous contacts from CAMERA, Christian Century and the United Methodist Church refrained from giving Wall a public rebuke for his affiliation with VNN.
Christian Century did, however, issue a brief statement distancing itself from its former editor and columnist, without explaining why it made this decision.
At about the same time, VNN stopped listing Wall as “associate editor” and stopped running his articles, giving both Christian Century and the United Methodist Church an out from explicitly condemning Wall publicly for his antisemitism.
To be fair, the magazine’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while not perfect, had improved markedly in the years since Wall’s 1999 retirement. For example, the magazine published an authoritative and detailed takedown by scholar Amy-Jill Levine of the ugly rhetoric used by Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek to demonize Israel. In the article published by Christian Century, Levine described Ateek’s rhetoric as “a recycled anti-Judaism that depicts Israel as a country of Christ killers.”
Eventually, to its credit, the Christian Century quietly removed Wall’s name from its masthead in 2017, prompting an expression of praise from CAMERA.
Reckoning With Wall’s Legacy
That’s where it stood until April 2021, when Christian Century reported that Wall had died on March 22, 2021. Astonishingly, the magazine included in its mostly laudatory obituary the following two sentences:
Wall’s extensive pro-Palestinian writings at times devolved into anti-Semitism. After his retirement, the Century and other organizations he had been involved with had faced pressure to distance themselves from him.
These two sentences lacked detail and background about Wall’s behavior and failed to explain who called on the magazine to distance itself from its former editor. It also failed to explain why these calls were made.
In sum, Christian Century did not describe the embarrassing controversy in detail, but did not bury it altogether either.
It was a historical moment of reckoning that had been a long time coming.
Too Much for Some
Still, as discrete, brief, and well-founded Christian Century’s assessment was, it was too much for some of the magazine’s readers, who expressed shock that the magazine would even dare to report on Wall’s descent into antisemitism.
In the June 16, 2021 issue, the magazine published three letters to the editor that expressed outrage over its assessment of Wall’s writings as having devolved into antisemitism. One writer even asked, “How dare you?”
To its credit, the magazine did not back down, but described its decision to report on Wall’s antisemitism, citing some facts collated by CAMERA and others about Wall’s writings and affiliation with VNN.
“We stand by our article,” the magazine declared in response to its critics.
One letter-writer, Cynthia Percak from New Jersey, stated she was “astonished and troubled by the ungracious — and highly editorialized — obituary of James Wall” and asked “who are these parties who exerted ‘pressure’ on the Century and ‘other organizations’ to ‘distance themselves’ from this wise and prophetic man of conscience? And why was it necessary for the Century to take refugee behind the unnamed entities, further dishonoring Wall’s legacy?”
For the record, CAMERA was the organization that called for the magazine and the UMC to distance themselves from Wall’s antisemitism. We were that “entity” that Percak so ominously intoned.
That was us.
We stand by our articles.
Percak should note that CAMERA staffers and volunteers were vilified for our efforts to document Wall’s descent into antisemitic commentary by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis who came to Wall’s defense during the controversy.
As far as Percak’s accusation that the Christian Century dishonored Wall’s legacy?
Rev. James M. Wall did that all by himself.
Problem With RNS Article
As gratifying as it is to report that the Christian Century has publicly come to grips with Wall’s descent into antisemitic rhetoric, the magazine’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict still has its problems.
In the same issue in which Christian Century reaffirmed its assessment of Wall’s career, the magazine saw fit to publish an article prepared by the Religion News Service and written by Yonat Shimron, a reporter based in North Carolina.
The article, titled “The religious aspect of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” has several material omissions that deprive readers of the context they need to understand what is actually happening in the Holy Land. And sadly enough, some of techniques used in Shimron’s article to obscure events in the Holy Land harken back to the methods James M. Wall used during his time as a columnist at Christian Century.
To be fair, many religious news outlets rely on RNS, the same way they rely on the Catholic News Service for its coverage of Hamas’s war against Israel, but should they?
