Key Mennonite Institutions against Israel

, July 6, 2009

No. 83,

 

  • Mennonite-supported peacemaking institutions have been at the forefront of the effort to discredit Israel to audiences in North America. These institutions portray Jewish sovereignty as the cause of conflict and suffering in the Middle East and downplay Muslim and Arab hostility toward Jews and Israel.
  • The prescription for peace offered by these activists-especially those affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams-is for Israeli Jews to abandon their insistence on maintaining Israel as a sovereign Jewish state and acquiesce to a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This prescription fails to take into account overwhelming evidence that a Jewish minority would not be safe in a Muslim- and Arab-majority country in the Middle East.
  • Mennonite expressions of hostility toward Jewish sovereignty and indifference to the plight of Jews in Arab- and Muslim-majority states are ironic and hypocritical. Mennonites enjoy safety and wellbeing by virtue of other people’s willingness to engage in acts of violence. Israeli Jews enjoy no such privilege.
  • Mennonite anti-Zionism is emblematic of an inability to deal with the reality of evil and the power needed to confront it.

Judging from the commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict put forth by Mennonite-supported peacemaking institutions and their activists in North America, Mennonites[1] in the United States and Canada have a problem with Jewish sovereignty. The message offered by these institutions and the people who work for them is that peace will come to the Middle East when Israeli Jews acquiesce to the dismantlement of the sovereign Jewish state and resign themselves to living as a minority in a Muslim- and Arab-majority state.

This message is broadcast in videos, books, and articles produced by activists affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that portray Israel’s existence-and not Arab and Muslim attempts to destroy it-as the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This message is also evident in the activism of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a Mennonite-founded and supported organization that routinely confronts Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, but does little to challenge or obstruct violent acts by Palestinian terrorists.

Had the Mennonites not themselves endured such violence by fellow Christians in post-Reformation Europe, people of goodwill might have recognized and condemned their discriminatory actions much earlier. If any group seems well placed to offer credible and wise words of criticism for Jews-who have suffered so much at the hands of Christians-it would be the Mennonites, for they too have also endured such violence, albeit on a much smaller scale. Given their history, it appears reasonable at first glance to think they can help Israeli Jews make peace with their adversaries in the Middle East.

The reality is different. The approximately 500,000 Mennonites living in North America [2] are about as far removed as one can get from the circumstances that Israeli Jews have had to endure for the past sixty years. Whereas Israeli Jews have had to fight and struggle for their place in a hostile environment, Mennonites in North America have enjoyed an enviable status as a privileged minority, with their wellbeing invoked as a symbol of the legitimacy and tolerance of the society in which they live. Mennonites died for their beliefs in post-Reformation Europe, but those days are long gone. No one is calling for Mennonites to “go back to the ovens” (as Jews were during recent anti-Israeli protests over the fighting in the Gaza Strip).[3]

And while Israeli Jews have had to struggle with the inevitable moral failures that come with being a sovereign people responsible for their own safety, Mennonites in North America have been able to rely on others to use force to keep them safe and have thus been able to retain their distance from the moral complexity of the world. By supporting institutions such as the MCC and CPT (whose anti-Zionist agendas will be discussed below), Mennonites in North America are placing a burden on the shoulders of Israeli Jews that they themselves do not carry.[4]

Mennonite Suffering and Nonresistance

To challenge the applicability of Mennonite nonresistance to the Arab-Israeli conflict is not to discount the history of Mennonite suffering. Like Jews, who were hated throughout the Holy Roman Empire for their refusal to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah,[5] Mennonites were regarded with contempt largely because of their rejection of infant baptism.[6] Consequently, Mennonites became the “disconfirming other” that undermined the credibility of the dominant religious nomos, or sense of order, in Christian Europe.[7]

As a result of their nonconformity, Mennonites were tortured, murdered, sold into slavery, and expelled.[8] From to 1525 and 1535, approximately ive thousand Anabaptists (see endnote 1) were killed in Switzerland and surrounding territories. The executions came to an end in Switzerland in the early seventeenth century, but Anabaptists were not fully tolerated in that country until 1815. Mennonites in Transylvania and Hungary were dying for their beliefs until the late 1700s.[9] Even when the executions stopped, the oppression continued:

Throughout the entire eighteenth century the Palatine [southwestern Germany] counts imposed on them special taxes for the mere privilege of remaining in the land. Mennonites were denied the privilege of living in the cities and learning a trade; they were forbidden to make converts among the members of the state churches; they were forced to sell their lands to members of the state church upon the request of the latter, without any remuneration above the original cost for any improvements they may have made on their properties in the meantime; and finally they were denied the right of burial in the public cemeteries. In fact, Mennonites were classed with the Jews as a merely tolerated people, with no inherent rights, either civil or religious, except such as the ruling authorities were willing to grant them from time to time.[10]

For the most part, Mennonites did not respond with force to this mistreatment because their belief in radical nonresistance forbade them from engaging in any type of violence-even in their own self-defense. Mennonite nonresistance was first enunciated in 1527 in the Schleitheim Confession, which prohibited violence of any sort and prohibited Anabaptists from wielding political authority over other people.[11] Radical nonresistance was again enunciated in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in Holland in 1632, which stated that the proper response to violence and oppression was to “flee for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another.”[12] Consequently, “nonresistance became the Mennonite mode, par excellence, of coping with evil. Rejected were revenge, retaliation, coercion, physical force, and of course, participation in military service.”[13]

The results were predictable.

