Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek

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This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology.  Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.

An edited version of our conversation follows here:

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More Heat Than Light: My Response to Rev. Chris Leighton

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Dear Reverend Leighton,

Thank you for your response to my open letter. While I’m also not particularly interested in turning our dialogue into a debate to be “won” or “lost,” I do take exception to much of what you wrote and feel compelled to respond in kind. I agree with you that our differences are worthy of ongoing dialogue. I can only hope that the airing of our disagreement might somehow be helpful to those who struggle with an issue that is of such critical importance to our respective faith communities.

I’d like to start with your observation:

(To) deny…Zionism and Judaism do not share deep historical and religious roots…strikes me as a serious error. You work with a very limited conception of Zionism as a 19th century political movement that breaks from Jewish tradition. I work with a much broader understanding of Zionism and see this movement as driven by yearnings for a Jewish homeland with deep biblical underpinnings. The blending of peoplehood, land and Torah strikes me as integral to Jewish tradition.

In writing this statement, you’ve chosen to sidestep my point that for thousands of years, the Jewish connection to the land was expressed as a spiritual yearning – not as a desire to create a sovereign Jewish nation.  “Homeland” and “political nation” are two intrinsically different concepts, and as I’ve already written, Jewish tradition consistently regarded the notion of Jewish political nationhood to be an anathema. Political Zionism was never “integral to Jewish tradition” and this concept was not even introduced into Jewish life until the 19th century.

By insisting on this point, your analysis of Jewish tradition and history betrays a characteristically Zionist bias that assumes the centrality of sovereign statehood. That is fine – you are certainly welcome to your biases. But you should at least be prepared to own them for what they are and not attempt to present them as normative.

The very concept of nation-statehood itself is a fundamentally modern notion. Like all modern forms of nationalism, Zionism arose to consciously create a sense of seamless continuity to the past through recourse to an ancient mythic history. But of course, this is an artificial “continuity;” one that owes more to modern political ideology than Jewish religious tradition.

It also has little to do with actual “history” as we know it today. As “Zionism Unsettled” notes, it is extremely problematic to use the Bible as a history book to lay claim to particular piece of land. In the first place, the Bible is a profoundly ahistorical document, as we have long since learned from literary scholars and archaeologists.  Moreover, the Bible was certainly never intended to be “history” according to our current understanding of the term. The authors of the Bible did not purport to create a literal history of the events of their day – rather, it is a religiously inspired narrative that reflects ideas and values unique to the world of the ancient Near East.

This is more than just an academic point. As “Zionism Unsettled” points out, the use of the Bible as a historical justification for a modern nationalist movement is not merely historically problematic – it has had tragic consequences for the inhabitants of historic Palestine, particularly when you consider Biblical passages that express entitlement to the land, a religious intolerance of the “foreign nations of Canaan” and commandments that require nothing short of their total dispossession – and in some cases, even annihilation.

So in one sense we are in complete agreement when you write “even the more secular strains of Zionism that became predominant in the 19th century were suffused with Biblical imagery.” Perhaps we only disagree on the dark outcome of this phenomenon.  We should not be unmindful of the ways that the Biblical land traditions were used by early Zionist ideologues and the political founders of the state – and are currently wielded by Israeli politicians, settler leaders and ultra-religious rabbis alike.  This use of Biblical imagery must not be dismissed as mere religious rhetoric – these theological linkages have enormous power, particularly when we consider the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1947-48 and policies of displacement and transfer that continue to this very day.

You go on to ask:

Do you want to uncouple Zionism from Judaism altogether, or do you want to critique its more militant and “colonial” manifestations? Can all expressions and forms of Zionism be accurately placed into an ideological lump and legitimately condemned as a movement that leads “inexorably” to the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinians, as the IPMN guide indicates? Do you think that Jews do not belong or have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel?

It is true that there are many different forms of Zionism – a fact that is extensively explored in “Zionism Unplugged” (see Chapter 2).  I would argue, however, that since the establishment of the state of Israel, the existence of these various “Zionisms” has largely become an academic point. In a very real way, the birth of Israel represents the ultimate victory of the values of political Zionism that were promoted by the founders of the state.

As someone who identified as a Zionist for most of his adult life, it is with no small measure of sadness that I acknowledge the ways political Zionism has “inexorably led to the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinians.”  Perhaps most critically, I have come to painfully reckon with the ethnic nationalism at the core of political Zionism’s raison d’etre – and its insistence upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land to safeguard the “Jewish character of the state.”  In the end, no matter how vociferously Israel might insist that it is, in fact, “Jewish and democratic,” I do not believe it is ultimately possible to establish a demographically Jewish state without regarding the presence of non-Jews to be a problem.

In this regard, I do believe that “Zionism Unsettled” bravely shines a light on the tragic legacy of the Zionist idea, a concept that ultimately resulted in the forced depopulation of Palestinians from their homes in 1947/48 (a phenomenon by now well attested to by Israeli historians) as well as the policies of dispossession that continue to be enacted by the Israeli government even today. These events and policies do not exist in a vacuum – they are the logical end-product of a very specific nationalist ideology that privileges the rights of one particular group over another.

You ask me if I believe Jews “do not belong” or “have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel.” Of course I believe that Jews have every right to live in the land. I’m not sure, however, what you mean by a “legitimate claim.” If you mean can we Jews rightly maintain a religious connection to the land, then my answer is certainly yes. If you mean do we have some kind of intrinsic right to exert our political sovereignty over this land, then my answer is most certainly no. When it comes to nation-statism, it has historically been the case that “might makes right.”  The real question, it seems to me, is not “who has the right to this land?” but rather “how can we extend full rights to all who live on this land?”

