Blog: The Politics of Hope

Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Dear Subscribers,

When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” came out in the New York Review of Books last June, I was out of the country and missed the excitement.  I was bombarded with it from a number of listserves, but began to notice that I was avoiding reading it.  And I know why:  I didn’t feel like getting heated up about what I suspected was in the piece.  Well, I finally read it last December, and I did get heated up, and I wrote this essay, which surprises me since I used to buy research papers not a while ago.  I submitted it to several left-wing print and internet periodicals, received acceptances, and then, for some reason, it never ran. Added a “Palestine Papers” lead, and then a lead about Egypt.  Still no luck.  No matter — here it is:

Peter Beinart and The Failure of American Jewish Progressivism:

Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Mark Braverman

The popular uprising in Egypt that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, together with Aljazeera’s January 23rd release of the “Palestine Papers,” have produced if not a an earthquake, then certainly seismic rumblings in the ground supporting Israel’s control of the West Bank (from within) and Gaza (from without). The plight of the Palestinians is not what motivated Egyptians to take to the streets – yet the complicity of the Mubarak government with the siege of Gaza certainly stuck in the craw of the Egyptian people. Similarly, the Aljezeera revelations that negotiators for the Palestinian Authority had effectively ceded East Jerusalem to Israel and relinquished the right of return for Palestinian refugees would have only reinforced Egyptians’ conviction that the  promised Palestinian State  a has been a snare and a delusion perpetrated by the U.S.-Israel-Jordan-Egypt alliance.

It is a sure bet that any spillover from Tahrir Square into the streets of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus or Bethlehem will be quickly repressed by the Palestinian Authority. But the future of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and throughout the world does not rest with the actions of the client government installed in Ramallah. Rather, the fate of these people –as well of the close to eight million citizens of Israel, is been held hostage to the assumptions and requirements of political Zionism. More than territory and borders, the issue of demography is the key to this conflict. The question of return of refugees has been a red line for Israelis because the introduction of so many non-Jews would spell “the end of Israel.” And so it would, as long as its future is tied to the Zionist idea of a Jewish state. But recognition is dawning that a just and equitable sharing of the territory will mean, not the end of Israel, but its only hope for a future. The release of the Palestinian Authority documents is a further sign that the path to peace requires a confrontation with Zionism itself as a political enterprise. But even within the progressive camp, this realization has been slow in coming. When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” appeared in the New York Review of Books in June 2010, it caused a considerable stir:  here was a young Jewish intellectual boldly challenging the human rights record of the State of Israel. But Beinart’s subject was not Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Rather, he was addressing the failure of the American Jewish establishment to successfully promote Zionism as a viable political program. The piece opens with this declaration:  “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”  To this Jewish American, this is an astonishing statement, and it is tragically off the mark.

Born in the heady years after the establishment of the state, I grew up believing that Israel was the key to Jewish survival. But I would suggest that preserving Zionism is not the challenge facing Jews today. Rather, our task is to rescue Judaism from an ideology that has hijacked the faith, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today. Despite its romantic attachment to the idea of the “new Jew” — a Jew liberated from the powerlessness and humiliation of the ghetto — in reality Zionism has served to keep Jews trapped in an isolationist, exclusivist past. We must challenge a historical narrative that has yoked us to a theology of territoriality and tribal privilege. We must acknowledge how deep is the hole we have dug for ourselves in the pursuit of our national homeland project.

But it is not for the Jews alone to resolve this crisis. Rather, the prospect of Israel spinning rapidly into rogue state status challenges people from all faiths and nationalities to confront sectarian and particularistic strivings wherever they hold the political process hostage. This is not the challenge that being thrown down by Beinart, however. Instead, he is proposing that rather than questioning the legitimacy of Zionism, we shore it up. Beinart never considers the possibility that Zionism itself is a flawed ideology. Instead, he operates on the assumption that if only Zionism could be implemented in its true democratic and liberal spirit, meaningful change could be created and things would work out. “Yes, we have erred, we have strayed,” — so goes the argument – “but because we are heirs to a liberal, humanistic tradition, we can make this work — and our work deserves to be crowned with success.”

According to Beinart, bad actors have sabotaged the noble enterprise.  The problem, he maintains, lies with overtly racist politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who proposes transfer of non-Jews (and who recently pushed through the Knesset the targeting of Israeli human rights organizations for special investigations), and ex-cabinet minister Effi Eitam, who wants Arabs out of Israeli politics. Here we have the classic straw man maneuver – very much like progressive Israeli and non-Israeli Jews blaming the “radical fringe” of the settler movement for Israel’s human rights abuses and the “mistake” of the occupation. But settler depredations, permanent occupation of Palestinian lands, brutal suppression of popular resistance, racial laws governing loyalty and land ownership, and de facto second class citizenship for Arabs in Israel are not accidents or unfortunate deviations from Israel’s democratic agenda. The government of Israel is doing precisely what a Jewish state has to do to maintain its Jewish character. Ethnic cleansing and military control of a subject population (also known as Apartheid) have emerged as the only means to address the threat to Israel’s continued existence as a sovereign Jewish state. The abhorrent concept of the Arab “demographic threat” is embraced in Israel by racist demagogues and centrist politicians alike. The sobering truth is that for Israel the line between racist demagoguery and government policy has all but disappeared.

But for the Jewish progressive, the idea that Zionism itself is the problem is unacceptable. A different enemy must be found — and Israel’s fundamentalist Jewish establishment presents itself as the most convenient. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is the poster child for those who bemoan Israel’s threatened descent into fascism. Last October Jewish voices the world over issued horrified condemnations when a group of Israeli rabbis, backed by Yosef, issued rulings against renting to non-Jews. Even the Anti-Defamation League’s arch-conservative Director Abraham Foxman weighed in against the “hateful and divisive ideas” of these religious leaders. Lamenting Shas’ growing boldness and influence, Beinart warns against this threat to Israel’s “liberal and democratic order.” The point, however, bears repeating: Shas and Israel’s other religious parties are not unfortunate byproducts of democracy – rather, they are firmly entrenched in Israel’s political structure. Despite its initial conflict with political Zionism, Jewish fundamentalism has shown itself to be frighteningly compatible with the goal of building a Jewish state.

Quoted in a recent article in New York Jewish Week, Beinart expresses concern that his children may have to choose between “blind support” of Israel and their liberal values. But as Jews – and Americans — we do have to choose. Accepting Zionism as a workable, sustainable political program is a kind of blindness. It calls for a striking lapse in critical thinking and the jettisoning of fundamental humanistic principles, and it leads to the political dead end in which we find ourselves today. Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” (“The Hope”) embodies the Zionist dream and ethos: “The hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” This yearning is understandable and it is powerful. But I would propose to Beinart and those progressive Jews who cling to this dream that they replace it with one more in tune with the trajectory of history, which points away from nationalism, and certainly from ethnic nationalism. Zionism held a kind of desperate logic for the Jews of 19th century Europe, and seemed valid in the historical and ideological context of the time – but it is wrong and unsustainable today. Only when Israel itself, and the Jewish community that supports it, can begin to let go of these anachronistic strivings can we turn ourselves to the task of recreating Israel as a political entity truly committed to democratic and liberal principles. The late and deeply mourned Tony Judt got it exactly right in his NYRB piece back in 2003: “The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place.”

In his recent book, The Icarus Syndrome, A History of American Hubris, Beinart warns against “pushing ideas further and further, until, like a swelled balloon, they burst.” We have arrived at that bursting point. The end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and some Christians — fear. Rather, it will open the Jewish people to a future where the Other is embraced, rather than back to a past in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in precisely the wrong direction.

Mark Braverman is author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land, Synergy Press, 2010. Writing and his blog can be found at

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Two Voices from Israel

Dear Subscribers,

It’s been months since you’ve heard from me. This has not been for want of things to write about. In fact I have been writing quite a bit, and it’s been the demands of these projects and time on the road lecturing that have kept me from the blog. These two pieces just came my way, and have broken through the block.

I am bringing you two Jewish voices from Israel. One is a cry of despair and pain. The other is the story of a man who years ago woke up and set out to do something. I am not saying that in the writing of the first piece the author has not done something. Amnon Dankner, a veteran Israeli journalist, a man of my generation, born in the heady years just before the birth of the state and  part of the mainstream political and journalistic life of Israel, is now crushingly disillusioned, horrified, and in mourning. I am very moved by this piece. There is no light here, no sense from Dankner that he can even turn it around. It is a cry of despair, sadness, anger, and fear. What is striking also is his description of Israeli’s existential terror – the sense of being surrounded, isolated, threatened.  In the political ferment in which we engage around this conflict, we rarely hear this expressed by Israelis themselves, rarely hear about this sense of vulnerability outside the context of a Zionist polemic. Here is an Israeli expressing the desperate feeling of being at the mercy of a government not only unable to protect its citizens, but leading them at breakneck speed toward the edge of the cliff. We are not safe, he is saying — and, what is more, there is a way to safety, but it is in the opposite direction than the one in which we are travelling. Dankner goes on to voice the pain of a man living in a society that is morally bankrupt and descending rapidly into racism. This man was born in Palestine in 1946. He grew up immersed in the dream of redemption, of a talented, brave, suffering people creating something new and wonderful. It is a profound, tragic downfall. And so very sad. I will not choose to use this opportunity to preach about how such a downfall was inevitable because of the nature of Zionism itself  (this will be reserved for the next posting, in preparation). I simply give you Dankner’s profound unburdening.

