The time to engage mainline Christians is now

From June 23-28, Episcopalians will be gathering in Louisville for their 81st General Convention. Then, on June 25-July, the Presbyterian Church USA will convene its 226th General Assembly in Salt Lake City. If historical trends hold, both events will entertain overtures and resolutions of great concern to the State of Israel and the American Jewish community.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori addresses deputies, bishops and others in advance of the start of the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Episcopal Diocese of New York/Facebook

A movement has been building in mainline Christian churches, slowly but surely, that is highly critical of Israel. It has become commonplace at these national gatherings to find statements seeking to delegitimize the State of Israel. Activists, some within the denominations but many from outside interest groups, have promoted anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric that has reignited long latent antisemitism within these communities. Theology is promoted that presents the Jewish faith as “tribal,” views Palestinians as the true heirs to the Exodus story, and removes the Jewish community from God’s covenant.

Previously, the assemblies have:

  • called for boycotts, economic as well as cultural, against not only Israeli businesses but also any ventures conducting business with Israel, private or public; 
  • advocated for the end of U.S. military aid to Israel;
  • labeled the State of Israel as an apartheid state;
  • failed to condemn Hamas and other forms of terrorism against the Israeli people; and
  • labeled the occupation as the evil that promotes violence, completely ignoring the reality of history that has brought us to the present.

We were concerned even before Oct. 7; but since then, we fear the stridency and vitriol we already expected to see at these gatherings will be significantly worse. This year, the debate will move beyond previous “traditional” critiques of Israel as an apartheid state and as a target for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Now we will see claims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes, as well as attacks against the very legitimacy of a Jewish state — an echo of what we are seeing on many campuses. 

The damage being done to our community relations is significant. We have heard from Jewish friends and colleagues across the country, clergy and lay people, who have been “ghosted” by their non-Jewish counterparts. As Jews feel increasingly threatened by antisemitism, there is silence from too many within the mainline Protestant world. 

Traditionally, mainline churches and their neighboring synagogues have worked side by side on mutual concerns. Homelessness, hunger and civil rights are just a few among these issues. As the leaders of mainline denominations become more shrill and deaf to the legitimate concerns of the Jewish community, much of the shared promise and progress of interfaith relations may be at risk. 

There are some in the Jewish community who wonder if there is a need to continue to advocate with the mainline denominations, pointing to their shrinking membership and overall influence in society. However, to dismiss these communities of faith plays into the hands of anti-Israel activists. BDS movement activists targeted the mainline denominations long before BDS appeared on college campuses; the moral cover of these religious groups emboldened the activists to enter the college arena and then city councils. 

The same is true now. The mainline denominations remain the proving ground for anti-Israel strategies. Whatever is successful in these churches is then taken to and magnified in other arenas. We believe that during these summer gatherings, opponents will directly attempt to condemn Zionism and question the right of Israel to exist.

While the challenge of countering these trends in progressive and mainline Christian spaces, denominations and churches can be daunting, we believe there is an approach that could work.

It is critical that Jewish community messaging and engagement be tailored to the progressive Christian world. Mainline Protestant denominations are very different from Evangelicals. The issues and talking points are distinct from other audiences and denominations. Pathways has been mapping and examining the specific dynamics within mainline Protestant denominations to find the right priorities and messaging elements to focus on. We have also developed a handbook for those in the Jewish community for how to approach, develop messaging and engage with mainline or progressive Christian leaders.

In order to reach progressive Christians, members of mainline denominations need to be involved as well — messengers who can thread the needle of steering clear of Christian Zionism on one extreme and Palestinian Liberation Theology, with its embrace of BDS, on the other extreme. This is why Pathways has expanded its work, organizing around these denominational assemblies and engaging mainline Protestant clergy and congregations in strategic ways.

Jewish community and supporters of Israel can have a significant impact by creating alternative narratives and initiatives to counter Israel delegitimization efforts in this particular community context. In addition to the important symbolic statement that this will make in and of itself, the messaging and strategies developed in this context can be used to help push back against activists in other arenas as well.

Todd Stavrakos is director of Pathways and pastor at Gladwyne Presbyterian Church in Gladwyne, Penn.