You write that you “have yet to see efforts to undo the establishment of the State of Israel produce constructive results.”  I’m struck that you equate an insistence upon equal rights for all to be tantamount to Israel’s “undoing.”  But when it comes to a choice between a Jewish and democratic state, as increasingly seems likely, what should be our choice?  My community is fast approaching a reckoning: which kind of state will ultimately be more “Jewish,” one that unabashedly places Jewish rights above Palestinian rights or one that allows full and equal rights for all?

I also find your statement about “Israel’s undoing” to be more than a little incendiary. By projecting nefarious designs onto an entire movement, this kind of rhetoric only exploits the deepest and darkest of Jewish fears. I will tell you that I have been participated in the Palestinian solidarity movement for some years now and have yet to encounter the kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionists you speak of. Are there anti-Semites in this movement? Undoubtedly. There are odious types on the margins of every political movement. But I can say without hesitation that the Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists I have met and worked with have nothing but the deepest respect for Jews and Judaism at large and consistently endeavor, as I do, to draw a scrupulous differentiation between Zionism and Judaism.

I don’t disagree with you that  “the quest for home is deeply woven into the tissue of our humanity” and that this concept is deeply woven into the fabric of Jewish collective consciousness. But I must disagree with you strongly when you insist that “the search for homeland aim(s) at sovereignty.” To me, this is an astonishingly narrow and reductionist reading of the notions of home and homeland.

You write that “a national identity is difficult to construct and preserve without the power and freedom that is exercised by the state.” But in fact, that is precisely what the Jewish people have done for centuries.  Judaism as we know it was born in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, as a profound and spiritually courageous response to the reality of dispersion and exile. As such, Jewish tradition is replete with teachings that respond to this trauma with a message of spiritual hope and renewal.

In one of my favorite rabbinic midrashim, for instance, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.”  In other words, Judaism arose to assert that despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one particular land – spiritual meaning and fulfillment could be found throughout the diaspora wherever the Jewish people might live.  (The midrash ends, notably, on a messianic note: “And when they return in the future, the Divine Presence will return with them.”)

In so doing, the rabbinic Judaism transformed a land-based cultic practice to a global religion, enabling Jewish life to flourish and grow widely throughout the Diaspora. This, I believe represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: in a time of profound upheaval and crisis we spiritualized the concept of homeland and redefined ourselves as a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home.” The concept of exile became, in a sense, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.

As a Jew I do not need you to tell me that this conception of Judaism is somehow “exceptionalist” because it “refuses the rights and conditions that every other nation claims for itself.”  With all due respect, it is not for you to take it upon yourself to define my Jewish rights and claims, particularly when it runs counter to centuries of Jewish tradition and experience. I understand that you have chosen to adopt the Zionist narrative of my history and that is certainly your right. But you do not have the right to preach to a Jew that his understanding of “homeland” must ipso facto be expressed through sovereign statehood.

Moreover, there are numerous stateless peoples throughout the world. Would you go on to suggest that they too have the intrinsic right to “the opportunities and burdens of an independent state?” If so, where does this right come from and how might it possibly be implemented? If not, then why are you granting this unique right to the Jewish people?  Quite frankly, I find your conflation of the concepts of “homeland” and “nation-state” to be hopelessly confused, creating a myriad more problems than it purports to solve.

On the concept of exceptionalism, you write:

I have yet to encounter a nation or religion that does not fuse religion and politics – and overtly or implicitly make a claim to being exceptional. The challenge is how to identify and respond when the mixture turns toxic.

Like the authors of “Zionism Unsettled” I would go much farther than this. I believe that challenge is to identify and respond to those aspects of our respective religious traditions that assume our superiority over others – and to thoroughly disavow them.

It is all well and good to “support and sustain our nations, our religious communities, and families with financial and psychological investments that give them priority.”  I’m even willing to admit that it is natural for a person or group to feel “chosen” in a way that doesn’t automatically denote superiority.  The problem occurs, as ZU rightly points out, when exceptionalism “exempts the chosen from the need to conform to normal rules, laws, or general principles that we use to hold other people accountable.” (p. 8)

As the study guide notes, religious exceptionalism has historically been at its most dangerous when it is wedded to state power. In illuminating this point, ZU actually devotes a significant amount of analysis to post-Constantinian Christianity and its legacy of anti-Semitism over the centuries. In so doing, it identifies the ultimate problem as the merging of religion and empire – not Zionism per se. You misrepresent the guide egregiously when you accuse it of treating Zionism as “an exceptional and inherently evil manifestation of nationalism.” In fact, “Zionism Unsettled” repeatedly places political Zionism within the larger context of religious and national exceptionalism – a phenomenon that has historically proven to be, to paraphrase your words, a uniquely toxic mixture.

Finally, you bemoan the lack of a more “comprehensive and balanced account” in “Zionism Unsettled.” I would suggest that this lack of balance does not originate in the guide but rather the Israel-Palestine conflict itself.  To be sure, this conflict does not and has never constituted a level playing field. Rather, it has pitted one of the most militarized nations in the world – one that enjoys the near unconditional support of the world’s largest superpower – against a people it has dispossessed from its land; a people whose yearning for home now reflects, as you so eloquently put it, “a quest…that is woven into the very tissue of (its) humanity.”

I do believe this is the most critical place where you and I part company. You express your religious faith through your work in the world of interfaith dialogue – an arena that assumes balance and equity on two equal “sides.” I view my faith as refracted through my work as an activist who stands in solidarity with a people that is seeking its liberation. As such I do not view this conflict in any way as a balanced equation. On the contrary, I seek to re-right what I believe to be an inherently unbalanced situation.