Eitan Bronstein, born almost a generation after Dankner, is in my view one of the most courageous voices in Israel today. In founding Zochrot, he, along with Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe, is calling on Jews to wake up to an essential facet of our history – the historical and ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people to make way for the Jewish state. In this piece, Eitan makes his farewell as Director of Zochrot and tells the story of its founding.

Here are the two pieces:

“Decline to brutality — I am ashamed”  Amnon Dankner, January 7, 2011

“…I am daring to stand up and voice an opinion and even voice it loudly and pound on the table once or twice—this is because I have felt lately that it has become shameful to be an Israeli, and a decent person must feel this shame and blush deeply and clear his throat and whisper to himself the question, what should we do, what should we do, for heaven’s sake, and perhaps even reach far-reaching conclusions.

Because it is fairly clear already that if our life here continues as it has been developing, then decent, moderate, balanced and humane people will not be able to live here. Before our eyes, with growing speed, Israeli society is changing, the political culture is changing, balances are disrupted and checks are tossed to the blazes, in the terrible wind that is blowing in our lives and quickly colouring them in darkening shades of black….” (click for entire piece)

Eitan’s Farewell — January, 2011

“…I started Zochrot more than nine years ago, after leading tours to the site known in Israrel as “Canada Park.” The JNF, with the generous assistance of Canadian Zionists, planted thousands of trees to create a forest that looked as if it were European, and in doing so covered the remains of the villages of Yalu, ‘Imwas and Beit Nuba. The JNF erected many signs in the park, describing the many histories of the location, but for some reason forget to mention the lives that Palestinians led here for hundreds of years, until the 1967 war, during which Israel completed the conquest of the country which it had begun in 1948. At the end of one of those tours, I had the idea to erect in the park the signs that were missing. For example, “’Imwas cemetery,” or “Yalu cemetery.”

The idea of erecting signs wherever Palestinian villages had been demolished by Israel attracted and interested people, and two publications referred to it even before we’d actually done anything: HaKibbutz and Ha’aretz. The many responses from readers – most of them irate – made clear to me that this was a clearly-focused activity whose time had come…

I carried out my first symbolic actions, erecting Hebrew signs alongside the remains of Palestinian villages, during that day trip. I still remember how I had physically to overcome my body’s resistance to making that modest gesture. Here are those photographs, which haven’t been published before.  (click for entire piece)

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Peace, peace, and there is no peace

On October 6 The Washington Post ran a story entitled “A key back channel for U.S., Israeli ties.” The story informs us that “Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East expert, has emerged as a crucial, behind-the-scenes conduit between the White House and the Israeli government, working closely with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s private attorney – and also Defense Minister Ehud Barak – to discreetly smooth out differences and disputes between the two governments.”

The article goes on to describe how Ross is currently working with “[chief Israeli negotiator Yitzhak] Molho and [Deputy Prime Minister Ehud] Barak on a package of incentives that the Obama administration is offering Netanyahu to extend a settlement moratorium by 60 days to keep nascent peace talks with the Palestinians on track.”

This latest disclosure is another nail in the coffin of the “peace process.” It lays to rest the long-held fiction of the U.S. as an honest broker in these so-called negotiations. This disclosure comes as no surprise. It has already been officially leaked that these “incentives” certainly include Israeli military presence and effective control over the Jordan Valley. What else might be in this package? Guarantee against return of Palestinian refugees? Final annexation of the major settlement blocs, including East Jerusalem? And does it matter? What now emerges into the full light of day is what anyone with eyes to see has observed, certainly since 2000 – that the U.S., far from being an “honest broker” in “peace negotiations,” is in fact Israel’s lawyer – in addition to her banker – on the international scene.  See my friend Jim Wall’s excellent blog on the Ross incentive package. It spells out how the military occupation of the Jordan Valley and the diplomatic guarantees contained in the package complete the bantusization and isolation of the West Bank and Gaza.  And for what?  The extension of a “settlement freeze” that is itself a snare and a delusion (settlement building has continued unabated in spite of the talks)?

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But the illusion continues to hold sway. The evening that the Post article appeared, I attended  an event organized by J Street, the AC founded several years ago as an alternative to AIPAC, the powerful “Israel Lobby.”  On its website J Street identifies itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans to advocate for vigorous U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  The event was entitled “Who are the Partners for Peace? Palestinian Perspectives: A Discussion with the American Jewish Community.” The event was moderated by Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and lead negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks. The panel featured three Palestinian speakers, the idea being to bring “Palestinian moderates,” as the program identified them, to the attention of American Jews.  Presumably, this kind of conversation would help to dispel the notion that Palestinians were not interested in peace with Israel and that they were incapable of “working together” with Israelis to achieve a two-state solution. An overwhelmingly Jewish audience filled to overflowing the vast sanctuary at Temple Sinai in Washington DC.  It’s possible that many came out of curiosity.  But I felt, as I did when I attended the sold-out J Street conference in Washington last year, that the Jewish community came to this event out of an increasingly urgent need to find a way to continue to feel good – and optimistic — about Israel. Seeing that there are Palestinians who want peace is a comforting notion:  if they exist, then – given that we Jews also seek this outcome – there is hope.

But this hope rests on yet another fiction, one that functions alongside of that of the U.S. as a good faith broker. This is the fantasy created by the language of “partnership.”  Partnership assumes equality, or at least the possibility of such.  It assumes a  playing field that might approach being level. But an occupier and occupied cannot be partners in a negotiation.  A militarily controlled and economically vanquished people confronting a nuclear power supported by the world’s remaining superpower is not a meeting of partners. The assembled wanted to believe that this partnership is possible — that the only task remaining is to match up the “moderates” on both sides, those willing to hear the other’s narrative (“Tell us what it was like to grow up in a refugee camp” Ambassador Indyk asked one of the panelists).  These would be, presumably, the panelists on the podium and us, the supporters of J Street.

As a member of the audience I asked the panelists to comment on the Post article, asking the question very much in the spirit in which I opened this blog posting. Two out of the three said that they thought back channel was wrong – certainly, said one, a tactical error. The third, astonishingly, answered my question about the Ross “concessions” by saying “I am not so sure about this concept of ‘honest broker.’ What’s an ‘honest broker?” In a negotiation, I am concerned not that the broker be honest, but that he be effective!” This quip drew appreciative laughter. Later this same panelist, in answer to a question about settlements and international law (such as the law declaring illegal the settling of one’s own population on land obtained militarily, and profiting economically on that territory) claimed that, after all, international law can be understood in many ways. This was news to me.  Clearly, I had much to learn about international law.  Certainly, I was learning more and more about what a moderate is.

Ambassador Indyk ended the evening with an appeal to the audience. Peace will never be achieved, he declared, “without all of you.”  This statement mystified me. What did he mean, I wondered? The audience, however, responded this appeal with enthusiastic applause and went off to the reception. What, I continued to wonder (or who) were they applauding? I don’t think it was for panelist Amjad Atallah of the New American Foundation, who, just prior to Indyk’s closing words, ended the panel discussion with an answer to the Ambassador’s question, “will we see a Palestinian state within a year?” “A Palestinian state alongside of Israel,” Atallah answered, “depends on freedom for Palestine. If a settlement looks anything like what we now have on the ground, the ‘Two State Solution’ will be much more terrible than the present situation.”

This is the truth that must be told. The current diplomatic effort will not work, even if, improbably, it produces something called a “peace agreement.” Peace will come, not through political compromise requiring yet more concessions and “flexibility” from the Palestinian side, but through a recognition of the injustice to which the Palestinians have been subjected for over 60 years, and an honest look at the illegitimacy and unsustainability of the political system that is now firmly in place — a system that constitutes a single apartheid state. The current political process, if it “succeeds” at all, seems more and more likely to succeed only in legitimizing this unacceptable reality. Nothing resembling peace will result from this outcome.

A synagogue full of Jews listening to the voices of Palestinians is not a bad thing.  Eventually, the Jewish community will come to understand that the Palestinian people are not our implacable enemy.  Eventually – someday – as a community we will come to understand that Palestinian resistance has been directed not toward Jews, or even toward Israel as such, but toward Israeli expansionism and to six-plus decades of ethnic cleansing, dispossession and denial of human rights. Conversations like the J Street event last week may prove — someday — to have been a helpful part of that process. But these conversations will not produce a solution. For a solution we need to hear the voices of prophets, voices like the voice I heard the next day at a lecture at the Palestine Center in downtown Washington DC.  Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told us that

“There is reason for deep short-term pessimism about the situation in Palestine and the situation in Israel. Both are endlessly depressing.  But there are signs, I think, of encouraging positive longer term trends in the public sphere in this country. This is not a situation that will change rapidly, however. It took generations and a lot of hard work to establish the myths Israel was built on, and it will take years, and a lot of hard work, to deconstruct them, and for the generations that are not going to change their minds in many cases, to lose their influence.”

