Dear Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Staff,
Your recent “Open Letter to MCC Friends in Iran” falls in a long tradition that is both admirable and troubling. Please consider these 10 points and questions.
- MCC’s commitment to prevent war and to denounce US military aggression is important. The investment Mennonites have put into building relationships in Qom, Iran and in Mennonite-Muslim dialogue is an important contribution to building peace. My family and I donate to MCC in support of its work in places like Syria.
2. My concern is the way MCC picks and chooses how to apply Matthew 5. As a peacebuilder, I think we must remain in conversation with all people, even those with whom we disagree. I have argued Matthew 5 offers “God’s Security Strategy” and I have encouraged Mennonites to consider a “Two-handed Approach to Peacebuilding” whereby we both “reach out one hand to love those with whom we disagree, and put one hand up to resist injustice and to advocate for justice and peace.”
3. The current letter mentions no concerns with the Iranian government’s actions. In 2008, MCC hosted a dinner with then Iranian President Ahmedinejad. In a carefully worded article to The Mennonite, MCC Director Arli Klassen detailed the logic of the meeting. While Klassen’s article noted MCC’s objections to the Iranian government’s repression and antisemitic rhetoric, this new letter makes no reference to concerns about Iran’s behavior toward domestic democracy dissidents, toward Jewish civilians in Israel or to Iran’s support for the Syrian regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
4. MCC’s friendly letters of support to Iran and robust dialogue with Muslims stands in stark contrast to its frequent publications denouncing Israel and the absence of robust relationships with Jewish people both in Israel and North America. The dialogue between mostly bearded Mennonite men and bearded Iranian religious leaders in Qom, Iran has been unusual, and interesting, if not affirming of shared patriarchal culture. MCC has not invested as much time or energy on Jewish-Mennonite dialogue in Jerusalem or in the US. Why is this?
5. By what ethical criteria does MCC make decisions related to the content of “open letters”? Just as MCC seems to ignore Iranian violence while denouncing US violence, it also seems to ignore Palestinian and Arab violence while denouncing Israeli violence. How does MCC decide who gets an open letter of support and who does not? MCC has legitimate concerns about Palestinian rights and freedoms. I support this advocacy. Nearly 100,000 Palestinians have died in the last hundred years, and today Palestinians continue to face severe repression, and there are millions of Palestinian refugees. But on the other hand, MCC rarely acknowledges that nearly a million Jews living in Arab countries also lost their homes and jobs because of antisemitic threats and violence. And the death toll in Syria, backed by Iranian military support, has resulted in far more deaths of Arab civilians in just the last five years. There was no mention of Iran’s role in Syria in MCC’s Open Letter on Syria. And there certainly has been no ‘Open Letter to Israel’ when Iranian-backed Hezbollah threatens to bomb Jewish civilians.
6. Because of Mennonite support for Hitler and participation in the Holocaust, Mennonites must consider how this antisemitic history influences their credibility as peacemakers today. Many still do not know about Mennonite participation in Nazi science, Nazi theology, Nazi leadership, and their roles as supporters, bystanders, benefiters, and implementers of the Holocaust because it was kept out of Mennonite history books.(see summary here) Many know that MCC began as a humanitarian effort to rescue Mennonite refugees from the brutality of Soviet Russia in the aftermath the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist purges and the cruelty of the Red Army as they advanced to Berlin at the end of WWII. This was commendable. But most people are not aware that some of the Russian Mennonites brought by MCC to North and South America became the leaders of antisemitic ideas, newspapers and movements in this hemisphere.
7. Mennonites have had a significant influence on the white supremacy movement that threatens Jews, Muslims, African Americans and immigrants today. The thousands of angry white men in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 chanted words written by one Russian Mennonite immigrant, Ben Klassen, who wrote the White Man’s Bible, coined the term ‘racial holy war,’ and bolstered horrific antisemitic beliefs. While other churches committed themselves to institutional efforts at de-Nazification to address widespread antisemitism after WWII, Mennonites repeatedly denied and suppressed efforts to address antisemitism in our church. I believe MCCs historic actions and current denial of the problem of antisemitic attitudes among its staff affects the safety of my Mennonite-Jewish family today, living in rural Virginia and facing antisemitic threats to us and our extended family.
8. While MCC supports dialogue with the Iranian government and Muslims citing Matthew 5, some MCC staff participate in the “anti-normalization” movement that forbids dialogue with Jews. The “anti-normalization movement” argues there should be no contact with Jews unless the dialogue is about ending Israeli occupation of Palestine. In practice, even my Palestinian colleagues face threats from other Palestinians for working with Jews on peace initiatives because they are seen as traitors for having any contact with Jews. The equivalent policy in Iran would require MCC staff to talk only with Iranians openly involved in democracy protests within the country. Any such precondition to dialogue undermines peacebuilding.
9. Some MCC staff who support the anti-normalization movement have called for boycotts of my books and teaching at Mennonite universities because of how I attempt to practice Matthew 5. These staff called for a boycott against me because I am engaged in talking to Jews across the political spectrum, including Jews living in the West Bank, and because I have written extensively about the Mennonite antisemitism embedded within conservative Mennonite churches Christian Zionism, as well as the antisemitism among progressive Mennonite churches. Some Mennonites affiliated with MCC successfully called for The Mennonite to remove an article I wrote asking Mennonites to pay greater attention to antisemitism in the church, as detailed in my open letter to The Mennonite. While MCC justifies dialogue with Iranians as a form of “love of enemies”, some MCCers seem to have decided this Biblical ethic does not apply to Jews, or to Mennonites like me in dialogue with Jews. Why is this?
10. As MCC celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year, I urge reflection on how MCC institutionalizes Matthew 5. As a peacebuilder belonging to the Mennonite church, I ask MCC to do better.
- Require training on antisemitism for all MCC staff, using a curriculum like this one.
- Require a more substantial 1-2 week training on the history of Christian antisemitism and Judaism at the Bat Kol Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for MCCers working in the region.
- Offer an acknowledgement and apology to Jews for MCC’s role in spreading antisemitism in North and South America at the 100th anniversary celebrations of MCC later this year.
- Develop a statement clarifying the ethical framework MCC uses to write open letters.
As always, I welcome and invite dialogue with MCC leaders on these issues.
Lisa Schirch, PhD