BOSTON — When Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw stood outside the Israeli Consulate here earlier this month, his protest marked the latest salvo within the liberal Christian denominations in the war over the Middle East.
Bishop Shaw previously made news on the international front less than one month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, when he last caused a furor here by protesting in front of the Israel's consulate. Since then, he has come out against the move to get the Episcopal Church to divest itself from companies doing business with Israel – a position praised by the local Jewish community – shuttled himself back and forth to Israel and the West Bank more than a half dozen times, and attempted, to an extent, to stay out of the headlines.
Until last week. In a case of what may be extraordinarily bad timing, Bishop Shaw chose Wednesday afternoon as the moment to publicly protest Israel's strike on Gaza in the wake of the Hamas kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit. That was after hostilities with Gaza had begun but before Hezbollah's Katyushah rockets began raining down on Israel's North. Bishop Shaw's defenders say that he was prompted by the plight of Gaza's Al Ahli Anglican Hospital, which lost power during the offensive. The bishop issued a somewhat nuanced statement to explain his actions."We pray for Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit and for an immediate and peaceful halt to the hostilities raging for the past two weeks in the Gaza Strip," the statement read, in part.
There's no nuance in images. Bishop Shaw's presence at the protest with Israel in harm's way overshadows any diplomatic objective that he and his supporters say was the goal of the protest. Yet while the high-profile anti-Israel actions of those such as Bishop Shaw capture the spotlight, there is a quiet insurgency taking place to combat the efforts of Bishop Shaw and his ilk. A Dominican nun based in Jericho, New York, Sister Ruth Lautt O.P., has formed a group called Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East aimed at retaking the center of the Roman Catholic Church and the moderate Protestant churches. Seeing the wildfire of support of the divestment issue among Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, Sister Lautt, trained as a litigator, said something had to be done.
"I said, this has gotten way out of hand. There has to be some kind of mainstream Christian voice out there," says Sister Lautt. "We've got to get people to understand this conflict instead of having this knee-jerk blame Israel for everything" attitude.
The group is already making some headway. Its members spent two weeks in June at the Episcopalian convention in Columbus, Ohio. The news out of the convention was all around the debate over gay clerics. What didn't get reported was the work of Sister Lautt's group in helping to shelve, for the time being, at least, contentious resolutions on the Middle East. Bishop Shaw, incidentally, chaired the committee overseeing the resolutions.They did not object to another successful resolution encouraging church members to pray for and visit the Holy Land on the grounds that this was benign.
"They were considering bad resolutions," says Dennis Hale, a Medford, Mass.-based Episcopalian who traveled to Columbus with Sister Lautt's group. "We testified against these resolutions, and they were amended."
Even so, Sister Lautt and Mr. Hale, an associate professor in political science at Boston College tell a disturbing story of their treatment while manning a booth for the group at the convention's exhibition hall."We were at first treated like pariahs," says Hale, who began to reconsider his Episcopalian affiliation given the negative reception he received.
Yet along with the criticism and sharp words came quiet expressions of support, and Hale's moment of spiritual doubt passed. Now Mr. Hale and Sister Lautt believe they can reach the middle of the moderate churches, if they can just get their message out. Another of her 13 board and executive committee members is the former speaker of the New York City Council, Peter Vallone. Sister Lautt says her group has plans to attend national gatherings of the U.C.C., Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The group will focus on these "mainline" churches and not Evangelical Christians or "Christian Zionists", Sister Lautt says, because their viewpoints on Israel are already well known and represent a different pro-Israel perspective. Her group's is rooted more in the post-Vatican II legacy of social justice as it relates to Jews and Israel.
They may well find a sympathetic audience. Thoughtful local Episcopalians, privately, say they are outraged by Bishop Shaw's actions. "Episcopalians are appalled and mystified. If you were ever going to take sides, why would you do so now?" asks one Episcopalian lay leader. Because there is no strict church hierarchy, as there is in the Catholic church, blowback from Bishop Shaw's actions may be hard to measure. One consequence could come in the form of diminished giving to a fundraising appeal upcoming in the Fall.
The story of the Episcopal Church is an important one because it will signal whether the mainline Protestant churches can stem rampant anti-Israelism within their ranks. Within Christianity, the deep devotion the Evangelicals have for Israel is well-known.The first meeting of Christians United for Israel in Washington D.C. this week attracted 3,000, largely Evangelical, attendees.
As important to the cause of pro-Israel activism as Evangelical Christians have been over the years, courageous voices in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches are more than welcome. In the battle for public opinion these days, every voice counts.
Mr. Gitell is a contributing editor for The New York Sun.