“I think it will be a long time before the political situation certainly will change such that we can expect an end to Israeli impunity.  Israel will continue to be protected in pretty much anything it chooses to do by our Congress and by our government. But I think the handwriting may be on the wall. I think that the system of domination and control through the calculated dosed use of violence and overwhelming power that has obtained in the Occupied Territories for over 43 years, a system based entirely on violence, and that has maintained the dispossession of the Palestinian people for 62 years, cannot be hidden forever. Maybe it can’t be stopped, but it can’t be concealed, is my point.  The brilliantly conceived discursive artifice, a citadel of lies, that has concealed this system of power and control for so long is actually beginning to crumble…The day is clearly coming when this status quo will pass. Maybe a long time for that day to come but it is coming.  It is up to Israelis and Palestinians in the first instance to dismantle this iniquitous system, this unjust system, this unsustainable system and to put in place one that is more just. But, the last thing I want to say is while it is essentially up to them there, it is also up to us here. Americans bear a very, very, very heavy responsibility in this matter.  We are the 900 pound gorilla on the Middle Eastern stage.  The United States has upheld this entire discriminatory, unjust structure ever since 1948, ever since the partition resolution of 1947. Clearly, a beginning in new direction at least in the public sphere in this country has begun. I would strongly argue that true peace with justice in Palestine for both peoples that live there depends on the continuation of this process in this country.”

(Click this link for a video and complete transcript of Dr. Khalidi’s address.)

When politics fail, broad social movements arise to change the political wind. This is the movement we see forming on a global basis to end the madness and eventually bring peace to the region. We need voices of prophecy – honest, unvarnished truth-telling.  When Elijah confronted King Ahab over the killing of Naboth and the theft of his land, he did not sidle up to the monarch, put his arm around his shoulder and say, “Ahab, this doesn’t look so good. We need to work on your image — and we need to figure out a better way to get you what you want. Let me talk to the folks in Jezreel and see what kind of a deal I can get for you.”  No – we know what Elijah said:  “Have you murdered and also taken?”  In the Hebrew, the question is asked in three, shattering words — followed by a short discourse on the consequences to follow.

People often ask me: but if not two states, then what? Isn’t one state even less possible?  But the one-state two-state debate is not the conversation that is needed now. We already have one state. More and more Israelis  – including former Prime Ministers – see this, and it is a state that is unsustainable.  The question, as Israeli writer Bernard Avishai asked years ago, is not whether Israel will survive. The question is:  what kind of Israel will it be?  The more the truth is told, the sooner we can begin to answer that question.


An updated edition of Mark Braverman’s Fatal Embrace:  Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land is now available.  It features a new Afterword and an endorsement by Marcus J. Borg.

Mark Braverman’s review of Joe Sacco’s astonishing graphic novel Footnotes in Gaza has just appeared in Commonweal Magazine.  The online version is available at

Upcoming:  go to the Events Page for a listing of Mark’s U.S. appearances for the Fall.

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Report from the Presbyterian General Assembly – Part 2, The Jewish Response

Goodbye to the Old Rules

There were two groups of Jewish attendees at the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Minneapolis early this month. One was composed of several members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and me. We were there at the invitation of the denomination’s Israel Palestine Mission Network to support passage of the Middle East Study Committee Report, “Breaking Down the Walls” and other Middle East-related overtures, including divestment from Caterpillar, recognition that Israel’s policies constitute Apartheid, and endorsement of the Palestine Kairos document. The other group was made up of people from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. They were working closely with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a group of Presbyterian pastors and seminary professors that had formed for the purpose of opposing these overtures. The strategy they followed was to allow the Presbyterian group to lead the charge, with the Jewish organizations keeping a low profile. Blocking or gutting “Breaking Down the Walls” was the main objective of this ad hoc alliance. The alliance failed to accomplish either objective. I believe that they were surprised at this outcome – Jewish advocacy groups having the final say on Christian words and actions with respect to Israel and Zionism is a time-honored pursuit.  It has been rewarded with success for generations.

Sixty five years ago, the Christian world stood before the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau and said, “What have we done?” Since then, Christian-Jewish relations have been driven by the Jewish desire for safety and protection on the one hand and the powerful Christian drive for penitence for millennia of anti-Jewish doctrine and behavior on the other. For Jews, the establishment of the State of Israel has provided the focus of this quest for physical security, dignity, and self-determination. For their part, Christians set about developing a revised theology that renounced the notion that Christians had replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen, and that granted implicit and in many cases explicit theological justification for political Zionism. The result is that Christian-Jewish “interfaith” relations today follows clear rules – rules that serve to insulate Christians from any appearance of anti-Jewish feeling and that protect the Jewish community from any possible challenge – or even perceived challenge — to unconditional support for the policies of the State of Israel. These rules are playing out in the academy, in the pews, in interfaith relations on the highest levels, and in everyday encounters. They are rendered more powerful by never being stated or acknowledged.

The rules

Fundamentally, there are two rules:

1. “Sensitivity” to “the Jewish perspective” and Jewish self-perception (as defined for all Jews by groups who claim to represent the whole) is paramount. How an action or statement may make some Jews feel trumps all other considerations, values or objectives.

2. The superior right of the Jews to the land is never to be challenged.  One can nibble at the edges — talk about the rights of Palestinians, the need for the land to be shared, etc.  But don’t come close to violating rule #1 – you can’t make us uncomfortable, you can’t bring us too close to looking at the core reasons for the conflict, at the awful consequences of an ethnic nationalist project that has displaced an indigenous population and has created a system that meets the UN definition of the crime of apartheid.

Until recently, these rules have dominated the interfaith discourse in the United States and Western Europe. American Jewish advocacy organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-defamation League, the local and national Federations of Jewish Agencies, and the Jewish religious denominations have relied on these rules in mounting opposition to any actions of Christian denominations perceived to be anti-Israel. Through a combination of charging that the Presbyterian Church’s “anti-Israel” actions and statements are anti-Semitic and expressing outrage over the denomination’s “betrayal” of a historic friendship, these organizations have managed to bully the church into withdrawing or watering down efforts to take effective action in opposition to Israel’s policies and to our own government’s support of these policies.

What happened at the Presbyterian General Assembly early this month is an indication that the rules are no longer working.

We will remain partners”

On Friday, July 9, 2010, by an 82% majority, the General Assembly approved “Breaking Down the Walls” — modified but still preserving its strong condemnation of Israel’s human rights violations.  That same day, the Jewish groups who had opposed the report, writing under the umbrella of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, issued a public letter. It reads, in part:  “In recognizing Israel’s security needs while striving to remain faithful to the church’s Palestinian Christian partners, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has embraced a more thoughtful approach to Middle East peacemaking.” The letter noted that although several areas of “serious concern” remained, “the General Assembly has modeled a more inclusive voice on the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We fervently hope that the new Middle East monitoring committee will meet the GA’s charge for authentic balance in the study of and teaching about the complexities of the Middle East. We will remain partners in this pursuit.”

What a change in tone and tactics! The letter is almost conciliatory, markedly milder in tone than the statements that preceded the conference. Recall that in a website posting in March the Wiesenthal Center called the report a “poisonous document,” one that amounted to “nothing short than a declaration of war on Israel.” Prior to the General Assembly, the gloves had come off – in addition to the Christian Century article I described in Part 1 of this posting, the Middle East Study Committee report and other overtures had been subject to a barrage of attacks, including circulating an internet petition that asked signers to send the following message to Presbyterians: “I am deeply disturbed by the dangerous campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State and her supporters launched by a committee that is dominated by activists openly hostile to Israel. They are poised to place the policy of PCUSA on a collision course with Israel’s survival.” In December 2009, the Central Conference of American Rabbis characterized the Kairos document as supercessionist and anti-Semitic, declaring that “those who would associate themselves with this document and the religious foundation upon which it is based would be erasing years of Christian soul searching and repentance as if they had not been. We expect more from our interfaith partners.”

Contemplating the July 9th JPCA letter, we might ask, where is the outrage, where is the demonization? What has happened to  the bullying, the ultimatums, the preaching, the threats of pulling out of the relationship? Where are the charges that the denomination is making war on Israel and delegitimizing Judaism itself? Reading the letter, one might assume that the church had performed major surgery on the report, removing any shred of language that could be seen as critical of Israel or that threatend its existence or the continued financial and diplomatic support of our country. Or we might assume that, somehow, any such language was now carefully balanced by equal language providing reassurance of support for Israel.

But in fact, the prophetic heart of the document remains. The reason for the change in tone of the American Jewish response is simply this:  the church didn’t back down.

What has changed?

Look at what has changed and what remains in the Middle East Study Committee report:

The report opens with a re-affirmation of previous General Assembly Policies & Statements, preceded by a preamble:

“Given the daunting and mounting obstacles to the viability of a “two-state solution,” and following from the above principles, the 219th General Assembly (2010) affirms with greater urgency our historic Presbyterian stances with specific regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for

  1. an immediate cessation of all violence, whether perpetrated by Israelis or Palestinians;
  2. the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and diversion of water resources;
  3. an immediate freeze both on the establishment or expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and on the Israeli acquisition of Palestinian land and buildings in East Jerusalem;
  4. the relocation by Israel of the Separation Barrier to the 1967 border;
  5. the withholding of U.S. government aid to the state of Israel as long as Israel persists in creating new West Bank settlements;
  6. continuing corporate engagement through the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment with companies profiting from the sale and use of their products for non-peaceful purposes and/or the violation of human rights;
  7. a shared status for Jerusalem;
  8. equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel;
  9. the cessation of systematic violation of human rights by any party, specifically, practices of administrative detention, collective punishment, the torture of prisoners and suspects, home demolitions and evictions, and the deportation of dissidents;
  10. the immediate resumption by Israel and Palestine of negotiations toward a two-state solution.

