Update on Destroyed Tree Groves at Tent of Nations

Here is an update on the situation at Tent of Nations, where the Israeli military recently destroyed 1,500 to 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines were destroyed along with terraced land. (See my blog post of May 21 for more information.)

The letter below is adapted from an email by Bill Plitt of Friends of Tent of Nations – North American (FOTONNA)

May 31, 2014

Dear Friends,

The video above was taken during a talk given by Daoud at St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle on May 18 – the day before the bulldozers attacked his groves.  Daoud visited the devastated land for the first time mid-week.  The full scope of the destruction left him heartbroken, of course.  He told us that there was one lone fig tree left standing on the side of the hill (on purpose? by accident?) that was the sole witness to the work of the IDF soldiers.  It now stands as a living monument to what was lost – a lone sentinel that will someday have new friends, thanks to you.

We have been told that the State Department needs to hear from Congress before taking any real stance on this issue.  If you haven’t already contacted your Senators and Representatives, please take time to do so now. Click here for a Congressional action alert.  Scroll down in the body of the text and click on “Write your senators and representative.” Fill in the information and click “Submit.”

If you haven’t signed our FOTONNA Petition Letter yet, you can do so through this link.

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There has been an overwhelmingly supportive response from around the globe from friends of the Nassar family and the work carried out at Tent of Nations.  Individuals and organizations have put together their own petition letters, written to political leaders, called influential leaders at all levels of government, written oped pieces for their papers, and carried out demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy in NYC.  Peace groups from all persuasions are standing in solidarity with this remarkable family.  FOTONNA alone had 2,500+ signatures on its petition as of May 28, 2014, and the list is growing.

At this point, our goals are the following:

1. Prevent any more destruction on the land;

2. Keep up the pressure on the courts to finally re-register the land in the Nassar family name;

3. Support the Nassar family as they seek financial recompense from the Israeli Military for their illegal actions and for the incredible loss of twelve years of hard work, 1,500-2,000 lost trees and grape vines, lost revenue from the sale and/or use of the fruit, etc.

We cannot thank all of you enough for the wonderful responses you made to our appeals for support.  It is also nearly impossible to capture the breadth, depth and width of this movement worldwide.  We are just a small piece in this whirlwind of action – small, but fierce – and there will be justice in the end.

In solidarity and with deep gratitude for all of you,

The FOTONNA Steering Committee

Israeli Military Destroys Orchards at Tent of Nations – Please Act Now!

The Nassar family farm, before and after its destruction by the Israeli military
The Nassar family farm, before and after its destruction by the Israeli military

I am heartbroken to report that the Israeli military has destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 fruit trees at the Tent of Nations – the Nassar family farm located south of Bethlehem.

I have written extensively about Tent of Nations and the work of Daoud Nassar, whose struggle to keep his family farm has provided an inspiring model of peaceful resistance to oppression.  I have personally visited his farm with members of my congregation on more than one occasion (most recently this past October) and have hosted Daoud on his visits to Chicago.

Those of us who know Daoud know him to be a profoundly decent and honorable man, thoroughly dedicated to the cause of a just coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. (On a stone next to the front gate of the Nassar farm are the words “We Will Not Be Enemies.”) Given his personal circumstance, his innate compassion is truly inspirational – and that’s what makes this latest turn of events all the more sickening.

I am forwarding this letter from Bill Plitt, Executive Director of Friends of Tent of Nations, below. Please, please join me in acting on behalf of the Nassar family farm now.

Dear Friends of Tent of Nations,

We are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards the Nassar family farm and their Tent of Nations Peace Project. This farm (known as Daher’s Vineyard) is located just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank).

As you know, this family has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and they are now in a situation where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) brought in bulldozers on May 19, 2014 and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines, all in the lower valley of the farm.

This move was totally unexpected as their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013. An appeal was also made on May 5 to protest a warning placed on the land in late April 2014 that declared the land as “State Land” and should be “evacuated”. There was no warning ahead of time about the impending destruction, however (as is the usual case), so the Nassars were caught off guard with the wanton destruction that took place. In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed, left in a state of rubble that cannot currently be re-planted.