On the whole, it must be said, that the persecution accomplished its deadly purpose. [Anabaptism] was completely exterminated in all of Middle and South Germany and Austria by 1600, and only a handful of Brethren were left in the back valleys and mountains of the Swiss Alps and surrounding Swiss territory. Only in Holland was the persecution unable to accomplish its purpose fully.[14]

Aside from Holland, about the only respite Mennonites were able to achieve from the oppression they faced was by fleeing to Russia and North America, where political leaders-who needed farmers to inhabit sparsely populated and in some instances, contested territory-accorded them tolerance and protection. Mennonites living in Prussia were enticed to move to Russia in the 1780s by Catherine II, who issued a special charter of privileges-including an exemption from military service to colonists. From 1789 to 1858, a total of four Mennonite colonies were established under this arrangement.[15]

Whereas the migration to North America provided Mennonites with access to productive land and the ability to practice their faith unmolested, the move to Russia ultimately proved disastrous for settlers who stayed too long. A number of factors including the collapse of the tsarist regime, World War I, and Soviet-induced famines all took their toll on Mennonites in Russia who were finally extirpated by Stalin’s campaign to liquidate the prosperous peasant class (kulaks) in the late 1920s and early 1930s.[16]

The similarities between Mennonite and Jewish history are readily apparent, prompting one well-known Mennonite author to write:

My own linkage to the Jewish people has a very special history. The Mennonite people have often been likened to the Jews, both by themselves and by outsiders. Mennonites, like Jews, have been a wandering minority, often persecuted by both church and state, though the Mennonite story is much briefer, dating back only to 1525. And its tales of martyrdom, however horrible in Stalinist Russia in the twentieth century and the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth, are surpassed in magnitude by the Nazi holocaust. Yet there are strong parallels and every time Fiddler on the Roof visits our community I see not only Jewish exiles escaping tsarist pogroms, but also thousands of my own people, including father and mother, driven from their homes by the Communist revolution, by the ensuing civil war, and by the collectivization in the Soviet Era.[17]

Given their experience of being a wandering, murdered, and oppressed minority, one might imagine that Mennonite-supported institutions would have words of comfort for Israeli Jews and words of condemnation for those who call for their destruction. To the contrary, Mennonite activists provide aid and comfort to those who foment anti-Semitism and seek Israel’s destruction.

The Mennonite Central Committee

Particularly outrageous is the “peace” activism of the Mennonite Central Committee, an organization founded in 1920 by Mennonites in the United States and Canada to provide humanitarian aid to starving Mennonites in Russia, a task it pursued until 1925. After a brief period of dormancy, it was reactivated to help Mennonite refugees from Russia who had fled to Germany and needed assistance to settle in Paraguay. During and after World War II, the MCC provided relief to war-torn Europe. Out of these origins, the MCC became the primary “relief, development and peace agency for Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in North America.”[18]

The MCC, which has had activists in Israel and the West Bank since 1949,[19] has produced numerous materials related to the Arab-Israeli conflict that portray the existence of a sovereign Jewish state-not Arab efforts to destroy it-as the source of conflict in the Middle East. For MCC activists and writers, “peacemaking” means undermining Israel’s legitimacy while affirming Arab and Muslim grievances against the Jewish state.

This agenda is particularly evident in Children of the Nakba,[20] a video produced by the MCC in 2005 that portrays the drive for Jewish self-determination as motivated exclusively by a desire to drive Arabs from the Land of Israel. This film invokes testimony from “human rights” lawyer Diana Bhuttu, well known for her dishonest commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict.[21] Bhuttu tells the audience that from 1947 to 1949, Israel forcibly displaced “upwards of 900,000 Palestinians…in order to make way for this idea of an ethnically pure Jewish state.”

This statement is false on a number of levels. First, many of the Palestinian refugees were not forcibly displaced, but encouraged by Arab leaders to leave their homes to make way for Israel’s destruction. And Bhuttu’s characterization of Zionism as promoting the idea of an “ethnically pure” Jewish state ignores numerous statements from the movement’s founders-Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion-expressing hopes of living in peace and cooperation with Arabs in Palestine.