In the section containing new recommendations, the following changes were made to two key recommendations (added text is in brackets, deleted text is in strikethrough):

f. [Endorses the Kairos Palestine document (“A Moment of Truth”) in its emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation; lifts the document up for study and discussion by Presbyterians; and directs the creation of a study guide for the document through the appropriate channel of the General Assembly Mission Council.] [Commends for study the Kairos Palestine document (‘A Moment of Truth’), and endorses the document’s emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation. We lift up for study the often neglected voice of Palestinian Christians. We direct the monitoring group for the Middle East to create a study guide for the document].”

b. Calls on the U.S. government to exercise strategically its international influence, including [the possible withholding of military aid as a means of bringing Israel to] [making U.S. aid to Israel contingent upon Israel’s] compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.”

The report then proceeds with an introductory section titled “Rationale.” Here is an excerpt:

“We deeply value our relationships with Jews and Muslims in the United States, Israel, and the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East. Yet the bonds of friendship must neither prevent us from speaking nor limit our empathy for the suffering of others. Inaction and silence on our part enable actions we oppose and consequences we grieve. We recognize how great a burden past misguided actions by our government have placed on Christians throughout the Muslim world.

We also recognize that our concern to end support for both violence in all its forms and the ongoing occupation and settlement of Palestine places demands of integrity on how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) uses its own resources and investments. Let us be clear: we do affirm the legitimacy of Israel as a state, but consider the continuing occupation of Palestine (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) to be illegitimate, illegal under international law, and an enduring threat to peace in the region. Furthermore, we recognize that any support for that occupation weakens the moral standing of our nation internationally and our security.”

Another introductory section is comprised letters to five stakeholders, including fellow Presbyterians, American Muslim friends, Palestinian friends, and Israeli friends.  There is this from “Letter to Our American Jewish Friends:”

“For decades we have worked side-by-side in innumerable causes in our own nation for the sake of justice and human well-being. And yet, with the introduction of the corporate engagement process in 2004 (and the use of the word “divestment”), this relationship has been seriously tested.

We want to be sure to say to you in no uncertain terms: we support the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation within secure and recognized borders. No “but,” no “let’s get this out of the way so we can say what we really want to say.” We support Israel’s existence as granted by the U.N. General Assembly. We support Israel’s existence as a home for the Jewish people. We have said this before, and we say this again. We say it because we believe it; we say it because we want it to continue to be true.

And, at the same time, we are distressed by the continued policies that surround, sustain, and consolidate the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, in particular. Many of us come to this work out of a love for Israel. And it is because of this love that we continue to say the things we say about the occupation, the settlement infrastructure, and the absolute death knell it is sounding for the hopes of a two-state solution, a solution that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has supported for more than sixty years.

We also want to make it clear that what we say in moral criticism of policies and actions of the Israeli government should not be used as a battering ram against Israel’s right to membership in the community of nations nor to deepen anti-Semitism or any categorical blame of the Jewish people for the ills of the world. As those whose faith originated in the synagogues of the Fertile Crescent, our love of our common heritage is precious. Anti-Semitism has no place in faithful Christian expression.”

The above gives a sense of how disingenuous is the JCPA response. They are spinning a victory when in fact the most “poisonous” and “anti-Israel” recommendations remain in the report. What has changed is some nuance of wording in the recommendations concerning Kairos and U.S. aid to Israel, and the removal of the Jewish and Palestinian narratives that were judged to be “out of balance.” Read the language of the Letter to American Jews –this is the “poisonous document” that wants to make an end to Israel!  If it wasn’t good enough before its adoption by the denomination, why is it good enough now? Given this, one has to wonder about the meaning of the JPCA statement that “we will remain partners in this pursuit.” I believe that these organizations, having failed to achieve their objective, are more than ever determined to block denominational activism. Indeed, the denomination can expect a continuation of attacks and pressure.  Nothing has changed. This spinning of victory says one thing:  we lost this one.  We’ll be back.

But there is a profound change to be observed in the denomination.  Despite the enormous, organized and close to six-month effort of the organized American Jewish community to influence the voters at the General Assembly and to demonize the report, the denomination endorsed it. The modifications to the document were proposed not in response to Jewish lobbying, but because the committee liked the report – understood its value and importance — and made some changes in order to help ensure its passage. The resulting acceptance of “Breaking Down the Walls” shows that “the rules” no longer apply.

This is hugely important because of what it means for the future and continuation of denominational activism and how that will support grassroots efforts at the congregational and community levels. It means that the charge that principled criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic no longer holds water.  It means that emotional blackmail about friendship betrayed no longer sends Christians scurrying to disavow offending actions or language. The charge that criticism of Israel stems from anti-Semitism was always nonsense — as was the obscene charge that language from Palestinian liberation theology that likens the oppressed of Palestine to Jesus on the cross is a revival of the charge of Christ-killers. Are there anti-Semites among us?  Certainly — but surely they are not steering the ship. When Presbyterians — of all people the most committed (many would say to a fault) to order and to considerate, thoughtful procedures — commission a group at great expense to spend two years studying the problem, including traveling to the region to see the situation with their own eyes, this is not done in an effort to “erase Israel.”  To accuse the denomination of being motivated by anti-Jewish feeling and a desire to destroy Israel just won’t wash.

What kind of partnership?

The JCPA letter talks about the partnership continuing – but what kind of partnership?  What does this “partnership” have to do — to use the language of the Study Committee report — with breaking down the walls that divide people?

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Wiesenthal Center, who was present at the General Assembly, published an article in the Jewish on July 13, five days after the JPCA letter, entitled “Lessons One Rabbi learned from Presbyterian Church (USA).” His tone to the Jewish readership is different than that of the JCPA letter. In the article Rabbi Adlerstein divides Presbyterians into “friends” – those who worked to get rid of what were in his view the “worst” parts of the report — and the unfriendly “heavily pro-Palestinian Middle East Study Committee.”  He accuses the report of accepting the “Arab” narrative and “ignoring” the Israeli, and of blaming everything on Israel’s – here the quotation marks are his — “occupation.” Characterizing the Palestine Kairos document as “a template for anti-Israel activism in churches on both sides of the Atlantic” (it is not), a document that justifies suicide bombing and supports replacement theology (it does neither), the Rabbi takes the General Assembly to task for not repudiating this “notorious” document but instead recommending it for study in churches. Reading this article by Rabby Adlerstein, we have a glimpse of how this “partnership continues.”

The Middle East Study Committee report passed because of Presbyterians’ faithfulness to justice. It passed because the Assembly believed the heart of the report — that justice was being violated. Presbyterians are working to break down walls – between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Christians, and yes, between Christians and Christians – “that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.”  But as fast as the Presbyterians are breaking down walls, Rabbi Adlerstein is working to throw them back up. In the Jewish Journal piece he issues a call for more “friends” who will continue to battle against all those who seek to “erase” Israel. His world remains a world divided between “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel.” He closes the article speaking about how the “most painful” part of being at the General Assembly was “listening to Jews who came to passionately endorse every anti-Israel initiative. Our community needs to work harder to understand how to retrieve Jews who today stand at the forefront of delegitimizing Israel [sic] efforts.”

Rabbi Adlerstein is referring to Jeff Halper, the JVPers, and me. He doesn’t get it. We are no more anti-Israel than are the overtures themselves. We were in Minneapolis to support the report and the other overtures because, like the Presbyterians who invited us, we fervently wish for a future of dignity and freedom for Palestinians and for security and peace for the citizens of Israel. We were there because we wish for a time when we as a people can tear down the walls that we have built to separate us from humankind and that cut us off from a recognition of the suffering that we are causing.

Is there a future for a Presbyterian-Jewish “partnership” that holds hope for progress toward peace? Or will the wide range of American Jewish organizations listed in the JCPA letter follow the lead of the Wiesenthal Center and continue to adopt an “us and them” attitude? Will they continue to fight the growing movement, at the grassroots and at the highest levels, to bring an end to the illegitimate and destructive policies of Israel? If the Presbyterians are to have true partners in their pursuit of social justice, perhaps they can be found among  the 30 American rabbis who wrote to Judge Richard Goldstone when he was blocked from attending a family Bar Mitzvah in South Africa. Or perhaps the church can be joined by by the Jewish writers and artists who brought out the public letter to protest the San Francisco Jewish Federation’s attempt to establish an “anti-Israel” blacklist, or by the 100+ Jerusalem Jews who wrote in outrage to Eli Wiesel when he claimed Jerusalem exclusively for the Jewish people. (For links to these documents, go to “Signs of Hope from the Jewish community.”) Perhaps the denomination could reach out to those Jewish Israelis who, in a cry for help to save them from their own government’s policies, are calling on the world to support the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (LA Times, August 20, 2009, “Boycott Israel”).

These are potential “Jewish partners.”  But I put the term in quotations as a strong caveat. Seeking out “Jewish partners” should not be confused with engaging in “interfaith dialogue.” The struggle for justice in Palestine is not an interfaith project. It is not about repairing the damage of 2000 years of Christian anti-Jewish behavior and maintaining vigilance about anti-Semitism – although these are important and valid activities. Confusing the pursuit of justice in historic Palestine with interfaith reconciliation has provided the basis for “the rules” for over six decades. The struggle for justice in Palestine is, rather, about building a universal community to confront the full range of urgent issues facing humanity and the planet. We are standing before the prophetic work that must unite us—the fact of being Christian, Jew, or Muslim is not important. (But while we’re on it, what about the potential Muslim partners?  See my friend Jim Wall’s recent blog where he takes up this question.)  What matters is whether we are for triumphalism or community, for exploiting the poor or freeing them from poverty, for despoiling the earth or honoring and preserving it.