We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committee members, members of Congress, and others you know who may have some influence in this kind of situation; this can include your church leaders as well and an article in your local newspaper would be more than welcome. We are including a short letter and a timeline of past events you can use to educate people about the details of this farm’s history as well as a sample letter you can use to send out if you want.

In particular, we ask that you contact the U.S. Department of State, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in Jerusalem and ask them to investigate the circumstances surrounding this travesty.

We urge you to contact these authorities as well as others you know personally. You have our permission to use information from this letter in your appeals. We also urge you to sign our Petition  Letter and forward it to all of your own personal contacts, urging them to forward it also.

We would like to have you act on this information as soon as you can in the hopes that we can prevent any more destruction from taking place on Daher’s Vineyard.

Sincerely,

Bill Plitt – Executive Director – on behalf of the FOTONNA Steering Committee

 

Sample appeal letter:

Dear (church/community leader, etc.),

I/we are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards a Palestinian Christian family (the Nassar family) that has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The family has been working through the Israeli Military/Civil Courts and the Israeli Supreme Court since 1991 to defend their rights to the land on a vineyard just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank). A Peace Project was established on the land in 2001 called Tent of Nations. Thousands of international visitors have visited the farm, worked as volunteers, held workshops and conferences in the facilities there, worked in the Summer Youth Camps, and have taught in the Women’s Education Center they established in the nearby village of Nahalin.

On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military took unwarranted and illegal action and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm. We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committees and members of Congress regarding this issue. In addition, we ask that you contact the White House, the State Department, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, our Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in East Jerusalem (see the attached contact list).

In the past, (December 2012), Israeli Military/Civil Courts threatened to demolish 13 structures on the land (pens for animals, tents for volunteers, compost toilets, etc.) and denied the family’s appeal against these 13 demolitions. By appealing these orders through the family lawyers, however, the deadline for action was moved to February 24, 2013. At the same time, the family also requested (again) that the land be re-registered in their name (having all the papers legally required to prove ownership). The family provided all additional information requested by the Military Court by that date, and they submitted and paid for requests for building permits for the existing 13 structures placed under the demolishing orders.

In late April 2014, the Israeli Military placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, therefore, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuted”! The family filed an appeal on May 5; they were waiting for a court decision on these issues, and that is what makes the destruction of these trees illegal.

We would like you to inquire about this issue and why this vendetta against the Daher’s Vineyard is taking place. Israel needs to be held accountable for its actions against a family that lives by the motto ‘We Refuse to be Enemies’ and that believes in non-violence as a solution to the problems there.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at ___________ .

Regards,

(individual or organization)

 

Timeline of Events

– In 2009, on two separate occasions, Israeli soldiers forced their way onto the property, conducting searches of family members and internationals and threatening to return with eviction papers. They never followed through on that particular threat.

– In May of 2010, they did issue nine demolition orders to remove buildings, tents, animal sheds and restrooms which they claimed the family had no permission to build. The Nassars went to court to stop the demolitions, and no action was taken on the part of the Military courts.

– In April 2011, a court decision was made, without the family’s lawyer present, to follow through on the demolition orders because of a plan to build an Israeli-only road nearby. The lawyer intervened and, to date, no action has taken place.

– On February 14, 2012, as the family was working in the ‘Trees of Life’ orchard, volunteers found, in three different places (under rocks and tacked onto trees), papers with maps signed by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (which is the Israeli Military Government) giving them 45 days to appeal their claim to the land or the land would become State Land. This order covered one-third of the existing 100-acre farm. The family lawyer filed an appeal immediately. Many other Palestinian farmers discovered similar notices under rocks on their land. To date, there has been no decision on the appeal.