That these hopes were not fully realized does not erase an important fact: nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population is comprised of or descendant from Arabs who were not driven out, but accorded Israeli citizenship and the right to participate in Israeli elections after the 1948 war. Bhuttu also complains that “Israel has never granted citizenship to Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” as if the inhabitants of these territories are entitled to citizenship in a state they have attacked repeatedly over the past six decades. At no point does the film address the repeated calls for Israel’s destruction by Palestinian leaders, the virulent anti-Semitism broadcast on state-controlled media throughout the Middle East, or the expulsion of approximately 800,000 Jews from countries in the rest of the region.

The MCC also affiliates with some explicitly anti-Zionist organizations. For example, it partners with Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Jerusalem-based organization that reports its “vision for the future” is “One state for two nations and three religions.”[22] Sabeel is also a major player in the divestment campaign in U.S. mainline Protestant churches.[23] Also included in the list of “MCC Palestine Partner Organizations”[24] are BADIL, which promotes the “right of return” for Palestinians,[25] and the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, which runs a website (stopthewall.org) that promotes a boycott of Israeli goods.[26]

Written Polemics

Such distortions are not confined to Mennonite moviemaking, but are also evident in the writings of prominent MCC activists and theologians, most notably Sonia K. Weaver and her husband Alain Epp Weaver. In her book, What Is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions,[27] Sonia Weaver, a peace activist who spent eleven years in the Middle East working for the MCC, portrays the one-state solution in explicitly sympathetic terms while stacking the deck against Jewish sovereignty and self-determination.

Weaver contends that the one-state solution has the advantage of allowing “Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes,” while the two-state solution “does not address the systematic discrimination faced by Palestinian Christians and Muslims inside Israel.” She also asserts that some-unnamed-Palestinians and Israelis “suggest that ethnically-based states are anachronisms: rather than working for a ‘Jewish state’ or a ‘Palestinian state,’ persons concerned with justice and reconciliation should strive for futures in which national boundaries are transcended.”[28]

Sonia Weaver’s brand of anti-Zionism, couched as it is in the universalistic language of justice, peace, and human rights, fails to acknowledge certain obvious points. First, while a few unnamed Israeli Jews and Palestinians may regard ethnically based states as “anachronisms,” most Jews and Arabs living in the Middle East clearly do not. Second, Israeli Arabs enjoy more rights and a higher degree of safety as a minority living in a Jewish state than their brethren in Arab-dominated countries throughout the Middle East.

And lastly, Jewish minorities have suffered tremendously in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, experiencing the same types of violence and discrimination endured by Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Europe. That, along with persecutions of Jews elsewhere, is why many Israeli Jews regard a Jewish state as an absolute necessity.

Such willful ignorance is also reflected in the writings of Weaver’s husband Alain, who has penned numerous books and articles that portray Jewish self-determination as an obstacle to peace. Emblematic of these works is an article published by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in 2007, in which Weaver writes:

After the horrors of the Shoah, it is understandable that the idea of Israel as a safe haven with a Jewish majority would be so important to many Jews. But must such a safe haven be tied to a project of maintaining and protecting a Jewish majority by any and all means? Might not a bi-national future in one state be one in which Palestinians and Israelis alike both sit securely under vine and fig tree? [29]

Clearly, the Weavers find Jewish sovereignty repellent because of the force used to protect it but find Arab aggression and violence-which can be seen throughout the Middle East-unremarkable. On an empirical level, the number of Arab deaths at the hands of Israelis has been relatively small when compared to acts of inter-Arab aggression; yet, for some reason, the Weavers regard Jewish sovereignty as the problem.

Christian Peacemaker Teams

Christian Peacemaker Teams is another Mennonite-supported organization that has worked to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.[30] Operating in a number of countries including Mexico, Iraq, and Colombia, CPT was founded in 1988 in response to a speech given by Mennonite theologian Ron Sider at the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France, in 1984.

After acknowledging the comfort and safety enjoyed by Mennonites in North America and Europe, Sider called on Mennonites to create a “nonviolent peacekeeping force of 100,000 to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties.” Speaking in apocalyptic terms, Sider continued: “Frequently we would get killed by the thousands. But everyone assumes that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers?… [T]hese nonviolent peacekeeping forces would by God’s special grace be able to end the violence and nurture justice.[31]

CPT members who have been in the West Bank since the 1990s have not died by the thousands, nor have they brought peace and justice to the area. Instead they have been a constant source of stories of Israeli Jews behaving badly. Their accounts of misdeeds by Israeli soldiers and settlers have become the lens through which peace activists all over the United States and Canada view the Arab-Israeli conflict.

CPT activists, whose motto is “getting in the way,”[32] obstruct and challenge Israeli soldiers and settlers but rarely confront violence perpetrated by terror organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. The outlines of this peacemaking approach are readily apparent in CPT activist Arthur Gish’s Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking,[33] which recounts numerous confrontations between CPT members and Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Gish depicts CPT members as principled and courageous activists and Israelis as frightened and angry bullies intent on oppressing the Palestinians. At one point Gish becomes so fed up with the Israelis and their guns that he writes, “The national symbol of Israel should be a gun. Guns are their source of security. Guns are their gods.”[34]

Palestinians, for their part, are portrayed either as hapless victims of Israeli oppression or idealists with benign attitudes toward Jews. Gish’s blinkered naïveté becomes stunningly obvious when he describes a meeting with Khaled Amayreh-a Palestinian journalist with close ties to Hamas-as follows:

This morning we went to visit Khalid Amayreh, an Islamist friend of the team. Islamists want to establish a Muslim society, based on Islamic ideals. They are disillusioned with secular nationalism. Hamas is the largest Islamic political party here in Palestine. Many of the bombing attacks on Israelis have been attributed to Hamas…. He shared his vision of an Islamic society, a world in which there would be justice, equality and no oppression, a society guided by moral values rather than by the notion that “might makes right.” He talked about the relation of Christianity to Islam, and sees Jews and Christians as integral parts of Islam. The last words of Muhammed were, “be kind to the people of the book.” He emphasized that there should be no compulsion in religion.[35]

Gish’s portrayal of Hamas-and Islamism-as idealistic religious movements that have benign attitudes toward Jews is dishonest on a number of levels. First, bombing attacks were not attributed to Hamas; the group took credit for these attacks. Second, the mistreatment and subjugation of Jews and Christians in Muslim-dominated societies in the Middle East is a well-documented fact.[36] Finally, Hamas and other Islamist groups routinely call for Israel’s destruction, and have been responsible for some of the most virulent expressions of anti-Semitism in the Middle East.[37]

CPT’s anti-Zionist agenda is also evident from the groups it affiliates with. For example, CPT helped coordinate, along with the International Solidarity Movement, the 2007 “Olive Harvest Campaign” during which “internationals” stood between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in a “direct action” endeavor. The goal was not to stop all violence but to “document and expose attacks by settlers” on Palestinians and to tell the world that “the occupation must end and the wall must fall.”[38] The CPT members’ affiliation with the ISM is quite troubling: while this organization bills itself as promoting nonviolence, its founder, Adam Shapiro has excused Palestinian violence, asserting that “Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics, both violent and nonviolent. But most importantly, it must develop a strategy involving both aspects. Nonviolent resistance is no less noble than carrying out a suicide operation.”[39] Clearly, this is contrary to Anabaptist principles of nonresistance.

Mainstreaming Ahmadinejad

Mennonite anti-Zionism is also evident in the MCC’s campaign to portray Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a legitimate partner in dialogue and a victim of bad publicity. In February 2007, the MCC played a leading role in bringing a group of Christians to dialogue with Ahmadinejad in Iran.[40] During the trip J. Daryl Byler, then serving as director of the MCC’s office in Washington, described Ahmadinejad to an Iranian newspaper as “seeming reasonable,” as having “a measured tone,” and “a witty personality.”[41] Four days after this meeting, Ahmadinejad told an audience in Sudan that “Zionists are the true manifestation of Satan.”[42]

In September 2007, MCC officials helped organize an interfaith dinner between Christians and Ahmadinejad during his visit to the United Nations in New York.[43] And in the following year, the MCC cosponsored yet another dinner with the Iranian president, after which executive director Arli Kassen and Byler, now serving as the organization’s representative for Jordan, Iran, and Palestine, asserted that Ahmadinejad’s “public comments have moderated somewhat over the past two years” and that his statements “about wiping Israel off the map” merely indicated his support for a “‘one-state’ solution…in which Israelis and Palestinians elect a single government to represent both peoples.”[44]

The fact that MCC leaders regard Israel’s elimination as a reasonable way to bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict-despite overwhelming historical evidence that Jews in an Arab- and Muslim-majority state would be about as safe as Mennonites were in sixteenth-century Europe-speaks volumes about the organization’s indifference toward Jewish wellbeing. Equally outrageous is their suggestion that Ahmadinejad has moderated his rhetoric. On 20 February 2008, Ahmadinejad condemned world powers for establishing Israel, “this filthy bacteria, the Zionist regime, which is lashing out at the nations in the region like a wild beast.”[45]

On 8 May 2008, Ahmadinejad stated that “Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken.” Israel, Ahmadinejad said, “is on its way to annihilation” and “has reached the end like a dead rat….”[46] Although such language serves to incite and justify violence against Israel, the MCC has defended Ahmadinejad and helped rehabilitate his reputation.

