The United Church of Christ has embraced a number of activist causes. Promoting concern for the safety and welfare of Jews and their state is not one of them. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)
by Dexter Van Zile
(CAMERA.org) — As the Jewish new year approaches, rabbis and other Jewish community leaders will find themselves organizing and attending interfaith events intended to promote comity and friendship among various faith communities in the United States. Jewish leaders and rabbis who organize and participate in these events should know that leaders and activists in the United Church of Christ will use their relationship with Jewish institutions and leaders as cover for “peace” activism that promotes hostility toward Israel and its supporters in the United States. Here is what rabbis and other leaders need to know before participating in events organized by the United Church of Christ:
In light of these problems, Jewish leaders should tread lightly when dealing with pastors, activists and denominational leaders from the United Church of Christ.
As the Jewish new year approaches, rabbis and other Jewish community leaders will find themselves organizing and attending interfaith events intended to promote comity and friendship among various faith communities in the United States. Jewish leaders and rabbis who organize and participate in these events should know that some of their counterparts will use their access to Jewish institutions and leaders as cover for “peace” activism that promotes hostility toward Israel and its supporters in the United States.
Given this reality, Jewish leaders need to pay close attention to their interfaith partners and examine the impact these partners have on Israel’s reputation and the status of Jews in the United States.
One religious community that has helped problematize Jewish self-defense in the Holy Land and legitimize contempt toward Jews in the United States is the United Church of Christ headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. This shrinking denomination has demonized Israel and its American supporters for the past two decades through a variety of venues and methods under the guise of peacemaking.
Here is what Jewish leaders and rabbis need to know before partnering with local UCC churches in interfaith events.
History, Decline, and Structure
The United Church of Christ is a mainline Protestant denomination established in 1957 with the merger of two Protestant churches — the Evangelical and Reform Church (whose churches were located primarily in the Midwest) and Congregational Christian Churches (whose churches were located primarily in New England).
The UCC currently has approximately 800,000 members (probably less) and 4,800 churches, down substantially from the mid-1960s when it had more than two million members and more than 6,000 local churches. According to a statistical report published by the denomination in 2020, “From 2009 to 2019 alone, the UCC encountered a net loss of 435 congregations and 277,843 members.”
The same report indicates that the churches that remain in the denomination are themselves shrinking.
In 2009, 88.3 percent of the denomination’s members belonged to local churches with fewer than 400 members. In 2019, this number had increased to 92 percent. And in 2009, 39.3 percent of the church’s members belonged to congregations with fewer than 100 members. By 2019, this number had increased to 47.8 percent. The percentage of UCC churches with fewer than 50 members increased from 17.9 percent in 2009 to 23.7 percent over the same timeframe.
Most of the denomination’s remaining churches are located in five states: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and California, and most of its remaining members are located in the previously mentioned states — with Connecticut being swapped out for California.
The denomination’s public relations materials highlight the role its Congregational antecedents played in the founding of the United States and the Great Awakening in the early 1700s and their support for the abolitionist movement in the 1800s. In recent months, the denomination’s national setting has used its YouTube channel to promote the demoralizing narrative offered by the 1619 Project and, in so doing, began portraying its past and current members as complicit in structures of white supremacism, afflicted with racist attitudes and white fragility.
The denomination has gone so far as to help mainstream the rhetoric of anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour, who declared on Twitter in 2011 that Brigette Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, activists who promote the rights of women in Muslim-majority societies, were “asking for an a$$ whippin’.” Sarsour declared that she wished that she could take their vaginas away because they “don’t deserve to be women.” (Ali, by the way, is a victim of female genital mutilation.)
At the height of the BLM/Antifa riots in 2020, staffers who work at the denomination’s headquarters in Cleveland gave a platform to Sarsour, who declared that the origin of policing in the U.S. is rooted in hired “slave catchers,” that reform of law enforcement in the U.S. is impossible and that it is necessary to “burn it down.” “I’m saying this not in the literal sense,” she said, “but in the sense of burn it all down […] to start over.”
The church has recently issued a request for proposals from consulting firms to teach the church how to be more welcoming to people of color in the United States. In other words, the denomination has hired outside consultants to tell it how to share the Christian faith.
