The Church of Scotland vs. Israel

The Church of Scotland is a large organization that claims a membership of 500,000.

Its congregants are served by 1200 ministers in parishes and chaplaincies, most of which are in Scotland but some of which are in other countries. An important body within its structure is the Church and Society Council whose stated function is to engage on behalf of the Church in national, political and social issues affecting Scotland and the world today. The broad range of issues with which it has been concerned include human rights, asylum, ethics, science and technology, gambling, climate change, and education.

The stated aim of the Council is to use theological, ethical, and spiritual perspectives when formulating policy, and to represent the Church by offering appropriate and informed comments. To this end the Council issued on May 3, 2013 what it termed its latest reflection on questions that need to be faced as "the political and humanitarian situation in the Holy Land continues to be a source of pain and concern for us all."

This reflection is a 5,000-word, ten-page document entitled "The Inheritance of Abraham? A report on the 'promised land'." It will be presented to the 700 members who will attend the annual general assembly, the sovereign body of the Church, which is to meet in late May. If adopted it will be the official policy of the Church and it will be circulated by Presbyterian communities in Scotland.

This report, the thrust of which is already apparent in the title, aroused immediate controversy through its doctrinaire and tendentious assertions, the nature of which was unexpected. The Church of Scotland has hitherto been regarded as affirming the right of the Jewish people to return to the land promised to them many times in the Bible. It also had expressed support for the State of Israel. The report changes this perspective both with its polemical statements critical of Israeli policies and by propounding the view that biblical scripture, both the Bible and the New Testament, did not establish a basis for Jewish claims to Israel. The Church of Scotland is being asked to adopt the same anti-Israeli rhetoric and proposals for boycott and divestment already under consideration or already adopted by mainstream Christian organizations, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ, in the United States, and by Protestant churches in Europe.

In its theological interpretation of the scriptures, the report states, "Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory." It argues that the "promised land" (which the report always puts in quotation marks) indicated in the Bible was not a place so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. The report continues, the "promised land" can be found -- or built anywhere.

The whole discussion in the report about the "promised land" is based on two textual interpretations. The promises in the "Hebrew Bible" are interpreted as conditional in nature, particularly in regard to physical possession of any land. The second is based on the ambiguities in both Jewish and Christian scriptures in reference to the extent of the "land."

The report makes two points to provide an "adequate Christian " understanding of the "promised land." One point holds there are different meanings attached to "land" in different contexts and in the theological and political agendas of the various authors of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis speaks in various places of Abraham's descendants receiving "all these lands," of "the land of Canaan," and "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates."

The other point is that the New Testament contains a "radical re-interpretation of the concepts of 'Israel,' 'temple,' 'Jerusalem,' and 'land.' " In a somewhat bewildering manner, Jesus is brought into the argument. His vision, according to the report, is "not for one limited area of territory, it is a way of anticipating how things can be if people are obedient to God." The report bases this interpretation on its somewhat opaque assertion that metaphor and symbol are often used by the Biblical writers.

Biblical scholars and theologians will rightly dispute the accuracy of the report's interpretation of scripture and historians will challenge the inaccurate picture of what the report calls Israel's 'ethno-national Zionist goals." Whatever the specialist judgment on these issues, the ostensibly scholarly theological discussion in the report has overtones that are ideologically partisan and hostile to Israel.

It is one thing to argue a general proposition that it is incorrect to claim that "scripture offers any peoples a privileged claim for possession of a particular territory." It is another to argue that the State of Israel would have a more legitimate claim to the land if it dealt justly with the Palestinians. Yet this is exactly what the report contends. Even more partisan is the implied comparison of Israel to the old apartheid regime of South Africa. The report includes a quotation by church leaders of South Africa, seemingly approved by the report, to consider "economic and political measures involving boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions against the state of Israel focused on illegal settlements." Without any meaningful political or economic analysis the report states that the "fact that the land (of Palestine) is currently being taken by settlement expansion, the separation barrier, house clearance, theft and force makes it doubly wrong to seek biblical sanction for this."

The report implicitly questions Israel's right to exist, and goes so far as to suggest that the existence of the State could be invalidated because of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The overall conclusion is that "Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to any particular territory." The report states that the Church of Scotland is committed to several principles: the end of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza; affirmation that the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law; belief in the right of return and/or compensation for Palestinian refugees.

As a result of the initial criticism and unfavorable discussion of the report, the Church of Scotland took it down from its web site and agreed to change it by adding a "new introduction to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used." It appears to have slightly modified its harsh and biased tone. The Church declares it supports Israel's right to exist, and condemns all violence and acts of terrorism wherever they happen across the world, and also condemns "all things that create a culture of anti-Semitism." It explains that the Church is concerned about injustices faced by the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but that concern should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist.

Spokespeople for the Church and Society Council genuinely believe the report was careful to question and challenge, not condemn or dismiss. In this they are mistaken. The report is essentially partisan in nature and supports the Palestinian point of view and its narrative of history. Moreover, the report is harmful to relations between Christians and Jews, even if the Church is not anti-Semitic as it claims. The report is burning bridges between the two faiths rather than building them. It prevents rather than helps cooperation between people of good will in both faiths to forward the peace process for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. If the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is genuinely disposed to forward the peace process it should not adopt the unhelpful and prejudiced report of its Church and Society Council.