Given the organization’s efforts to rehabilitate Ahmadinejad’s reputation, it should come as no surprise that it was unable to do anything more than ofer up an anemic “Call to Pray for Iran” in response to the violent clampdown on supporters of Mirhossein Mousavi who protested in the streets against an apparently stolen election on 13 June 2009. Instead of condemning the regime for killing its own citizens, the statement did little more than tell people tht bad things are happening in that country and that people should pray for its inhabitants.[47]

All this raises some obvious questions. How can Mennonites, who belong to a religious and ethnic community with a long history of being persecuted and murdered in the name of religion, work to mainstream a man who has incited genocidal religious hostility against Jews in the Middle East? By what right do Mennonites living in the comfort and safety of North America support institutions and activists who maintain that peace can be achieved when Israeli Jews abandon their sovereign homeland? Why should Jews be expected to risk and sacrifice their wellbeing to affirm Mennonite teachings about nonresistance and peacemaking?

Mennonite Privilege

The great irony is that by fleeing to North America and Russia to avoid persecution and discrimination in Europe, Anabaptists-who had sworn not to use violence against others-were settling on land that had already been taken-or was in the process of being taken-by force from previous inhabitants. This contradiction becomes obvious in Cornelius Dyck’s description of a confrontation between Mennonites and first-nations people near Winnipeg, Canada, in 1873:

During their travel in what is now Manitoba the delegates, sent from Russia to explore settlement possibilities in North America, were set upon by an angry mob of Natives who rightly sensed that their future was at stake. The delegates might never have lived to return home had it not been for the gun of their guide and the quick arrival of a contingent of troops. But this did not deter the delegates from recommending the area as a place for settlement.[48] (emphasis added)

Dyck tries to absolve Mennonites of any wrongdoing by asserting that while they may have enjoyed farming the good land, they were “probably unaware of what they were doing to the culture and the future of the Indian nations.”[49] He makes a similar argument in a brief discussion of Mennonite immigration to Russia and Paraguay:

[Mennonite colonists in Russia] did not seem to have been aware that they were being used as political pawns in the “New Russia” lands.[50] (Mennonites who settled in the Chaco of Paraguay[51] in the 1930s were also innocent pawns; Mennonite settlers in the United States and Canada seemed unaware that they were taking land from the Indians.) Their vision was sectarian and, hence inner-directed. We also cannot rightly apply today’s agenda to earlier eras.[52]

Dyck’s assertion that Mennonites were “innocent pawns” who should not be judged according to modern moral sensibilities obscures an obvious contradiction between Mennonite theology and practice. Mennonites may not have been willing to use violence to achieve their survival, but they were willing to rely on others who were willing to use force on their behalf. This is not merely a violation of modern moral sensibilities, as Dyck suggests, but of beliefs that Mennonites have enunciated since the sixteenth century.[53]

The fact that Mennonites settled on land taken by violence did not prevent Mennonites in North America from becoming vocal proponents of nonresistance in the ensuing years. Mennonites in Pennsylvania were subjected to acts of mob violence for their refusal to join volunteer militias, and the Pennsylvania Assembly required those who did not join the militias to pay a fine. Nevertheless, both the Continental Congress and the Pennsylvania Assembly acknowledged the rights of conscientious objectors to refuse military service on religious grounds.[54]

Mennonites were also able to avoid military service during the American Civil War by paying others to serve in their stead. As Dyck reports, “In the North most Mennonites ended up paying a $300 fee and in the South $500 in lieu of military service.”[55]

In World War I, approximately two thousand conscientious objectors (COs)-mostly from Anabaptist and Quaker[56] backgrounds-were conscripted into military service in the United States, with most of this number refusing to serve. Approximately 10 percent of this group were court-martialed and sent to prison. Sixty percent were given alternative service and 30 percent remained in detention camps during this war, which cost 116,000 American soldiers their lives. Some of these men were beaten, deprived of sleep, and subjected to mock trials “in which the victim was left under the impression to the very last that unless he submitted to the regulations the penalty would be death.”[57] Mennonites in Canada were drafted into military service but then given “‘leaves of absence’ which were extended indefinitely.”[58]

The mistreatment of COs in the United States during World War I-two Hutterites[59] died as a result of abuse in federal prisons-prompted Mennonite leaders and officials from other pacifist churches such as the Quakers and the Brethren in Christ to lobby Congress and the Roosevelt administration to create more robust protections for COs before American entrance into World War II. The result was the establishment of approximately 150 Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps where twelve thousand COs-including five thousand Mennonites-did “work of national importance” in a number of industries such as public health, forestry, agriculture, and in psychiatric hospitals throughout the United States in lieu of military service.[60]

The cost of running these camps was paid for by pacifist and nonpacifist churches in the United States. The historic peace churches covered approximately 60 percent of the total expenses. In effect, the U.S. government allowed the Mennonite community to pay tax, fee, or ransom to keep their young men out of harm’s way during World War II, which cost approximately 405,000 American soldiers their lives.

