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Mennonites, Jews and the Land: Preparing for a discussion

6.10. 2016 Written By: John Kampen

John Kampen is a professor of Bible and a member of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. 

We Mennonites seem to continue to believe we can speak in a meaningful way to the issues of Israel/Palestine without a substantive engagement with the Jewish community in Israel and even North America. This failure on our part results in initiatives that call into question our integrity as people of peace as well as hamper their potential effectiveness.

In 2007, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA, upon the return of a fact-finding mission to Israel/Palestine, sent out an “open letter” calling for the denomination and its constituent churches to engage the issues of the region. They were thereby formally extending this discussion, which had formerly been confined to agencies such as Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams, into the conference structures and congregational arenas. The expressed desire was to provide the basis for a common conversation among the various parts of MC USA. This resulted in the “Come and See” tours that have continued to the present day.

At that time, I published an opinion piece in the online version of The Mennonite questioning whether we were ready to fully engage the issues related to the region. I shared the concerns about the current military occupation that were at the heart of the open letter, having witnessed many of them firsthand during my extended periods of residence in East Jerusalem and my regular travels throughout Israel/Palestine. Those concerns are as valid today as they were then and as they were 20 years before that and perhaps even more urgent at present. I also indicated there was more work to do before we were fully equipped to engage these issues.

What was at the heart of my concern then, and is still today, is the knowledge that we really had not lain the groundwork for a common conversation about the region in a meaningful way with the Jewish community. Many in our communities are confused about the importance of even bringing up the issue. Many regard Jewish-Christian relations and advocacy for the Palestinians as independent and unrelated issues. Such a stance already illustrates the problem. Our relationships are so weak that we do not even know how our stances are understood by the Jewish community. And we do not understand what the Jewish community has invested in their concerns about the welfare of Israel. From our standpoint, it is one more unjust government policy that must be challenged. Many Jews share some of our concerns about these policies but are deeply invested in the welfare of Israel. Yet we don’t know that because of our lack of communication. We have some vague understanding of how the Bible might be used to justify an occupation of the land. We have limited knowledge of what the existence of the present State of Israel actually means for many modern Jews.

Issues that would appear in conversations between Mennonites and Jews would require a good deal of our attention in ways we may not find comfortable. The first issue is the Holocaust. While both the Roman Catholic Church and many of the major Protestant denominations have studied and issued statements regarding their complicity in the Holocaust, Mennonites for the most part have remained silent. We are the denomination whose European ancestors spoke German and considered ourselves of German descent. In his account of service in the German army, Canadian Siegfried Bartel notes the way German Mennonites had lost almost entirely any stance of objection to military service and that conscientious objectors were the exception even in the Mennonite community. Support for Hitler continued in the Mennonite communities in the Americas long after emigration from the German-speaking communities of Russia and Eastern Europe. We also do not find evidence of approaches by Mennonites to the governments of Canada and the United States when Jews fleeing the pogroms and concentration camps of Europe were seeking refuge in the other nations of the world. We have not addressed our own complicity in this effort at extermination, one of the issues we would need to address in a real conversation with the Jewish communities of North America and/or Israel. I think, for example, of the way the Lutheran church addressed this issue well before it turned its attention to the treatment of Anabaptists.

We also have failed in significant ways to bring concerns about anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism into our discussions about our reading of the Bible and our theology. This is a remarkable omission for a “peace church.” In significant work following the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church developed a statement on the way Jews and Judaism should be presented in the teaching of the church, including specific guidelines for the treatment of biblical texts. Some Protestant denominations developed similar guidelines for educational and liturgical purposes. This type of issue has not been prominent in our Christian education materials or even in the guidelines used for their development. This is a crucial question for a “biblical” people. Similarly in our theology, we have tended toward a christological focus without recognizing the anti-Jewish presuppositions that are fundamental to its formulation in a good deal of western theology.

Then we return to the question of land. This is a complicated issue for us. Many of us were raised in rural communities with a deep attachment to land while being taught a pilgrim theology rooted in migration. We were taught that we should not become too attached to material things or geographical location, yet family life revolved around the farm and its well-being, reflecting a deep attachment to land. Our lived experience is different from the theology that supported us. Denied access to their ancestral lands for almost two millennia, Jews remained second-class citizens and often worse in most of the countries they were dispersed to during that time. For example, they were not permitted to own property in many European countries. Now they have come to occupy a land that frequently was the property of another. The “settlement” stories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are filled with accounts of how urban residents learned to be farmers, how professionals and intellectuals learned to live lives centered in manual labor. This complex picture is made more complicated by our ambivalent attachment to our own land.

The land of Israel, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are intertwined for significant portions of the Jewish community. They share a set of hopes and fears for the area similar to our concerns and, more importantly, those of many Palestinians. But we have not engaged with the Jewish community to the extent that we understand their perspectives on this question or that they would trust our initiatives. We have work to do.

The views expressed in this opinion post do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.

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