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.
Tonight is the eve of Tu B’shvat, the Jewish festival that celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud, Tu B’shvat marks the dividing point for the tithing of the fruit from trees for the year to come. Throughout the centuries, this festival has been announced by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms that proliferate throughout the central and northern parts of the land of Israel.
As a celebration of the natural world and the tentative beginnings of spring, Tu B’shvat has been celebrated in different ways during different eras of Jewish history and through a variety of Jewish cultural contexts around the world. But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel, Tu B’shvat has become, for many Jews, almost exclusively associated with the Jewish National Fund’s fund raising efforts to plant pine forests throughout modern-day Israel.
In a recent blog post, my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Davis underlined the darker legacy of this particular Tu B’shvat observance, noting that the JNF’s mission to create Jewish facts on the land has led to tragedy for the Palestinian people:
My first home in Israel was in a little village in the Jerusalem hills. On the bus to school in Jerusalem, I could see the pine forests stretching from the crest of the hilltops down to the dirt trail at the base of the slopes. Sometimes, I would go on hikes along these trails, passing through the deserted stone buildings of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem. Close up, I could see the man-made stone terraces hidden by the trees.
Occasionally, you would come across broken stone walls tracing the shape of a ruined house. The pines blurred the lines of previous ownership and concealed the destruction of Palestinian civilization that happened with the birth of the State. (Over) 80% of the forests were planted after the birth of the State of Israel, many of them on land vacated by the departing indigenous population. Some 80% of the Palestinian population left in 1948, never to return. And this project continues with JNF’s focus on land in the Palestinian areas of the State of Israel in the Galilee and Negev and the secretive planting of trees in the West Bank. (In a call-in interview that JNF just posted on YouTube, the organization’s CEO, Russell Robinson, does not answer a caller’s question about JNF tree planting over the Green Line.)
I was particularly struck by Cantor Davis’ observation that the forests of the Jewish National Fund forests are not fruit-bearing, but pine:
It is deeply symbolic then that the early 20th century Eastern European settlers chose a non-native, barren tree. Symbolically and in a real sense, this foreign tree displaced the olive trees of the indigenous population.
Might there be a way to decouple Tu B’shvat from this destructive legacy of colonialism and disenfranchisement? I’d like to suggest one possibility:
I’ve long noticed the power of celebrating this “harbinger of spring” in the colder climates of the northern-hemisphere diaspora, where we are barely one month into winter and the landscape is filled not by the white of newly-budding almond blossoms, but by the white of snow-covered trees.
While some might think this would be an unlikely setting to celebrate Tu B’shvat, I actually find it quite profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the midst of a Chicago winter. It comes to remind us that even during this dark, often bitterly cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees. In the chilly diaspora, we can celebrate the invisible forces of liberation reborn underground even as the prison of winter seems to reign above.
Thus we observe Tu B’shvat as a welcome reminder that spring will always follow winter; that even in the coldest and darkest of times, the unseen power of liberation will inexorably rise up.
I encourage you to reclaim Tu B’shvat as a celebration of liberation: seasonal, spiritual, political, or all of the above.
Click here for more information on how you can support tree-planting for justice, not disenfranchisement.
The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook - but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.
First, some background:
The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.
Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:
The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.
We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.
Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.
For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.
Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals. It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.
Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems. And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.
Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.
I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience. The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.
One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:
BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.
This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.
This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)
As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.
From the BDS National Committee Website:
The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.
I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently? Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.
I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.
As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.
This just in: Eric Fingerhut, the President of Hillel and Jonathan Kessler, the Leadership Development Director of AIPAC, have just announced in the Jewish Week that Hillel and AIPAC will be formally “working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.”
What this means essentially is that Hillel, an organization that is meant to serve as an umbrella for the diverse Jewish student communities on college campuses nation wide, is now formally aligning itself with a lobbying group’s specific definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.”
By way of response, I encourage you to read this statement (below) by Open Hillel, a grassroots student-run campaign that works to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. I’ve long been a huge fan of OH and was not surprised to read that they had drafted an articulate and thoughtful response to Fingerhut and Kessler.
And if you agree with them that this new Hillel-AIPAC partnership will “stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community,” please click here and let Hillel know.
Statement of Opposition to AIPAC and Hillel’s New Partnership
Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.
AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students who support a two-state solution believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts” – the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law. However, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.
In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.
We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel-advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.
AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.
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.
Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.
Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.
While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and “why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.
Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.
At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:
we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.
Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.
As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer the goyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)
Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)
In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)
His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:
Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the freshly born
After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.
Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.
While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”
The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.
While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:
I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple. And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”
In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed. By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.
But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall