Lutherans, Jews, and Israel
Paul Simon

Another item for discussion was the response of the Lutheran Church to Israel. It was noted that their denominational leaders have tended not to be friendly and some are outright hostile.

-Minutes of the Executive Council,
American Christian Association for Israel,
February 14, 1963

To say the least, that statement in the minutes of this respected organization is startling and most disturbing.

simonI read it — and re-read it — and decided to sit down at a typewriter immediately and write this article for The Cresset, unburdening a few things that have been bothering me for some time. If it is any comfort to the reader, I shall let the manuscript cool off a few days before sending it on to the editor.

This article is not meant principally as a criticism of the Lutheran leaders referred to in the opening state­ment. My fear is that in this area they are not leaders at all, but followers, and we who have created the cli­mate and the leaders are responsible.

In fairness it should also be pointed out that there are a few Lutherans on the letterhead of the American Christian Association for Israel, Jaroslav Pelikan prob­ably the best known.

The minutes of the organization note two possible explanations for the attitude they see among Lutheran leaders: "First, the German Lutherans, as distinct from the Scandinavian Lutherans, feel a sense of embarrass­ment about the Hitler period and, as a result, they have a tendency to point to the conflict and tragedy in the Middle East as evidence of Jewish evil and guilt — a subtle way of salving their own consciences. The second factor is that the Lutherans have extensive relief work in the Arab areas and carry on no similar activities in Israel."

There is real validity to the first point, which I shall cover in more detail.

The second point may not be as valid, although the statement as it stands is true. It must be said, however, that the lot of the Palestinian refugee generally is a miserable one. Their economic needs are more press­ing than the needs faced by the average citizen of Israel. It is both understandable and right that the major eco­nomic assistance of the Lutheran Church goes to the area where there is the greatest suffering. The danger in this is that our contacts are largely on one side, and that we learn only the problems faced by one side — and that perhaps superficially.

Disturbing Thoughts

Several things have disturbed me for some time, and reading these minutes brings these thoughts to a head:

There is no apparent connection — or sense of guilt— on the part of American Lutheranism for the terrible massacre of the Jews by Hitler.

I mention Lutherans in this article because I am writing for a Lutheran publication, but I could add Ro­man Catholics. Probably if three per cent of the Lu­theran and Roman Catholic clergy and laymen really had stood out firmly and boldly against Hitler and his plans of persecution right from the start, Hitler would have collapsed quickly. Germany is almost en­tirely either Lutheran or Roman Catholic, at least nominally. If our two representations of the Christian faith had really lived what we profess, not only would this almost unbelievable cruelty have been prevented; it is probable that World War II would have been post­poned, if not prevented.

"This happened in a distant land thirty years ago and has no connection with us," we seem to reason. I sense no feeling of guilt on the part of us as Christians— and particularly as Lutherans.

These were our brothers who failed to stand up for their ideals! What did American Lutherans do to help stir their conscience? There were some acts, some ex­pressions of regret, and we have some pride in those Lutherans who stood up to Hitler, like Dietrich Bonnhoeffer in Germany and Bishop Berggrav in Norway.

But I could not help but be disturbed as I saw Chet Huntley's NBC television portrayal of "the righteous" who risked death to hide or defend the Jews. I was proud of those who showed Christian courage, but deep­ly troubled by the smallness of their numbers.

When rarely I hear this whole matter discussed among Lutherans now, it is with horror that it happened, but with no sense of shared guilt. No one asks: "Those of us who are German-background Lutherans, do we share some of the attitudes that made a Hitler possible? Do we share part of the blame for what happened? Has our 'love your neighbor' stopped at the water's edge?"

I'm disturbed by the way the phrase "the Jews" is used in so many sermons.

It is true that St. Paul and others used this phrase frequently. But these men were themselves Jews (a fact too infrequently pointed out) and they were using the term to apply to those who followed the accepted religious pattern; they were in no sense blaming a racial or national group. The persecution of Christ and the early Christians was not an example of the maliciousness of one ethnic group, it was an illustration of how true religion can be horribly abused by sincere-minded men who fail to apply the quotient of love and concern for fellow human beings.

It is small wonder there are not more Jewish converts. Not only is there the long history of Christian persecu­tion of the Jews, there is also the obstacle of Sunday morning sermons which are delivered by men who frequently have no sensitivity on this issue. In these sermons the persecutions were something "the Jews" did centuries ago, not an illustration of how true reli­gion can be distorted then and today.

I have heard lectures in Lutheran circles from travel­ers through the Middle East who have terribly dis­torted recent history and present-day realities — and I sense that this may be the ugly, half-covered scar of the same thing that permitted the German disaster.

This does not mean that Israel is lily-white and the Arabs are all wrong in the present situation. There is guilt on both sides.

But I remember, for example, a prominent Lutheran churchman speaking to a group of Walther League leaders, stating certain things as facts which had no relation to the truth (although I am sure he believed them to be facts), and throughout his remarks display­ing a not-so-subtle attitude toward our Jewish friends that fortunately went over the heads of most of those present.

