I’ve written before about the wonderful Chicago initiative “Untold Stories,” which features Palestinians sharing their personal stories of their lives under occupation. While it began as a project of my congregation, it has since expanded to become an interfaith community effort. I’m so gratified by the success of this program, which draws upon the unique power of narrative rather than political rhetoric. As ever, the simple sharing of stories has an uncanny ability to cut through the convoluted complexities of political issues like little else.
Up until now, “Untold Stories” has featured Palestinian-Americans (and recently, the addition of Israelis as well.) This past Sunday, however, for the first time participants were able to hear from presenters speakers speaking to us directly from their homes. I was honored to serve as the facilitator of a Skype conversation between attendees at the Evanston Public Library and a young Palestinian couple in Gaza: Ayman Qwaider, a Palestinian community educator and peace activist and his wife Sameeha Elwan – a blogger/student/activist.
For well over an hour, Ayman and Sameeha shared details of life inside the Gaza blockade. Ayman, 26, received his degree from the Islamic University of Gaza in 2008, after which he worked for two years as an international humanitarian aid worker. In 2010, he was granted a scholarship to travel to Spain, where he received his master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. He currently works for a non-governmental organization in Gaza.
Sameeha is a talented writer and blogger who, like Ayman, received her BA at the Islamic University, then received a scholarship to earn an MA in Culture and Difference at Ustinov College in Durham, UK. Her work is featured in the important new anthology, “Gaza Writes Back,” recently published by Just World Books. Sameeha has received a scholarship is pursue a Phd in English literature – it is as yet unclear if she will receive permission to travel once again pursue her studies.
It was clearly important for Ayman and Sameeha to be able to share their stories with us, particularly since the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the chronically forgotten story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now six years into this blockade, Gazans still live in a virtual open-air prison with severely curtailed access to the most basic necessities of living. As Ayman and Sameeha told us, 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the economy has all but collapsed, the percentage of children suffering from malnourishment is rising, unemployment is at 60%, there is a shortage of drinkable water and access to electricity is limited to several hours a day.
To drive this point home, Ayman told us at the beginning of the program that we should expect their electricity to go down in one hour. At that point, we would need to wait for a few minutes while they hooked their computer up to a reserve battery. When we reconnected, we say them sitting in the darkness of their Gaza City flat, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer. (Compare top pic with the pic above).
I’ve written extensively about the politics dimensions of the Gaza crisis so I won’t belabor the point here. I will only say that I am deeply grateful to “Untold Stories” (and its coordinators, Sallie Gratch and Mark Miller) for enabling us to hear Ayman and Sameeha’s story – and help us bear witness to this injustice with a unique kind of power.
It’s truly difficult to describe how it felt to converse with a young couple who were sitting in the darkness of their apartment from inside a blockaded strip of land while we sat in the comfort and freedom of an Evanston library. It is so very, very important to hear these untold stories and to create real relationships with those who are living them out day after day. I’d add it is even more important to view ourselves as an integral part of these stories, so that we might somehow participate in their just resolution.
Some links I encourage you to read: click here to read Ayman’s blog and here to read Sameeha’s. Click here to read an excellent article by journalist Ruth Pollard which prominently features Ayman and Sameeha’s story while describing the current reality in Gaza.
And finally, click here to donate to ANERA – a heroic NGOs that has long been endeavoring to provide sustainable support to the people of Gaza.
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 who inhabit the land?
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 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.
Rev. 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.
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.
So 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.
This evening it was my honor to participate in an act of civil disobedience in Chicago in support of immigrant justice – a cause I fervently believe is the civil rights issue of our time. One hundred and sixty strong, a large and diverse coalition of activists, faith leaders, politicians, labor leaders and undocumented immigrants sat down together in the busy intersection of Congress and Clark in the South Loop with two demands: that Speaker of the House John Boehner bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, and that President Obama stop the oppressive deportations of undocumented immigrants (which have now grown to 2,000,000 under his administration.)
We gathered at 3:30 pm for a press conference, after which we filed off the sidewalk into the intersection and sat down around a banner reading “Stop Deportations – Give us a Vote.” On all four corners of the intersection, hundreds of supporters unfurled banners and held signs and chanted along with us. Eventually, after three warnings, Chicago police led each of us away one by one.
