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Divesting Decency

Watch out for anti-Israel academics. They tried to boycott Israeli scholars with no success. Their university divestment campaigns have failed. Yet now they can claim a victory – not in any institution of higher education, but in the Anglican Church.

In an all-too-predictable twist Middle East studies, and scholars such as American Lawrence Davidson, have been enlisted to justify an ancient manifestation of anti-Semitism revived: replacement theology, sometimes called supersessionism. This doctrine, as proposed by St. Augustine, asserts that the Jews fell from divine favor when they refused to accept Christ, and that God chose the Church to replace them. In the updated version of replacement theology, Palestinians are the new chosen people. The modern Jewish state is considered an occupying power because the Jews forfeited their right to the promised land. But modern adherents to replacement theology would find their hatred a hard sell if they relied solely on New Testament imagery; instead, they describe Israel as a Nazi state or compare it to apartheid South Africa, making sure that Israel’s status as the new Rome is clear. And of course, the Palestinians are cast as the new Jews.

The Anglican Consultative Council recently affirmed its support for replacement theology when it accepted the September 22 divestment recommendation by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network (APJN). On the basis of an eight day trip to the area – during the Jewish High Holy Days when Israeli officials were unable to hold meetings - the recommendation refers frequently to the “Occupation” and portrays Israel as a colonialist state.[i] It calls for Israel to retreat to its 1967 borders and denies Israel the right to fight terrorism through direct intervention – asserting that “draconian… home demolitions, checkpoints, identity card systems… make any kind of normal life impossible” – or by disengagement.[ii] Israel’s defensive, targeted attacks on terrorists are condemned as “(c)ollective punishment of the Palestinian people”.[iii]

The APJN statement places all the blame for the conflict on Israel’s defensive measures. Rather than demanding an end to terrorism, it weakly condemns the “cycle of violence,” then makes the accusation that “it is the Occupation in its many facets that foments the violence and fuels the conflict”.[iv] The Anglican Consultative Council approved this apology for terrorism.

The Anglican Church has treated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a theological, not a political issue, largely thanks to lobbying by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. Sabeel’s president, Naim Ateek, a former Anglican canon, translates current events into scenes from the New Testament, portraying the Palestinians as Jesus. In his 2001 Easter Message, Ateek referred to the Israeli government as a “crucifixion system,” and in previous statements called Israelis “Herods.” Ateek’s efforts to revive the accusation that the Jews killed Jesus and to direct the resulting hatred against the state of Israel have in effect been embraced by official Anglican circles

But the Anglican Church’s accusations are also directly supported by activist historians. One who promotes the anti-Israel historical narrative is Lawrence Davidson, who teaches at West Chester University. Davidson advocates divestment from Israel and compares his campaign to the movement that pressured South Africa to end apartheid. He frequently speaks in favor of divestment to academic and religious audiences, including the American branch of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church.

The main theme in Davidson’s writing is self-deception. According to Davidson, Israel is responsible for Palestinian terrorism but doesn’t realize it because “(t)he Israelis see their situation in terms of a… closed information environment… the Israelis… have adhered to a mythologized and self-centered interpretation of events”[v] (emphasis in original). Davidson describes Israeli society as smothered by Nazi-like propaganda, when in fact the Israeli government allows for complete freedom of speech and welcomes criticism. Davidson follows his arguments to their logical conclusion and declares that U.S. aggression resulted in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, a fact not evident to the rest of us because of our instinctive denial.[vi]

In October 2003, Davidson delivered a lecture to the Middle East Study Group of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.[vii] Davidson described terrorism to the Episcopalians as a natural and understandable action caused and encouraged by the Israelis: “What you want is what you get.”[viii] He denied that Israeli security efforts had any beneficial effects, characterizing them as “pure, mean harassment in order to make life as miserable as possible”.[ix] Davidson glossed over all past Arab aggression and summed up Israel’s fight for independence thus: “Zionists waged war against poorly armed and trained Arab nations.”[x]

Ateek and the other Palestinian Christians involved with Sabeel are working to reverse the trend of Protestant support for Israel. Christian Zionism, based on a messianic theology, inspired nineteenth-century Protestants to support the creation of a Jewish state. Now, Protestants like Ateek use replacement theology to oppose Christian Zionism and the Jewish state. With scholars such as Davidson buttressing this theology, it is not surprising that some church leaders feel it is their duty to punish Israel with divestment.

Sarah Brodsky is an intern at the Middle East Forum. She wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project that critiques Middle East Studies with an eye toward improvement.


[i] Anglican Peace and Justice Network Statement on the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, September 22, 2004,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Davidson, Lawrence, “Davidson Replies to Gil-White,” Emperor’s Clothes, July 9, 2003,

[vi] Davidson, Lawrence, “America’s Habit of Self-Deception,” National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

[vii] Al-Quds – Jerusalem Lectures

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

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