Although the work was demanding, life at these camps was generally much easier compared to the circumstances endured by the soldiers, or more to the point, Jews in Europe during the war. While Jews kept records of what was happening to them in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the death camps of Eastern Europe and hid their writings and drawings in milk cans and the like for future discovery, Mennonite COs were reading booklets about the theological underpinnings of nonresistance and other aspects of the Mennonite faith tradition distributed by the MCC.[61]

While Jews were being worked to death and Allied soldiers faced the horrors of combat in both the European and Pacific theaters, Mennonite COs in CPS camps in the United States had access to camp libraries, produced newsletters, worshipped and sang in church choirs in nearby communities. They played horseshoes and volleyball and learned new hobbies such as oil painting, woodworking, and carpentry. And whereas the MCC was able to list, by name, every one of the Mennonites who died in CPS camps during World War II,[62] anonymous Jews, their identity now known only to God, died by the millions in Eastern Europe.

Despite all this, one Mennonite author wrote in 1990 that “World War II was not an easy war for COs.” World War II was difficult to sit out because it was “a clear case of good versus evil, freedom versus tyranny. On what possible basis could one choose not to fight against Hitler and all the evil he presented? It was a hard call for many pacifists and most elected to fight the Nazis.”[63]

Agonies of conscience notwithstanding, the fact remains that adherence to the utopian Anabaptist teaching of nonresistance is no longer a ticket to martyrdom as it was in Reformation Europe. During World War II, confessing a belief in nonresistance was a way to achieve comfort and safety that Jews in Europe could not obtain for love or money.

Thus, Mennonites living in the safety of North America have been able to achieve, through activism and lobbying, respect and tolerance for their religious beliefs and practices and their cultural identity while Jews in Israel have had to fight for their very survival.

Nonresistance as a Response to Evil

The inability of Mennonite peace activists to take seriously Muslim and Arab hostility toward Israel and Jews is no accident, but a consequence of Anabaptist theology, namely its utopian reliance on nonresistance as a response to evil. Because Anabaptist theology regards nonresistance as the sine qua non of the Christian faith, it leaves its adherents without a credible response to fascist and totalitarian movements that periodically arise in human history.

This failing helps explain why significant numbers of Mennonites served in World War II and ultimately left the faith tradition for good.[64] Nonresistance did not make any sense in the face of Nazism, just as it makes no sense in the face of terror attacks by groups such as Hamas and Hizballah motivated by hatred for Jews and a desire to destroy Israel. Mennonites in the United States may have had the privilege not to take Nazism seriously during World War II, and they may enjoy circumstances in North America that allow them to regard Islamism as a benign movement, but they have no right to expect Jews who are the target of Islamist hostility to do the same.

*     *     *

Notes

[1] Mennonites in North America are adherents of the Anabaptist tradition, which, after its founding in Switzerland in 1525, initially expanded through migration and evangelization to numerous territories in North-Central Europe and later into Russia, North America, and South America. Anabaptists became known as Mennonites in honor of Menno Simons, an early leader who guided the community during a period of persecution in the sixteenth century. Mennonites should not be confused with the Amish, adherents of Jacob Amman, who prompted a schism in the Mennonite community in 1693 by calling on his followers to shun family members who did not follow Anabaptist teachings. Although the Mennonite-Amish division remains an important feature of the Anabaptist community in North America (with Mennonites embracing technology to a much wider extent than Amish who use horse-drawn buggies and do not use electricity inside their homes), the two groups share a commitment to Anabaptist principles, especially nonresistance. Whereas the Amish typically manifest this nonresistance by withdrawing from society, the Mennonite community engages in peacemaking activism. For more information, see the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (gameo.org), “Amish,” “Anabaptism,” “Mennonite (The Name),” and Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993).

[2] “2006 Mennonite & Brethren in Christ World Membership,” Mennonite World Conference, retrieved 23 March 2009, www.mwc-cmm.org/en15/PDF-PPT/2006mbictotal.pdf. (For a list of the North American members of the Mennonite World Conference, see www.mwc-cmm.org/en15/PDF-PPT/MWCGCnamerica.pdf.)

[3] Joseph Abrams, “Protester Calls for Jews to ‘Go Back to the Oven’ at Anti-Israel Demonstration,” FoxNews, 8 January 2009, retrieved 23 March 2009,

www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,477450,00.html.

[4] Luke 11:46.

[5] See James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Mariner Books, 2002); Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997).