I realize full well that by saying such things I leave myself open to further accusations of “polemical excess that does not do justice to what needs to be said.” So be it. I would only ask you to consider that rhetoric has a fundamentally different function in the world of dialogue than in the arena of political transformation. I understand that in your world, words are typically wielded in the furtherance of creating “more light than heat.” But when there is very real oppression occurring, as I truly believe is the case here, it is not at all inappropriate to turn up the heat, no matter how upsetting it may be for Israel and its advocates.

I do not know if you have ever visited Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza and have witnessed first hand the deeply oppressive reality of their daily existence. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so. I encourage you to talk to Palestinians who live in villages whose livelihood has been choked off by a wall that separates them from their agricultural lands in order to make way for the growth of Jewish settlements.  I encourage you to meet with Palestinians whose weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the wall are met regularly with brutal force by the Israeli military. Speak to Palestinians mothers and fathers whose children have been abducted in the middle of the night by the IDF and subjected to interrogation in Israeli prisons. Get to know Palestinians who have had their residency rights revoked and/or their homes demolished so that Jewish demographic facts can be created on the ground. Talk with Palestinians in Gaza who are being collectively punished by a crushing blockade and subjected to life inside what has essentially become one of the largest open air prisons in the world.

I believe if you take the time to do so you will invariably come to find that these men and women represent spiritual teachers just as compelling as the American Jews and Christians which whom you regularly engage in dialogue. At the very least, I hope they might somehow challenge your views on “what needs to be said” about this conflict.

While you may well consider the above to be just another example of my “polemical excess,” I would only say that my convictions come from a faithful place – and from a religious tradition that exhorts me to stand with the oppressed and call out the oppressor. I also believe these same religious convictions inform the very heart of “Zionism Unplugged” and whatever its specific flaws, I find it to be an enormously important and courageous resource.  You claim that the “vast majority of Presbyterians will not align themselves with a project that aims to disassemble the State of Israel.” Of course the guide does nothing of the kind. It does, however, call for the dissembling of an inequitable system that privileges one group over another and replacing it with one that guarantees full rights for all. For this it makes no apology, nor should it.

You certainly know the Presbyterian community better than I, but I will say that I have met and spoken with many Presbyterians – and members of other Protestant denominations – who have expressed gratitude for this new guide and are eager to use it in their churches. As with my own faith community, I do sense that we are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift on the issue of Zionism and I am not anywhere near as certain as you that the “vast majority” of Christians or Jews are so ready as you to denounce such ideas as abject anti-Semitism.

Again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my open letter. I agree with you that there is much more to be discussed. Whether or not we engage in further exploration together, I hope and trust that our conversation might still be helpful to those who have read our exchange.


Guest Post: Rev. Chris Leighton Responds to My Open Letter

zionism_unsettledRev. Chris Leighton has responded to my open letter of February 19, in which I addressed what I considered to be his troubling and unfounded attack on the newly released study guide, “Zionism Unsettled.” I have posted his words below. I genuinely appreciate his desire to enter into dialogue and will post my own response in several days.

I appreciate the time and thought that you directed to my critique of “Zionism Unsettled.” I am not particularly interested in entering a debate that yields winners and losers and that drives combatants more deeply into their entrenched positions. I am interested in conversation that might enable people with deep disagreements to learn from one another, and I am acutely aware of how much more I have to learn in the ongoing struggle to understand and respond to the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Colleagues such as Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, A.J. Levine, Peter Ochs, Tikva Frymer Kensky (of blessed memory) and even your former havrutah partner and now staff member at the ICJS, Ilyse Kramer (among others including folks at the Hartman Institute) continue to rattle me out of my complacency and remind me constantly that mahloket is a rabbinic discipline desperately needed in these tempestuous times.

You make a number of observations that I want to ponder more deeply. You also indulge in some polemical excess that does not do justice to what needs to be said. At the end of the day, you believe that this congregational guide can prove a helpful resource. I think that it is so riddled with historical and theological flaws, and so dismissive of the Jewish community that it will do much more harm than good. We disagree, and the most immediate question whether our differences might prove worthy of some ongoing dialogue.

I wonder if we might begin more productively by examining some arguments that you make that I find puzzling. They may clarify our divergent readings of ZU and enable us to better understand when and where we speak past one another.

You make a strong case for the separation of Judaism from Zionism, and I think rightly note the mistakes that arise when the two are collapsed. At the same time to deny that Zionism and Judaism do not share deep historical and religious roots also strikes me as a serious error. You work with a very limited conception of Zionism as a 19th century political movement that breaks from the Jewish tradition. I work with a much broader understanding of Zionism and see this movement as driven by a yearning for a Jewish homeland with deep biblical underpinnings. The blending of peoplehood, land and Torah strikes me as integral to Jewish tradition. Even the more secular strains of Zionism that became predominant in the 19th century were suffused with biblical imagery and so this movement was not as radical a rupture from the Jewish tradition as the more secular Zionists imagined.

So here is where I found your account confounding. Do you want to uncouple Zionism from Judaism altogether, or do you want to critique its more militant and “colonial” manifestations? Can all expressions and forms of Zionism be accurately placed into an ideological lump and legitimately condemned as a movement that leads “inexorably” to the displacement and mistreatment of Palestinians, as the IPMN guide indicates? Do you think that Jews do not belong or have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel? Do you want to trace the problem to the UN’s 1947 resolution to partition the land and to establish the State of Israel? Or do want to focus on the problems that emerge in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967?

