An “Opportune” Moment of Historical Revisionism


Kairos is Greek for an opportune or decisive moment. It is also the name of a document signed by black church leaders in South Africa in 1985, and of another document signed by Palestinian Christian leaders in 2009 to analogize their circumstance to apartheid.

Leaders of churches in America and elsewhere have wrestled with how to respond to this Kairos Palestine document (Kairos). Many of them read Kairos quite differently than we did. They tell us they find love and hope in Kairos. Several churches and church groups have produced study guides on Kairos, most recently the Presbyterian Church (USA).

For friends of Israel, Kairos is a manifesto that delivers a cold chill. It is a roadmap for the demonization of Israel. It uses the word “evil” more often than the word “peace” – and you need not wonder which side it considers evil. Don’t look for an embrace of a two-state solution – it is not in there. In addition to calling for anti-Israel boycotts and divestment, Kairos turns history on its head by placing the full blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Israel – even for the violence it has faced. It states that “if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance.” It preaches non-violence, but is ambiguous, at best, on what kind of resistance these Christian leaders find acceptable. It asserts that Israel has not been engaged in a war on terror, but rather Palestinians have responded to an illegal occupation with “legal resistance aimed at ending it.” It lauds those who have “given their life for our nation” seemingly including even those who did so by killing men, women, and children in markets, restaurants, public transportation, etc.

One victim of terror was my neighbor Matthew Eisenfeld. He boarded a bus in Jerusalem with his fiancé. A terrorist ended their lives. Matthew had spoken four months earlier at a commemoration for Prime Minister Rabin and praised Rabin’s commitment to peace. How could the authors leave even the slightest impression that the killers of Matthew were engaged in anything like “legal resistance,” let alone be worthy of praise?

Kairos presented a problem for churches in the U.S. and elsewhere. Relationships with Palestinian Christians are deep and complex. A Christian leader that I trust said responding to Palestinian Christians presents a difficult theological problem for some Christians who feel, “who are we to challenge their witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a situation that we can’t even comprehend?”

Surely mainstream American pro-Israel groups rarely issue public critiques of Israel. But to us, Kairos strikes a raw nerve. If elements of it were to be praised, other problematic parts should be discussed – and some of them condemned.

While some churches largely ignored Kairos, others called it a “powerful statement” and “primarily a word of hope.” Two issued welcoming pastoral letters repeating Kairos’ call for targeted boycotts. The more recent Presbyterian Church (USA) study guide gets a mixed review.

The PCUSA guide was called for in the revised Middle East Study Committee (MESC) report adopted last summer. The denomination endorsed the elements of Kairos that it found positive (hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation), not the entire document. But they failed to speak to what, if anything, the church did not like. We have learned how difficult it is for any of the churches to speak directly to that which they find troubling in Kairos. Indeed, the PCUSA language on Kairos was one of the most serious concerns we had with the final MESC report.

A new PCUSA monitoring committee was charged with developing the guide. Members of the committee report that substantial revisions were made to drafts of the study guide to avoid many of the pitfalls that had rendered past church engagement so controversial. In some ways they succeeded. In some they failed.

It’s easy to find the negative. We would prefer that the church address head-on what is so outrageous in Kairos. It is not true that, but for occupation, Israel would face no resistance. Israel has always faced enemies bent on its destruction – from the moment the state was born, during all the years of its existence, and today. One has only to read the Hamas charter to know their maximalist and violent stance. The rockets that Hamas fires into Sderot and other Israeli communities are launched not because there is no Palestinian state but because there is any Jewish state.

The demonization in Kairos is frightening. The word “evil” is used indiscriminately, often to describe as sinful, transgressions against God, Israeli policies that the authors find objectionable. Kairos’ call for divestment should be described as it is – a divisive distraction from the hard work of reconciliation that we owe to all the parties. And the study guide repeats a distortion about a “dwindling Christian” presence without explaining that the Christian population in the West Bank has actually increased in recent years, that Christian emigration trends are similar to other countries in the region, and that the drop in the percentage of Christians is due primarily to the rapid growth of the Muslim population.

It should be noted that the PCUSA guide represents some positive strides. The guide quotes an important but previously ignored 2008 PCUSA resolution calling for the denomination not to overly identify with either Palestinians or Israelis. The guide provides a reasonably detailed overview of General Assembly action on investments and divestment. It quotes a 2006 resolution that apologized for the church’s flawed process in 2004 and the pain it caused. The guide states that nonviolence is the only acceptable option. The guide categorically rejects supersessionism, a charge some have made against the Kairos document itself. And the guide recognizes that there are multiple narratives to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is an important evolution. Change does not happen overnight. Just one year ago prominent church leaders were rallying around a horrifying polemic.

We have never asked the PCUSA to abandon its cherished relationship with Christians in the land we both call “holy.” But we have asked them to strive not to do so at the cost of the church’s stated commitment to Israel’s right to exist in peace and security or its relationships with the Jewish community. We genuinely appreciate hearing that they affirm these commitments.

So, the church has used this moment to take a small step. But it missed a critical opportunity to ask the difficult questions about a complicated document.

The next milestone will be a resource from the monitoring committee called for by the 2010 PCUSA General Assembly. This document is supposed to provide eight narratives on the conflict, four authentically pro-Israel, four authentically pro-Palestinian, each pro-peace and pro-justice. Hopefully, that resource will be a moment to chart a fresh course, faithful to each the church’s multiple commitments.


Ethan Felson

Vice President

Jewish Council for Public Affairs