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.
Received from my friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters. An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters. Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.
We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders. We cannot and will not be silent. We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.” Enough!
We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel. We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties. This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.
United States military support to Israel is huge. From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money. During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.
During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.
In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest. The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land. This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week. Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.
The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly. Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza. The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.
Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same. Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948. This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression. This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land. The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.
To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled. Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States. You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.
Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:
§ Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.
§ Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.
§ Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.
§ Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.
§ Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.
As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent. Justice, peace and truth matter. The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter. We cannot be silent and neither can you.
Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:
(List in formation)
Had the honor this morning to participate in an interfaith ceremony at Chicago’s Daley Plaza that called on Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to resist devastating cuts to Federal programs in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” budget talks. It was quite a dramatic and inspiring gathering, organized by IIRON, Make Wall Street Street Pay – Illinois and other local organizing initiatives. Over 40 members of the Chicago clergy community marched to Daley Plaza, where we encountered two Golden Calves symbolizing the idolatrous motivations behind Wall St. greed and wealth disparity. After hearing from several speakers, one of the calves (a piñata, as it turned out) was smashed open, gold coins scattering in every direction.
We didn’t focus on Dick Durbin simply because he happens to our senator. As the Majority Whip for the Democratic Party, Durbin is one of the most important players in Washington, officially charged with leading the Democrats who control the Senate. And thus far, there is ample reason for concern that his leadership bodes ill for the more vulnerable members of our society.
Since Congress has kicked the budgetary can down the road, critical social programs in this country stand to lose $600 billion dollars on January 1 unless they choose to act. Durbin has already indicated that he favors a “grand bargain” with Republicans that may entail cuts to Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. Just as ominously, Durbin has still not signed an open letter written by Congressmen Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders (and signed by 29 senators) calling on the members of Congress not to cut Social Security.
For our part, the interfaith community of Chicago has written a letter – to Senator Durbin:
Dear Senator Durbin:
Our message to you comes from Deuteronomy 30:15-19 & Joshua 24:15 as we ask you “to choose this day whom you will serve…!” We urge you to choose life and to reject “Simpson-Bowles” or any other “grand bargain” that cuts vital services to vulnerable Americans. We urge you to make absolutely to make absolutely no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Working Americans did not create this economic crisis or this false and manufactured “fiscal crisis”. Wall Street’s speculative bubble, made possible by Congressional deregulation crashed the global economy. As a result, the American people have suffered unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, and have lost their savings, retirements and wealth. Congress used working people’s taxes to bail out Wall Street banks instead of assisting underwater homeowners, creating jobs or rescuing state and local governments. The people have suffered enough. Doing further harm to working people is morally unconscionable.
It is immoral to make any further cuts to vital federal programs and services when wealthy individuals and big corporations are not paying their fair share to care for the broader community of whom they are part and on whom they rely. In this time of unparalleled income inequality and concentrated wealth, we will not accept any solution to the federal budget deficit other than raising revenue from those who have not done their share and can easily afford to do much more.
The kinds of cuts being discussed under Simpson-Bowles and other “deals” will literally result in sickness and death for many and will fall upon the poor and vulnerable in order to provide for the excess for the wealthy. Senator Durbin, you now face a choice between serving the false gods of greed and excessive wealth or implementing policies that promote life and shared prosperity. It is important that as a key leader in the Senate you stand firmly on the side of those who stand to lose so much. Therefore we bring to you four demands:
- Block any reductions in benefits for Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid
- Block any extension of the Bush Tax Cuts for people with taxable income above $250,000 per year
- Block the “sequestration” cuts to domestic programs set to occur in January 2013
- Support progressive sources of taxes including a robust estate tax, taxing capital gains at a rate equal or higher to wages and pass a strong Financial Transaction Tax (aka the Robin Hood Tax)
To Chicago residents: A myriad of local organizing initiatives is holding a rally on Friday, November 9 in Pritzker Park (State and Van Buren) at 3:00 pm. Together we will tell our elected officials: “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis!” and demand that the wealthy and big corporations must “Pay Their Fair Share”.