Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Zionism Unsettled

The other day, I wended my way through rush hour traffic to get to a small church gathering that ended up not happening.

It was unfortunate, but a reality of the hurly burly of Washington existence.  It's just hard to get people to travel across the mess of traffic to get anywhere.  We've got a bazillion things to do, and we can't do it all.  This is why I don't even try to do it all.  Just the important stuff.

But the important stuff can get lost in the thickets of busyness.  We can be so intent on our doing that we forget to prioritize, or lose a sense of who we are becoming.  Relationships, those relationships that matter, have been neglected, have withered, and are no more.  We wake up, and we realize our children have grown, and we were so busy rushing around in a panic that we lost track of them.  From far away, they ignore us right back, just like we taught them.

Or we suddenly realize that our relationship with our spouse is a dead thing, suffocated under a mound of meetings and memos and the resentments that arise from functional abandonment.

The meeting in question had to do with Zionism Unsettled, a report from an affinity group of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one that will go before our General Assembly this summer.  It's an effort to speak to the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, which in and of itself is a worthy thing.

It's a mess, a level-five conflict, one with as many layers and tears as an onion.  In it, there is no question that Israel, a democracy, fears for its existence with legitimate cause.  There are some really unpleasant powers in the region that seek to do the Jewish people ill, that 1) use the Palestinian people as a proxy and 2) use that conflict as a distraction as they oppress their own people.

On the other hand, Netanyahu, Likud, and the Israeli far-right have only deepened the conflict.  Their radical nationalism and focus on security above human rights have generated some very real abuses of the Palestinian people.  Their aggressive policy of settlement expansion has also--to my eyes, at least--rendered the "two-state solution" unviable.  I do not believe that the current scattered assemblage of non-contiguous Palestinian ghettos can be woven into a nation.

Into this mess, a group of justice-oriented Presbyterians have attempted to speak.  The challenge with speaking, though, is finding the right tone.   It is our right to notice injustice, and our duty to say something.  But if we say the wrong thing, it will be actively counterproductive.  Say the right thing in the wrong way, and it will also be actively counterproductive.

I am convinced that if the Presbyterian church has a hand in the solution to this issue, it does not lie in our wealth, our political influence, or our numbers.  It has to do with our relationships.  In particular, it lies in our connections the American Jewish community, with whom we have constructively engaged for two generations.  Jews in the United States are committed to justice and democracy, and are supportive of Israel.  They can also speak to Israeli power with authority, in ways that Christians cannot.

In so far as we Presbyterians have influence to help restore justice in that region, it lies in our healthy relationship with the Jewish community here, and our capacity to open justice conversations.

Zionism Unsettled will damage that relationship.  It already has.  It is too easily heard as an attack on both the integrity and best aspirations of the Jewish people.  I do not believe it was intended that way, but having read the report, I can't help but hear it through the ears of progressive and justice-oriented Judaism, the sort of Judaism that defines the synagogue of which I--a Presbyterian pastor who has raised two Jewish boys--am a member.

It's going to be a bad thing.

Some will respond that this is only because Jews in America are hypersensitive to any statements about Israel. If you say anything with even a whiff of criticism of Israeli policies or politics, you are a hateful anti-Semite.  There's some truth in that, if we are honest.  Some folks go right to that button, every time.

But we also need to listen to ourselves, and to where our tone and language are taking us.  I think Presbyterians need to take seriously the folks who have weighed in supporting Zionism Unsettled.  If we endorse this report, we will have picked up a rather interesting group of fellow travelers.

Iranian state-run news media have picked our efforts up, and are lending their support.  Former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke has blogged admiringly of this report as a step in the right direction in the battle against the Zionist Occupation Government.  And on the website of Stormfront, the white power neo-Nazi movement in the United States, the chatter is that the Presbyterian Church is finally doing the right thing to drive Jewish influence out of America.

If active anti-Semites--delusional as they are--see this effort as supporting their aspirations, then we are doing it wrong, no matter what our intent may be.


  1. " In particular, it lies in our connections the American Jewish community, with whom we have constructively engaged for two generations."

    What about the Palestinian community in the United States? What about the Palestinian Muslim community in the United States? Viewing this only through one lens, and believing that the PCUSA should only be friends with the American Jewish community is not following a path of unbiased justice. As someone who knows Palestinians who were forced from their homes by the Zionists, as well as Jews who lost family in the Holocaust, I can tell you that focusing on only one relationship is committing an injustice.

    Abuna Elias Chacour has said it best:

    "You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children I call unto you: give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and Auschwitz and elsewhere.

    And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians -- oh, bless your hearts -- take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God's sake. "

  2. True enough, Brooke. Absolutely. It is the "focusing only on one relationship" that causes the problem. The plight of the Palestinians--legitimate, real, and lamentable--can't be ignored. That's a good quote from Chacour, and a good calling: we must be a "common friend."

  3. Abuna Elias Chacour is a wise wise man. I've read a couple of his books, and my favorite is "Blood Brothers: The dramatic story of a Palestinian Christian working for peace in Israel." He gives not only a theological interpretation of Zionism, but he speaks about his own call to the priesthood and his brothership with Christ himself.. walking the same hills of the Galilee and that land that Christ Himself walked.

  4. In my view we have to privilege the suffering and stand with them. It is not "focusing only on one relationship" to minister to the raped and stop the rapist. It is not anti-Jewish to point out Israeli atrocities and their consequences. It is with deep concern that they are betraying their own identity and endangering their own survival by acting with unsustainable violence towards innocent people. If they don't want to hear it, so be it. But the PCUSA should at least not be underwriting it. The Zionism Unsettled document gives us a healthy balance to the decades of propaganda we have been fed. Israeli arrogance and violence is far more dangerous to the long-term heath of Israel than this booklet. Friendship has to mean more than uncritical support; sometimes it means telling someone to stop doing what their doing.

  5. I can appreciate your frustration, Paul. I'm not sure that Likud and the radicalized ultra-orthodox will hear no matter how we speak. But I do not support them, nor do I consider them friends. The question is: who--with power to act and influence--can hear? If we speak, it must be with them, or there is no purpose in our voices.