[6] Anabaptists held that an affirmation of the Christian faith could only be made by responsible adults who experienced a spiritual “regeneration” that manifested itself in a “literal obedience to the commands of Christ,” which included a disavowal of violence and political authority (Guy Franklin Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance [Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, (1944) 1953], 81-82). In adherence to this belief, many members of this movement who were baptized as infants were baptized a second time as adults, which accounts for the name of the movement, “Anabaptists” meaning “re-baptizers.” Adult baptism was not the only Anabaptist teaching that set the movement at odds with their fellow Christians, however. Anabaptist beliefs about the Lord’s Supper (communion) and support for the separation of church and state (and opposition to compulsory taxes to pay ministers’ salaries) also engendered opposition from religious and political leaders. See Dyck, Introduction, 53, 62.

[7] See Harold S. Bender, Mennonite Origins in Europe, vol. 1 of Mennonites and Their Heritage (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, [1941] 1963, 21, 24, and Hershberger, [1944] 1953, 89). For a discussion of the role Jews played as the “disconfirming other,” see Richard Rubenstein and Stephen Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 25-70.

[8] Bender, Mennonite Origins, 48-53; Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (gameo.org), “Persecution.”

[9] Hershberger, War, Peace, 85.

[10] C. Henry Smith, Mennonites in America, vol. 2 of Mennonites and Their Heritage (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1942), 3-4.

[11] The text of the Schleitheim Confession can be found at  www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/S345.html.

[12] The text of the Dordrecht Confession can be found at www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D674.html.

[13] Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993), 23.

[14] Bender, Mennonite Origins, 50.

[15] Dyck, Introduction, 168-194.

[16] Bender, Mennonite Origins, 75.

[17] Frank Epp, The Palestinians: Portrait of a People in Conflict (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976), 13.

[18] The Brethren in Christ Church, a member of the Mennonite World Conference, was founded in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Pennsylvania and has its roots in three religious movements: Anabaptism, Quietism, and Wesleyanism. See Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (gameo.org), “Brethren in Christ Church” and the church’s history at www.bic-church.org/about/history.asp. The MCC is supported by a number of churches in North America including the Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Brethren Church in the United States and Canada, Evangelical Mennonite Church, Beachy Amish, and the Brethren in Christ Church in the United States and Canada.  The organization is also supported by some congregations of the Old Order Amish community throughout the United States and Canada. (Email to author from Mark Beach, MCC director of communications, sent on 9 April 2007.)

[19] Alain Epp Weaver and Sonia K. Weaver, Salt & Sign: Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine 1949-1999 (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1999), 3.

[20] Mennonite Central Committee, 2005.

[21] Diane Bhuttu has falsely claimed that rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip do not carry explosive warheads when, in fact, they do. See Ricki Hollander and Alex Safian, “Diana Bhuttu: Palestinian Rockets Don’t Explode!” Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, 21 January 2009, retrieved 23 March 2009, http://camera.org/index.asp?x_context=3&x_outlet=14&x_article=1594.

[22] “The Sabeel Jerusalem Document,” Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, retrieved 3 April 2009, www.sabeel.org/etemplate.php?id=39.

[23] Matti Friedman, “Holy Boycotts,” Jerusalem Report, 20 March 2006, 16.

[24] This list appears in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict  (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2007), 187.

[25] “About Badil,” BADIL, retrieved 3 April 2009, www.badil.org/BADIL/about_badil.htm.

[26] “Boycott Section,” retrieved 7 April 2009, stopthewall.org/news/boycot.shtml.

[27] Sonia K. Weaver, What Is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2007).

[28] Ibid., 60-61.

[29] Alain Epp Weaver, “Memory against Forgetting,” Cornerstone, 44 (Spring 2007): 2-5.

[30] CPT was founded with support from the Mennonite community, members of the Brethren in Christ Church, and from the Quaker community. See CPT’s website, http://cpt.org/about_cpt, retrieved 1 April 2009. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online describes the CPT as “a violence-reduction initiative of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations and Friends meetings in Canada and the United States.” Doug Pritchard, “Christian Peacemaker Teams,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1998, retrieved 1 April 2009, www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C480.html.

[31] Ron Sider, “God’s People Reconciling,” speech presented at the Mennonite World Conference, summer 1984, Christian Peacemaker Teams, last retrieved 27 March 2009, www.cpt.org/resources/writings/sider.

[32] This slogan is part of the organization’s logo, which can be seen at www.cpt.org.

[33] Arthur Gish, Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001).

[34] Ibid., 68.

[35] Ibid., 31.

[36] See Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1985) and Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).

[37] See Robert S. Wistrich, Muslim Anti-Semitism, American Jewish Committee, 2002.

[38] “Olive Harvest: Take Your Place in Solidarity with the Palestinians,” International Solidarity Movement, 27 August 2007, http://palsolidarity.org/2007/08/2632.

[39] Interview with Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, American Morning with Paula Zahn, CNN, 10 May 2002.

[40] Mark Beach, “Iran Diary,” Sunday News (Lancaster, PA), 25 February 2007.