The denomination’s polity is “congregational,” with local churches hiring and firing their ministers. Local UCC churches belong to groups called associations. Groups of these associations form conferences which send delegates to the denomination’s representative body, the General Synod.
The General Synod holds elections for the denomination’s national officers which lead the church bureaucracy (which is comprised of “covenanted ministries” and sometimes called the “national setting” of the church). It also elects members of the United Church of Christ Board (UCC Board), which governs the church when the General Synod is not in session.
While much of the drama surrounding UCC church governance takes place at General Synod, much of the real decision-making takes place in other venues, most notably in the UCC Board, which oversees the operations of the church’s national setting and plays a significant role in determining the agenda of the General Synod.
The UCC is affiliated with another smaller mainline Protestant church – the Disciples of Christ – with which it shares a Global Missions Board, which under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Peter Makari is a persistent source of anti-Israel propaganda affirmed by the two churches. (More about him below.)
The UCC’s antecedent denominations, the Congregationalists especially, were part of the Protestant establishment for most of American history, but in recent decades, the UCC has experienced a humiliating loss of status concomitant with its numerical decline. One way that it can demonstrate its relevance to American discourse in the face of this decline is to attack Israel in a number of settings, most especially its General Synod.
The UCC statements regarding Israel have very little to do with what is actually happening in the Holy Land (or the rest of the Middle East) but everything to do with the denomination’s loss of status and its rivalry with and hostility toward evangelical Protestants in the United states.
In sum, the UCC uses its stance regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way to differentiate itself from evangelical Protestants as part of a campaign to become the denomination of choice for the progressives (who typically don’t go to church) and people of color (who have their own churches to attend) in the U.S.
The result is that while the UCC is in a state of decline, the church, through its affiliation with the BDS campaign and with anti-Zionism in general, has used its diminishing influence to help to bring about a distancing between American Jews and the progressive movement in the United States. Because of the rise of anti-Zionism and a greater tolerance toward anti-Jewish polemics in American society, fostered in part by BDS activists on college campuses and American cities, Jews have become low-cost targets for physical violence in many large cities.
In sum, the UCC has contributed to the worsening of the Jewish condition in the United States.
UCC Messaging About Israel
The overall message offered by the UCC about conflict in the Holy Land is that the source of the conflict is not attacks on Israel, but Israel’s efforts to defend itself from adversaries that seek its destruction.
Another message is that Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens from Palestinian terror attacks are an affront to God’s purposes for the Holy Land.
By unfairly portraying the Jewish state as a singularly violent and marauding nation, the church is implicitly portraying American Jews (and Christians) who support the Jewish state as moral reprobates indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians.
General Synod Resolutions
Most of the UCC’s anti-Israel propaganda comes out of the denomination’s General Synod, which typically takes place every two years. It is at these synods that the denomination approves a budget for its national setting, elects its national officers, and affirms resolutions of “witness” regarding domestic social problems and international conflict where Israel is regularly singled out for condemnation, demonized, and subjected to a double standard. These witness resolutions can come from several sources, including local churches and parts of the church’s national bureaucracy, most notably Global Ministries.
The denomination’s lay members pay some, but not much, attention to the events that take place at GS; the body is largely dominated by the church elites and by what can be characterized as “inside baseball.”
While the denomination’s General Synod has largely ignored human rights catastrophes regarding violence against Christians in Muslim-majority countries, genocidal massacres against the Yazidis in Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and the mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in China, it passes resolutions condemning Israel every two years, like clockwork.
The resolutions are approved toward the end of the proceedings, after the GS conducts the business necessary to keep the denomination afloat. The debate over these resolutions, which can be characterized as what René Girard called “persecution narratives,” serves as an emotional and dramatic payoff for delegates who participate before their return home. The affirmation of anti-Israel scapegoating narratives also serves as a news hook that generates publicity for a dying church and its leaders.
The resolutions themselves come from a variety of sources. Typically, they are written with substantial input from Global Ministries and its Palestinian Christian partners. They are promoted by the UCC Palestine Israel Network, a virulently anti-Zionist organization supported by donations solicited by the denomination’s Mid-Atlantic conference. The resolutions are put onto the agenda with the support of local churches and conferences whose leaders have bought into anti-Israel (and anti-American) worldviews.
