One of the many difficulties with today’s popular view of Scripture as being more flexible than the average political campaign promise is that those given to compromise on biblical standards can quickly paint themselves into a very difficult corner.
Take, for example, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian denomination to which some 42 percent of Scots say they are connected, even though official numbers say the “pledged” membership is much lower, at 9 percent. The group has wandered so far from the principles taught by founder John Knox as to be almost unrecognizable, especially, it seems, when it comes to the question of Israel. Until it was forced to beat a very hasty retreat, the Kirk, as it’s known in Scotland, stood the Bible on its head and said the sacred text didn’t really mean what the plain language of the text says.
For millennia, Christians have recognized the promises made to the Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures (which Christians call the “Old Testament”) as immutable: God, they said, promised the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac, and that isn’t going to change. Such an understanding was behind the British Zionist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and was the underpinning of Lord Arthur Balfour’s famous 1917 statement: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Thirty-one years later — in an anniversary celebrated last week, in fact — the State of Israel came into being.
Unfortunately, not everyone received this news with joy. As the British Mandate over post-Ottoman Empire Palestine ended and Israel emerged, some local Arabs, backed by neighboring states unhappy with any organized Jewish presence in the land, revolted against the United Nations-brokered “two-state” solution and attacked with military force. The Israelis fought back and won, as they would three more times over the ensuing 65 years.
Enter the Kirk: In a 10-page document released May 3 — and withdrawn days later — officials of the Church of Scotland declared that “promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory,” adding, “Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory.”
This went over about as well as you might expect. Ephraim Borowski, leader of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (approximately 6,000 Jews reside there), said the report “reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism. … The arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts and Jewish theology is breathtaking.”
After complaints from Israel’s ambassador to Britain, as well as the Anti-Defamation League and numerous Christian supporters of Israel, the Church of Scotland did an about-face. It pulled the report from its website (copies are still posted elsewhere online), met with Jewish leaders and announced, “There is no change in the Church of Scotland’s long-held position of the right of Israel to exist.”
There’s a gigantic irony in all this, conveniently omitted by the Church of Scotland report that brayed about the possession of land in Israel by, well, Israelis: The same Church of Scotland that seems to condemn the Jewish state owns a very nice, five-star luxury hotel in Tiberias, Israel, on land that has been part of that nation since 1948. (Disclosure: I stayed in the Scots Hotel in 2011 as part of a trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. It is a rather posh place in which to pause while touring the Galilee region.)
What’s more, the Scots Hotel is a moneymaker for the Church of Scotland. It made a return of $535,536.30 last year, according to a report in The Scotsman newspaper, which noted that church leaders voted down a motion on May 20 calling for the sale of the profitable property. The hotel’s valuation, according to the paper, is $19.8 million, though I suspect it probably would fetch far more on the open market.
As the Church of Scotland leadership tries to clamber out of the hole it dug with its ill-considered, anti-Israel draft statement, perhaps a return to the clear thinking of John Knox, and the clear word of Scripture, would be in order.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.