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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Rev. Chris Leighton Responds to My Open Letter

  1. michaelblum007

    The Reverend Christopher Leighton: With all due respect, please address the following: Are you an advocate of a Presbyterian homeland? Please discuss.

    1. Yitzhak Santis יצחק סנטיס

      Well, then, here’s the problem. You are projecting a Presbyterian, or more broadly, a Christian notion of religious profession onto Judaism that denies the Jewish self-definition of being a people. I see Judaism as being the common religion of the Jewish people, the framework in which peoplehood is interwoven with religion. Those who define Judaism as simply a religious persuasion, a profession of a certain faith, or as a “faith community” are doing so through a process of reductionism and denial of Jewish self-understanding.

      Imposing non-Jewish definitions onto Jewish identity is a form of colonialism in that Jews are denied the right to self-definition. Jews have found themselves in that situation for centuries, if not millenia, whereby dominant majority cultures define Jewish identity. Not surprisingly, for purposes serving their own self-identities, both Christian and Islamic societies have imposed (yes, imposed) their definitions of Jewish identity onto Jews against the will of the Jews. In this way have Jews been colonized over the centuries, and the Holocaust genocide was the epitome of this colonization. In the 20th century, most Jews rose up and said enough! we no longer will be objects of others. We will finally and for always define ourselves according to our own culture and history, to be a free people in our land.

      1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        I have never denied the Jewish self-definition as a people. I have only questioned the assumption that our peoplehood must ipso facto be expressed vis a vis nation-statehood.

        I would also add that your analysis regarding Jewish self-definition is reductionist in the extreme. Zionism rose as a minority, dissident movement in the Jewish community and we have by no means achieved consensus on the notion of Jewish self-definition through land-based nation-statism.

        Here’s a recent example: a leading European Jewish group has forcefully rejected Netanyahu’s calls for French Jews to emigrate to their “Jewish home” in Israel in the wake of the violence in France. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association stated:

        After every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government issues the same statements about the importance of aliyah [immigration to Israel], rather than employ every diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe…The reality is that a large majority of European Jews do not plan to emigrate to Israel…(Israel’s government) must cease this Pavlovian reaction every time Jews in Europe are attacked.

        Quotes such as this certainly belie your claim that the Jewish people “finally and for always define ourselves to be a free people in our own land.”

        Click here for the full article.

  2. Bobby Greenberg

    Thank you rev,leighton….it is time that fair minded folks,who see through the unfair attacks on Zionism and Israel,…your essay is right on point….it indeed will be intresting to read the conversations coming on this blog….

  3. gwpj

    This sentence in Rev. Leighton’s reply to you is, I think, a very telling one in what it leaves out:

    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.

    What is missing is any mention of what happened to the Palestinian people when the Zionist project for a homeland began: the terrorism, the motivation to remove all traces of the Palestinian people, the denial of their existence (“a land without people for a people without a land”). I find this oversight astonishing and deeply saddening.

    1. Vicky

      That sentence leaves out other things. Firstly, *all* modern nationalism was midwifed in the nineteenth century. Along with the emergence of nation-states came a new way of fashioning history, with each state trying to give itself a long pedigree that was enshrined in school and college history curricula (the academic discipline of history as we understand it emerged hand-in-glove with the nation-state). The fact that nationalists of all stripes honestly saw their political movements as a blossoming of the ancient aspirations of a united people does not actually mean that this vision of the past is accurate. Conceptions of community do change over time and that is natural. This romanticised approach blots all that out.

      He’s also conflating separate issues. To begin with, civic nationalism (which he accepts unquestioningly as OK) is not the same as the ethnic nationalism on which Israel is built. Secondly, ‘peoplehood’ and ‘ethnic nationalism’ are not automatically the same thing. Feeling a commitment to the Jewish people does not necessarily translate as commitment to a Jewish nation-state. Spiritual respect for and closeness to the land isn’t the same as demanding to own that land and administer it (at great cost to others, no less). There are religious Jews live in the land but who don’t support ethnic nationalism, and there are completely secular Jews who wouldn’t dream of making aliyah from America yet who bang the drum for that nationalism.

      Revisiting the early days of Zionism, Palestine was one of several places in consideration as a possible candidate for the Jewish state. It wasn’t singled out as special then, whereas for religious Jews (who weren’t nationalists) it meant everything. Zionism was hostile to religion from its inception and only after the Holocaust did it really become mainstream in religious Jewish communities. Its adoption was driven by terrible loss and trauma. The religious continuity he’s arguing for just doesn’t exist.

      Historiographical problems apart, the real issue with his argument is ethics, as you say. It never fails to sadden me how Christian Zionist clergy are able to conveniently fit Palestinian suffering and oppression into a footnote, concentrating instead on some sweeping and highly sanitised epic drama of return and redemption that has more in common with Hollywood than it does with Jesus’ teaching to stand with ‘the least of these’.