I have yet to see efforts to undo the establishment of the State of Israel produce constructive results. I have seen efforts to de-legitimize the State, to brand it as “an apartheid nation,” and to punish Israel economically and politically polarize and fragment our communities. This is not to say that all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. Yet it would be a terrible blunder not to acknowledge that many of them are. At another time we can circle back to clarify what constitutes “antisemitism” and its relationship to “anti-Judaism” before exploring who decides when it is fair and accurate to apply these categories. I do want to note that I did not throw around the term, indeed I used it only once and quite specifically in my critique.

Back to the issue of a Jewish homeland. I believe that the quest for a home is deeply woven into the tissue of our humanity, and you would not deny that this yearning has occupied a prominent, if not central role among Jews over the centuries. My impression is that you would not annul the longing to establish a Jewish homeland nor characterize this desire as intrinsically pernicious. Does the problem then take hold when Jews move from claims to a homeland to making their bid to establish a sovereign state? Homeland is OK. Sovereign State for Jews is not (unless divinely implemented).

When a Frenchman speaks of his homeland, or an Irishman, or American, or a Palestinian, or a Tibetan are they designating an attachment to a specific land independent of the sovereignty on which the messy business of governments depend? Does not the search for a “homeland” aim at “sovereignty?” A national identity is difficult to construct and preserve without the power and freedom that is exercised by the state. One of the truly remarkable achievements of the Jewish people has been the ability to endure and even flourish over a remarkable span of history without the powers of a sovereign state. Yet to acknowledge the claims to homeland while denying Jews the opportunities and burdens of an independent of state enshrines the status of Jews as “exceptional” and refuses them the rights and conditions that every other nation claims for itself. Your line of thinking seems to me to end up creating the very phenomenon that you and the guide condemn, albeit it is a different form of “exceptionalism.”

Finally, I do not know of a nation, a religion, or even a family that does not hold to some kind of exceptionalism. Our national, religious, and familial identities are constructed on the basis of stories that distinguish us from others. Even when we insist that we are not superior to others (and hopefully we regard this task as a moral imperative), we support and sustain our nations, our religious communities, and families with financial and psychological investments that give them priority. We live our lives treating our own with greater levels of time, energy, and resource—even as we strive to respond to the legitimate claims of those who need and demand our active engagement. Furthermore, I have yet to encounter a nation that does not fuse religion and politics—and overtly or implicitly make a claim to being exceptional. The challenge is how to identify and respond when the mixture turns toxic. I suspect that we agree that this is a vital responsibility of our religious leaders.

While keenly aware that your movement has for the most part rejected the notion of “chosenness,” I do not think that this category invariably generates a sense of superiority. The rejection of “exceptionalism” strikes me as a thinly veiled rejection of a concept that remains prominent in much, if not most of the Jewish world. The step from a condemnation of “exceptionalism” and “Chosenness” to an indictment of Israel and the larger Jewish community as ethnocentrically racist is made without qualification.

The concept of “exceptionalism” (at least as it is defined and applied in this guide) strikes me as a problematic. Are not the real problems to which you point a manifestation of “nationalism?” And if every country must be vigilant about the dangerous directions in which nationalism can move, why would the guide not acknowledge this challenge within Palestinian nationalism? It certainly would not be an arduous task to illustrate the problematics by offering a brief overview from George Antonius to the Hamas Charter.

One example of dishonesty that I find troubling in the study guide is the unwillingness to offer a more comprehensive and balanced account. If the problem is that Jewish nationalism is different from other kinds of nationalism and deserving of condemnation, then the guide once again becomes guilty of the very error that it impugns. In other words, Zionism becomes an exceptional and inherently evil manifestation of nationalism. At best I think that the analytic methods used in this guide are intellectually shoddy and the terminology reinforces the tendency to use confused and confusing generalizations—thereby reinforcing the polemical discourse that generates plenty of heat and a shortage of light.

These flaws point to a more serious issue, namely the unwillingness of the study guide to come clean on what it really believes is the necessary end game. Is the goal to help Israel achieve the democratic ideal embodied in its May 14, 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, or to reject this national project, work to dismantle the current State of Israel, and create a new and different national entity? What do the authors really think necessary to overcome the plight of the Palestinians? It is essential to own up to the vision that animates this study guide, because the tools that are being deployed need to be appraised on the basis of ends that they serve.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Presbyterians will not align themselves with a project that aims to disassemble the State of Israel. I think that the authors and editors of the guide know this and therefore have strategically decided to conceal the objectives for which they strive. Again this strikes me as dishonest.

There is of course much more to be discussed. Perhaps these reflections will at the very least open up some points for further exploration.

The Reverend Christopher Leighton is a Presbyterian minister and the Executive Director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland.


Reconsidering “Zionism Unsettled:” An Open Letter to Reverend Chris Leighton

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Dear Reverend Leighton,

I read with dismay your recent “Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church,” in which you referred to the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as “extremist” and called to their newly-published study guide, “Zionism Unsettled” a “dishonest screed.” As a rabbi who works actively alongside the IPMN – and whose words are quoted extensively in the guide – I am saddened by your words and feel compelled to respond.

As you might imagine, I take exception to your characterization of me as an “(accomplice) to sweeping denunciations of the Jewish people and their sacred traditions.” Needless to say,  if I felt for a moment that “Zionism Unsettled” represented an attack on Jews and Judaism I obviously would never have agreed to be quoted in the guide.

Granted, ZU is not a perfect document – but while I might disagree with some of its characterizations and specific points of rhetoric, I do believe it shines a courageous and important light on the ideological roots of the political reality in Israel-Palestine. It certainly bears little resemblance to the “anti-Semitic,” “ignorant” tome you so thoroughly excoriate in your letter.