Organized resistance to these resolutions and the distorted narrative they offer from within the organization has been non-existent for several years. Mainstream Jewish organizations have, with good reason, largely abandoned efforts to influence the proceedings of General Synod and have refrained from speaking with the denomination’s leaders in Cleveland.
Some delegates argue against these resolutions in committee on the floor of General Synod, but the passage of a resolution that has gotten onto the agenda of GS is a foregone conclusion. In sum, the denomination has failed in recruiting new adherents to the Christian faith, but has a well-oiled machine built to defame Israel and its supporters in the U.S.
The resolutions passed by General Synod invariably condemn Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens while remaining virtually silent about Palestinian misdeeds. The UCC’s General Synod, like the denomination it governs, has revealed itself to be a bystander to anti-Jewish violence in the Holy Land and a promoter of a dishonest narrative that justifies violence against Jews in the rest of the world.
Tear Down the Wall
This reality became evident in 2005, when the UCC’s General Synod passed a “Tear Down the Wall” resolution. This resolution called on Israel to dismantle the security barrier it had constructed in the West Bank after a Palestinian campaign of suicide bombings and other terror attacks had killed hundreds of Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada.
The resolution, which did not ask the Palestinians to stop the attacks that preceded the barrier’s construction, also called on Israel to pay reparations to Palestinians whose livelihoods had been damaged by the construction of the barrier. The text highlighted the suffering caused by the security barrier but made no mention of the suffering endured and lives lost by Israelis during the Second Intifada.
The theological rationale of the resolution invoked a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which declared that Jesus Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
By combining a one-sided and distorted narrative of the Israel-Palestinian conflict (that ignored Palestinian violence and Jewish suffering) with a biblical passage that expressed a millennial hope for the elimination of distinctions between people groups, the authors, movers, and approvers of the resolution implicitly portrayed the Jewish state — and the liberation and safety it affords to Jews who live there — as an obstacle to Christian hopes for peace in the Middle East.
By way of comparison, when suicide bombers killed 52 people in a London subway on July 7, 2005 — two days after the passage of the “Tear Down the Wall” resolution — the leaders of the United Church of Christ and its sister denomination, the Disciples of Christ, issued a statement expressing relief that staff members of the United Reform Church, which had offices close to the attack, which was perpetrated by Muslim extremists, were safe and unharmed. Israelis had been subjected to dozens of attacks similar to what Londoners endured in the 7/7 Bombing, and yet the UCC’s General Synod had pointedly ignored this reality in the passage of the Tear Down the Wall resolution.
In sum, the UCC dealt with terrorism against Jews differently than it did non-Jews.
Fake Divestment Resolution
In 2015, the denomination’s General Synod passed, with great fanfare, a resolution calling on the church’s investment managers to sell their stock in specific companies that do business with Israel’s defense establishment and operate in the West Bank. As it turns out, the staff who manage the denomination’s pension fund and other holdings were legally obligated to ignore the Synod’s call — a fact obscured in the fanfare surrounding the passage of the divestment resolution.
“We are calling and urging all UCC-related entities to stop bringing wood to the fire of this conflict of human rights,” said Rev. Richard Edens, who promoted the resolution at the assembly. Nevertheless, the denomination still holds onto stocks proscribed in the 2015 resolution, six years later. As it turns out, the people who manage the denomination’s pension fund and other investments never had any intention of abiding by the demands of this resolution.
“[W]hile we take General Synod resolutions seriously and more than live in substantial covenant with them, the Pension Boards is not bound by them,” said Rick Walters, Associate General Counsel and Director for Corporate Social Responsibility for UCC Pension Boards.
The upshot is that while Israeli soldiers have put their lives on the line to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism — earning the contempt of the UCC in so doing — the denomination itself couldn’t even divest itself from stocks, that, by its own definition, rendered the UCC complicit in the conflict.
It couldn’t put its money where its mouth was while others had their lives at stake. This is virtue-signaling par excellence.
In 2017, two years after GS passed the faux divestment resolution, the body passed a resolution condemning Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian children detained in Israeli jails. The same resolution remained silent about Palestinian abuses of children, including the use of child labor to build smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and Fatah and Hamas summer camps and other programs that give children guns and teach them to murder Jews.
