Palestine and Israel

The Little Told Reality

An Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church

From The Reverend Christopher M. Leighton

 In preparation for the 221st meeting of the General Assembly in Detroit this June, the Presbyterian Church finds itself traveling down a familiar path. The Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) and their allies have once again mounted initiatives that advance an extremist posture with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Their agenda threatens to polarize our community, betray relationships with our Jewish colleagues, and ultimately undermine our credibility as “peacemakers.” Despite the resolution approved at the 218th General Assembly  to avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly a victim,” IPMN’s congregational study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” subverts the ideals and the practices that our Church has striven to uphold. It turns us from peacemakers to polemicists, and from honest dialogue partners to partisan ideologues.

 In years past, IMPN and its supporters have sponsored vigorous efforts to enact divestment policies. With each defeat, the champions of Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) have become more strident and less willing to consider the larger picture. Their current strategy, this study guide, is not simply a critique of Israeli and American policies. It is a dishonest screed that attributes the plight of the Palestinians to a single cause: Zionism.

 In his summation of the congregational study guide, Palestinian priest Naim Ateek, contends: “Zionism is the problem” (p. 56). Ateek insists, “Zionism is false theology…a heretical doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice…(a doctrine) that promotes death rather than life” (p. 57). Throughout , the study guide characterizes Zionism as a source of “evil”; it insists  “the major American Jewish organizations bear considerable responsibility” for a “pathology” that leads to “self-inflicted blindness” (p. 23). It portrays Zionism as inexorably leading to “ethnic cleansing” and “cultural genocide” (p.53). The condemnation of Zionism, in all its forms, is not merely simplistic and misleading; the result of this polemic is the theological delegitimization of a central concern of the Jewish people.

 The study guide revives the infamous 1975 UN Resolution 3379 that branded Zionism as Racism. Although the United States played a vital role in exposing the anti-Semitic underpinnings of this resolution and for sixteen years worked valiantly, and ultimately successfully to rescind this smear campaign, the Presbyterian Church is poised to resuscitate this vicious platform.

 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.

 The study guide correctly notes that there are secular Zionist and religious Zionists. There are Zionists who are militant and support the annexation of lands conquered in 1967. There are also Zionists who are also sharp critics of Israel’s settlement policies, who are staunch supporters of a Palestinian State, and who struggle in solidarity with Palestinian activists. Not only are Vladmir Jabotinsky and Meir Kahane Zionists, but so are Abraham Joshua Heschel, Peter Beinhart and Ari Shavit; so are the supporters of Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and a number of other Jewish organizations with whom we might work together.  A sweeping indictment of Zionism amounts to blanket condemnation of the vast majority of Jews; it prevents collaborative work between our church and Jewish peace groups, and it renders us bigots.

 The authors of “Zionism Unsettled” are right to note that many Christians and Jews (and I hasten to add Muslims) have too often avoided honest and searching conversations about the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. The ethical and theological commitments at the heart of all three traditions make this encounter crucial. The current situation is intolerable, most especially for displaced and victimized Palestinians, but also for the future of Israel. Yet, the task of “peacemaking” requires a venue in which hard questions can be asked, sharp disagreements explored, and shared commitments forged. Lamentably, this congregational study guide makes such honest engagement impossible.

 The study guide fails to meet the historical, ethical and theological standards that the Presbyterian Church has previously set, as the following samplings demonstrate.

 1)     The study guide is riddled with historical errors and glaring omissions.  For example, it highlights maps that trace the Israel’s expansion from 1946 to 2014. Beneath the maps, the caption reads, “the inexorable expansion of Israeli control over former Mandate Palestine is, by now virtually complete.” The words and images are combined to demonstrate the conclusion that a two-state solution is unimaginable. Palestinian centers “have become isolated ‘bantustans’ administered under a discriminatory, two-tier legal system that privileges Jewish Israelis, an inevitable—if contested—comparison has been made to apartheid-era South Africa” (p.18). The result: an intractable problem that the authors trace to the immutable character of Israel and its Jewish supporters. The maps do not show the return of Sinai to Egypt or the withdrawal from Gaza, but settle for a stereotype of Israel that is incapable of negotiation and territorial concessions.

 2)     The authors go to great lengths to document the worst expressions of Zionism and the American Jewish community, while completely exonerating the Palestinians from any ideologically driven teaching that fails to promote peace. Nowhere does it mention the atrocities Arabs inflicted on Jewish communities from the time of the British Mandate to the most recent suicide bomber or rocket launched into Israel. There is no acknowledgement of the murderous and slanderous Hamas charter and the violence of Hezbollah.  My point is not to document the failings on the side of the Palestinians or to suggest an equal burden of fault in the prevention of achieving a peaceful settlement. It is rather to note that there is blood on the hands of both Israelis and Palestinians, and culpability extends to Syria and Iran as well as the United States. A more honest and comprehensive reckoning is demanded.