I am tempted to respond point by point to your specific criticisms of the guide – and perhaps some day we will have the opportunity to debate them more thoroughly. For now, however, I’d like to address a paragraph in your letter that I found to be particularly troubling:

Even a cursory study of history reveals the varied and complex forms that Zionism has taken over the centuries. The yearning for their national homeland has been woven into the Jewish community’s daily life for millennia. The Torah (Deuteronomy) and the Tanakh (2 Chronicles) both end with images of yearning to return to the land; synagogues face Jerusalem; the Passover seder celebrated annually concludes with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.” To suggest that the Jewish yearning for their own homeland—a yearning that we Presbyterians have supported for numerous other nations—is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent is to deny Jews their own identity as a people. The word for that is “anti-Semitism,” and that is, along with racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other ills our Church condemns, a sin.

I believe your characterization of my sacred tradition is incorrect – and dangerously so. It is prejudicial in the extreme to equate Zionism with Judaism itself.  Zionism – that is, the movement to create a Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine – is in fact a political movement that was born in 19th century Europe. As such, it was a conscious and radical break with centuries of Jewish tradition that strongly cautioned against the establishment of an independent Jewish state in the land.

While it is certainly true, as you write, that the yearning for a “return to Zion” is suffused throughout Jewish tradition, it is important to note that this yearning was pointedly directed toward a far off messianic future. The rabbinic sages repeatedly and forcefully forbid the “forcing of God’s hand” through the creation of a humanly-established, independent Jewish state in the land, which they believed would occasion disaster for the Jewish people. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish return to Zion functioned as a symbolic expression of hope – not as a political call to action.

Contrary to your assertion, “Zionism Unsettled” never makes the claim that the Jewish yearning for return “is somehow theologically and morally abhorrent.” It simply makes the correct distinction between a centuries-old religious tradition that spiritualized the notion of return and the politicization of this idea by a modern nationalist movement.

In this regard, I find your use of the term “anti-Semitism” to slur those who oppose Zionism to be particularly pernicious. In fact, as I point out in the guide, before the establishment of the state of Israel, the political Zionist idea was hotly debated within the Jewish community itself. Many reputable Jewish figures such as Rabbi Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt warned that the establishment of an exclusively Jewish state in a historically multi-religious and multi-ethnic land would inevitably result in conflict and a permanent state of war. It was certainly not “anti-Semitic” of them to suggest such a thing. On the contrary, they – and many others like them – were motivated by their concern for the security of the Jewish people and as well as for the well-being of all peoples who lived in the land.

While it is true that Jewish anti-Zionism has become a dissident voice in our community since the establishment of the state of Israel, as a rabbi who works actively in the Jewish community, I can attest that there are growing numbers of Jews – particularly young Jews – who refuse to tie their Jewish identity so thoroughly to the highly militarized ethnic nation-state that Israel has become.

At the very least, there is a growing desire to allow non-Zionist voices to be part of the Jewish communal debate once more. One notable bellwether of this phenomenon may be found in the Swarthmore Hillel student board’s recent unanimous decision to defy the guidelines of Hillel International and declare itself an “Open Hillel.” In a statement accompanying their resolution, these Jewish students noted:

All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition.

I trust you would never suggest that these Jewish students are driven by “anti-Semitism.” On the contrary, they are clearly motivated by sacred Jewish values and a courageous refusal to reduce Jewish identity to one political ideology. It is particularly notable that a number of prominent liberal Zionist voices are publicly voicing their support for the students of Swarthmore Hillel, indicating that our community may well be ready to return to a truly wide-tent debate on the role of Zionism in Jewish life.

For all of this, however, “Zionism Unsettled” does not, as you suggest, “(attribute) the plight of the Palestinians to a single cause: Zionism.” On the contrary, the study guide repeatedly points out that the political strife in Israel/Palestine is rooted in religious exceptionalist attitudes that are embedded within Judaism, Christianity and American culture alike.

For many of us, these are the critical – and too often ignored – questions for interfaith dialogue: what will we do with those aspects of our religious traditions that value entitlement over humility? Do we believe that this land was promised by God to one particular group of people, or will we affirm a theology that promises the land to all who dwell upon it?  Will we lift up the fusing of religion with state power and empire or will we advocate a religious vision that preaches solidarity with the powerless, the disenfranchised and the downtrodden?

There is much more I would like to say in response to your letter – and again, I hope that we might have the opportunity to debate the specifics more thoroughly. For now, I will only encourage you to reconsider your claim that “Zionism Unsettled” represents “a theological delegitimization of a central concern of the Jewish people.”

As a Jew, I can only respond that it is not for you – or anyone – to blithely conflate the tenets of a modern nationalist movement with a venerable and centuries-old religious tradition. And it is certainly not “anti-Semitic” to say so.


“Zionism Unsettled” – A Smart and Gutsy New Church Study Guide

ZU-cover_DVDSo great to receive my copy of “Zionism: Unsettled” – an exciting new church study guide published by the Israel/Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As someone who has been collaborating with Protestant church denominations on the issue of Israel/Palestine for a number of years now, I can say without hesitation that this is a much-needed resource: smart and gutsy and immensely important.

“Zionism Unsettled” is based on the upcoming anthology, “Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land,” to be published this summer by Wipf and Stock. While the anthology will be fairly academic in tone, “Zionism Unsettled” has digested its contents into a book and DVD for use by laypeople in congregational study settings. I’m thrilled that the IPMN has made this resource available to reach a much wider audience. (It was my honor to contribute an essay to that book, which has been adapted for a chapter in this study guide.)

