One of the best known scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian film shows Brian’s mother, Mandy Cohen, insisting that her son is not the Messiah. She shouts at the multitude,
He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!
A similar logic underpins a new report on the ‘promised land’, voted through by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The Jews, it seems, have long been naughty boys (and girls), and this misbehaviour is now manifest in Zionism and the actions of Israel.
The Church report seems unsure if Jewish scripture itself is to blame; if Jews misunderstand their own scripture; if Christian Zionists misunderstand Jewish (and Christian) scripture; or if Jews have been especially naughty for rejecting the perfection of Christianity and the New Testament. Whatever the case, the report explains that the ‘promised land’ is spiritual and universal. It “can be found – or built – anywhere”, belonging to all people, not just Jews, and both Jewish and Christian Zionists need to stop claiming otherwise.
The first of the report’s “Deliverances” sums it up:
Refute claims that scripture offers any peoples a privileged claim for possession of a particular territory.
It was understandable that Life of Brian would cause many Christians to feel that their faith was being singled out for misinterpretation and ridicule. Any Jews reading the Church of Scotland report may experience a similar feeling, but they are not the intended audience. Rather, it aims to educate Scottish Christians, to rebuke Christian Zionists, and to reassure Christians who feel guilty about antisemitism.
For most of these last 2,013 years, Christian attitudes to Jews have not been the best of adverts for the creed of ‘love thy neighbour’. We had hoped that the modern day Church of Scotland would be a living contrast to this history, but that hope is now exposed as naive and outmoded, superseded by the Church’s anxiety to argue against the ‘promised land’ ideology of (mainly American) Christian Zionists.
It is natural that a Christian report should employ Christian theology when speaking to Christians, but ultimately the subject of this report is not Christian Zionism, it is Jews, Judaism, the ‘promised land’ and how it manifests in modern day Israel. As Ben Cohen explains here in Haaretz newspaper, the report’s knowledge of Jews, Torah etc is little more than a “parody of Judaism…not only the delegitimization of political Zionism – but of Judaism itself”.
Beyond the theology, the saddest thing is that this episode will cause the small Scottish Jewish community to now ask if the Church of Scotland is antisemitic: either in intention, or in effect, or if the opposite is in fact the case. This will largely depend upon whether the Church shows itself genuinely open to hearing (and understanding) Jewish perspectives, or if it simply does not care. The distinction is crucial. Misunderstandings can be overcome with good faith and dialogue. To simply not care is entirely different, and in this context, amounts to malevolence.
The Church claims to care very deeply indeed. So, did these concerns extend to consulting with Jews when drawing up the offending report? Well, sort of, because this report is actually a revised version of an original edition that was far, far worse, but was removed and significantly amended following furious and unprecedented protest by the leadership of the Scottish Jewish community in early May 2013. (Their utter denunciation of the report’s content, its non-consultation with Jews and its impact upon interfaith relations really should be read here.) This included their describing the report as:
an outrage to everything that interfaith dialogue stands for. It reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism. It is biased, weak on sources, and contradictory. The picture it paints of both Judaism and Israel is barely even a caricature. The arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts and Jewish theology is breathtaking.
The following week, after a request from the Council for Christians and Jews, the Church hosted Jewish leaders and later thanked them for being “gracious in their concern”. The new report was issued “acknowledging that some of the original language, on reflection, was misguided”. The new report still gets nowhere near the sophistication and breadth of Jewish views – often sharply divergent – on the subject of Jews and the land of Israel, but it does at least ensure that the worst “misguided” elements are given a Stalinist makeover and wholly removed. For example, the following have all disappeared:
Politically, the wild claim that, “the visionary concept Eretz Yisrael Ha’shlema (from the Nile to the Euphrates) was fundamental to Ben-Gurion’s ideology”.
On antisemitism, the Holocaust and Christian superiority, “[Mark] Braverman is adamant that Christians must not sacrifice the universalist, inclusive dimension of Christianity and revert to the particular exclusivism of the Jewish faith because we feel guilty about the Holocaust. He is equally clear that the Jewish people have to repent of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians…They must be challenged, too, to stop thinking of themselves as victims and special…”.