Tisha B’Av Resolution
On July 18, 2021, a date coinciding with the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av, GS passed a “peacemaking” resolution that declared Israel guilty of sins against the Palestinian people. Predictably enough, the resolution, which was passed with 462 yeas, 78 nays, and 18 abstentions in an online vote, made no mention of any sins perpetrated by the Palestinians or their leaders in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.
The 2021 resolution portrays the Jewish state as a singular source of sin and suffering in the Holy Land, recapitulating many of the messages Christians have offered about the Jewish people and their institutions over the past 2,000 years, even as the faith attempts to distance itself from this history.
“At a time when Jews are being physically attacked worldwide for their solidarity with Israel, suffering violence that clearly crosses the line from criticism of Israeli policies into blatant antisemitism, one could rightfully expect an American Christian church to be more guarded in its judgments,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee.
“Where in this resolution for a ‘just peace’ is there any mention of Israel’s relentless pursuit of peace for 73 years?” Marans asked.
For example, the resolution had nothing to say about the Palestinian Authority’s pay-to-slay program, nothing about the anti-Jewish incitement broadcast by media outlets controlled by Fatah and Hamas, and nothing about the genocidal antisemitism broadcast during Friday sermons by imams preaching in Al-Aqsa Mosque. And the resolution said nothing about Hamas rocket attacks directed at civilians, nor the refusal of Palestinian leaders to negotiate in good faith with Israel, having turned down numerous peace offers over the years.
The resolution speaks in vague terms about the evils of “supersessionism” and antisemitism, but does not acknowledge the role these ideologies play in fomenting hostility toward Jews and Israel in Muslim-majority environments in the Middle East — nor the UCC’s own role in fomenting this hatred.
Promotion of Kairos Palestine Text
The Tisha B’Av resolution promotes “Kairos Palestine: A Word of Faith, Hope, and Love From the Heart of Palestinian Suffering,” issued by a group of Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2009. This text was condemned by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2010. The CCAR declares that “among its many failings,” the text does the following:
By affirming the Kairos Palestine Document, the UCC’s General Synod contradicted previous resolutions condemning antisemitism and supersessionism and declaring the denomination a “just peace church.” (More about that below).
Speakers at General Synod
In order to generate support for anti-Israelism, the denomination’s leaders recruit speakers to demonize the Jewish state.
In 2015, Lutheran Pastor Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, spoke at the UCC’s General Synod in support of divestment in 2015. During his sermon, he wrote Jews out of Israel’s history. When Raheb referred to events that took place in both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible, he referred to the people involved as “Palestinians,” not Israelites, Hebrews, or Jews.
The only time Raheb used the word “Israel” was in reference to the “suffocating occupation.” By telling the story he did, which predictably made no reference to Palestinian violence, Raheb removed Jews from the land of Israel, deprived them of their history, and then portrayed the modern Jewish state as the singular source of suffering endured by the Palestinian people.
Things were even worse in 2017 when a group of teenagers from the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Frederick, Md., testified at the UCC General Synod in favor of a one-sided and dishonest resolution that condemned Israel for allegedly mistreating Palestinian children in its detention centers in the West Bank. The resolution, which was backed with propaganda produced by Defense of Children International, Palestine — an organization led by members of a terrorist organization called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — made no mention of Palestinian use of child soldiers or its abuse of children by indoctrinating them to hate Jews and Israel in schools located in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
During the deliberations regarding the resolution, a youth delegate from the church in Maryland condemned the amount of aid sent to Israel by the United States, asking, “How can we be paying an incredibly high amount of tax dollars to a country that values the torturous interrogation of children?”
After the youth leveled their accusations at Israel, the smiling moderator of the synod declared that the children’s testimony gave her “goosebumps.”
Sunday School Curriculum
Anti-Israel propaganda has been directed at children in UCC Sunday schools. For example, the denomination promotes an Advent study guide for use in Sunday schools that portrays Israel as the villain and makes no mention of Arab and Muslim misdeeds. The study guide is titled “Ahlan Wa Sahlan! Welcome Christmas Through the Eyes of Children from Palestine and Israel.” The stated purpose of the Advent curriculum is “to help children connect the Christmas stories in the Bible to real children who live in those places today” and to “find meaning in the stories from the Bible” that happened in the hometowns of the children profiled.