ZU unsparingly examines Jewish and Christian forms of Zionism – with special attention to the way they have historically provided theological and ideological “cover” for the the dispossession of the Palestinian people. It’s a critical emphasis; indeed while there are no lack of political analyses on this subject, far less attention has been paid to the ways in which religious ideology has shaped the political context in Israel/Palestine.

This guide fills that void powerfully with careful, impressively researched chapters on the history of political Zionism as well as examinations of evangelical and mainline Protestant Zionism. My own chapter, “A Jewish Theology of Liberation” proposes a Jewish alternative to land-based nationalism – namely, a Judaism based in values of universal values of justice and dignity for all who live in the land.

As a Jew, I’m especially appreciative that while ZU is strongly critical of Zionism, it doesn’t flinch from extensive Christian self-criticism. The guide is particularly candid in its examination of the oppressive legacy of the post-Constantinan Church, replacement theology – and Christian anti-Semitism in general. In fact, throughout the guide there is a strong and palpable critique of exceptionalism of all stripes. In the end, the most basic criticism of “Zionism Unsettled” is leveled against triumphalist claims of every empire that has conquered and colonized this land throughout the centuries.

I was also taken by the way ZU powerfully connects the dots between American and Zionist forms of exceptionalism:

The myths of entitlement, inequality, racial superiority, and conquest/dispossession have co-existed uncomfortably with constitutional guarantees of equality for all. It has taken generations to even begin to correct the moral and spiritual imperfections of these founding myths within the United States. In fact, the history and ideology of settler colonialism have been so central to the history of the United States that it is not surprising the political and religious leadership in the US has been predisposed to uncritical support for the Zionist movement.

If there is any weak spot in the guide, I found it in the chapter entitled “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” which unfortunately does not apply the kind of critical pedagogy to Islam that characterizes the chapters on Christianity and Judaism. While this chapter rightly spotlights “the inclusive theology of the Qur’an,” it fails to explore the exceptionalist manifestations of Islam in the same unsparing manner that pervades the rests of the book. As a result, this chapter feels to me somewhat tacked-on and represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

But this is perhaps inevitable in a work that focuses primarily on the uniquely Jewish-Christian roots of Zionism. As such, it is an essential resource that boldly reframes the terms of interfaith encounter in ways that are long overdue.

I deeply admire its bravery and look forward to the conversations it will most certainly inspire.


On Naim Ateek and the Sabeel Institute: A Conversation Between a Rabbi and Congregant

naimateek

Rev, Naim Ateek, Sabeel Institute

I’ve posted below an email exchange between myself and a congregant regarding my participation in the upcoming Friends of Sabeel – North American conference in Chicago.  My congregant has given me permission to post it as one small but hopeful example of how the Jewish community might debate such a painful religious/political issue with respect and honesty.

Dear Brant,

As I hope you know, I am a pretty skeptical guy in general, and I do not assume that others’ reporting of their adversaries’ statements is accurate.  But this statement comes right from Sabeel’s own website.  Has Naim Ateek since disavowed it?  If not, please explain how you can allow yourself, very publicly, to be seen as supporting his work?

L’shalom (literally), XXX

Dear XXX,

Obviously this is a long and complex issue – and I’m happy talk with you directly about it if you like. But for now I’ll just say I fully understand how and why some find his rhetoric hateful. I do not. Through my own study of his work and my personal dialogue with Naim, I have come to understand that as a Christian he refracts his personal experience among other things, through the crucifixion narrative.  And as a Palestinian, it has very real relevance to his peoples’ experience in Israel/Palestine. I do not believe he invokes this narrative in order to make an accusation of deicide/blood libel against the Jews. He is using it in a genuinely faithful way, as part of a theology of liberation, to understand/frame a very real oppression against his people.

Again, I know he treads on very tender theological and political issues when he does this – but I do believe the proper way to respond is to engage him in dialogue on these tension points.  It grieves me deeply that members of the Jewish establishment only seem to want to respond by publicly tarring him as an anti-Semite and to pressure/threaten all Christians or Jews who associate with him.

I have learned a great deal from Naim – from his many books and essays and from my own personal relationship with him. I consider him to be a decent and honorable man who challenges us in important if often painful ways. As far as “disavowing” this particular statement, I don’t believe he needs to, quite frankly.  I think it is important that people read his work thoroughly and give it its due before jumping to conclusions from cherry-picked statements.

While it is not a disavowal per se, you might find this piece helpful, in which he responds to many of the accusations that have been historically leveled at him – and addresses an excerpt from statement you cited.

Again, I’m happy to talk with you further about Naim, Sabeel, and my work with them if you like.

In Shalom as well,

Brant

Dear Brant,

I just read the Huffington Post piece you sent (thanks) and thought it was well written.  (Did Jewish Voice for Peace help write it? — you don’t need to answer that question.)

One problem I have (and perhaps you are not minimizing it) is that, precisely on the assumption that Naim Ateek has something important to teach me, and other open-minded Jews like me, he will never succeed unless he changes his rhetorical approach.

Dear XXX,

I understand what you say. I imagine Naim feels his first priority is to respond faithfully to his experience of his people’s oppression – and not necessarily to frame his remarks to be acceptable to liberal Jews. Having said that, I do think that as a result of his increasing dialogue with Jews (ie JVP), he is becoming more sensitive in his rhetoric.

Anyhow – thank you for engaging with me so thoughtfully on this. It means a great deal to me.

Best,

Brant


Why I’m Participting in the Sabeel – North America Conference in Chicago

With Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek (Dec. 2010)

With Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek (Dec. 2010)

It is truly my honor to be included in the program of the upcoming conference, “A Wide Tent for Justice: Next Steps for Peace in Palestine/Israel,” sponsored by Friends of Sabeel – North America and the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy.  And I’m particularly honored to be participating on a panel and leading a workshop together with Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Insititute and one of the most important purveyors of Palestinian Christian liberation theology.

