"We can be robust in putting our point across, but in this instance we acknowledge that some of the words we have chosen may have been misunderstood, which created an anxiety in the Jewish community." So states the introduction to the revised version of the Church of Scotland's "The Inheritance of Abraham," in a careful acknowledgement of the outrage that the original report, released earlier this month, caused among Jews in Britain and elsewhere.
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"Robust" is probably not the word that most Jews would select in describing the original version, which sought to deny, just as the new version does, any linkage between Jewish scripture and a right to possession of the Land of Israel. In the new version’s own words: “The ‘promised land’ in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor…To Christians in the 21st century, promises about the land of Israel shouldn’t be intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory.”
The great majority of Jewish readers would most likely plump for that rather unfashionable, much maligned term, "anti-Semitic". They would do so because the report's initial iteration was a breathtaking exercise in the kind of replacement theology that most of us thought had been dispensed with long ago, thanks to the efforts of influential Christian scholars like James Carroll, who has argued that Judaism and Christianity can retain "an intimate bond while being different". Choice observations like these – "Jesus offered a radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism, but the people of Nazareth were not ready for it," "[Jews] must be challenged...to stop thinking of themselves as victims and special" – led to the inescapable conclusion that the Church's real target was not Israeli policy, or even the Zionist movement, but Judaism itself.
As a result of protests from the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K. and from representatives of the Jewish community in Scotland, the Church withdrew the report a few days after it was posted online, and then issued a new, apparently sanitized version. Now, it is true that many of the provocative words and references in the original report which the Church disingenuously says were "misunderstood" have been excised from version two. But the supersessionist thrust of the report remains intact.
Anyone who cares to can compare the two reports – the new version lives on the Church of Scotland's website, while the original can be found on the website of Stephen Sizer, a fanatically anti-Zionist Anglican vicar who is, one might say, a particularly "robust" advocate of replacement theology. For my part, I was struck by the following:
The use of the term "Hebrew Bible" is common to both reports. And this is not a term that Jews use, in much the same way that Muslims won't refer to the "Muslim Holy Book," but the Qu'ran. Why not talk about the Torah, or the Tanakh? In my view, it's because using authentically Judaic terms is a step too far for the Scottish Church, which retains its belief that Judaism is a particularist, ethnocentric faith that should have been toppled by the universalist message of Christianity.
The persistence of that belief is borne out in the new version of the report, which endorses the theology of Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian organization, and its founder, Naim Ateek. The principle movers behind the "Kairos" document – an earlier, equally radical manifesto that accuses Israel of "ravaging our land in the name of God" and argues for the Jewish state to be dismantled. Both Ateek and Sabeel are firm believers in replacement theology.
Just as the original version relied heavily on the work of marginal Jewish anti-Zionist figures in staking its moral and theological orientation, so does the new one. Within the Jewish community, the anti-Zionist website Mondoweiss is regarded with a mixture of derision and contempt; nonetheless, the Church of Scotland want to persuade us that it's an authoritative source on both the political and religious aspects of Judaism. Readers will search in vain for a quote from a mainstream Jewish thinker, whether that's the Rambam, Rashi, or U.K. Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks.
The new version states that the Church believes that the “country of Israel is a recognised State”. But in its endorsement of Sabeel, and in its insistence on the Palestinian "right of return" – a position that holds Israel uniquely culpable for the fate of the Palestinians – it is clear that the Church does not believe that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.
All this matters for two principal reasons. Firstly, the Church of Scotland is the latest example of a Christian denomination – others include the Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the U.S. – who crudely parody the Torah as the religious equivalent of the title deed in a game of Monopoly. The effect is to infantilize the Jewish connection to the land of Israel - reducing it to an unsubstantiated playground chant of “It’s ours, only ours” - to make the subsequent point that Jews jealously guard the land of the Bible for themselves to the exclusion of everyone else.
But at the same time as reducing the ancient Jewish dialogue with God and the land of Israel to an irredeemably unsophisticated farce, the report suggests that it is a mistake of literalistic thinking to affirm the Jewish connection to the land: The real narrative of history is that the Jews are interlopers, while the Palestinians are, quite literally, God's people. As The Very Reverend Gilleasbuig MacMillan, who recently stepped down as minister of Edinburgh's St. Giles Cathedral, declared in a statement to the Scottish edition of the Times newspaper: "I feel very strongly about the State of Israel...[It] was carved out at the end of the Second World War with no provision whatever being made for the Palestinian people who had lived there for 2,000 years." It is, of course, no accident that the Rev. MacMillan traces the origins of the Palestinian people to the time of Jesus, as divorcing Christianity's figurehead from his Jewish environment is an essential component of replacement theology.
Secondly, the Scottish Church maintains a physical presence in both Israel and in the wider Middle East. Church properties in Israel include an imposing center in Jerusalem, a school in Jaffa, and – much to the chagrin of the die-hard anti-Zionists among its flock – a luxury hotel, restaurant and spa in Tiberias.
When I asked Nick Jury, the Church's affable media spokesman, about the Tiberias venture, he presented it, in an email to me, "...as a continuing operation which offers accommodation to guests of any or no faith and to pilgrims from around the world who come to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to meet the local community." However, a recent item in Scotland's Herald newspaper offered a different rationale: Had the Church followed the wishes of those of its members who favor boycotting Israel by selling its land and buildings in Tiberias, there was the danger that these – in the inimitable phrase of the paper's correspondent, Angus Roxburgh –"would end up in Jewish hands."
While Roxburgh wrote off the notion that the Tiberias hotel might contribute to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians as "pie in the sky," the Church feels differently. All its properties in Israel, the Church says, exist to further solidarity with "a people struggling to maintain their faith in the face of enormous pressures."
Herein, though, lies the problem: No such explicitly political commitment grounds the Church's summary of its workin neighboring countries like Egypt and Syria. The approximately 8 million Coptic Christians who live in Egypt are subjected to legal discrimination and terrorist atrocities that frequently go unpunished, but the Scottish Church does not, publicly at least, draw attention to the "enormous pressures" faced by these believers.
More than mere double standards are at work here. Influenced by Sabeel's theology, the Church of Scotland elevates the situation of the Palestinians, reinvented as Jesus's own people, far above the grotesque plight of Christians elsewhere in the region. It's a stance that is bound to ensure that the Church's Jewish interlocutors remain fearful of its true intentions. The bluntly anti-Semitic phrasing of the original report may have been removed, but the delegitimization of Judaism – not simply political Zionism – remains very much intact.
Ben Cohen is a New York-based writer on Jewish and international affairs. His articles and commentaries have been published in, amongst others, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary and Tablet. Follow him on Twitter @BenCohenOpinion