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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 thoughts on “Why I’m Participting in the Sabeel – North America Conference in Chicago

  1. if we approach one another with an open heart and mind, we are more apt to pave the way for a brighter future. Thanks to models like Rev. Dr. Ateek and you for shining the way.

  2. I wish Chicago and Sapporo were a bit closer, as this is one conference I would attend. I have to admit, sad to say, that I am unfamiliar with the Sabeel Institute and Dr. Ateek. I will look up his work. Liberation theology is an interest of mine. I’m sure that any criticism of Zionism’s land-centric ideology is viewed as anathema by many. I take my hat off to you for your support of what the Sabeel Institute and Dr. Ateek are working toward.

    • So you don’t like “land-centric ideologies”? Well, I bet you live on land, and not in the sky over Sapporo. You have a government that lets you live on the land and that government is wiling to use force (gasp!) to protectect its hold on the land you live on. We Jews didn’t have any land that was ours for 2000 years and the results was 2000 years of oppression, pogroms, Inquisitions and Holocausts. It is easy for you to tell us to live without a “land-centric” ideology. Well, we had one forced on us and we will not return to it, whether you “progressives” like it our not.

  3. Peace and blessings upon the conference and your participation in it. I am deeply grateful for your embrace of the prophetic witness of Palestinian Liberation Theology. And even more grateful for your faithful living and speaking out of the very best traditions of Judaism itself.

    – Sarah Q. Malone

    State College, PA

  4. Go to it Brant.You have never been stopped by anybody before questioning anything that smacks of Peace that is not with certain conservative religious leaders.Tell us all how it went and I am very glad you are going..

  5. Brant, I’ll hold you in prayer from Bolivia where I’m chaplaining Solidarity Bridge medical mission. I admire you greatly for addressing the hard issues. You go to the peripheries, as Pope Francis challenges us all. Thankyou for your solidarity with Israelis and Palestinians. As Francis said in Sardinia last week, “solidarity is not an ideology but a way of life and living that comes from love.” Stay the course! Bob

    • Robert, how befitting of an illustration, solidarity is not an ideology but a way of life and living that comes from love.”! I challenge myself and others as to the consciousness we need to internalize and project to act in solidarity with the meek and weak, based on the truth, equal justice and G-dly love. Thank you.

  6. Sabeel has been doing very important work for quite a while, especially building bridges between Christian and Muslim Palestinians. This is one of the reasons Sabeel is so scary to Israeli political leaders and to the American Jewish mainstream “leaders” whose allegiance is to the right-wing Israeli nationalists or clericalist-nationalists. The Israeli and American Jewish leaders are using red-baiting tactics to discourage progressive Jews from joining in coalitions with any person or group critical of Israel’s policies.

    Our response must be to support those who stand-up against these pressures and to loudly tell ourselves and our so-called “leaders” that our Jewish values are very different from their Jewish values, that our understanding of our Jewish tradition is very different from theirs.

    For those interested in reading a Jewish approach to liberation theology before Rabbi Rosen finishes his book on the subject, I recommend the works of Prof. Marc H. Ellis.

  7. I believe while its perfectly ok to push for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian/Israeli problems…even to the most extreme pro Palestine demands…if one feels that his Jewish values call for such actions…or for any sense of justice as he perceives it…this is how it should be . However I take issue with efforts to spread un.truths and to de.legitimize Israel’s very existence to further those aims…there is a tipping point where well meaning,honest folks can in their zeal,do more damage then good,to the very cause they are so anxious to see accomplished.

    • Exactly! Which is why I strongly advocate censoring the Israeli government and its political leaders who delegitimize the founding values and explicitly reject the democratic values of Israel’s declaration of independence.

      The Israeli political leadership has separated itself from most of the Jewish people. They do not share our Jewish values. They are not pursuing peace.

      • Sir…the vast majority of the Jewish people do not reject Israel or its leadership..it is one thing to pursue peace,and quite another to commit suicide, ..yes there are blogs that pursue your views..and that have supportive comments…as there are many others who have different views,quite the opposite of yours…my guess is that if one would take a count of american jews with your views on Israel…maybe ,just maybe,there would be no more then fifty thousand..that is an optimistic guess…in Israel…maybe another fifty thousand..Now what i mean are peace at any price or risk supporters…also why is it that you think you are the final judge of Jewish values…there are plenty of Jews with fine values who agree that Israel can not make peace with people who refuse to live peacefully….

    • Respectfully, you “take issue efforts to spread untruths” without addressing nor mentioning them. I cannot and do not call you “untruthful”. The damage is more likely to lie within unsubstantiated or ill-founded allegations, which an open debate can help dispel. I believe that It is not as much about zeal, as it is about knowing, conviction and aligning our words and actions with those of our values and principles.

      • Sir…lets start with the jenin massacre which wasn’t ..then there are the choreographed demonstrations using children to attack Israeli troops…throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails..the constant lies by Palestinians about misdeeds perpetrated by Israelis…one could go on and on…if rabbi Rosen would allow it,I could furnish a whole report on it…however it suffices to say..there is no shortage of you said I said claims and counter claims,and an open debate is not a bad idea..however it is likely we would all be preaching to our own choir..I do hope that some time we could agree ,if only on the facts……

  8. Jewish attachment is Israel is “retrogressive?” I see our connection as enduring. Cute word play that makes “progressives” feel squeamish. Wait a few years a “retro” will be back in style, and according to this logic the Arab nations will control Israel. Will you judge them “retrogressive?”

    They want the land– we want the land. They want to liberate the land- from us. Their theological song and dance is just that. They know your ideology and have created an argument that thankfully will only appeal to a fraction of world Jewry.

    • Seth,

      I agree with you that the Jewish connection to the land is enduring – but the nature of this connection has changed significantly over the course of our history.

      Judaism as we know it began following the destruction of the Temple, when the rabbis created a diaspora-based religion that for centuries looked to the land as a spiritual ideal and actual return to the land was projected into a far-off messianic future. This is classical Jewish theology, by the way – it was not simply “invented” by Palestinian Christian theologians.

      In this regard, Zionism is indeed a retrogressive Jewish ideology – one that expresses its connection to the land through the Biblical ideals of nationalism, conquest, and settlement. It was a conscious rejection of a Jewish spiritual vision that had endured for centuries. And as theologians such as Naim Ateek have taught me, this retrojection has created a tragic reality for present-day people who live on the land.

      I find your zero-sum reduction of this issue to “they want the land – we want the land” to be profoundly troubling – and an invitation to further tragedy. If you would take the time to read the work of Palestinian Christians – or better yet, actually dialogue with them – you will find that they are not seeking to cleanse the land of Jews. Rather, they seek civil rights, human rights and equal justice for all who live on the land, regardless of their religion. And I daresay there are growing ranks of Jews, inspired by the values of Jewish tradition, who stand with them.

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