I can safely say my own spiritual understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict has been profoundly influenced and challenged by the work of Rev. Dr. Ateek.  I do believe religious Jews have a great deal to learn from liberation theology in general and Palestinian liberation theology in particular.  I’ve long admired Ateek for his willingness to shine a light on the theological problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology.  I believe his criticism of Zionism as a “retrogression” to a Biblically-based nationalist Jewish expression is a critical one for us to consider – painful though it may be for many in my community.

Responding to the challenge of Rev. Dr. Ateek and his colleagues, I’ve been working over the past year on developing a potential framework toward a theology of Jewish liberation that reclaims the universal vision of the Prophets and provides a progressive spiritual alternative to the fusing of religion and state power. I’ve been encouraged by the response to my initial efforts thus far – from Jews and Christians alike – and am increasingly coming to believe that there is a critical place for such ideas in the post-modern Jewish theological world.

Alas, much to my sadness and dismay, many in the Jewish establishment world continues to vilify Rev. Dr. Ateek and the Sabeel Institute. While I certainly understand that many are challenged – often profoundly – by Palestinian liberation theology, it grieves me that the “official” Jewish communal response to this movement has been to publicly excoriate its leaders as anti-Semitic rather than to engage them in real and honest dialogue.

I do believe this kind of posturing has everything to do with politics and very little to do with actual interfaith dialogue.  True dialogue occurs when respective communities agree to explore the hard places – the tension points – no matter how painful. In my own dialogue with Palestinian Christians (and those in the Protestant church who stand in solidarity with them), my own sensibilities have been challenged and broadened – but I’ve also found that my participation allows me to have a similar kind of impact on my Christian partners. And while we might not agree on every issue, we ultimately emerge from our encounter strengthened by our common commitment to universal prophetic values of justice.

Back in 2010, when I visited the Sabeel Institute in Jerusalem with members of my congregation, I wrote the following:

Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.

I sincerely hope that will be the case at the upcoming conference here in Chicago (hosted by St. James Cathedral from Oct. 3 – 5).  In the past, Friends of Sabeel – North America conferences have occasioned fierce political pushback from the Jewish communal establishment. Sad to say, last year, Jewish leaders in Albuquerque pressured a local Episcopal church into canceling its sponsorship of the the Sabeel – NA conference there.  While I have every confidence that this will not occur in Chicago, I fully expect that some members of the Jewish communal establishment here will publicly tar organizers and co-sponsors of the event with the tired accusations of “anti-Semitism.”

Still, I am hoping against hope that members of my community will see fit to attend the conference in the spirit of openness and with a willingness to be challenged. I do believe this is nothing less than the most critical Jewish-Christian dialogue of our time.


Daoud Nassar and His Message of Hope

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you how I feel about my friend Daoud Nassar, founder of Tent of Nations (and if you haven’t, you can read those posts here, here and here). It’s been my honor to serve on the Advisory Board of Friends of Tent of Nations – North America – and when they told me Daoud was coming to the US for speaking engagements, I jumped at the chance to add Chicago to his itinerary.

Among his stops here was a meeting with local interfaith clergy (below) and a presentation last night at Glenview Community Church for a program co-sponsored by Hands of Peace, a Chicago-area coexistence initiative on whose Advisory Board I also serve (bottom two pix).  At every stop, it was my pleasure see so many new friends and supporters inspired by Daoud’s message of steadfastness and hope.

Last Sunday, Daoud gave the sermon at the prestigious Riverside Church in New York City. I’ve just watched the video (above) and I was deeply moved by his words. I’ve listened to Daoud present many times, but I’ve never heard him speak in the unique context of his Christian faith.  As a Jew, I found his sermon to be deeply resonant, spiritually profound – grounded both in the truth of his own personal testimony as well as universal values of hope and human dignity. I encourage you to watch it in its entirety.

daoud clergy

daoud and hands

daoud.glenview


Rabbi Margaret Holub Explores Life During and After Apartheid

Jsmalltown jews4My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.

The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s.  The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.

As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:

What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC?  What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end?  Did they feel cornered?  Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings?  Did they  feel like they had to defend them even so?  Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses?  What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history?  Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice…  I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.

The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!


Guest Post By Rabbi Brian Walt: We are Building Up a New World

Dorothy Cotton (middle) with Israeli and Palestinian Activists (Photo: Rev. Osagyefo Sekou)

Cross-posted with Rabbi Brian’s Blog

We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.

This is one of the many songs I sang as I led a remarkable delegation of US Civil Rights movement leaders, young human rights leaders, prominent Black academics and educators and several Jewish activists that traveled through the West Bank two weeks ago.

Our delegation was a project of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an organization dedicated to human rights education and to building a global human rights community. Dorothy Cotton served as the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was the only woman on the executive staff.  She led the Citizenship Education Program that empowered the disenfranchised to exercise their rights as citizens.

The goals of this historic delegation were:

- to create and build an ongoing relationship between leaders of the US civil rights movement and the leaders of the growing Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the West Bank and their Israeli allies;

- to increase the visibility of this movement in the US and internationally;

- to learn from one another about nonviolence, effective solidarity and social transformation;

- and to educate Americans about the role the United States plays in supporting the status quo on the West Bank.

Our delegation spent two weeks on the West Bank.  We visited three Palestinian villages – Budrus, Bilin, Nabi Saleh – that have engaged for many years in a popular nonviolent struggle to reclaim land expropriated by the Israeli military.  We met several young Palestinians who are building the Coalition for Dignity, a grassroots, youth – led nonviolent movement.