During my limited travels abroad, I have had the chance to talk to most of the major Arab and Israeli leaders. The situation is tense but not insoluble. I am not an expert on the area, but it is safe to say that the problem will be moved no closer to solution by men who promote hatred, and who have heard only one side of a story.

Positive Suggestions

What can be done in a positive way?

Many suggestions could be made, but let me burden you with just a few:

1. Without in any way taking sides in the many issues that separate Israel and her Arab neighbors, we can be of direct assistance to both sides.

For the Arab countries this should be continued and more extensive help like the very excellent assistance given through Lutheran World Relief in Jordan. In addition, we are being of considerable assistance to some of these countries through U.S. economic aid, which should continue. A major objective should not merely be to sustain the lives of the refugees, but to promote their resettlement.

For Israel, there should be a sympathetic awareness of the need for a refuge for the world's most persecuted people, the Jews. Since we share the guilt for that persecution, we also share the responsibility of trying to rebuild their desert homeland. I think it would be a marvelous thing, for example, if some Lutheran con­gregations in the United States would buy one or two Israel bonds, or would donate to the building of forests there.

2. When we travel in the Middle East, go to both Israel and the Arab countries and learn as much as possible about both sides of the issue.

This should be obvious, yet the obvious is so fre­quently not done.

3. Let us not be so both-sided that we cannot call evil what it is and good what it is.

Right now, for example, the Arab leaders will not even sit down to discuss a settlement with Israel. They are clearly wrong and we should not hesitate to apply every possible pressure to get both sides to sit down and work out an agreement.

On the other hand, when Israel invaded Egypt (to­gether with England and France) we did the right thing by stopping this aggression — even though it was tragic that our foreign policy had deteriorated to the point that we could not guide our friends away from such a course.

4. Avoid unexplained use of the phrase "the Jews" in sermons or writing when referring to the religious leaders who persecuted Christ and His followers.

5. Avoid all jokes and stories which do dishonor to any racial or religious group.

6. Don't hesitate to confess our shared guilt for the terrible persecutions through the centuries. Make sure we do everything possible to change attitudes, so that such a thing never again can take place.

One of the German Lutheran leaders has suggested an annual day of repentance for Christians everywhere on November 9th — one of the infamous days of Nazi persecution of the Jews. This could be simple, possibly part of the regular service or perhaps a special service to which we would invite the Jewish members of our community. During that service the Christians present might publicly repent of their shared guilt for past crimes. They might make a verbal pledge to God and man that those present will strive to promote good will and understanding in the future, defending with life itself, if need be, the rights of their Jewish fellow citizens and any other persecuted group.

7. Realizing that the degradation of man anywhere is an offense to God and man everywhere, we should stand up courageously for the rights of the Jew, Negro, and any other oppressed minority group.

This must start in our community.

Last week (as this is being written) I visited in Bloomington, Illinois, a beautiful, wealthy, cultured city with two universities and many Christian churches. The two dominant groups appear to be Roman Catholic and Lutheran. The beautiful country club in the city has a rule: no Jews. I already had finished my talk on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus when I learned this, or I certainly would have included it in my talk. That country club is hardly alone among country clubs in our state in that regulation. The men who belong are professional men and businessmen, for the most part, who like to think of themselves as repre­senting all that is good and clean and wholesome and solid in that community. It is tragic that they also represent what is the very worst in the community. I am sure they see no connection between what they are doing and what Hitler did — and perhaps no Christian church has pointed this out. It's so much easier to be against sin in general than sin in its crude details at your doorstep. That is true in Germany; that is true in Bloomington; that is true in my all-white, all-gentile town of Troy.

We must be against the evidence of prejudice in our communities, but our concern dare not stop there.

We also must rally around a Dr. Andrew Schulze or a Dr. Martin Luther King when they face jail and hardships in behalf of racial justice. Few of us are fortu­nate enough — and I mean that — to have the honor of such an incarceration, but there is none of us who cannot help in some way.

And just as the shame of Germany could not be stopped at the water's edge, so the shame of the Republic of South Africa today will not be confined to that one country. Right now is the time to appeal to men of Christian conscience in South Africa to rid themselves of the curse of apartheid. That system either must change soon, or man will destroy man in a bloodbath; and as the blood flows in the streets of South Africa and wherever the fighting takes place, the blood of black and white will look the same. If men of good will begin to raise their voices more effectively in sup­port of justice in South Africa, we may not have to repeat the lesson Hitler taught us.

* * *

Mine is a small voice raised in protest. It is a voice moved by guilt, for I share these sins of history with you.

I am sure there will be those who respond to this by pointing out weaknesses in this article. The weaknesses I readily admit; I wish I could write with the fervor I feel.

But let those who disagree do so with compassion for humanity. Any argument that does not have compassion does not have merit.


At the time he wrote this essay, Paul Simon was Editor of The Troy (Illinois) Tribune and Member of the Illinois State Senate. In 1985, he was elected to the US Senate in which he served until 1997.

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