The lesson plan portrays Israel’s security barrier as an obstacle to God’s efforts to bring salvation to the Holy Land. For example, in the curriculum a Palestinian child declares, “If Jesus were born in Bethlehem today, the shepherds would be unable to visit him because of the wall.”
The text makes no mention of the suicide bombings and other terror attacks that took place prior to the construction of the barrier. It was these attacks, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis during the Second Intifada, that prompted Israel to build the security barrier in the first place. All the document says is that “Israel has decided to build a large wall…” without explaining why it made this decision.
Pilgrim Press – Jews to be “Cast Out and Burned”
In addition to affirming an anti-Israel narrative at its General Synod, on its website and its Sunday schools the denomination’s publishing house, Pilgrim Press, has published two editions of a particularly hostile book, “Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are Not being Told about Israel and the Palestinians.” This text, written by Gary Burge, a notorious anti-Israel polemicist, is filled with misinformation and theological complaints against the Jewish state.
Burge’s objective in this text is to convince Christian readers that the State of Israel is not worthy of their support. His argument is based on an assortment of glaringly false assertions. For example, to show that Israel is an apartheid state, Burge falsely reports that Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel (the latter include Christians) renew their driver’s licenses on two different days of the month, when, in fact, licenses are renewed on the holders’ birthdays, regardless of ethnicity.
He also falsely suggests that the security barrier surrounds the city of Bethlehem, a city of special sanctity in Christianity. Without providing a source, he claims that polling data reveal that most Israelis have rejected a two-state solution, when in fact, reliable polling data indicate exactly the opposite.
Burge falsely declared that under Israeli control, “no new wells” can be dug for Palestinian use in the West Bank, when, in fact, dozens of wells have been dug over the years.
Furthermore, Burge mischaracterizes Israel’s Law of Return. He states that Jews born to a Jewish mother who converted from Judaism are not eligible for citizenship, when, in fact, the right to claim immigrant status and become citizens is accorded to those having one Jewish grandparent.
Burge uses Scripture to bolster his claim that Israel does not deserve the backing of civilized Christians in the United States. For example, in the first edition of the text, Burge interprets John 15:6 as proof that Jews who do not accept Jesus as the messiah cannot live in the land of Israel. The verse reads as follows: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” After invoking this text, Burge writes, “Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refused to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned.” (For some reason, Burge directs this polemic, which he softened but did not abandon altogether in the 2013 edition, only at Jews, and not Muslims in the Holy Land.)
In sum, Burge mines the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures for verses that can be used to portray Israel as a uniquely sinful nation and couples these passages with a dishonest view of historical and current events to fashion a narrative of contempt for the Jewish state.
CAMERA has produced many articles about the 2003 and 2013 editions of this text, which is clearly a source of embarrassment for the denomination and its staffers.
Despite having effectively admitted that the text is very problematic, the UCC and its publishing house continue to sell, and profit from, the text, a theologically-driven compendium of misinformation intended to vilify Israel and its supporters.
By publishing such hostile propaganda, redolent as it is with anti-Jewish animus, the UCC failed to live up to its promise to the Jewish community made in the 1980s to oppose antisemitism and supersessionism.
This promise was made in a resolution passed by the denomination’s General Synod in 1987, titled “Relationship Between the UCC and the Jewish Community,” which represented the UCC’s effort to come to grips with the history of Christian antisemitism and its role in promoting the persecution of the Jewish people. The resolution declared in part:
“We in the United Church of Christ acknowledge that the Christian Church has, throughout much of its history, denied God’s continuing covenantal relationship with the Jewish people expressed in the faith of Judaism. This denial often has led to outright rejection of the Jewish people and to theologically and humanly intolerable violence. The Church’s frequent portrayal of the Jews as blind, recalcitrant, evil, and rejected by God has found expression in much Christian theology, liturgy, and education. Such a negative portrayal of the Jewish people and of Judaism has been a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes of societies and the policies of governments. The most devastating lethal metastasis of this process occurred in our own century during the Holocaust.”
The resolution called on UCC officials and teachers to work toward promoting an “understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people as a continuing witness in Covenant to God’s presence in the world.” The statement also called on local churches and other denominational bodies to “engage in dialogue with the Jewish community in order to establish relationships of trust and to participate in a joint witness against all injustice in our local communities and in the world.”