Our demonstration tonight was but one of a growing numbers of civil disobedience actions currently proflierating across the country. Last month, thousands rallied for immigration reform on the National Mall in Washington DC during the government shutdown – and 200 were led away by police. A few days earlier, similar rallies were held in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston and other cities as part of a “National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect.”
While politicians in post-shutdown Washington dither on this critical issue in Washington, citizens are literally taking to the streets to demand compassionate immigration reform. There is a very real movement building – trust me, as long our leaders refuse to act, you will be witnessing many more actions such as these in the coming weeks and months.
It was my honor to be among the speakers at press conference before the demonstration (above). Here is the full text of my remarks (which was shortened due to time restraints):
My name is Brant Rosen – I’m the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston and I’m a member of this amazing, diverse and growing coalition of activists who are working for the cause of immigrant justice. I am part of the majority of Americans and 80% of Illinoisians who support compassionate immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.
And I am here to say it is time for our national leaders to lead. It is time for Speaker John Boehner and Republican leader Peter Roskam to give us a vote. It is time for President Barack Obama to end the daily deportatins that are now approaching 2,000,000 and has left 3,000,000 children orphaned. This is not simply a political issue – and shame on any politician who treats immigration reform as “business as usual.” Immigration reform is one of the most critical moral and human rights issues facing our country today.
As a Jew, my faith tradition teaches that societies will ultimately be judged by the way they treat their immigrants. My faith tradition teaches that when we label another human being as “illegal,” we diminish God’s presence in our world. When we incarcerate and deport those who come to this country seeking a better life, we diminish God’s presence in our world. And when we create and enforce laws that rip children away from their parents – and parents from their children – we most certainly diminish God’s presence in our world.
My faith tradition also teaches that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And make no mistake: our immigration system constitutes a very real form of oppression against families in our nation. It is thus our sacred duty to stand here today, in front of US Immigration Customs and Enforcement headquarters, to say: this oppression must end. The destruction of our families must end. The daily deportations of 1,100 human beings must end. It is our sacred duty to bring it to an end.
John Boehner and Peter Roskam: It’s time to give us a vote on citizenship. It’s time to end the oppression of our undocumented brothers and sisters. President Obama: it’s time to keep your promise to the American people. 2,000,000 deportations is 2,000,000 too many. Stop deportations now!
If our national leaders refuse to lead, then it is time to take to the streets. And tonight, we will take to the streets. Our movement is the new civil rights movement growing in cities across the nation, rising up to demand compassionate immigration reform now. You will hear from us tonight in Chicago – and you will be hearing from us again and again until our oppressive immigration system is no more!
It has been my honor to stand together in this movement with so many people from so many different faiths and ethnicities and histories. It has been a particular honor to stand together with our undocumented sisters and brothers, whose steadfast courage and dignity are an inspiration to us all.
My own grandparents were immigrants to this nation. I know all too well that I am the beneficiary of their decision to come to this country, and of my country’s willingness to provide them with a path to citizenship. For those of us who enjoy the privileges of the courageous decisions of those who came before us, it would be a profound betrayal if we did not stand together here today.
We are here today. We will be here tomorrow. And we will stand together every day until compassionate immigration reform is finally a reality in our country. Ken Yehi Ratzon – as it is God’s will, so my it be ours.
Amen and thank you all for coming out tonight.
En Español (Gracias a Gonzalo Escobar):
Mi nombre es Brant Rosen – Soy el rabino de la Congregación Judía Reconstruccionista en Evanston y soy un miembro de esta increíble y diversa y creciente coalición de activistas que trabajan por la causa de la justicia para los inmigrantes. Yo soy parte de la mayoría de los estadounidenses y el 80 % de Illinoisians que apoyan la reforma migratoria compasiva que proporcione un camino a la ciudadanía.
Y yo estoy aquí para decir que es hora de que nuestros líderes nacionales para hagan su trabajo de legislar. Es hora de que los Representantes, John Boehner, y el líder republicano Peter Roskam nos den un voto. Es hora de que el presidente Barack Obama ponga fin a las deportaciones diarias que se están acercando a 2 millones y han dejado a 3 millones de niños y niñas huérfanos. Esto no es simplemente una cuestión política y es una vergüenza que un político trate la reforma migratoria como “como si no pasara nada”, la reforma de inmigración es uno de los temas de derechos humanos y morales más importantes que enfrenta nuestro país hoy en día.