      During the First World War, there were clergy who set up patriotism as a religious duty and nationalism as a new gospel, with Christians who conscientiously objected to the fighting routinely being derided as cowards simply for having the courage to stand by the cross instead of by the flag. There is a problem when we introduce flags to churches. Any flag. It limits our ability to speak out when we need to. In the letter to the Hebrews, St Paul tells us that we have no abiding city and that we must go to Jesus ‘outside the camp’ – beyond borders, to a place that isn’t us – in the same breath, which is why I am deeply disturbed that Rev. Leighton accepts nationalist exceptionalism so uncritically before going on to make out that ethnic nationalism is an intrinsic part of Jewish religion.

      Since when did the state warrant the same kind of fidelity as God? Each justification I read for Christian Zionism feels more and more idolatrous. Millions of people are denied basic civil rights, including a say in the regime that rules over them, in order to preserve the Zionist dream – but the real cardinal sin is not their oppression, but the fact that giving them their rights would mean the ‘disassembly’ of that dream, the apartheid state? Jesus did not say, “Whatever you do to the least of these my nation-states, you do also to me”. We have a Christian responsibility to other people, not to uphold a structure of governance at any price, especially when we’re not the ones paying it.

  4. Carl Freeman

    I am always heartened by the tone of the discussions that your blogs and letters stimulate, Brant. It often seems that in most corners of cyberspace, discussions very swiftly descend into insult and animosity. Reverend Leighton has clearly taken time and effort to reply to your letter and I look forward to seeing this dialogue continue. I commended you both for engaging in a public conversation that is not only polite, but informative.

  5. tim74836

    As I understand the history of Palestine before 1948 the followers of the Jewish tradition and and Palestinians who followed the Islamic traditions shared the property for well over 2000 years. Lets not forget the Orthodox Christians.
    Since 1948 a division was created. That division was a decisive plan to alienate everyone that wasn’t Jewish. A desire for a pure state. The bubble was created and to this day keeps getting bigger, with one truly inhumane aspect; the Palestinian people are a plague to the new 19th century concept of Zionism and are treated as such. I think that is the difference between an old religious concept and the new one. Tolerance.

  6. Diane V. McLoughlin

    What is in, and what is not, in the reverend’s response, appears to demonstrate lack of balanced care for the equal treatment of others.

    We are asked, do the Jews not have a right to a claim on the land of Israel. Well, that depends. A property deal honorably arrived at, living with your neighbors peacefully, that sounds like a proposal the neighbors could live with.

    But if an armored Caterpillar out of the blue rolls up to a Palestinian family’s home, tells them to get out, flattens the home to the ground, and Jews build a home for themselves in its place, I have to say the answer is no, an act such as that is wrong.

    Human rights, equal rights, civil rights, property rights – that’s where it’s at.

  7. Monica70x7

    Let us distinguish between the State of Israel and Zionism as an ideology. To adopt a post-Zionist or anti-Zionist position is not the same as “aim[ing] to disassemble the State of Israel” (as Rev. Leighton characterizes the book). Here is an analogy: I am a loyal citizen of the United States, but I disagree with the obsolete ideology of “manifest destiny,” which resulted in cruel treatment of Native Americans and is no longer applicable to today’s America. Zionism, like “manifest destiny,” was a driving force in the establishment of a nation, but it is destructive to implement its self-serving principles and its misuse of the Bible in today’s world.

  8. i_like_ike52

    I have debated with myself whether to post this comment or not, because I have come to the conclusion that you have put yourself completely outside the Jewish people and the world of Judaism whether or not you use the title of “rabbi” which traditionally meant a person who held position of teacher and leader of Jews. One evidence of this is that it seems most of those cheering you on here are non-Jews. You and I have no common “Jewish” basis in which to conduct a dialogue. However, I feel it is incumbent on my to fire this parting shot.

    FIrstly-as I have stated here on several ocassions that almost half of world Jewry lives in Israel today and the large majority of Jews in Israel and outside of it support Zionism and the Zionist agenda which includes :(1) the RIGHT of the Jewish people to sovereignity in Eretz Israel, (2) Kibbutz Galuyot-the ingathering of the EXILES, meaning the right of ALL Jews in the Exile to come to live in Israel and the obligation of the state to facilitate this, and (3) the obligaton of the state to provide security for the Jews living there as well as to be concerned with the welfare of Jews who are still in the Exile.
    You completely deny and delegitimize the Zionist project and its agenda. With this book you are pushing, you go further and deny the historical roots of Zionism in Judaism, and by this I mean its religious roots, going back to the TANACH (BIble). Yes, I am aware that there are anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews who claim to be bearers of authentic religious Judaism but they are a small group even amongst the Haredim. By taking the stand you do you are denying our right to define ourselves and what historical Judaism is. This i like the Arab insistance that Jews are not a nation, only a religion. By what right do they have to define what we are? By what right do yo do the same? Who says your definition of Judaism is the right one while millions of other Jews reject your view?