[41] Dexter Van Zile, “Church Leaders Mainstream Ahmadinejad,” Commmitee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, 2 March 2009, retrieved 27 March 2009. www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=48&x_issue=2&x_article=1289. Byler’s quote, which originally appeared in the Tehran Times (link no longer available), was also cited in “Christian’s Praise of Ahmadinejad: A Shameful Betrayal of Christian-Jewish Relations,” Anti-Defamation League, 1 March  2007, last retrieved 27 March 2009, www.adl.org/PresRele/ChJew_31/4991_31.htm.

[42] DPA and Haaretz Service, “Ahmadinejad in Sudan: ‘Zionists Are the True Manifestation of Satan,'” Haaretz, 3 March 2007, last retrieved 27 March 2009,

www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/832229.html.

[43] Anonymous, “Mennonite Central Committee Hosts Dialogue between Iranian President and 100 Religious Leaders,” Mennonite Central Committee, 26 September 2007, last retrieved 27 March 2009, http://mcc.org/news/news/article.html?id=254.

[44] Arli Klassen and Daryl Byler, “MCC Dialogue toward Peace with Iran,” Mennonite Central Committee, 30 September 2008, last retrieved 27 March 2009, http://mcc.org/news/news/article.html?id=396.

[45] Michael Lando and others, “Ahmadinejad: Israel Filthy Bacteria,” Jerusalem Post, 20 February 2008, last retrieved 27 March 2009,  www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1203343707673&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.

[46] “Ahmadinejad Brands Israel a ‘Stinking Corpse,'” Agence France Presse-English, 8 May 2008.

[47] http://mcc.org/news/news/article.html?id=477.

[48] Dyck, Introduction, 200-201.

[49] Ibid., 199.

[50] Mennonites’ immigration into the Molotcshna, a large Mennonite colony in the steppes of southern Russia, resulted in the partial displacement of the Nogai people, a nomadic tribe of Tartars. The resulting violence prompted the Russian government to intervene and force the tribe to abandon its nomadism (see Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online [gameo.org], “Nogai People”).

[51] Mennonite immigration to the Gran Chaco during the early twentieth century helped Paraguay establish and cement its claim to this resource-rich territory, which was also claimed by Bolivia. During the Chaco War (1932-1935), which resulted in a Paraguayan victory, Mennonite colonies played “a considerable role as supply centers for the Paraguayan army” (Peter P. Klassen, “Chaco War [1932-1935],” Global  Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1987, retrieved 18 March 2009, www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C46012.html.

[52] Dyck, Introduction, 169.

[53] In one notable instance, Mennonites did use force in their own defense. When a group of German-speaking Russian colonists came under attack by a group of anarchists, they gave armed resistance. This act of self-defense (selbstchutz) took place after horrific acts of violence against Mennonite colonies, included only a small percentage of the community, and was condemned by subsequent Mennonite assemblies “as both a tactical blunder and a violation of historic biblical nonresistance” (Dyck, Introduction, 186). Also see Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (gameo.org), “selbstchutz.”

[54] Melvin Gingerich, Service for Peace: A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1949), 2.

[55] Dyck, Introduction, 206.

[56] The Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, are a Christian pacifist group that has close ties to the Mennonites. This movement was founded in the 1600s in England by George Fox. See Harold S. Bender, “Society of Friends,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1959, retrieved 1 April 2009, www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/society_of_friends.

[57] C.H. Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Newton, KA: Mennonite Publication Office, 1950), 794-795, quoted in Hershberger, War, Peace, 112.

[58] Gingerich, Service for Peace, 6.

[59] The Hutterites, also known as the Hutterian Brethren, are an Anabaptist group that practices communal ownership of property with colonies located throughout Canada and the United States. See Robert Friedmann, John Hofer, Hans Meier, and John V. Hinde, “Hutterian Brethren (Hutterische Brüder),” Global Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, retrieved 1 April 2009, www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H888ME.html.

[60] Canada created a similar program of Alternative Service Work Camps. See Gingerich, Service for Peace, 415.

[61] During World War II, the MCC produced a six-volume series of booklets, Mennonites and Their Heritage, some of which are cited in this text.

[62] This list was included in Gingerich, Service for Peace, 472-473.

[63] Albert N. Keim, The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1990), 8.

[64] Approximately 68 percent or 900 of the 1,300 members of the Mennonite Church in the United States who served in the military during World War II had not returned to fellowship three and a half years after the war. See Guy Franklin Hershberger, The Mennonite Church in World War II (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951).

*     *     *

Dexter Van Zile is Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. His writings have appeared in numerous American Jewish newspapers as well as the Jerusalem Post, Ecumenical Trends, and the Boston Globe. He has a BA in politics and government from the University of Puget Sound and an MA in political science/environmental studies from Western Washington University. He is a Massachusetts native.

About Dexter Van Zile

Dexter Van Zile is Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. He has a BA in politics and government from the University of Puget Sound and an MA in political science/environmental studies from Western Washington University.