An Open Letter to MCC on Iran and Israel, Muslims and Jews

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Require training on antisemitism for all MCC staff, using a curriculum like this one.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Sincerely,

Lisa Schirch, PhD

19 Comments

  1. Good letter. Must have taken you hours to put this together. We will be anxious to hear responses.

    dad

  2. Wow, Lisa. I did not know about the positions of MCC on Jews or Israel, which is shortsighted, or about hosting Ahmadinejad, or about Ben Klassen’s roots. I will send you an article I published on the apocalyptic rhetoric in Ahmadinejad’s term, which will buttress your argument that the situation is multi-faceted and complex (because governance in Iran happens along so many fronts). Thank you for your thoughtful blog!

  3. Lisa, I praise your courage and dedication. Thank you for writing this informative letter. I’ve always thought of Mennonites as really modeling Jesus’ teachings, so it has been somewhat painful to hear and read things critical of church leaders, etc. that doesn’t mean I don’t believe them, but I mourn. No one and no institution is perfect. This well researched letter critiquing my beloved MCC is sad and hard to read. But necessary. We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken. Warm regards to you.

  4. Thank you, Lisa, for highlighting these issues and concerns. Mennonites need to learn from this history, own the shortcomings, and include repentance while seeking justice and setting direction.

    This is indeed very concerning and I hope we will soon see evidence of Lisa’s recommendations at least being discussed and taken seriously by MCC leadership.

  5. Thank you Karen. I agree with you that it is painful because I believe MCC does so much good in the world. I have served with MCC and continue to donate to MCC. But my efforts to address these issues with MCC leaders in private over the last few years has not led to any meaningful response, so in the tradition of MLK’s critique of Christian leaders on this MLK day, I say these hard words in the hope that MCC can take each of the four actions.

  6. Thanks Dad. Grateful for the ways you support me and remind me of how my ancestors have tried to live out these teachings like Matthew 5.

  7. Being a good human being is a complicated deal…religion seems to increase the complications-Christianity certainly does. Even our relationships with people we know personally and love and care for deeply includes plenty of contention. Here, the “rules of the road” should generally be simplified and synthesized down to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and be done with. MCC has its work cut out for itself.

  8. A few more thoughts to share. I’ve been reflecting on how kind you are in using moral persuasion and rational argument to promote change at MCC. I am not so generous. My own response has been to boycott, divest and sanction the organization. I do not attend MCC events, no longer volunteer, avoid promoting MCC on social media and perhaps most importantly I no longer donate money. When an MCC Ontario fundraiser appealed to Reg and I to include MCC in our will we wrote a letter asking to be removed from all fundraising mailing lists. I now give to other agencies.

    From my experience working for MCC as Women’s Concerns Director from 1989 to 1997, MCC did not move on including women in leadership positions until it became apparent that CIDA (Federal Government development agency) was going to cut funding if MCC did not comply with its gender equity policies.

    That experience taught me that when it comes to money MCC does not have a moral compass. Its also apparent in their ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ people. MCC in Canada has gambled that government agencies will continue to fund MCC projects despite the fact that their discriminatory hiring policies violate the human rights code. MCC appeals to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, claiming freedom of religious expression. It will take a court case to bring MCC into compliance on this issue.

    From my perspective the best way to bring about change is to use a language MCC understands: money. Sadly moral persuasion to date on a whole variety of issues including its troubling antisemitism just hasn’t worked.

    Keep up the good fight though Lisa! I deeply respect your desire for a better MCC even though I would be just as happy to watch it sink under the weight of its many anachronisms and bigotries.

  9. Thanks for your comment Kathy. There are a variety of “theories of change” or ways in which people change their mind. Most often, people change as a result of multiple types of pressure. Yes, I agree economics is important and I hope your decision makes an impact. But having invested my entire life in dialogue between people who disagree, I know for a fact that persuasion works. Over a thousand people have now come to my website and read my letter. If my letter was angry or hateful, I don’t think it would have that impact… as people tend to dismiss angry letters. I do believe in dialogue with Iran, with conservative religious Muslims, and with Jews, and also with MCC. I don’t think I’m being “generous” or naive. This is the way I think change happens.

    As I wrote in some comments on Facebook yesterday about the article, I am part of the third generation of scholars who have attempted to get Mennonite institutions to live by the ethics that they preach. Mennonites who have spoken out about antisemitism in the past have faced severe repression from Mennonite institutions, and any one speaking about this is sanctioned by the church as I have experienced. At some point, there will be a chorus of Mennonites demanding that MCC change. And I am trying to speak to the Mennonite community in a way that they can understand.

    I am a product of Mennonite education: I attended Eastern Mennonite High School, Goshen College, Conrad Grebel College and then spent 20 years teaching at Eastern Mennonite University until the Provost pushed me out because of my attempts to have EMU leaders meet directly with survivors of significant cases of sexual abuse that happened on campus to practice restorative justice – the principle of listening to victims. How will these Mennonite institutions ever survive if they cannot listen to the ethical pleas from their graduates? The institutional shunning I have experienced from MCC and EMU are a warning to future graduates of these programs… stay silent or compliant or face punishment. That isn’t a very inspiring institutional response.

    I give money to many different charities. Most of my money now goes to those working on the climate crisis and yes, to organizations willing to live out the ethics of inclusion and respect for all people.

    I’ve repeatedly asked MCC Canada to address the issue of Mennonites like Ron Thiessen, CEO of Northern Dynasty, a mining company threatening the livelihoods and environment of First Nations communities in Alaska.MCC has been unwilling to address Mennonite roles in the mining industry, preferring to put out resources that address mining in a way that does not directly address the power dynamics at play in the Mennonite church. So no, I’m not surprised that the institution is lagging on a human rights orientation on some of these issues.

    Just as I worked for 10 years directly with the US military to change how they understand ethics and their harmful practices on the ground around the world, so too do I think that change comes in part from remaining in dialogue. It is not for everyone. And I respect your choices to disengage completely.

    Warmly,
    Lisa

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