    Secondly, not only do you arrogate the right to unilaterally define Judaism to your own taste, you are , by joining this splinter Presbyterian group, trying to redefine Christianity as well. You are telling Christian Zionists that you know what true Christianity is, not them ,those who actually adhere to the religion, which you don’t.

    Thirdly, as someone who is affliliated with the Reocnstructionist movement founded by Mordechai Kaplan, who I believe supported Zionism (correct me if I am wrong) , I would think you would agree with his view of Judaism as being a “religious civilization”. A civilization is a society of people with certain values, customs, ideals and even a territory. You reject this whole civilization and instead cherry-pick a few ideas from its sources such as the TANACH and Talmud, rejecting most of the rest of this civilzation’s characteristics.

    Fourthly, as someone who seems immersed in modern postmodernist thinking, you are aware that there are no absolutes, there is no “truth”, there are only narratives and texts. Well, according to that view of things, my ZIONIST narrative is just as valid as your supposedly “universalist” narrative. You like yours and I like mine. Fortunatley, the large majority of Jews (and Americans of all faiths, for that matter) like our narrative better than yours. Thus, you can continue to run around to all the churches you want and tell them how bad most Jews are with their “primitive” ideas, no doubt you will find at least some non-Jews who will be very receptive to this, this would not be the first time in history, unfortunately.

    1. Diane V. McLoughlin

      According to the previous comment, a Jew is not a good Jew if most of his friends aren’t Jews. It takes some doing to offend everyone in the room but that does it.
      The offense flows forward, because having proffered this the writer goes on to argue that Rabbi Brant has no right to reflect on issues of right and wrong, because, not being a ‘good’ Jew, he has no moral compass, unlike, naturally, the writer himself.

      So insults and bias, then, without actually doing the work of offering a shred of persuasive argument to back it up.

      Jesus Christ, a Jew, stood up, during a time of oppression from without, and corruption from within – unilaterally; a moral leader – to assert that we should love our neighbors as ourselves and we should reject corruption. That didn’t turn out too well for him personally, nailed through his hands and feet to a wooden structure erected in a public place, left to die slowly, in agony – a public broadcast message from the political and religious elite. Without a doubt his moral code precluded him from disavowing his beliefs in any attempt to avoid this fate. We fallible human beings continue to foul up these sorts of common sense proposals – to live with personal integrity and to treat others as we would like to be treated.

      The above is by way of prefacing the fact that the argument of the comment as written appears to be based on the following: Numbers [if a large enough group believes something they must be right]; time [if people believe something long enough it must be right]; tradition [traditionally people have always believed this so it must be right]; and religious dogma [people believe this so it is too offensive to openly disagree].

      Across the expanse of human history, this template, as a stand-alone theoretical structure, has been used to justify any and every possible horrible thing the human imagination is capable of conjuring to inflict upon our fellow man. Thinking something does not make it right. Being something does not mean what you do is right.

    2. tim74836

      “Fortunatley, the large majority of Jews (and Americans of all faiths, for that matter) like our narrative better than yours.”

      Leave the other faiths out of your mental rants. You sound like a commercial trying to sell something. Americans of all faiths means Americans of very different social and political backgrounds who follow every thing from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Hedonism. Saying they all support Zionism is a flagrant lie.

    3. tim74836

      “Secondly,…by joining this splinter Presbyterian group, trying to redefine Christianity as well.”

      Secondly: Abhorring the concept that open air prisons are the making of the victim is not so far out that it cannot be acceptable by anyone with sense, not just the devout.

  9. Addison Bross

    Where is the Reverend Leighton’s concern for the dreadful results that would follow the recognition of Israel as “a Jewish State” — which is what Prime Minister Netanyahu is demanding? Has he given a moment’s thought to the fact that such recognition will legitimize the creation of a two-tiered conception of citizenship, with Jewish citizens obviously ranking above non-Jewish ones? I find this disingenuousness highly troubling. It arouses doubt about the possibility of having with him the kind of fruitful dialogue he says he wants to engage in.

  10. Viola Larson

    Rabbi Rosen, the very authors of Zionism Unsettled have chosen to link to your response to Leighton’s letter without linking to his. I had to come to your site to see that he had written a letter to you. I think that in itself speaks to the lack of diversity in the booklet and the organization. I thank Rev. Leighton for his careful words and his care for the Jewish people as well as the Palestinians. I too am a Presbyterian, a ruling elder in the PCUSA and am deeply troubled by this book.


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