– On Monday, May 19, 2012, demolition orders were posted on a portion of the farm in the valley in the same manner as the earlier notices. This time the authorities identified a cistern which has been in use for ten years that was scheduled to be demolished within three days. While the order was contested, the Court ruled in favor of the military, but no action has been taken.

– Other acts of harassment have occurred on a regular basis. On May 5, 2012, civil authorities came and removed the barricade on the road that connects both the farm and the village of Nahalin to Route 60, the main north/south highway in the area. The next day, the bulldozer came and re-barricaded the road, thereby preventing any movement by local residents. Palestinians now, in order to travel between Bethlehem and the Nassar family farm, must travel through the villages of Nahalin and Husan. This is a burdensome detour for them as well as for the 20,000 villagers affected by these new regulations.

– On December 13, 2012, military trucks and large jeeps entered the west side of the village of Nahalin and destroyed olive trees that grow between the village and the settlement of Beitar Elit in the west. Immediately after doing so, they drove to the east side of the village, near Daher’s Vineyard (the family property) and uprooted several fruit trees belonging to village farmers in addition to trees on the Vineyard.

– On December 16, 2012, the Nassar family received notice that their appeal to the Military Court had been denied. The Nassars were given 45 days (January 30 deadline) to demolish the structures themselves or reapply for permits which will cost them $1,500 per structure.  Under the ‘New Rules’ they will also need to submit a zoning plan and sign an agreement that, if the permits are denied, they will pay for the costs of demolishing the structures.  The Nassars are trying to determine the intentions of the Israelis in the hope that access to the farm can be preserved. They have reapplied again for permanent registration of their land. As always, the family wishes to proceed calmly, constructively and legally.

– On January 31, 2013, the family lawyer was told the following:

– The family must reapply for all previous permits (13) including the more recent structures, such as: big tent, cistern near home, a cistern in the valley; and the office trailer. They must do this with the understanding that for those structures denied a permit, the Nassars must demolish them at their own expense.

– They must submit additional land survey maps: one topographical map which shows the farm location in the region; two technical maps, one at 1/250 scale and the other 1/50,000 scale, which show the new structures and their locations and dimensions.

– They must submit plans for sources of providing electricity and water to the land from the village and for provisions for gray water and filtration systems.

– They must apply for approval/signature of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, certifying that the land is agricultural land.

All submissions were due by February 24, 2013;

the family was able to meet each of the criteria set out for them.

The courts have not as yet responded to the Nassars appeals or requests for building permits.

In January 2014, three “stop cultivation” orders were found on the land. The Nassars had their lawyers look into the situation, but the courts have not responded to these appeals, either.

– In early May 2014, 1,000 dunums (250 acres) of land bordering the road leading to the farm and south of the nearby village of Nahalin were declared as State Land; this was land owned by other Palestinian farmers. The old blockade to the road leading to the farm was enlarged with additional piles of rubble and boulders, making it even more difficult to walk from the road to the Tent of Nations Peace Project site.

– In late April, the Israeli Military authorities placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, there, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuated”!

– On May 5, 2014, the Nassar family filed an appeal with the Military Court against the order. According to the law, no demolition or evacuation is allowed once an appeal is filed and until a final verdict has been forthcoming.

– On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military bulldozed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm and destroyed the terraced land that had been cleared for planting. There was no forewarning given, and this was an illegal act on the part of the IDF.

People You Should Know About: Sister Pat Murphy and Sister JoAnn Persch

Jo and Pat

This past Friday morning, members of my congregation and I participated in an interfaith vigil at the immigrant detention facility in Broadview, IL. We’ve come to this spot many times over the years and I’ve written about the vigil many times before. It was founded several years ago Sister JoAnn Persch (right) and Sister Pat Murphy (left) of the Sisters of Mercy – two of my spiritual heroes.

During the vigil, Sister Jo joyfully announced that the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality, a home that provides shelter, meals, transportation, and community support for people awaiting their immigration proceedings, was finally open. Sister Jo and Sister Pat have been indefatigably working to create this community-based alternative to detention of undocumented immigrants, who are typically treated as “inventory” during deportation hearings. Her announcement provided one small but profound ray of hope in an otherwise dark and dismal reality for those fighting for compassionate immigration reform.