That’s the partnership I’m interested in. We find it amply described in the Old and New Testaments, the Kur’an, and the Dhammapada. The call for social justice is one that rings out in all our traditions, and it is a call that the Presbyterian Church (USA) answered in Minneapolis. It is the call issued by Reverend Martin Luther King almost 50 years ago from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama:

“…the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

King was lifting up a time when the church was “not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” Recall that King was responding to an appeal from fellow clergy to back off from civil disobedience. They were asking him to him to work through channels and existing relationships with the white community, arguing that this would yield better results than nonviolent resistance. In his letter King was speaking to the church, but his message went out to all of America – reaching across faith communities and eventually transforming the entire society. For the civil rights movement, the church was the bellweather. It was the organizing force at the grassroots that changed the political wind and brought about the change that politics had failed to achieve.

All of us – Presbyterians, Jews (of all persuasions), Muslims –felt that wind blowing in Minneapolis. Moisten a finger — put it in the air – and you will feel it too.

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Report from the Presbyterian General Assembly – Part 1

Something Wonderful Happened

I’ve just returned from Minneapolis, having attended the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA at the invitation of the denomination’s Israel Palestine Mission Network. The PC(USA) is at the epicenter of the struggle of the Christian community in the U.S. to come to terms with the challenge of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A victory had already been achieved before the start of the Assembly.  Overtures from presbyteries from around the country urging action on justice for Palestinians would amount to over 40% of the actions considered by the Assembly. These included revisiting the 2004 decision to undertake phased divestment from companies implicated in the illegal occupation of Palestinian land and an overture affirming that Israel’s actions meet the United Nations definition for the crime of Apartheid. A centerpiece of Presbyterian actions was the call to approve the report of the Middle East Study Committee. The MESC, commissioned by the 2008 General Assembly, had produced a 170 page report entitled “Breaking Down the Walls.”  The report documents the committee’s first-hand observation of the Israeli occupation’s impact on Palestinian society and includes specific recommendations, including urging the U.S. government to make military aid to Israel contingent on ending the occupation.

Predictably, the forces of opposition had gathered. As early as February of this year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center attacked the report, calling it a “poisonous document by the Presbyterian Church [that] will be nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel.” This broadside by the Los Angeles-based Jewish advocacy group went on to declare that the report “shakes the foundations of interfaith relations.” This is the tack that has been taken for years by the mainstream Jewish community – both secular organizations like Wiesenthal as well as the religious denominations — claiming that any questions about Israel’s policies or the Zionist project itself partakes of anti-Semitism. The charge of anti-Semitism and the prospect of a disruption in the “interfaith partnership” has been effective in stifling the discourse and in thwarting actions directed at Israel’s policies. Implicit and sometime explicit in these statements is the threat that such “unfriendly” behavior by Christians will result in the removal of Jewish friendship. This strategy has intensified in recent years in response to efforts by church denominations to take a principled stand on the Israel-Palestine issue. Most recently, the biweekly Christian Century published an article by Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine, professors at Vanderbilt Seminary. Appearing the week preceding the PC(USA) General Assembly, the article, entitled “Habits of Anti-Judaism” strongly critiqued the MESC report. In the opening to a letter to the Christian Century I wrote the following:

“The intent of the Presbyterian Middle East Study Committee Report “Breaking Down the Walls” is clear: “to break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.” But in their critique of the report published in your June 29 issue, Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Seminary strike at the heart of this message. They ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.”  In a shocking distortion of the Study Group’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that “’Breaking down the walls’ in order to form ‘one new humanity in the place of two’ evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.” “Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying anti-Semitism whenever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the State of Israel are questioned that we must urgently confront.”  (Full text of the letter.)

The aim of the article was clear – to strengthen the hand of those who wanted to prevent passage of the report. And why not? This is a time-honored approach — it has always worked. I feared that it would prove just as effective in this case. I arrived in Minneapolis convinced that, except for the efforts of a courageous but small and embattled minority within the denomination, the natural commitment to social justice and support for the oppressed on the part of most Presbyterians would again be trumped by concern for preserving the relationship with the Jewish community. I was betting that the tactics of the Wiesenthal Center and the arguments of Smith and Levine would serve, as they always have, to muzzle the conversation and block actions that might offend Jewish sensibilities or be perceived as hostile to the Jewish state.

A thing of beauty

I was wrong. Yes, the concerns about the feelings of Jews when Israel is “attacked” are still there, and they exert a powerful pull on Presbyterians’ decisions. But something wonderful happened last week in Minneapolis.

I watched as the committee charged with studying “Breaking Down the Walls,” and recommending action to the GA debated the matter. I listened to the arguments for and against approval of the report. Those in favor passionately talked about the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation. Those against spoke just as passionately about the report’s seeming “anti-Israel” bias, claiming that to approve the report would be to cut off dialogue with the Jewish community. I noted what seemed like a universe of disagreement between the two positions. I despaired that anyone who, unlike the study group itself, had not seen the occupation with his or her own eyes would understand that the report was not biased – that it was simply telling the truth and recommending that the church respond accordingly.

But something happened. The committee clearly wanted to find a way to have the report adopted. A group from the committee stayed up all night to craft a number of changes. Problems with perceived bias against Israel were fixed. The obligatory language about Israel’s right to exist was inserted.  None of these changes touched the faithful witness and prophetic heart of the report. While strongly asserting the church’s commitment to Israel’s security and wellbeing, the Study Committee’s report as presented to the General Assembly clearly presents the narrative of Palestinian dispossession and suffering.  It asserts that Israel’s actions, illegal and in violation of international law, are an “enduring threat to peace in the region.” It receives the Palestinian Kairos document, a courageous and heartfelt call of Palestinian Christians “from the heart of Palestinian suffering” to the churches of the world, and recommends it for study by Presbyterians. It calls on the U.S. government to end aid to Israel unless the country stops settlement expansion in Palestinian territories.

The report came before the 730+ commissioners on Friday July 9 and was approved by a vote of 82%. When the results were displayed on the screen, the assembled broke into applause – which is against the rules but in this case the moderator, smiling, allowed the spontaneous outburst to go on! The applause, breaking through these restraints, meant one thing:  this is where the denomination wants to go. Then something else unusual happened – the Moderator, Cindy Bolbach, offered a prayer, thanking God for guiding the assembled to this act, for breaking down the walls dividing people and standing in the way of peace.  The thousands of people in the hall bowed their heads in reverence.  They knew that something important had happened.

It is not always clear from down on the floor, in the thick of things. But looking back, I see that the PC(USA) General Assembly is a thing of beauty. This church is committed to tearing down walls. Watching the plenary, one witnessed a courageous and heartfelt struggle with things that matter:  gay and lesbian ordination and honoring of marriages;  benefits for civil union partners;  how to respond to state laws that violate the rights of immigrants. With respect to the Israel-Palestine question, the struggle will continue. Other overtures did not fare as well as the MESC report. Even though overtures to divest denomination pension funds — close to 10 million dollars — from Caterpillar (the company manufactures the bulldozers that destroy Palestinian homes and build the separation wall) have been proposed at every General Assembly since 2004 (actually it passed in 2004 and then withdrawn in the face of a juggernaut of institutional Jewish pressure, but that’s another story), the overture failed. In addition, Presbyterians could  not bring themselves to approve the overture naming Israel’s policies as Apartheid.

But here is the thing: it is clear to me that all but a small minority of the 36 who voted against that overture in committee (the vote was 16-36) agree that Israel’s actions meet the UN definition of the crime of Apartheid. What drove the vote was not the substance of the overture but rather the belief, as stated in a comment on the vote inserted by the committee, “that dialogue is hampered by words like ‘apartheid.’” It was also clear to me in listening to the debate that, despite the stubborn unwillingness to move to divestment, all but a fringe within the denomination agree that Caterpillar is building machines that illegally and criminally destroy Palestinian life and that the denomination must pressure the company to stop (the Assembly did pass an overture that “denounces” the corporation). The issues are not in question. What is in question for a steadily decreasing percentage — again, this is clear if you are paying attention — is the proper method for action.

To the Presbyterians:  learning to love us

Sixty five years ago, Christians, confronted with the horror of the Nazi genocide, began a painful, faithful process of reconciling with the Jewish people. Presbyterians today didn’t choose to be in the difficult position of having to choose between their commitment to justice and preserving their hard-won friendship with the Jews. But the hard fact is that there has been no getting around this conflict. It has come about because of the policies of the State of Israel and the choice, so far, of the American Jewish establishment to adopt a bullying, defensive stance in response to Christian efforts to address the injustice. Under these challenging conditions, you have had to struggle to learn how to love us well and rightly. And that you are doing. The more you call us to account for our sins and challenge us to be true to the values of our tradition, the more you show your commitment to our friendship. The spirit and the specifics of the MESC report are fully in line with Jewish aspirations and beliefs. More than that – in its powerful plea to break down the walls, it takes my people where we urgently need to go today – to tear down the walls – both psychological and physical – that we have erected between ourselves and the people with whom we share a land and a common history. For thousands of years, our survival as Jews depended on building walls.  Now it depends on tearing them down.

In commissioning and producing this precious and faithful document of “Breaking Down the Walls” you have demonstrated your love for us.  It is love in the deepest, truest sense – love as Jesus and Paul teach us to love – love the way Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah taught us when they spoke truth to power and reminded us of our responsibility to our fellow creatures and to the earth itself.  In going back into the fray, year after year, to consider divestment from the companies that are participating in our sin, and to call us to account for building an apartheid state in full view of the world, you are loving us well. This year, the arguments marshaled against these faithful actions of the denomination, calling them biased and unbalanced, claiming that they will disrupt your “partnership” with us, simply sounded tired.