And we met Israeli allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent movement and who work in their own society to end militarism and human rights violations against Palestinians.  We learned from many Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists about their work, their vision and their dreams.

In short, our delegation saw and learned about realities that the overwhelming number of visitors to Israel never see or hear.

Singing was an essential part of the spiritual and political life of our trip.  Dorothy has a beautiful spirit, a powerful voice, and loves to sing.  Throughout the delegation, she always reminded us that singing was a critical tool for energizing the civil rights movement.  She told me,

We had songs for different occasions. We sang at mass meetings, and we sang at funerals … We sang, “I am going to do what the Spirit says do” and our singing inspired us to do just that.

And so our new civil rights delegation sang as we traveled through the West Bank.  Singing was just one powerful way in which our delegation made a connection between the Black-led struggle for civil rights in the US and the Palestinian struggle for justice, peace and security for all.

This, for instance, is the song we sang at the grave of a young man in Budrus who was killed in a nonviolent demonstration to protest the confiscation of his village’s land:

Come By here my Lord, come by here.
For our brother, my Lord, come by here.
For his courage my Lord, come by here.

Standing around the grave, delegates spontaneously composed the lyrics. It felt like we were praying, acknowledging the courage and the profound cost that the struggle for freedom demands.

We sang before we joined the weekly nonviolent demonstration in Nabi Saleh, another village on the West Bank fighting to reclaim their land.   The residents of the village had made special signs composed of quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King in honor of our visit.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” read one of the signs.

And we sang:

Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching down to freedom land.

We sang to express our appreciation and to provide support after hearing activists tell us their stories – Palestinians and Israelis who told us of their amazing work and the toll it has taken on their lives, and sometimes even their spirits and souls.  One such occasion was after Israeli activist Gabi Laski told us of her work to defend children from villages like Nabi Saleh who are arrested at night.

We’re going to keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, never turning back, never turning back.

We sang after standing next to the thirty foot high Separation Wall in Jerusalem dividing a Palestinian neighborhood in two.  And we sang on the bus as we went through a checkpoint on our way to the airport at the end of our trip, encouraged by our Palestinian guide to keep singing even when the soldier boarded our bus.  (Our bus was pulled aside for a security check because it was a Palestinian bus while Israeli buses and motorists were waved through the checkpoint).

We returned to the United States both inspired and disturbed by our experience.  We were inspired by the determination, vision and commitment of so many Palestinians and their Israeli allies, working tirelessly day after day, year after year, often at great personal and communal cost, for justice, freedom and equality for all.  Now that we are home, we look forward to sharing the stories and vision of these courageous civil rights activists with our friends and communities.

But our trip was not simply inspiring.  It was profoundly disturbing to witness the harsh realities of life on the West Bank that are so invisible to the discourse in America.  Every day we saw and heard about a systematic denial of human rights in countless ways: land confiscation, extensive restrictions on movement, humiliation at check points, home demolition, the arrest of children, the revocation of residency permits and many other violations.

The delegates were profoundly shocked. Several American civil rights veterans  commented that the discrimination, humiliation and injustice they witnessed was “frighteningly familiar.”

While we were on the West Bank the two presidential candidates tried to outdo one another in their public declarations of support for Israel in the final presidential debate.  They mentioned Israel 31 times with only one passing reference to Palestinians.  The contrast between American policy and what we witnessed is stark.  Now that we have returned, we are determined to share this disturbing reality with our communities; to challenge the ways in which our country funds, provides diplomatic cover, and enables these injustices.

I have visited the West Bank before but never for more than a day or two, and almost always with progressive Israeli groups.  On this visit, however, we spent virtually all out time in the West Bank – on the other side of the Separation Wall.  For me personally, it was a transformative experience.  It was a privilege to travel with such a special group of people and to see the profound impact of our delegation on the activists that we met.

Before we left on our journey, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a person with a long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and a very close life-long connection to Jewish teachers, fellow travelers and co-workers.  Dr. Harding talked about “encouragement” as one of his primary goals for the trip.  I was struck by the word and the simple power of his intention.  He wanted to meet activists on the West Bank and to “encourage” them.

And that is exactly what happened. The people we met commented how encouraged they felt by meeting people who had spent their entire lives fighting for freedom in the US.  Dr. Harding and others would repeatedly ask all our presenters to tell us about themselves, their families and what motivated them to do what they were doing.

He and others always shared how much he appreciated their work and how important it was for all of us and for our collective future.  After hearing an inspiring talk by Fadi Quran, one of the young leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement, Dr. Harding said, “Fadi, I want to tell you how proud I am and how grateful I am for you, and want to encourage you to keep on going.”

It felt like we were building a new world.  On the very first day of our trip, Dorothy Cotton sang and danced with three women activists, Israeli and Palestinian, who had spoken to us. It was a joy to see the profound gift she was giving them and that they were giving her in return. Those who had spent their lives building a new world in America were creating a relationship with those who were building a new world in Israel/Palestine.

Towards the end of the trip we realized that we were just beginning to build a new world in another way by creating a new possibility for the relationship between Jews and Blacks in our own country.   Historically, Israeli policy has been a source of tension between the African American and Jewish communities.  While many African Americans on the delegation have deep and positive connections to Jews, it is often difficult for Blacks and Jews to have honest conversations about Israel.

There were eight Jews on this delegation.  On this trip we joined together as a group of Blacks, Jews, Christians and people with varied faith commitments, united in our commitment to nonviolence and our dedication to justice, freedom and equality in Israel/Palestine, in our own country, and around the world.  We are renewing an alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance rooted in our shared values.

We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world.
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.


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