SMU professors speak against Israel trip

By faculty listed below

We are writing this article in relation to the summer 2017 Holy Land trip that an outside organization, Passages Israel, is organizing for SMU students. There is more to this trip than first meets the eye. Passages Israel, the national organization planning the trip, describes it as an opportunity for “Christian college students with leadership potential” to “encounter the roots of their Biblical faith first-hand and come face to face with the modern-day miracle that is Israel.” Its promotional video and main webpages promise spiritual enrichment, education about the modern Middle East, and great fun.

But Passages has a much more specific agenda than simply exposing students to the sights and sites of Israel. The group is not bashful about its aims, although identifying them requires spending a little time on its website and those of its sponsors, Philos Project and Museum of the Bible (MOTB).

Passages is a political advocacy group that wants to “convert” its participants to specific political opinions so that it can mobilize them for activism. Its goal is to cultivate not only an appreciation of Israeli culture but also support for hardline policies regarding Israel’s relationships with Palestinians and surrounding nations.

The philosophical foundation for Passages is a theology known as Christian Zionism. Christian Zionists believe that Christians have a God-mandated duty to support the modern nation-state of Israel because of biblical passages about God’s covenant relationship with Jews and their role in the end time.

As Passages board member and MOTB vice president Allen Quine told a tour group in January, Passages is built on on these ideas: “That we see a place for Israel in the future. That we think that as you read the Bible that Israel has a unique place in God’s heart and … God’s plan. So that we become aware of that and impressed by, so that we become advocates for Israel not only for future Israel as God has it in his plan for the kingdom but also in the presence of current Israel, that we become supporters and advocates of present-day Israel.” Similar sentiments permeate other Passages materials.

Both groups sponsoring Passages are themselves controversial. MOTB is a non-profit founded by Hobby Lobby president Steve Green. Critics have faulted it for possible ethical breaches in its acquisition and handling of antiquities, among other reasons. The second is Philos Project, which describes itself as “the network hub for leaders and future leaders who are committed to promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.” In regard to Israel, Philos Project’s idea of “positive engagement” seems to mean being a Christian Zionist who supports hawkish views that typically align with the conservative ends on both the American and Israeli political spectrums.

Christian Zionism is a very important tenet for some Christians and churches. However, many other churches and denominations around the world reject it because of the anti-Palestinian views that often accompany it. It has been denounced by Palestinian church officials like the Roman Catholic and Syrian Orthodox archbishops and the Lutheran and Anglican bishops of Jerusalem. Some churches have rejected policy positions usually associated with it, such as support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The United Methodist Church, for example, has issued numerous resolutions calling for an even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine controversy that seeks justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Christian Zionism is also controversial among Jews. Some are grateful for its support for Israel. Others are troubled by its political positions and anti-Palestinian bias, and many are deeply offended by the common Christian Zionist belief that Jews will convert to Christianity at the end of time.

The Passages itinerary promises that “participants will hear from a diverse set of speakers,” but in reality, the range of diversity is not that great. Students will meet with a member of the Israeli parliament, present or former members of the Israeli military, and Christian Zionist teachers. Students will meet with Arab Israeli citizens who are Christians and who regard Israel as a guarantor of their safety, but not with those who feel differently. The proposed itinerary identifies only one Muslim, a journalist who is a harsh critic of Palestinian authorities. A Palestinian who has been added to the original itinerary is a peace activist. Otherwise, Palestinian voices are largely absent.

Online materials from Passages and Philos Project do not inspire confidence that students on this trip will receive a balanced and accurate introduction to the controversy over Palestine and Israel. Understanding the current situation requires taking seriously the colliding tragedies and competing narratives of both Jews and Palestinians. But promoting that sort of sophisticated, nuanced understanding is not the goal of this trip. Creating Christian Zionists is.

In fact, Passages and Philos Project materials are remarkable in their omission of any serious attempt to understand the complex origins of the Israel/ Palestine conflict. While they succeed in conveying the sense of pressure and anxiety felt by many Israelis, they generally ignore the experiences and living conditions of Palestinians. In some cases, their descriptions of Palestinians sink to the level of offensive stereotypes. They often portray Palestinians in general and Muslims in particular only as dangerous threats to Israeli safety, not as human beings with their own stories and experiences. Their materials tend to blame solely Palestinians for current problems. But both the history and the present are more complicated than that.

Even the trip’s proposed itinerary is politicized. It is designed not only to take students to standard holy sites but also to expose Israel’s security vulnerability. Students will visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank to see how small Israel is from east to west at its narrowest point. They will approach the Syrian and Lebanese borders to learn about the danger of Hezbollah and (presumably) ISIS. To feel the region’s atmosphere of fear, students will even go to the town of Sderot, known as the “bomb shelter capital of the world” because it is among the most likely places in the country to be hit by rockets fired by Hamas.

How Israelis and Palestinians should proceed to create lasting peace and security for both groups is a difficult question on which people of good will hold different positions. The faculty and administrators signing this op-ed certainly do. But we are unanimous in being troubled by the biased way Passages approaches complicated historical questions, policy issues, social problems, and life situations. We are especially concerned that students might register for this trip without realizing they are in effect being recruited by an advocacy group that intends to indoctrinate them with specific political and religious viewpoints.

Students considering traveling with Passages should make sure they understand what they are signing up for.

Sincerely,

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology

Sabri Ates

Associate Professor of History, Dedman College

Rhonda Blair

Professor of Theatre, Meadows School of the Arts

Mark Chancey

Professor of Religious Studies, Dedman College

Richard Cogley

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Dedman College

Jill DeTemple

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Dedman College

Johan Elverskog

Professor of Religious Studies, Dedman College

Katherine Carté Engel

Associate Professor of History, Dedman College

Rick Halperin

Director, Embrey Human Rights Program, Dedman College

George Holden

Professor of Psychology, Dedman College

Bradley J. Klein

Associate Director, Embrey Human Rights Program, Dedman College

Bruce Levy

Senior Lecturer in English, Dedman College

Beth Newman

Associate Professor of English, Dedman College

Daniel T. Orlovsky

Professor of History, Dedman College

Dayna Oscherwitz

Associate Professor of Foreign Languages & Literatures, Dedman College

Harold J. Recinos

Professor of Church and Society, Perkins School of Theology

Susanne Scholz

Professor of Old Testament, Perkins School of Theology

Abraham Smith

Professor of New Testament, Perkins School of Theology

Steve Sverdlik

Professor of Philosophy, Dedman College

Kathleen Wellman

Professor of History, Dedman College

Nina Schwartz

Associate Professor of English, Dedman College

Luis Maldonado

Associate Professor of World Languages and Literatures, Dedman College

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