Clearly, RNS has had its problems when it comes to dealing with Israel. It was established in the 1930s with one of its founders being Louis Minsky, an anti-Zionist Jew whose writings were promoted by none other than the Christian Century’s antisemitic editor, Charles Clayton Morrison. More recently, the magazine published a fictional account of an event that took place in the West Bank in 2018. Just like the Catholic News Service, RNS has had its problems.
The problem for Christian Century, however, is a bit more acute than it is for other publications who rely on RNS, because the article in question exhibits many of the same tendencies exhibited in the pre-VNN writings of James M. Wall.
The article purports to provide context to the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The main thesis of the article is that “faith is only tangentially related to the violence.”
But even as Shimron offered this thesis, her reporting echoed the Islamist and Jihadist propaganda that Israel has designs on the Temple Mount when she wrote, “There’s no doubt that the most extreme Jewish nationalists would like to recapture the Al-Aqsa Mosque. They say it sits on top of the ancient Jewish Temple, the only remainder of which is the Western Wall.” This suggests that there is a religious component of the conflict and that it is only on Israel’s side, not Hamas’s.
Note the “they say it sits” formulation. Does anyone really deny that the Jewish Temple was located on the… Temple Mount? Why does Shimron use this Israelis “say” formula when they are declaring a well-established fact? Why turn a well-established fact into a point of conjecture by extremist Jews? The fact is that Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were constructed on the Temple Mount to demonstrate Islamic dominance and superiority over both Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem.
Along these lines, note Shimron’s failure to acknowledge that Al Aqsa Mosque has been the scene of anti-Jewish incitement broadcast by Muslim leaders in Jerusalem for a long time. This would lend credence to the notion that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is in fact rooted in religion on the part of the Palestinians, not just Israeli Jews.
Ironically, Shimron’s article makes mistake similar to the one James M. Wall made in 2006 when he wrote about Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Just as Wall omitted Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel and began his story with Israeli use of force, Shimron did the same thing in her article in 2021, pegging the beginning of the recent round of conflict with Israel’s May 10, 2021 raid on Al Aqsa Mosque, which had been the scene of some ugly rioting.
Shimron made no mention of prior rocket attacks perpetrated by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade from the Gaza Strip. These attacks took place on April 24, 2021, two weeks before Israel raided Al Aqsa Mosque.
The barrage of 36 rockets was described by the Times of Israel as the “worst assault from [the] Strip in many months.” The attacks drove millions of Israelis who were just coming out from under Covid-19 restrictions into bomb shelters and safe rooms. No reasonable report about the current round of violence in the Holy Land could ignore this barrage, but Shimron did.
No Mention of “TikTok Attacks”
Shimron also failed to acknowledge the “TikTok Attacks” that began in mid-April, soon after the beginning of Ramadan. Young Arab men uploaded videos of their attacks on Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, which in turn aroused the anger of Israeli Jews living in that city. (More about that below.)
The timing of these attacks indicates that they were religiously motivated, just as attacks on Jews perpetrated on Good Friday in Europe during the Middle Ages were motivated by religion.
This clearly undermines Shimron’s thesis that the conflict is only “tangentially” related to religion. When adherents of a religious faith use one of their holidays as a moment to attack a group that has been “othered” in said faith (as Jews have been in both Christianity and Islam) it seems reasonable to conclude that religion is a crucial factor behind these attacks. It’s not tangential.
Sheikh Jarrah Omissions
In her effort to portray the recent round of fighting as merely a conflict over land (and not a conflict of land and religion), Shimron offers a distorted view of the Sheikh Jarrah land dispute, obscuring the relative strength of Jewish claims to the property. Here is what she says about Sheikh Jarrah:
“…the dispute originates in the 19th century, when Jews living abroad began returning to what is now Israel and buying properties from Palestinians who lived there. The Jordanians took over the land between 1948 and 1967. Israelis are now claiming its theirs again.”