In a recent article about the Marie Joseph House, Sister Pat and Sister Jo pointed out that this new facility will be able to provide these services for significantly less than the $122 to $164 per day ICE says it pays to hold someone in jail. The home will have 18 bedrooms and extra space for short-term residents. It’s a small capacity compared to the 33,400 people ICE typically detains each night, but as Sister Pat and Jo rightly note, it’s a start:

We are not alone in our efforts. A network of similar shelters is emerging across the country. The outpouring of financial, in-kind, and volunteer support we receive from communities of all backgrounds shows us the immense generosity Americans have when people are in need.

As Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus observed during a recent House Judiciary hearing, “It seems there is an overuse of detention.” John Morton said that “alternatives to detention” programs are promising. We agree. Outside detention, people have better access to lawyers, doctors, and other support. Congress should use new immigration legislation to allow ICE to invest in alternatives rather than prisons. To get it right, they need to consult with communities and groups like ours.

I’ve known and worked alongside Sister Pat and Sister Jo for many years now, and am consistently inspired by their example of deep faith, abiding compassion and dogged persistence. For the past 45 years they have worked together in Chicago to minister to immigrants, refugees, older persons, and homeless families – and to advocate for their basic rights. In 2008, they helped to spearhead an intense lobbying drive to pass historic legislation that allows all immigrant detainees held in Illinois jails the same access to clergy as those imprisoned for other crimes. As a result, many professional and lay ministers can now serve the pastoral needs of undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be locked away and forgotten by everyone but their families.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo’s work has not gone unnoticed in the wider world. They were profiled in the play Home/Land (produced by Chicago’s Albany Park Theater Project) and more recently in the documentary film, “Band of Sisters,” (below) which explores the social justice activism of American nuns throughout the country. Though this kind of attention is much deserved, Sister Pat and Sister Jo would be the first to say that they are simply living out their faith in the most basic of ways: to minister to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society and to demand that our system do the same.

Sister Pat and Sister Jo are truly my spiritual teachers and I am so grateful to know and work alongside them. I know of few others who model compassion and justice with such decency and grace.

 

Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek

brantandnaim

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology.  Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.

An edited version of our conversation follows here:

Continue reading “Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek”

Untold Stories from Gaza: A Conversation with Ayman Qwaider and Sameeha Elwan

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I’ve written before about the wonderful Chicago initiative “Untold Stories,” which features Palestinians sharing their personal stories of their lives under occupation. While it began as a project of my congregation, it has since expanded to become an interfaith community effort. I’m so gratified by the success of this program, which draws upon the unique power of narrative rather than political rhetoric. As ever, the simple sharing of stories has an uncanny ability to cut through the convoluted complexities of political issues like little else.

Up until now, “Untold Stories” has featured Palestinian-Americans (and recently, the addition of Israelis as well.)  This past Sunday, however, for the first time participants were able to hear from Palestinian presenters speakers speaking to us directly from Palestine. I was honored to serve as the facilitator of a Skype conversation between attendees at the Evanston Public Library and a young Palestinian couple in Gaza: Ayman Qwaider, a community educator and peace activist and his wife Sameeha Elwan – a blogger/student/activist.

For well over an hour, Ayman and Sameeha shared details of life inside the Gaza blockade.  Ayman, 26, received his degree from the Islamic University of Gaza in 2008, after which he worked for two years as an international humanitarian aid worker. In 2010, he was granted a scholarship to travel to Spain, where he received his master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. He currently works for a non-governmental organization in Gaza.

Sameeha is a talented writer and blogger who, like Ayman, received her BA at the Islamic University, then received a scholarship to earn an MA in Culture and Difference at Ustinov College in Durham, UK. Her work is featured in the important new anthology, “Gaza Writes Back,” recently published by Just World Books. Sameeha has received a scholarship to pursue a Phd in English literature but it is as yet unclear if she will receive permission to travel once again pursue her studies.

