Monday, March 3, 2014
The Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the PC(USA) is compelled to respond to a statement issued by the Ecumenical and Interreligious Work Group (EIWG) of Chicago Presbytery on February 26. We dispute the characterizations contained therein of IPMN and its recent publication, Zionism Unsettled.
EIWG statement is inflammatory.
We find the statement issued by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Work Group of Chicago Presbytery to be inflammatory based on a narrow, agenda-driven misreading of Zionism Unsettled. Straying beyond the bounds of constructive discourse, EIWG unhelpfully raises the specter of both the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Adversus Judaeus in its critique of Zionism Unsettled. Further, it does not deal with the major points addressed in the booklet at all, choosing to stay only with the charge of anti-semitism which we reject.
False conflation of Judaism and Zionism.
EIWG complains of the use in Zionism Unsettled of a “stereotypical image” of Zionists, Zionism and Israel. From there, EIWG proceeds to correct what it describes as IPMN’s flawed understanding of the many diverse ways that Jews “associate with Zion.” IPMN holds a fundamentally different perspective from EIWG on the relationship between Judaism and Zionism, and Zionism Unsettled reflects that perspective. In linking “Jewish sovereignty” and “the flesh and blood of its people” EWIG creates a false conflation between Judaism the religion and Zionism the political movement that resulted in the establishment of Israel as a modern nation-state in Palestine. Jews themselves have insisted on this distinction from the earliest days of Zionism to the present day for a wide variety of religious, ethical, and pragmatic reasons. (ZU, pp. 6, 7, 12, 14, 18, 44, 48) To claim otherwise is to elevate a “stereotypical image” of Jews as normative.
Religious Zionism and the charge of supersessionism.
EIWG faults Zionism Unsettled for denigrating of “the physically landed aspects of Judaism as inferior and superseded by the universal, the spiritual, and the global message of Christianity.” This charge reflects a failure to grasp the central premise of Zionism Unsettled: that exceptionalist claims by any religion, when physicalized geopolitically, inevitably manifest themselves in ways that run counter to the very ethical foundations of the religion itself.
In a similar vein, EIWG baselessly accuses Zionism Unsettled of “playing the dangerous theological game” of supersessionism to negate “examples of Jewish sovereignty from Christian discourse.” This is not so. Zionism Unsettled lifts up critiques of the concept of “Jewish sovereignty” not only from non-Jewish authors such as Naim Ateek and Munther Isaac, but from within Judaism itself. Readers are exposed to the profound unease articulated by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Marc Ellis, and numerous sects of ultra-orthodox Jews (ZU, p. 16). Rabbi Brant Rosen probes the inevitable, basic problems that arise with the “merging of Judaism with idolatrous political nationalism.” (ZU, p. 33) Readers of the book are directed (ZU, p. 41) to an anguished interview with the influential late Rabbi David Hartman in which he describes contemporary Religious Zionism as “more dangerous [to Jews, Judaism, and Israel] than Arabs” – strong words for a man who, in the same interview says, “The Arabs want to kill my body.”
Zionism Unsettled unpacks the concept of what EIWG terms “physically landed Judaism,” and rightly so. Readers who have accepted Religious Zionism’s covenant-based claim to a modern political state in Israel are, in Zionism Unsettled, urged to view the issue of territorial religion through the eyes of those who stand outside the religion. (ZU, p. 31) Zionism Unsettled warns of the short ideological distance between the covenant-based sense of land-entitlement and the rejection on religious grounds of any Palestinian right whatsoever to the land “they and their ancestors have inhabited for generations.” (ZU, p. 31) This matter is far from theoretical, and understanding it is essential to understanding historical and contemporary relations between Palestinians and Israelis.
Double standards and historical impacts.
EIWG accuses IPMN in Zionism Unsettled of describing Zionists and/or Israelis as “embodying humanity’s worst traits and motives, exhibiting long term machinations of destruction.” The actual text of the book presents a much more nuanced treatment of European Zionism and its expression in Palestine. First, the publication discusses in considerable depth how virulent European anti-Semitism was a driver in the emergence of Zionism as a movement through which Jews understandably sought both self-preservation and control of their own destiny. Second, Zionism Unsettled explores how the establishment of a Jewish safe-haven in Palestine, while understandable from a Jewish perspective, was experienced by the indigenous Palestinian people as a form of foreign domination, exploitation, and dispossession much like the European colonization of other lands around the globe.
It is necessary to understand the Jewish history of persecution and drive to self-preservation as a key ingredient in the intractable conflict over land and rights. Likewise, it is necessary to understand the unmitigated Palestinian sense of betrayal in having paid the price for crimes against the Jewish people committed by Christians in faraway Europe. It does not contribute to the resolution of the conflict – or, for that matter, interreligious relations – to legitimize the perspective of the victor and delegitimize the perspective of the vanquished.