Publishing Burge’s text, relentlessly attacking Israel at General Synod, deploying anti-Israel propaganda in Sunday schools, and holding the Jewish state to a utopian standard of conduct while saying nothing about the sins of its adversaries and remaining silent about Muslim antisemitism are clear violations of the letter and spirit of the 1987 resolution.
“Just Peace Church”
The denomination has also failed to live up to the demands of being a “peace church” as outlined in a 1985 resolution passed by the UCC’s General Synod. The resolution declared that the denomination would serve as “a real countervailing power to those forces that divide, that perpetuate human enmity and injustice, and that destroy.” The same resolution called on its local churches to stand “against social structures comfortable with violence and injustice.”
Sadly, the UCC has been all too indifferent toward “violence” and polemics that “divide,” “perpetuate human enmity,” and which destroy when they are directed at Jews and Israel.
Look through the denomination’s own archives regarding its statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict since the beginning of the new millennium, and you will be hard-pressed to find a full-throated condemnation of antisemitic incitement or acts of terror perpetrated against Israeli civilians in the Holy Land. The GS has condemned “antisemitism in all its forms,” but not dealt with it as an obstacle to peace between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land. The issue of Islamic antisemitism is taboo.
Peter Makari, Ph.D.
This should come as no surprise given that one of the main architects of the denomination’s anti-Israel agenda is Rev. Dr. Peter Makari. Makari, who serves as the Executive, Middle East and Europe at Global Ministries for the UCC, has worked assiduously to downplay the issue of Muslim antisemitism in the Middle East.
An Egyptian American, Makari is fluent in Arabic and has a Ph.D. in politics with a concentration in Middle East Studies from New York University. Syracuse University Press published his dissertation on Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt as a book titled “Conflict & Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt” in 2007.
A close reading of Makari’s text reveals a profound tendency to downplay or ignore Islamist hostility toward Jews, which clearly manifests in the UCC’s “witness” about violence in the Holy Land.
In his book, Makari describes Sayyd Tantawi, the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar University in Cairo, who died of a heart attack on March 10, 2010, as one of several “Egyptian Muslim religious officials who have, since the 1990s, expressed fraternal feelings with Egypt’s non-Muslims.”
Makari reports that Tantawi wrote “books on various topics, including ‘Israel in the Holy Qur’an and Sunna’” and describes Tantawi as a “moderate Islamic voice” who has spoken of “equality in rights and responsibilities” for Muslims and non-Muslims in Egypt, despite the fact that he supported “the imperative that Copts pay the jizya, a kind of tax paid by non-Muslims in the Muslim community to retain their protect status as ahl adh-dhimma” (Makari, 2007, pages 98-99). (Remember the name of the book Makari mentions. It’s important.)
On page 100 of his text, Makari writes that Tantawi “has remained steadfast in his call for good relations between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, and among all people generally.”
There’s just one problem: Tantawi was nothing like the benign figure Peter Makari describes. The late sheikh, simply put, was a notorious and inveterate antisemite who mined the Koran and the life of Muhammad for passages and teachings that justify Islamic Jew-hatred.
Tantawi did this in the book Makari mentioned in his text on Christian-Muslim relations.
In this text, which has been excerpted in “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: from Sacred Texts to Solemn History” edited by Andrew G. Bostom (Prometheus Press, 2008), Tantawi uses passages from the Koran to depict Jews as enemies of God, His prophets, and of Islam itself. In one particularly troubling passage, Tantawi writes:
“Qur’an describes people of the Book in general terms, with negative attributes like their fanaticism in religion, following a false path. It describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of God, corrupting his words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their […] deep rooted lasciviousness.”
Later, after quoting some passages from the Quran, Tantawi writes “This means all Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims; the bad ones do not” (Legacy, page 394). That’s quintessential supersessionism, which the UCC’s General Synod declared was a bad thing in 1987.
Elsewhere, Tantawi writes that the Jews “initiated hostilities against the Islamic call in Medina.” He continues: “They took every measure they could to extinguish its fire and vitiate its power.” Later, he writes, “we are not exaggerating when we say that the Jews left no stone unturned in the attempt to snuff out the Islamic call, nor was any means considered out of bounds in order to denigrate Islam and its Prophet — they tried everything they could” (Legacy, 399).