It was clearly important for Ayman and Sameeha to be able to share their stories with us, particularly since the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the chronically forgotten story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now six years into this blockade, Gazans still live in a virtual open-air prison with severely curtailed access to the most basic necessities of living.  As Ayman and Sameeha told us, 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the economy has all but collapsed, the percentage of children suffering from malnourishment is rising, unemployment is at 60%, there is a shortage of drinkable water and access to electricity is limited to several hours a day.

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To drive this point home, Ayman told us at the beginning of the program that we should expect their electricity to go down in one hour. At that point, we would need to wait for a few minutes while they hooked their computer up to a reserve battery. When we reconnected, they were sitting in the darkness of their Gaza City flat, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer. (Compare top pic with the pic above).

I’ve written extensively about the politics dimensions of the Gaza crisis so I won’t belabor the point here. I will only say that I am deeply grateful to “Untold Stories” (and its coordinators, Sallie Gratch and Mark Miller) for enabling us to hear Ayman and Sameeha’s story – and help us bear witness to this injustice with a unique kind of power.

It’s truly difficult to describe how it felt to converse with a young couple who were sitting in the darkness of their apartment from inside a blockaded strip of land while we sat in the comfort and freedom of an Evanston library. It is so very, very important to hear these untold stories and to create real relationships with those who are living them out day after day. I’d add it is even more important to view ourselves as an integral part of these stories, so that we might somehow participate in their just resolution.

Some links I encourage you to read: click here to read Ayman’s blog and here to read Sameeha’s. Click here to read an excellent article by journalist Ruth Pollard which describes the current reality under the Gaza blockade and prominently features Ayman and Sameeha’s story.

And finally, click here to donate to ANERA – a heroic NGO that has long been endeavoring to provide sustainable support to the people of Gaza.

"Untold Stories" co-coordinator Mark Miller
“Untold Stories” co-coordinator Mark Miller

More Heat Than Light: My Response to Rev. Chris Leighton

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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?

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 the 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.

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.

Reconsidering “Zionism Unsettled:” An Open Letter to Reverend Chris Leighton

zionism_unsettled-618x330

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.

“Zionism Unsettled” – A Smart and Gutsy New Church Study Guide

ZU-cover_DVDSo 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:

Exceptionalism is not unique to Zionism; rather it is present whenever exceptionalist religious ideology is fused with political power. Christian exceptionalist beliefs and actions contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality. Exceptionalist doctrines and behaviors within Islam have contributed to grievous human rights abuses such as the massacres during the closing days of the Ottoman Empire which crescendoed with the Armenian genocide in 1915.

I will say I do not personally agree with everything in this guide. In particular I’m at all comfortable with the theological analysis of Dr. Gary Burge, who rightly criticizes Christian replacement theology (the belief that the Jewish covenant with God has been “replaced” by the new covenant in Christ), yet seems to reaffirm it when he suggests a concept of a “’suspended blessing’ that will be restored at the end of history when ‘all Israel will be saved’”(p. 47).  It’s not at all clear to me how this conception differs fundamentally from the Christian “one covenant” theology he purports to disavow.

I was also disappointed by the chapter entitled “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” which does not at all apply 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.

Despite my issues with “Zionism Unsettled,” however, I nonetheless find it to be a courageous work that has the potential to be a genuine game changer in interfaith conversations over Israel/Palestine. While I have no doubt it will be enormously controversial in many liberal religious circles, I believe 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.

Civil Disobedience in Chicago for Immigrant Justice!

Photo: Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
photo: Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

This evening it was my honor to participate in an act of civil disobedience in Chicago in support of immigrant justice – a cause I fervently believe is the civil rights issue of our time. One hundred and sixty strong, a large and diverse coalition of activists, faith leaders, politicians, labor leaders and undocumented immigrants sat down together in the busy intersection of Congress and Clark in the South Loop with two demands: that Speaker of the House John Boehner bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, and that President Obama stop the oppressive deportations of undocumented immigrants (which have now grown to 2,000,000 under his administration.)