Como judío, mi tradición de fe nos enseña que las sociedades en última instancia, serán juzgadas por la forma en que tratan a sus inmigrantes. Mi tradición de fe nos enseña que cuando etiquetamos a otro ser humano como “ilegal”, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Cuando encarcelamos y deportamos a los que vienen a este país en busca de una vida mejor, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Y cuando creamos y hacemos cumplir las leyes que separan a los niños de sus padres – y a los padres de sus hijos – ciertamente estamos disminuyendo la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo.
Mi tradición de fe también enseña que Dios está con los oprimidos y demanda que hagamos lo mismo. Y no nos engañemos: nuestro sistema de inmigración constituye una forma muy real de la opresión contra las familias en nuestro país. Por tanto, es nuestro deber sagrado de estar aquí hoy, frente a la sede de inmigración y aduanas de EE.UU. para decir: la opresión debe terminar. La destrucción de nuestras familias debe terminar. Las deportaciones diarias de 1.100 seres humanos deben terminar. Es nuestro sagrado deber de ponerle fin.
John Boehner y Peter Roskam : Es hora de que nos den un voto para la ciudadanía . Es hora de poner fin a la opresión de nuestros hermanos y hermanas indocumentados. Presidente Obama: es el momento de mantener su promesa al pueblo estadounidense. 2 millones de deportaciones y 2 millones es demasiado. ¡Detengan las deportaciones ahora!
Si nuestros líderes nacionales se niegan a legislar, entonces es el momento de salir a la calle. Y esta noche, vamos a salir a las calles. Nuestro movimiento es el nuevo movimiento de derechos civiles que crece en las ciudades de todo el país, para exigir una reforma migratoria compasiva ahora. Ustedes nos escucharán esta noche en Chicago -¡y ustedes nos escucharan a nosotros una y otra vez hasta que nuestro sistema de inmigración opresivo no exista más!
Ha sido un honor para mí estar juntos en este movimiento con tantas personas de tantas religiones y etnias e historias diferentes. Ha sido un gran honor particular, estar junto a nuestras hermanas y hermanos indocumentados, cuyo valor y dignidad inquebrantable son una inspiración para todos nosotros.
Mis abuelos eran inmigrantes de esta nación. Sé muy bien que soy el beneficiario de su decisión de venir a este país, y de la voluntad de mi país para proporcionarle un camino a la ciudadanía. Para aquellos de nosotros que disfrutamos de los privilegios de las decisiones valientes de los que vinieron antes que nosotros, sería una traición profunda si no nos mantenemos unidos hoy aquí.
Estamos aquí hoy. Vamos a estar aquí mañana. Y vamos a estar juntos todos los días hasta que la reforma migratoria compasiva sea finalmente una realidad en nuestro país. Como se dice en Hebreo “Ken Yehi Ratzon” – ya que es la voluntad de Dios, y será la nuestra.
Amén y gracias a todos por venir esta noche.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a text of my keynote speech at last night’s annual Vision Keepers dinner of Interfaith Action - a faith-based direct service organization that serves the hungry and homeless population of my hometown of Evanston:
I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by sharing you with one of my chronic pet peeves – and I’d like to apologize at the outset to my congregants and loved ones, who are probably getting very tired of hearing me complain about this: I really, really don’t like the saying “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”
Now I say this with all due apology to any of you who might have this bumper sticker on your car – I mean you no disrespect. And believe me: I am a huge fan of encouraging kindness and beauty. It’s just that personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.” After all, if by kindness we mean simple human respect and dignity – qualities that are essential to the core of our basic humanity – I think we would all agree that there should be nothing random about it. Kindness shouldn’t be random – quite frankly, it should be mandatory.
In its way, I think this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise. We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.
Biblical tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Kindness and compassion should not be relegated to random feeling – they should be cultivated as a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We have to teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.
In the Bible, kindness and compassion are complex and profound concepts. In fact, there are many different Hebrew words for compassion. The most well known word, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.” This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.
And then there is “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness.” As I learned back in my Rabbinical school Biblical Hebrew class, “lovingkindness” is probably not the best definition for chesed. It’s a little too general, a little too mushy. Most contemporary Hebrew scholars suggest that a better definition of chesed is “covenantal loyalty.” Indeed, if we look at the way this word is used in the Bible, it has less to do with a feeling of lovingkindess than a deep sense of responsibility that comes out of sacred relationship. God shows chesed for the Israelites – and the Israelites for God – when they remain loyal to the mutual covenant they established together at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.