Minneapolis is the beginning of the end of all that.

Coming:   General Assembly, Part 2 – The Jewish response.

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Signs of Hope from the American Jewish Community

Dear friends and loyal subscribers,

I have not dropped off the earth! In fact, I have been spending a lot of time traveling across it, and that, along with the press of several writing projects, has kept me from posting. I see that I need to find a way to stay current with the blog even when my schedule is overloaded.  I have been resisting the impulse to use the blog to forward items that I think are important, but perhaps I should stop resisting — every blog does not have to represent hours of my own writing.

In any case, I want to bring you up to date and alert you to some news from the Jewish community that has captured my attention recently .  My travels have included presentations at Friends of Sabeel North America conferences in Seattle, Honolulu and Marin County CA,  speaking engagements in the Chicago area, a week in eastern and central Iowa including three days in Dubuque meeting with students and faculty at Wartburg Seminary and meeting with local clergy and community members, and an upcoming trip to North Carolina. There has also been much preaching — you can find the sermons on my website.  I will be traveling to Lebanon late in May to present a paper on Theology of the Land at a World Council of Churches conference, “The People of God in Bible and Tradition: Semantic Implications and Modern Relevance” (this is the current research and writing that has grabbed much of my energy in between travel and speaking).

I will try to stay more current with you!  In the meantime, I want to share four pieces of writing that have warmed me, encouraged me.  There is a growing consciousness, an deepening awareness of our peril, and, increasingly, the willingness to speak. Three come from the American Jewish community and one from the Jews of Jerusalem. The first is a letter from 30 American rabbis addressed to Judge Goldstone.  The second is a public letter from San Francisco academics, writers and artists in response to the San Francisco Jewish Federation’s recent attempt to silence debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict inside the American Jewish community.  The third is a letter from 100 Jewish Jerusalemites, including writers, artists, activists, and rabbis, to Eli Wiesel. The fourth, from Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog, is an exchange between Brant and a friend who lives in Israel. As usual, Brant does a wonderful job of articulating his struggle with the reality of modern Israel. His wisdom and integrity is a gift that I want to share with you.

Rabbis’ letter to Judge Richard Goldstone

Prominent Bay Area Jews Warn About SF Jewish Federation Guidelines

Jerusalemites’ response to Eli Wiesel

Brant’s blog

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Challenging the Law of Return, and an important new book

In this week’s posting I bring two items to your attention.


1. Challenging the Law of Return

The first item is a powerful statement by American Jewish activists involving the State of Israel’s “Law of Return.”  This law, one of the very first enacted by the state, is the cornerstone of political Zionism and in a very real sense the state’s raison d’etre. The law gives every Jew, no matter what his or her citizenship or country of birth, the instant and automatic right to Israeli citizenship.  It also confers powerful incentives to immigration in the form of tax advantages and housing allowances.  After 1948, Jewish immigrants to the new state were settled in the homes and on the land of Palestinians who had fled or were expelled from their cities and villages.  According to these Sacramento, CA Car Accident Lawyers the  process of dispossession of indigenous Palestinians and settlement of foreign-born Jews has continued throughout the history of the state, accelerating through the illegal settlement of Gaza and the West Bank, and finding its most recent and egregious expression in the current drive to empty Jerusalem of its non-Jewish inhabitants and settle Jews in these neighborhoods. This statement, entitled “Breaking the Law of Return,” can be found at

I have signed it because it expresses simply and powerfully what I have felt for some time. Here are the opening words of the statement:

“We are Jews from the United States, who, like Jewish people throughout the world, have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship under Israel’s “law of return.” Today there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees around the world. Israel denies their right to return to their homes and land—a right recognized and undisputed by UN Resolution 194, the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, we are invited to live on that same land simply because we are Jewish. We renounce this “right” to “return” offered to us by Israeli law. It is not right that we may “return” to a state that is not ours while Palestinians are excluded and continuously dispossessed.”

My eye is caught, and yours may be also, by the phrase in the last sentence above, in which Israel is referred to as “a state that is not ours.” The authors are making the simple point that as Americans we cannot claim Israeli citizenship simply because we are Jews. This is especially so in light of the fact that the land and property thus acquired would come into our possession through disposession and the inexcusable reality that Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 and 1967, who together with their descendants now number some four million, have been prohibited from returning to their homes.

But for me there is another level of  meaning in these words, something that goes deep into my experience as a Jew confronting the horror and sadness about of what Israel has become, a meaning that applies to all Jews, whether living in Israel or outside its borders.  Certainly, Jewish citizens of Israel, many who are third and fourth generation descendants of the early European Zionist immigrants, as well as the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, feel a deep sense of attachment to the State of Israel.  It is, without question, their country.  But there is a way in which this sense of the land belonging to Jews – both Israeli and those living elsewhere – is deeply tainted and in question.  Any land taken by force and through dispossession of its rightful owners is in question with respect to its moral legitimacy and political viability.  Any state that practices systematic discrimination against citizens (or occupied subjects) who do not belong to a favored group faces censure and isolation from the outside world and risks internal divisions, insularity and racism that damage and sicken its society. I make these statements with a sense of deep sadness and concern for Israel.  They are not made lightly by someone whose family roots are there and who has dear friends and beloved family living within its borders.

But there it is.  I believe to my core that the land can be claimed as “ours” only if and when we Jews can learn to share it.  Someday, the territory now called Israel — whatever it may come to be called and however it is to be constituted politically — may be a place in which Jews can coexist with non-Jews in a democratic and egalitarian society. We cannot, however, justify the Jewish presence in the land until we acknowledge the crimes and injustices committed to secure it, and until we undertake to do all we can to redress the injustice.  This has nothing to do with the nonsensical argument about Israel’s “right to exist.”  States do not have rights — they exist, regardless of the history that brought them into being and regardless of their human rights record or current practices.  States do, however, have responsibility — to their own citizens and to the community of nations.   The question is not whether there should or should not be an Israel — the question, to paraphrase the question posed by writer Bernard Avishai, is: “what kind of Israel do you want?”  Would a democratic Israel, an Israel that has relinquished its quixotic and tragic attempt to maintain its Jewish majority, continue to be the Jewish state envisioned by its Zionist founders?  An increasing number of people have come to doubt the sustainability of that original vision, however much we understand the experience of suffering and vulnerability that created it in the minds and hearts of the Jews of Europe.  Slowly, we have begun to relinquish the fears that have imprisoned us in the consequences of the Zionist project. We have begun, to echo the words of Israeli writer Avraham Burg, to open ourselves to a vision of who the Jewish people can be once we have left Zionism behind.  I have written elsewhere that a democratic, pluralistic and just Israel might be a state that deserves to be described as “Jewish.”

2. Zionism Laid Bare

Kathleen Christison’s review of M. Shadid Alam’s Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, is an important read. In her characteristically transparent, compelling style, Christison sets out the “cold logic” of Alam’s thesis.  Fasten your seat belts:  for many — Jews and non-Jews alike — these will not be easy truths to assimilate. But the sooner we do, the sooner we may be able to see the way toward peace for historic Palestine.  The review opens in this way:

“Until recent years, the notion that Zionism was a benign, indeed a humanitarian, political movement designed for the noble purpose of creating a homeland and refuge for the world’s stateless, persecuted Jews was a virtually universal assumption.  In the last few years, particularly since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, as Israel’s harsh oppression of the Palestinians has become more widely known, a great many Israelis and friends of Israel have begun to distance themselves from and criticize Israel’s occupation policies, but they remain strong Zionists and have been at pains to propound the view that Zionism began well and has only lately been corrupted by the occupation.  Alam demonstrates clearly, through voluminous evidence and a carefully argued analysis, that Zionism was never benign, never good — that from the very beginning, it operated according to a “cold logic” and, per Rumi, had “no humanity.”  Except perhaps for Jews, which is where Israel’s and Zionism’s exceptionalism comes in.

Alam argues convincingly that Zionism was a coldly cynical movement from its beginnings in the nineteenth century.  Not only did the founders of Zionism know that the land on which they set their sights was not an empty land, but they set out specifically to establish an “exclusionary colonialism” that had no room for the Palestinians who lived there or for any non-Jews, and they did this in ways that justified, and induced the West to accept, the displacement of the Palestinian population that stood in their way.  With a simple wisdom that still escapes most analysts of Israel and Zionism, Alam writes that a “homeless nationalism,” as Zionism was for more than half a century until the state of Israel was established in 1948, “of necessity is a charter for conquest and — if it is exclusionary — for ethnic cleansing.”

Read the entire review.  It will continue to grip you. It answers the question, “why do some Jews, those, for example, who wrote and will sign the statement discussed above feel compelled to take such a hard line toward Israel?  Why can’t we understand why Israel needs to protect itself?  We do understand — and that is why we work so hard, in the company of courageous and articulate activists and writers like Christison, to remove the veil from our eyes and those of our American compatriots, to speak the truth that may set the combatants free from their headlong race to disaster.

A final note: Visit my Events Page for details of my February-March book tour and speaking schedule.  I will be presenting at Friends of Sabeel conferences in Seattle, Honolulu, and Marin County, and meeting with groups and doing book readings in those cities as well as in Santa Cruz CA and Portland OR.  The Sabeel conferences are going to be extraordinary events — registration is still open.