This chronology omits a few crucial facts. In particular, it makes no mention of a 1982 court settlement in which Arabs living on the property recognized the Jewish owners and agreed to pay rent, in return for being considered “protected tenants,” meaning they could not be evicted if they lived up to the lease terms. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the tenants again refused to pay their rent, and the Jewish owners began eviction proceedings, which have been ongoing for almost 40 years.
In her description of the controversy, Shimron used another version of the “they say” formulation, reporting that “Israelis are now claiming that [the property is] theirs again.” In fact, the Arab tenants acknowledged Jewish ownership in 1982. Why cast doubt on Jewish ownership of the land when the tenants themselves acknowledged Jewish ownership nearly 40 years ago? Why assist in the Palestinian effort to portray Jews as interlopers on land purchased by Jews in the 1800s?
This is an egregious error. The Palestinian Authority used the Sheikh Jarrah controversy to divert attention from its decision to cancel planned elections, and Hamas used the Sheikh Jarrah story to justify its efforts to kill innocent civilians with barrages of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Neither Christian Century nor RNS should be retailing this type of propaganda.
“What’s Hamas Got to Do With it?”
Shimron’s treatment of Hamas’s intentions toward the Jewish state is also irresponsible. In her article she writes that “Hamas’s main goal is war not with Judaism, but rather with Israel, which is occupying land Hamas has sees as inherently Palestinian.” The implication is that Hamas is motivated not by Jew-hatred, but merely patriotic love of one’s land and that one can make peace with an organization such as this.
Without saying so, Shimron is parroting the Hamas propaganda surrounding a statement the group issued in 2017 in an attempt to distance itself from its 1988 charter which declares Jews are the source of all evil in the world, which logically means they need to be exterminated.
But as Bernard Harrison reports in his indispensable book “Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion,” Hamas did not explicitly abandon the 1988 charter when it issued its 2017 statement. And even the softer 2017 charter still offers “no prospect” of ending violence against Jews, “short of the complete destruction of Israel,” he reports. The 2017 charter suggests it might accept peace with Israel in the short term, but as Harrison reminds his readers, this newer, “softer” text “makes it clear that [Hamas] would regard such a development not as a solution but at most as a halfway point to the total destruction of Israel.”
In sum, Shimron is trying to tell the same narrative that James M. Wall offered in his “Give Hudna a chance” piece published in Christian Century fifteen years ago.
Reason for Hope
Nevertheless, there is still cause for hope that the magazine has in fact turned a corner. In the editorial for the June 16, 2021 issue of Christian Century, the editors saw fit to blame all the actors in the ongoing conflict. The relevant section reads in part as follows:
“[T]he possibility of a two-state solution is being hampered by leaders on all sides. Fatah, which governs Palestinians on the West Bank, has failed to lead democratically and has been unwilling to cede power to new leadership. In Gaza, Hamas uses Palestinian suffering and death to attract international aid to build the infrastructure for war against Israel. The Israeli government has far more power in this situation than any Palestinian entity, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims to favor a two-state solution. But again and again his government sabotages this ostensible goal by supporting land grabs on the West Bank and other human rights violations in the Palestinian territories.”
The criticism of Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority could and should have been more robust, mentioning for example, PA president’s praise for terrorists and its policy of paying the families of terrorists who have killed Israeli civilians. Hamas clearly deserves more condemnation for sins too numerous to list, but for the magazine to even mention its misdeeds and forcefully call them out is a huge improvement from what we saw in the days of yore.
The condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignores the fact that he refrained from annexing the West Bank at the behest of Evangelicals who helped engineer the Abraham Accords, i.e. the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states in the Middle East.
Still, it is an improvement. Maybe the magazine has learned a lesson from the shameful bits of its own history.
Maybe, just maybe, the magazine has turned a corner.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for CAMERA. His work is focused on anti-Israel propaganda broadcast by Christian churches and para-church institutions and the failure of Christian peace activists to address human rights abuses in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East.