We gathered at 3:30 pm for a press conference, after which we filed off the sidewalk into the intersection and sat down around a banner reading “Stop Deportations – Give us a Vote.” On all four corners of the intersection, hundreds of supporters unfurled banners and held signs and chanted along with us. Eventually, after three warnings, Chicago police led each of us away one by one.

photo: Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
photo: Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Our demonstration tonight was but one of a growing numbers of civil disobedience actions currently proflierating across the country. Last month, thousands rallied for immigration reform on the National Mall in Washington DC during the government shutdown – and 200 were led away by police.  A few days earlier, similar rallies were held in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston and other cities as part of a “National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect.”

While politicians in post-shutdown Washington dither on this critical issue in Washington, citizens are literally taking to the streets to demand compassionate immigration reform. There is a very real movement building – trust me, as long our leaders refuse to act, you will be witnessing many more actions such as these in the coming weeks and months.

photo: Tina Escobar
photo: Tina Escobar

It was my honor to be among the speakers at  press conference before the demonstration (above). Here is the full text of my remarks (which was shortened due to time restraints):

My name is Brant Rosen – I’m the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston and I’m a member of this amazing, diverse and growing coalition of activists who are working for the cause of immigrant justice. I am part of the majority of Americans and 80% of Illinoisians who support compassionate immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship.

And I am here to say it is time for our national leaders to lead. It is time for Speaker John Boehner and Republican leader Peter Roskam to give us a vote. It is time for President Barack Obama to end the daily deportatins that are now approaching 2,000,000 and has left 3,000,000 children orphaned.  This is not simply a political issue – and shame on any politician who treats immigration reform as “business as usual.”  Immigration reform is one of the most critical moral and human rights issues facing our country today.

As a Jew, my faith tradition teaches that societies will ultimately be judged by the way they treat their immigrants. My faith tradition teaches that when we label another human being as “illegal,” we diminish God’s presence in our world. When we incarcerate and deport those who come to this country seeking a better life, we diminish God’s presence in our world. And when we create and enforce laws that rip children away from their parents – and parents from their children – we most certainly diminish God’s presence in our world.

My faith tradition also teaches that God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same.  And make no mistake: our immigration system constitutes a very real form of oppression against families in our nation.  It is thus our sacred duty to stand here today, in front of US Immigration Customs and Enforcement headquarters, to say: this oppression must end.  The destruction of our families must end. The daily deportations of 1,100 human beings must end.  It is our sacred duty to bring it to an end.

John Boehner and Peter Roskam: It’s time to give us a vote on citizenship.  It’s time to end the oppression of our undocumented brothers and sisters.  President Obama: it’s time to keep your promise to the American people. 2,000,000 deportations is 2,000,000 too many. Stop deportations now!

If our national leaders refuse to lead, then it is time to take to the streets. And tonight, we will take to the streets. Our movement is the new civil rights movement growing in cities across the nation, rising up to demand compassionate immigration reform now. You will hear from us tonight in Chicago – and you will be hearing from us again and again until our oppressive immigration system is no more!

It has been my honor to stand together in this movement with so many people from so many different faiths and ethnicities and histories. It has been a particular honor to stand together with our undocumented sisters and brothers, whose steadfast courage and dignity are an inspiration to us all.

My own grandparents were immigrants to this nation. I know all too well that I am the beneficiary of their decision to come to this country, and of my country’s willingness to provide them with a path to citizenship. For those of us who enjoy the privileges of the courageous decisions of those who came before us, it would be a profound betrayal if we did not stand together here today.

We are here today. We will be here tomorrow. And we will stand together every day until compassionate immigration reform is finally a reality in our country.  Ken Yehi Ratzon – as it is God’s will, so my it be ours.

Amen and thank you all for coming out tonight.