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Jerusalem 2009: The Light in the Tent

Left to right: Khawla and Majid Hannoun, Fawzieh al-Kurd, Nasser Ghawi and his father

I sat in the tent and it was full of light.

Fawzieh al-Kurd is the matriarch of one of the three families who were forcibly expelled from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem between November 2008 and October 2009. In all, close to 60 people, all 1948-era refugees from West Jerusalem and other parts of what is now Israel, were resettled in this neighborhood in the 1950s by international agreement. They have now been evicted by the Israeli government, their homes turned over to fundamentalist Jewish settlers. Fawzieh’s family was the first – ejected forcibly in the middle of the night by Israeli military on November 9, 2008. Fawzieh’s husband Muhammad, confined to a wheelchair and in fragile health, died 11 days after the eviction. The Palestinian families have erected temporary shelters on the streets and on adjacent properties in protest: they are not leaving.

When you visit Sheikh Jarrah you are in the heart of the beast of the occupation. Yes, one can say the same thing about Hebron, or Jayyous, or the Bethlehem checkpoint at 4AM. But there is something about this latest outrage that drew me, on my way out of the country after attending the World Council of Church’s launch of the Palestinian Kairos document to pay a visit to these families. What is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is part of the project, plain for all to see, to create a wholly Jewish Jerusalem. “Greater Jerusalem” is a microcosm of Israel’s all-but-completed colonial West Bank: maintained for Jewish settlers, with enclaves of controlled, imprisoned Palestinians. Sheikh Jarrah, along with existing and planned Jewish neighborhoods, creates a ring of Jewish settlement that encloses the entire city to the south, north and east. The OCHA report summarizes the competing claims of the parties. Lawyers for each side will continuing to make their cases about who owns the houses. But the source of this suffering is not a dispute between two parties each claiming the same piece of property. This is something else: a dispute between a party that is willing to share and a party that is not.

I sat in the lean-to with Fawzieh, who seemed at peace despite the trauma, indignity and loss she had suffered. Not that she did not have questions and a lot to say: how, she asked, can they accuse me of wanting to make war when one of the names I call God five times a day in my prayers is Salaam – Peace? Why, she continued, are they doing this to us when we believe in the unity and community of all peoples? She then recited, at length and from memory, the sura from the Kur’an that asserts the holiness and value of all the prophets that came before Muhammad, including Moses and Jesus, and the duty of all Muslims to honor them.

I walked across the front yard, garbage-strewn and littered with the ruined kitchen appliances and furniture that had been the al-Kurd’s property, and approached a group of black-suited and black-hatted young men – the current occupiers of the al-Kurd home. I spoke with them in Hebrew, providing my Jewish credentials (“My grandfather was born less than a mile from here, a fifth generation Jew in the Holy Land.”) They regarded me — quite correctly — with suspicion. Having observed me sitting with Fawzieh, they knew where my sympathies lay. As we talked I realized that facing me from across a very bright line was fine with them. They didn’t expect to change my views, and they were clear about theirs. In fact, as I attempted to engage with them I understood that a sense of being embattled was an essential part of their identity – in their minds they were the present-day Jewish pioneers, God’s warriors. Covering the front door of the house were stickers reading “The People of Israel will triumph”– using the Hebrew word for military victory. For them, suffering calumny and enraged protest for stealing the home of an innocent family was a source of pride, part of the hard work of reclaiming the land for God. They dismissed my suggestion that they consider the suffering and the human rights of the people they had displaced. God, they said, has given this to us, we are supposed to be here.

Having heard that claim so many time before, it didn’t affect me very much to hear it again. What did hit me, however, was their assertion that the people they had displaced deserved to be supplanted by God’s Chosen because they were teaching their children to hate the Jews. This too I had heard before, along with the other racist beliefs that so many Israelis hold about the Palestinians (dirty; thieves; bad parents). That day, however, this statement threw me because I had just listened to Fawzieh’s pain – not about losing her home, but about what was happening to her grandson. This is a boy, she told me, who had been earning high grades in school but whose only wish now was to grow up to be a pilot so that he could kill Jews. This was her pain: that her future, the future for her family and her community that she had planned and had wished for, that indeed her faith directed her toward, was being stolen. A house could be rebuilt — but a future generation could not so easily be redeemed. It hurt her heart.

The battle is joined. It is the conflict between those who plan a future based on dispossession, grasping and fear, and those who desire to live in a community of inclusiveness. Here, in this little neighborhood: the Jews barricade themselves behind gates and doors and declare victory. The Palestinians sit in their tents, like Abraham of old, and, indeed, like Palestinians in any West Bank or Gaza village or city, opening their homes to all comers. They serve coffee. They offer their hope and they share their pain. They appeal to the international community to witness their situation and to not sit idly by.

When I was there the street was quiet and empty except for a smattering of other internationals like myself, my dear friend Nora Carmi from Sabeel who visits daily, and the families. Two days later there was a big protest and some arrests for civil disobedience. Last month Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights wrote a piece entitled “Armageddon, Straight Ahead.” His language in the piece is telling. Arik, arriving at the scene and clearly shaken, wrote that “I see a Palestinian anger burning so strong that, unlike what usually happens, neither the threat of arrest or the use of overwhelming force is a deterrent. “In similar situations,” he continued, “I have urged Palestinians to calm down, but here I felt that I had no right and that it would do no good… Israel’s democracy has failed up until now. International pressure has failed up until now. The activist community has failed up until now…I see Jerusalem in flames – I see Armageddon straight ahead.”

Ascherman is a man who has committed his life to nonviolent opposition to the occupation. Witnessing the settlers moving into the homes under the noses of the dispossessed families, he could only stand and watch the growing violence. As I read his words and as I identify with his feelings, I find myself wondering: is there a wish here that the seething violence at this outrage will finally break out, into what he terms “Intifada 3?” I will not second guess what might have been going on in Arik’s mind or heart, but I will confess to what is going on in mine – the wish that something will happen to break the deadlock and stop, finally, the suffering of the Palestinians and Israel’s headlong rush into disaster. I imagine that Arik at that moment was thinking that no one, certainly not him, had the right to deny to these people their right to resist – even with violence — the crime that was being committed against them.

Resistance and Hope

I was in the country — along with over 60 Palestinian and international religious leaders, theologians and peace activists, including my good friend Rabbi Brian Walt, to attend the conference organized by the World Council of Church’s Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum to launch the Kairos Palestine Document. The document is entitled “A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Like Rabbi Ascherman’s piece, is a cry of pain and desperation, written, in the words of its preamble, “because today we have reached a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people. The decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it. The hearts of the faithful are filled with pain and with questioning: What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing?”

The Kairos document thus asks the same question as Rabbi Ascherman. In contrast to the understandable pessimism of Arik’s piece, it reaches for hope. For the authors of this document, the end of days is not the final battle between good and evil, but the vision of a community of love shaped by the redemptive vision that was articulated so long ago in these very hills, in this very city. I had heard Fawzieh express that same vision. Sitting with Fawzieh, I found myself telling her that I had come to her tent to support her, but that it was my bruised heart that was being healed by her loving spirit. The light in that tent is the same light that emanates from the Kairos document. It is a cry of pain that points to hope. This hope is grounded in community. It reaches out to the enemy.

Jerusalem is the heart of our reality. It is, at the same time, a symbol of
peace and sign of conflict. While the separation wall divides Palestinian
neighbourhoods, Jerusalem continues to be emptied of its Palestinian citizens,
Christians and Muslims. Their identity cards are confiscated, which means the loss of
their right to reside in Jerusalem. Their homes are demolished or expropriated.
Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a
source of struggle rather than peace.

We say that our option as Christians in the face of the Israeli occupation
is to resist. Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with
love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that
engage the humanity of the enemy. Seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy
means taking up positions in the light of this vision of active resistance to stop the

Our message to the Jews tells them: Even though we have fought one
another in the recent past and still struggle today, we are able to love and live together.
We can organize our political life, with all its complexity, according to the logic of
this love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.

Arik’s biblical reference is apt: Armageddon is the battle between good and evil. We are seeing this battle waged here in the conflict between the occupiers and the dispossessed. Because it is not in the courts, the casuistry of lawyers, or the declarations of politicians that the conflict is to be resolved.  It is in the realm of the spirit. And the spirit points to the power of community.

In a recent LA Times opinion piece, Palestinian human attorney and human rights activist Jonathan Kuttab proposes that peace will be found not in separation, but in coexistence. What is this “two state” future, he wonders, as Israel continues to take more and more control of the entire territory? “As the options keep narrowing for all participants,” he writes, “we need to start thinking of how we can live together, rather than insist on dying apart.”

small front yard

This is the front yard of the al-Kurd home today. This is the future of this land if Israel’s project of dispossession continues. You can see the same thing all along the separation wall and by the checkpoints up and down the West Bank — in the cities, in the countryside. Kalandria. Hebron. The deepening horror of Gaza. Disaster, chaos, loss, ruin –for both peoples.

Or it can be the light in the tent: Fawzia’s vision of peaceful coexistence — her smile, in spite of it all. The open tents of the al-Ghawi and Hanoun families. The growing realization that, as Kuttab suggests, if we cannot live together we will die together. In a recent piece, human rights activist and Ali Abunimah characterizes Israel today as resembling a failed state. He too points to a “shared future” for Israelis and Palestinians as the only path to peace, writing that “despite the failed peace process industry’s efforts to ridicule, suppress and marginalise it, there is a growing debate among Palestinians and even among Israelis about a shared future in Palestine/Israel based on equality and decolonisation, rather than ethno-national segregation and forced repartition.”