It doesn’t stop there. Matthias Küntzel, author of “Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism and the Roots of 9/11,” writes that “Tantawi, the highest Sunni Muslim theologian, quotes Hitler’s remark in ‘Mein Kampf’ that ‘in resisting the Jew, I am doing the work of the Lord’.” Küntzel continues: “He praises ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ noting without the slightest trace of sympathy that ‘after the publication of the Protocols in Russia, some 10,000 Jews were killed.’”
Tantawi made a number of other troubling statements. In 2002, he declared that Jews are “the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.” The following year, Tantawi issued an edict declaring that Jews should no longer be described in such a manner, apparently under pressure from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While Tantawi did condemn the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 he later affirmed terrorism against Israelis. In 2002, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), reported that Tantawi “declared that martyrdom (suicide) operations and the killing of civilians are permitted acts and that more such attacks should be carried out. Tantawi’s positions were posted on http://www.lailatalqadr.com/, a website associated with Al Azhar.” This is MEMRI’s translation of the website:
“The great Imam of AlAzhar, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, demanded that the Palestinian people, of all factions, intensify the martyrdom operations [i.e. suicide attacks] against the Zionist enemy, and described the martyrdom operations as the highest form of Jihad operations. He says that the young people executing them have sold Allah the most precious thing of all.”
“[Sheikh Tantawi] emphasized that every martyrdom operation against any Israeli, including children, women, and teenagers, is a legitimate act according to [Islamic] religious law, and an Islamic commandment, until the people of Palestine regain their land and cause the cruel Israeli aggression to retreat…”
This same MEMRI report adds that “It should be noted that a March 18, 2002 demonstration at Al Azhar University featured eight students who had been trained to carry out suicide attacks against Israelis.” In other words, terrorist recruiting took place at the university where Tantawi, the man Makari praises as a peacemaker, served as Grand Mufti.
For all his expertise on the Middle East, Makari is simply not a reliable source of information about the realities in the region. Instead of honestly analyzing the challenges to peace in the Middle East, he tells a story that invariably portrays Israel as a singular obstacle to the welfare of people in the region.
This assessment is underscored in Makari’s efforts to use the Covid-19 pandemic to demonize Israel. During an April 17, 2020 webinar, Makari falsely suggested that Israel was making it harder for Hamas to respond to the Covid-19 crisis by preventing the passage of badly needed medical equipment into the Gaza Strip.
He used the Covid-19 crisis to inveigh against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been the scene of thousands of rocket attacks into Israel over the past two decades. He asked his listeners to write to their “elected representatives in the Senate and the House, asking them to use their good offices to pressure Israel to end the blockade of Gaza so that Palestinians there can move freely to West Bank and East Jerusalem to gain access to medicine and medical supplies, health care, and other basic requirements.”
Makari spoke as if Hamas hadn’t given the Israelis good reason to restrict the passage of goods into the Gaza Strip by firing thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians after Israel pulled 8,000 Jews out of the territory in 2005.
Makari also failed to report that Israel had trained doctors in Gaza how to deal with the Covid-19 virus despite the fact that Gaza is controlled by a group that has declared the destruction of Israel as its goal.
He also failed to acknowledge that Israel facilitated the passage of more than 88 tons of medical supplies into the Gaza Strip in the course of one week, even as Hamas has imprisoned Palestinians who spoke via Zoom with Israelis about the crisis, accusing them of “treason.”
The fact is, Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip worked together to prevent the spread of the virus, prompting Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, to praise Israeli and Palestinian authorities for their joint efforts to combat the pandemic.
For a religious leader to engage in a pre-existing campaign to weaponize the stress and uncertainty associated with the Covid-19 pandemic against Israel is an irresponsible thing to do.
With its mendacious and one-sided activism, the United Church of Christ has been a negative force for peace in the Middle East and on Jewish life in the United States. With its ongoing polemics against Israel, the UCC has brought wood to the fire of antisemitism.
Jewish leaders need to be careful in dealing with this church and its leaders.
Here is a timeline highlighting some of the more egregious aspects of the UCC’s “peacemaking” efforts in the Middle East.
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.