Methodist study guide blasted for demonizing Israel, Jews

A “study guide” on Israel prepared by the United Methodist Church has been slammed by local and national Jewish leaders as rife with distortions and veering past anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism.

“The whole purpose of this book is to demonize Israel, de-legitimize Israel and demonize Israel’s supporters, meaning the Jewish community,” said Yitzhak Santis, the director of Middle Eastern affairs for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Santis’ comments echoed national statements made this week by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and B’nai B’rith International.

Among some of the troubling passages in the 225-page guide, written by Jewish-born minister, the Rev. Stephen Goldstein are:

n Sabra translates as patience, a very Palestinian quality, but only remotely Israeli.

n There is a latent hysteria in Israeli life … It explains the paranoiac sense of isolation that had been a main characteristic of the Israeli temper since 1948.

n Are we not called to testify when oppressors use their identity as the oppressed with stories of 60 years ago?

n [Religious political parties] are proponents of a religious racism that some scholars insist is inherent in some of the traditional writings and interpretations of Rabbinic Judaism regarding the non-Jew.

Jewish critics of the Methodist manual also protested passages about Israel’s so-called “original sin” against the Palestinians and searches for a just peace “between Auschwitz and the occupation” — thereby connecting the Holocaust and the occupation.

The guide, whose introduction describes it as a “balanced survey” of the conflict, is one of three “mission studies” published annually by the church’s General Board of Global Ministries to “motivate, inform and enrich” the church community, according to the board’s Web site.

Heading into the United Methodist Church’s General Conference this April in Fort Worth, Texas, six of the church’s more than 100 conferences are pushing for pension divestments from companies doing business in Israel.

That movement — and the subsequent publication of the study guide — has left the Rev. Archer Summers stymied. The senior minister at Palo Alto’s First United Methodist Church thinks his denomination has given itself a black eye.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “The United Methodist Church, we’re the fuzzyheaded middle-of-the-road crowd — live and let live. Some ideologues in the denomination are out to demonize Israel and, unfortunately they’ve been able to use the United Methodist publications for making this case. Ultimately it makes us look as though we’re absolutely clueless, and that’s sad.”

Summers has particular trouble with a passage quoting a letter from David Ben-Gurion to his son, Amos, in 1937. The study guide claims Israel’s first president wrote that “we will expel the Arabs and take their place.”

In actuality, Summers points out, Ben Gurion’s letter says, “We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. … All our aspiration is built on the assumption — proven throughout all our activity in the Land — that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs.”

The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States, will consider two divestment resolutions when its chief policymaking body, the General Conference, gathers in April.

If the resolutions pass, Jewish leaders fear the move could reignite a push for divestment in other denominations, particularly in the Presbyterian Church USA, whose General Assembly convenes in June in San Jose. Although the first Protestant church to endorse divestment, the Presbyterians backtracked in 2006 from their 2004 decision to divest, moving instead to apply general principles for responsible investing in Israel.

A joint statement from General Board of Global Ministries and the Women’s Division defended the guide as consistent with the church’s position on the conflict. It says charges of bias are based on a “twisted reading” of Goldstein’s personal reflections.

“The mission study’s perspective is in keeping with the thoughtful, informed and consistent position of the United Methodist Church on Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories,” the statement said.

Joe Eskenazi is a j. staff writer.

Ben Harris is a staff writer with JTA.