Theologically, terming Judaism as “exclusive” and “particular”. These had indicated Judaism’s alleged moral and theological inferiority to Christianity.
Furthermore, there are some new and very important additions, such as “Israel is a country which is recognised within the international community of states”, and also condemnation of “anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”. (Why the report references Islamophobia in this context is curious. Anti-Christian hate or bias gets no specific name check.)
For a detailed analysis of the new report’s theological revisions see the Kippah and the Collar blog here. It explains, for example, how the rewrite of the Jonah section removes the worst anti-Jewish excesses, but retains, “For Christians, G-d in Jonah is merciful”, as if Jews, by contrast, would not believe G-d to be merciful.
The new report states that it does not “suggest that one perspective supersedes another”, i.e. that Christianity does not replace Judaism. You cannot, however, polish one thing into being another thing. For all its added veneer, the new version comes from the same thinking as its predecessor, only more politely. The Church hierarchy have not rethought the doctrine of the report, they just speedily rewrote it in time for the General Assembly on 23rd May. Engaging in a long dialogue with Jews was never part of the plan: not for the year prior to the first report’s release, nor after the first tranche of Jewish concerns were heard.
Indeed, the General Assembly overwhelmingly rejected a suggestion that everything be postponed until next year’s meeting, so as the Church might have proper dialogue with Scottish Jews. The rejection came after the Assembly received an assurance from the Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton that the Church was “looking forward to, and expecting” future dialogue with Scottish Jews. This assurance is questionable, especially when the Reverend also admitted in her opening of the Assembly debate that there had been no such prior dialogue within the “past year”. The new report will make no difference to Israel’s actions concerning Palestinians, but it (and its process) will significantly affect how Scottish Jews regard the Church.
The report (and the controversy) may also affect how Scottish Christians regard Scottish Jews, or at least how their leadership regards its Jewish counterpart. Never mind the theological infantilising of highly complex Jewish and Jewish Zionist attitudes to the land of Israel, there is also a grave risk of bad faith: as has occurred many times in settings where professed Jewish concerns are rejected as fake cover for Israel’s alleged crimes. Complain as a Jew in such a context and you get dismissed as a conspirator and a liar. The Church may well have to consciously reject such attitudes if it wants a meaningful future dialogue.
Unfortunately, the report’s authors are already steering the Church towards exactly this bad faith. Whereas the new report still does not quote a single Jewish theologian or Jewish authority on actual Jewish issues (including antisemitism), it now – following the Jewish complaints – includes an ugly and lengthy quotation from the politically charged Mondoweiss website. The quotation ends with a disgusting allegation, in the very worst of faith, concerning Jews who engage in dialogue with their Christian neighbours, but actually only care about covering Israel’s back with the smear of antisemitism:
…Non-support and, worse, criticism of Israeli policies, was seen by Jewish dialoguers as backtracking to anti-Semitism. That’s where the dialogue became a deal: Silence on the Christian side brings no criticism of anti-Semitism from the Jewish side.
Is this really how the Church of Scotland wishes its attitude to Jews and Jewish concerns about antisemitism to be understood?
Finally, there is what this new report says about what the Church is and is not, willing to target.
The report condemns the notion of a faith claiming a land, but it only names the Jews’“privileged claim” to Israel.
No mention is made of truly embattled Christians in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria or elsewhere. The Church may try and defend Christians who face persecution for merely being Christian, but its explicit moralising on others’ beliefs is, for now, strictly limited to those from whom there is no threat of anti-Christian riots and murders.
Frankly, it is impossible to imagine that the Church of Scotland would ever dare to write such a report that claimed to analyse the Koran, Mecca, concepts of Muslim land, dhimmitude and how all of this impacts against Christians today. What message does that double-standard send out?
Ultimately then, this report not only risks directly betraying Christian relations with Jews; it is also an indirect betrayal of all those Christians who most need the Church’s focus, energy, support, charity and prayers right now.