___________________________________

En Español (Gracias a Gonzalo Escobar):

Mi nombre es Brant Rosen – Soy el rabino de la Congregación Judía Reconstruccionista en Evanston y soy un miembro de esta increíble y diversa y creciente coalición de activistas que trabajan por la causa de la justicia para los inmigrantes. Yo soy parte de la mayoría de los estadounidenses y el 80 % de Illinoisians que apoyan la reforma migratoria compasiva que proporcione un camino a la ciudadanía.

Y yo estoy aquí para decir que es hora de que nuestros líderes nacionales para hagan su trabajo de legislar. Es hora de que los Representantes, John Boehner, y el líder republicano Peter Roskam nos den un voto. Es hora de que el presidente Barack Obama ponga fin a las deportaciones diarias que se están acercando a 2 millones y han dejado a 3 millones de niños y niñas huérfanos. Esto no es simplemente una cuestión política y es una vergüenza que un político trate la reforma migratoria como “como si no pasara nada”, la reforma de inmigración es uno de los temas de derechos humanos y morales más importantes que enfrenta nuestro país hoy en día.

Como judío, mi tradición de fe nos enseña que las sociedades en última instancia, serán juzgadas por la forma en que tratan a sus inmigrantes. Mi tradición de fe nos enseña que cuando etiquetamos a otro ser humano como “ilegal”, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Cuando encarcelamos y deportamos a los que vienen a este país en busca de una vida mejor, disminuimos la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo. Y cuando creamos y hacemos cumplir las leyes que separan a los niños de sus padres – y a los padres de sus hijos – ciertamente estamos disminuyendo la presencia de Dios en nuestro mundo.

Mi tradición de fe también enseña que Dios está con los oprimidos y demanda que hagamos lo mismo. Y no nos engañemos: nuestro sistema de inmigración constituye una forma muy real de la opresión contra las familias en nuestro país. Por tanto, es nuestro deber sagrado de estar aquí hoy, frente a la sede de inmigración y aduanas de EE.UU. para decir: la opresión debe terminar. La destrucción de nuestras familias debe terminar. Las deportaciones diarias de 1.100 seres humanos deben terminar. Es nuestro sagrado deber de ponerle fin.

John Boehner y Peter Roskam : Es hora de que nos den un voto para la ciudadanía . Es hora de poner fin a la opresión de nuestros hermanos y hermanas indocumentados. Presidente Obama: es el momento de mantener su promesa al pueblo estadounidense. 2 millones de deportaciones y 2 millones es demasiado. ¡Detengan las deportaciones ahora!

Si nuestros líderes nacionales se niegan a legislar, entonces es el momento de salir a la calle. Y esta noche, vamos a salir a las calles. Nuestro movimiento es el nuevo movimiento de derechos civiles que crece en las ciudades de todo el país, para exigir una reforma migratoria compasiva ahora. Ustedes nos escucharán esta noche en Chicago -¡y ustedes nos escucharan a nosotros una y otra vez hasta que nuestro sistema de inmigración opresivo no exista más!

Ha sido un honor para mí estar juntos en este movimiento con tantas personas de tantas religiones y etnias e historias diferentes. Ha sido un gran honor particular, estar junto a nuestras hermanas y hermanos indocumentados, cuyo valor y dignidad inquebrantable son una inspiración para todos nosotros.

Mis abuelos eran inmigrantes de esta nación. Sé muy bien que soy el beneficiario de su decisión de venir a este país, y de la voluntad de mi país para proporcionarle un camino a la ciudadanía. Para aquellos de nosotros que disfrutamos de los privilegios de las decisiones valientes de los que vinieron antes que nosotros, sería una traición profunda si no nos mantenemos unidos hoy aquí.

Estamos aquí hoy. Vamos a estar aquí mañana. Y vamos a estar juntos todos los días hasta que la reforma migratoria compasiva sea finalmente una realidad en nuestro país. Como se dice en Hebreo “Ken Yehi Ratzon” – ya que es la voluntad de Dios, y será la nuestra.

Amén y gracias a todos por venir esta noche.