In Jewish tradition, this abstract notion of chesed was applied by the ancient rabbis to the everyday life of the community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the prototypical communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty – “commanded compassion,” if you will. At my congregation, as at yours, I’m sure, we have a committee of members helps members in need, usually due to illness or the loss of a loved one. We call it, naturally, the Chesed Committee. And the members who participate in it will surely at attest that they don’t participate out of a desire to be randomly kind, but rather out of the sense of responsibility that comes through belonging to a community. Probably more often than not, the members of the Chesed Committee serve people they don’t even know personally – and that, of course, is precisely the point.
So in its way, chesed presents us with a compelling and important way of understanding collective compassion. It is intimately connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability. When a people live in a covenantal context –with chesed – it is with the fundamental understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.
By the same token, all of us in the room tonight – we are part of a covenantal community as well. All of us: the congregations that make up Interfaith Action understand on a deep, spiritually cellular level, that we have an abiding sense of covenant with the Evanston community. The Interfaith Action soup kitchens, the warming centers, the homeless hospitality centers, the Producemobile, are much, much more than mere direct service projects – they are expressions of our sacred sense of commitment to the city in which we live – and of the conviction that our compassion for every single member of this community must not be regarded as random or voluntary. On the contrary, we are compelled to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless out of a collective sense of sacred, covenantal imperative.
In this regard, I want to honor the work of our honorees tonight – and all who participate in Interfaith Action – for the sacred work you do. I know you don’t do it just because it makes you feel good. I’m willing to bet there have been plenty of times you went over to soup kitchen when you were tired or just plain didn’t feel like going. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there may have been times that you went even while you were doubting that your actions even made a difference. But in the end, you did go – and you continue to go – and you are here tonight because you know that at the end of the day, kindness should not be optional.
I’d like to go a bit further now, however, and offer a few thoughts about what an even deeper covenantal obligation might look like for our community. I’ve always believed that religion is at its best when it not only comforts the afflicted, but challenges the oppressive status quo that afflicts them. What does it mean when we literally feed the hungry, but fail to challenge a system that countenances hunger in its midst? Is it enough to provide warming centers, or should we also see it as our religious obligation to ask whether or not our city is also doing everything in its power to provide something as essential to life as heating for all its citizens? On an even deeper level, shouldn’t we be finding ways to challenge an infrastructural reality that makes “warming centers” even necessary in the first place?
I believe that religion is at its best when it manages to balance what I would call the “pastoral” with the “prophetic.” In other words, when our Biblical tradition demands that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, this is a pastoral imperative. And when we are commanded to speak truth to powerful Pharaohs, to create societies of fairness and equity, to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof – this is a prophetic imperative.
And so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask those of us in this room – those of us who act on a deep and profound sense of pastoral commitment to the Evanston community: what would it look like for us to create a similar kind of covenantal coalition out of a prophetic commitment? More to the point: do we believe that our city of Evanston is doing what it must to ensure that its citizens are not going to bed hungry, that they have roofs over their heads and heat in their homes? And if the answer is no, then I believe we must ask ourselves: do we believe that holding our own city accountable is just as much a religious obligation as running soup kitchens and warming centers?
Now I know that there are a myriad of complicated policy discussions to be had on these kinds of issues, and I obviously don’t intend to parse them all right now. But I do think that too often we hide behind a mantra of “it’s complicated” to avoid dealing with some fairly simple truths. And just as often, I think, we shy away from policy debates because we feel as though we shouldn’t be mixing religion and politics.
But at the end of the day, however, it’s really not all that complicated. There’s nothing complicated about food, shelter and heat – these are among our most human basic needs. And when it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ll repeat again: religion should not only about comforting the afflicted – it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. It’s about challenging the attitudes of those who view the world with a scarcity mentality that claims there is only so much to go around – and that it’s not our problem if there are those who will inevitably go without.
I hope that gatherings such as this will redouble our resolve to both the pastoral and the prophetic aspects of our faith traditions. I hope that as we go forward with this sacred work, we will find ways to open conversations about what a truly covenantal Evanston faith community might look like. And I hope that in doing so, we might provide a truly prophetic voice of conscience.
Thank you again for all you do. Congratulations to our honorees tonight. May all of our efforts continue to transform the lives of others – may they ultimately transform our world as well.