 3)      The study guide treats the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in isolation from the turmoil engulfing the larger Middle East. The instability of the region adds greater complexity to the already fraught negotiations. Meanwhile, the desperate position of Christians in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon far surpasses the predicament in which Palestinians find themselves. Given the fact that Christians within Israel proper are the only population in Middle East to experience demographic growth in recent years, the accusation of “hard” or “soft” ethnic cleansing is a disturbing example of misrepresentation (chapter 8, pp.49-54).

 4)     The study guide presents a noble picture of Islam as an inclusive religion of peace demanding “humans to act justly, condemning any form of discrimination, offering equal rights to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans” (p.50). The dangers of Islamic extremism are utterly disregarded, and the excesses of Islamic zealotry recounted in the global reports on an almost daily basis go unmentioned. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all susceptible to manipulation, and extremism can deform any movement.   To suggest that only Zionism, or by extension the Jews, is “the problem” is an act of bearing false witness.

 The study guide repeatedly maintains that Israelis, American Jews, and Christian Zionists find justification for dispossession, racism, injustice, and “the ongoing killing of Palestinian and other Arab children” within the Old Testament (pps. 8, 15, 22, 31, 34, 46, 49, 57). Nothing in Judaism or Christianity, save for the most severe distortion, promotes the killing of children. The study guide offers a cheap shot, and cheap shots are not the tools of peacemakers, or disciples of Jesus.

 5)      The study guide maintains that the Palestinian plight is the result of a fusion of the ethnocentrism of the Old Testament with the power of a colonizing empire (p. 5, 34).  The journalist Zvi Bar’el is enlisted to deliver the indictment: the marginalization of the Palestinians is accepted as a state necessity and “hatred of Arabs is the part of the test of loyalty and identity that the state gives its Jewish citizens. A good Jews hates Arabs  (p. 36). The offense behind these ludicrous generalizations is compounded by an insistence that the situation is “inexorable” (pps. 5 &6), “the pathology is inherent within Zionism” (p. 8), and “that racism is the cornerstone of Zionism” (p. 50). Thus instead of moving readers toward the conversations with neighbors and governments needed for negotiating peace, the guide precludes any engagement. Given the alleged intractable and intransigent character of American and Israeli Jews, what is the point of engaging them at all? A study guide that touts the virtues of love and peace, that insists on the importance of truth-telling and humility, and that espouses a deep commitment to justice delivers instead a chalice of slander, bigotry, and hostility.

 6)     The study guide presumes to speak for the Palestinian people, just as the Kairos Declaration claims to be the voice of the Palestinian Christians. The Palestinian population is far more diverse than the guide indicates; there is no political and theological uniformity as its authors assume. To understand the broad array of views, it is imperative we attend to Palestinian Christians who dissent from the tactics of Sabeel and are at variance with the advocates of Kairos. (See Malcolm Lowe, “Who are the Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem?”

 7)     The study guide maintains that Krister Stendahl, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Paul Van Buren and many other Christians stand in solidarity with the Jewish people because of guilt: it sees the need to make theological reparations for the Holocaust as the driving force behind their support for Israel and their negligence of Palestinian suffering (Chapter 6, pp.37-43). This reductionism is an astonishing dismissal of scholars who asked the honest question: How can Christians affirm their own tradition without simultaneously negating the integrity of Judaism and the Jewish people?

 8)     As if the repudiation of these Christian scholars were not enough, the study guide maintains that Rabbi David Hartman, one of the most renowned Jewish scholars in recent memory, exhorted his community to respond to terrorism by “wiping out the Palestinians” (p.41). The reference comes from an article in the “Washington Post” wherein Rabbi Hartman describes the dangerous climate into which Israel is slipping. His point is descriptive, not prescriptive. He notes that terrorized people are susceptible to dreadful vengeance, and he seeks to counter that reaction. To accuse Hartman of the extremism that he and his colleagues at the Hartman Institute have spent their lives combating is slanderous.  Hundreds of his students and colleagues (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) will testify to his commitment to advance peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. The study guide outrageously turns an honest ally into an unrecognizable enemy.

9)     The study guide enlists various Jews to bolster their attacks, although the editors are quick to acknowledge that these voices are largely marginal. Many of these critics want to reform Israel; they want to expose and overcome the mistreatment of Palestinians; they want to stop the building of settlements; they want to end the occupation and build a durable peace. This does not mean that they seek to undo the UN resolution that established the State of Israel, and they may not appreciate being made accomplices to sweeping denunciations of the Jewish people and their sacred traditions.  To suggest that Jews in the United States and Israel are incapable of rigorous self-criticism and instead function by “indoctrination” is not only out of touch, but expresses willful ignorance (p.6).

Tragically, the IPMN rejects the American commitment to pluralism by undermining the grounds for honest interreligious dialogue. Instead of exploring hard questions, sifting empathetically through tangled experiences, and opening discussion to divergent points of view, this study guide thrives on conspiracy and suspicion, incriminations, and a spirit of despair. It encourages congregations to retreat into their separate silos and to launch attacks on those who need to be welcomed to the table. This study guide may be intended to pave a way for justice and peace. Instead, it betrays the church, the truth, and the spirit of reconciliation to which we are called. 

The Reverend Christopher M. Leighton is the Executive Director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and an ordained Presbyterian minister.