This is how it will be won: through the spirit of people who believe in community and in shared hope. Through the resistance of men and women like Fawzieh, Nassar, Khawla and Majid, sitting in their tents in the shadow of the occupiers. Through the resistance of the women, men and children who awaken every day in their occupied land and go on with their lives fully claiming their identity as Palestinians. Through the witness of the 1400 internationals – including Jews and Israelis – camped out in the streets of Cairo and Aqaba challenging the powers who have barred them from entering the concentration camp that is Gaza on the last day of the first decade of the twenty first century. Through the witness and resistance of the authors of the Palestinian Kairos document, who as an act of witness and resistance have thrown down this challenge to the rest of humankind:

The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events…Our future and their future are one: either the cycle of violence that destroys both of us or a peace that will benefit both.

The Kairos challenge is the same that confronts seekers of justice in every age and every place, the same appeal to those spiritual values which must form the heart and the driver for the struggle. William Sloane Coffin, American clergyman and long time peace activist, wrote this in his final autobiographical work, Credo:

We see ourselves walking not alone with our Lord, but with all the peoples of the world whom we now view as fellow walkers, not as those who fall in behind. And all are marching to Zion, to the mountain of God, where—can anyone doubt it?—God will cause the nations to beat their swords into plowshares and return to the people the peace that only God could give and no nation had the right to take away.

Bethesda, MD

(In the photo, left to right: Khawla and Majid Hannoun, Fawzieh al-Kurd, Nasser Ghawi and his father.)

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Rededicating the Temple – A Hanukah Homily

The Jewish festival of Hanukah is celebrated this year on December 11-19th. The Hebrew word refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after driving out the Seleucid Greek occupiers in 165 BCE. It’s one of the most joyful holidays in the Jewish calendar, in which we celebrate our commitment to the values of freedom and human rights that have given us strength and resilience as a people. Today, the Jewish people face a challenge equal to or greater than the crisis we faced in the Palestine of 2000 years ago. The circumstances, however, are reversed: today, it is the Jewish people who are the occupiers. And the threat to our survival, now that we are the ones in power, concerns the fate of those same enduring and sustaining values.

As a Jew born in 1948, I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation and redeemed my people from the suffering of millennia. Over the years, living for a time in Israel and visiting frequently, I became increasingly concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and about its illegal settlement activity. Still, I held to the Zionist narrative: Israel’s militarism and expansionism were the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank, Israeli occupied Palestine. I saw the separation wall and knew it was not for defense. I saw the damage inflicted by the checkpoints on Palestinian life and on the souls and psyches of my Jewish cousins in uniform. I saw the Jewish-only settlements and the restricted roads and I witnessed the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers. I learned that the events of 1948, what I had been taught to call the War of Liberation, was for Palestinians the Nakba, Arabic for the Catastrophe: the expulsion of three quarters of a million people from their villages, cities and farms.

When I returned home and began to speak about justice for Palestine as the only path to peace, I found that Christians understood my message very well. But they felt constrained from speaking out for two reasons: 1) their sense that the Jewish people were owed a state because of their history of suffering and 2) their feeling of responsibility for that suffering. In fact, I discovered that for Christians, a new theology had grown up after WW II in an effort to reconcile with the Jews and to atone for the evil of anti-Semitism. This theology exalted the Jews as God’s elect and lauded our quest for safety and self determination. The Jews were no longer condemned to wander the earth. In fact, we were reinstated as God’s elect — the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force. Christianity’s correction of the anti-Judaism is in itself laudable – but there is a problem with this new theology: it includes a real estate contract. Christians were now being asked to support the superior right of the Jewish people to the territory of historic Palestine.

Examples abound of this tendency among contemporary Christian theologians. James Carroll writes in Constantine’s Sword: “The God of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Church, is the God of Israel. The Jews remain the chosen people of God. And with this comes the Land.” In a May 2009 article, John Pawlikowski, a progressive Catholic theologian, wrote that the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel was pivotal in correcting Christianity’s historic anti-Judaism. With that act, he wrote, “the coffin on displacement/perpetual wandering theology had been finally sealed.” I find this an astonishing argument: recognizing the Jewish state corrects Christian theology! Just as astonishing, Palikowski takes exception to a fundamental feature of Christianity: its lifting of the land out of the original tribal context of the Abrahamic covenant. In the original Christian revisioning, Jerusalem became a symbol of a new world order in which God’s love was available to all of humankind. But Pawlikowski was now maintaining that Christianity’s spiritualization of the land repudiated God’s covenant with the Jews and deprived us of our birthright! We have to be very concerned about this — generations of mainstream pastors and theologians have been educated in versions of this revised theology. The Christian impulse for reconciliation has morphed into theological support for an anachronistic, ethnic-nationalist ideology that has hijacked Judaism, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most egregious, systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today.

Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today: not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. As Jews we need to take a hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. The theology of the land, like that of election or any other aspect of scripture, must be open to conversation with history. As theologian Harvey Cox said in the recent World Council of Churches conference in Bern, Switzerland:

“What does the Bible mean by ‘promised land’? How has the term been hijacked and used for various political reasons, when maybe that is not the significance of the texts at all? Ancient Israel is often confused with modern Israel. They are not the same. The Jewish people and the modern State of Israel, though they overlap in certain ways, are not the same, and therefore we have to be thoughtful and self-critical about how that theme is dealt with.”

Happily, Harvey Cox’s statement in Bern is only one example of how some scholars are beginning to understand the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. the Jews) of Jesus’ time. They see the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to tyranny. Jesus was confronting the evil of the Roman Empire. Through his actions and his sayings, he was telling his people what was required to bring about the Kingdom of God. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk where Jesus walked! For you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw. You will see land taken through illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots. You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life. But you will also see nonviolent resistance: in demonstrations against the separation wall, in families of Palestinians and Jews who have lost children to the conflict coming together and refusing to be enemies, and in farmers who refuse to abandon their land, even as the walls go up, the restrictions on movement tighten, and the everyday harassment and violence against them intensifies.

I know that for Christians in the U.S. today, calling Israel to account puts half a century of interfaith reconciliation at risk. Institutional, personal and family relationships are on the line. But the church must fulfill its historic calling to stand for justice for all the peoples of the earth. And we Jews must reclaim our prophetic tradition. In our Hanukah liturgy, we thank God for “standing by your people in their time of trouble…achieving great victories and deliverance.” Indeed, we are in need of deliverance — but today, as the anniversary of the bombardment of Gaza approaches, it is from our reliance on violence and military force as a solution to our suffering that we need to be rescued. Christianity has struggled to overcome the creedal rigidity and triumphalism that has plagued it since the time of Constantine. It is to our own work of reformation that we Jews must dedicate ourselves in this Hanukah season.

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The Politics of Hope

Roger Cohen gives us the politics of despair. On the one hand, his recent OpEd in the New York Times, “A Mideast Truce” shows us what a long way we’ve come in editorial coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He’s clear about the horrendous reality of Israel’s settlements, even though he stops short of naming it as the colonial project that it is. He calls the separation wall a “land grab” and credits it for shattering Palestinian lives — even though he persists in advancing the inane claim that it has protected Israel from suicide bombers. Perhaps most important, he focuses on the fact that Israelis have literally and psychologically walled themselves off from Palestinians. And he quotes Israeli author David Grossman’s crucial observation that Israelis, despite their military might, see themselves and continue to act as victims. Basically, he’s got it — he describes the current situation.

But what is the conclusion that he draws? That we should give up on peace. That we should settle for, in his words, “a truce of the mediocre.” And why? Because the “two sides” cannot come to an agreement. Settle for the status quo, he says, and keep it the way it is. This, like Tom Friedman’s recent piece that recommended that the US pull back from its fruitless attempt to mediate because “neither side” is able or willing to make peace, is fundamentally wrong headed. And the reason is to be found in the concept of “two sides.” This concept, like the request for “balance” that so many of us working on this topic hear so often, is based on and advances a fallacy. It’s the fallacy contained in Cohen’s equation of Hamas’ “annihilationist ideology” with the spread of illegal Jewish settlements: the implicit point is that here we have two evils facing off.

As long as we persist with this idea of two sides (the conflict between two rights, two claims; the clash of two wrongs, etc.) we will continue to remain as stuck as we are and we will yield to the politics of despair.

There are not two sides, arrayed in equal moral and physical forces on a level field. Rather what we have is one side, all-powerful, with a powerful friend at its back, crushing the other. It’s been going on for over 60 years.

When will we finally see this, “we” being the United States of America, which funds and diplomatically enables the continued dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians?

Cohen’s conclusions can only be reached through a denial of this fundamental truth. Accepting the status quo will not being a truce. The injustice prevailing in historic Palestine — systematic, egregious and far-reaching — will continue to produce popular resistance: some of nonviolent, some of it violent. There will be no truce. And nothing resembling peace. Not until the fundamental injustice of the situation is recognized and addressed — by the United States of America.

And this fundamental change in US policy will only come about if and when the American people demand it. Evangelical and founder of the Sojourners movement Jim Wallis tells us that when politics fail to bring about the redress of fundamental injustice in the political system, broad social movements arise to “change the wind” — to make the politicians, their moistened fingers always in the air, do what has to be done. That movement is here, and it is growing — the movement at the grassroots, to change the wind.

That’s the politics of hope.

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