Zionism Unsettled notes that the settlement (or, from the perspective of its indigenous people, colonization) of Palestine did in fact involve what EIWG calls “long term machinations of destruction” – just as did colonization elsewhere, including North America. And as Israel is a normal, modern nation-state, IPMN asserts that it is appropriate and beneficial to examine its history, policies, and treatment of others in normalized terms rather than applying a double standard that exempts Israeli policy from scrutiny and, when appropriate, criticism.
PC(USA) “historic principles” and evolving “facts on the ground.”
EIWG faults IPMN for “arguing its case outside the bounds of the historic principles” regarding the “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the contrary, IPMN is well within its mandate to urge the church from within to make sure that its stated principles reflect external realities.
To clarify, neither IPMN nor Zionism Unsettled takes a position for or against one- or two-state solutions. However, IPMN’s commitment to a just and equitable solution for both Palestinians and Israelis compels us to note in Zionism Unsettled the self-evident truth that the metastatic growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories has changed the physical landscape on which the PC(USA)’s “historic principles” are based since those principles were first articulated.
In warning of the imminent, probable, or past demise of the two-state solution, as Zionism Unsettled does, IPMN is merely echoing the opinion of a multitude of experts who assert that Israel’s hard-line right-wing leaders have succeeded over the years since 1967 in their goal of making the occupation irreversible. It is misguided of EIWG to “blame” IPMN for pointing out the negative impact of Israeli settlements and the so-called peace process that has utterly failed to block their proliferation.
The hazards of interfaith dialogue and relationships.
EIWG faults IPMN for embracing Jewish “peripheral” voices as “true,” while dismissing “mainstream” voices as “false.” This observation reflects a great deal about the divergent assumptions of EIWG and IPMN.
EIWG’s mandate in its own words is to “to foster dialogue and positive relations with…the Jewish…communit(y) in the [Chicago] metropolitan area.” In the pursuit of this goal, EIWG has chosen to engage solely with what it identifies as “mainstream” Jewish organizations. It is the experience of IPMN and countless other organizations and individuals that the “vigorous discussion” and “diversity” that EIWG claims to cherish are fundamentally incompatible with the “positive relations” EIWG seeks to maintain, given EIWG’s selection of “mainstream” Jewish organizations as interlocutors and representatives of the American Jewish experience.
The barrage of shrill invective and name-calling leveled at IPMN by Israel advocacy organizations including EIWG’s “dialogue partners” over Zionism Unsettled is far from unique. Similar treatment is experienced by any individual or organization that runs afoul of establishment Jewish organizations’ attempts to patrol the discourse about Israel and silence dissenting perspectives.
Paul Krugman, a Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist – surely no “peripheral” voice – describes these mainstream Israel-advocacy organizations as a “buzzsaw.” (ZU, p. 6) In his defense of Peter Beinart’s aptly-named book, The Crisis of Zionism, Krugman decries the “intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.” (ZU, p. 59) Beinart himself speaks about the “de facto restrictions that exist in many establishment Jewish groups” and warns that the resulting “cocoon” is “a closed intellectual space, isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control.” (ZU, p. 59)
It is from within this “closed intellectual space,” one can reasonably presume, that EIWG explores issues with its mainstream organizational partners in its simultaneous pursuit of “positive relations” and “vigorous discussion.” The members of IPMN hold the view that in the process, EIWG has sacrificed “vigorous discussion” in favor of “positive relations.”
EIWG writes, “the permission to lift up another community’s most cherished activities, beliefs and social movements, is only given by that community…” IPMN forcefully disputes this assertion and refuses to await permission from mainstream Jewish organizations in order to examine, in Zionism Unsettled, the origins and impact of political Zionism.
Embracing diversity, disagreement, and dissent.
Although IPMN and EIWG diverge dramatically in their assumptions and approach to the conflict itself, IPMN celebrates its place in a denomination where groups as dissimilar in their approach as IPMN and EIWG can each harness the energies of committed church members and engage with the wider world. We of IPMN celebrate this diversity of viewpoints within the PC(USA) as a strength of our denomination. We applaud the church’s February 13, 2014 press release in which Presbyterian Mission Agency executive director Linda Valentine explains that “our church has a long history of engaging many points of view when it comes to dialogue on critical issues facing the world around us – it’s who we are, part of our DNA.”
Likewise, the cultural DNA of the American Jewish community also guarantees its rich intellectual ferment, strong opinions, and vigorous debate. Zionism Unsettled reports at length about the irrepressible, essential, and fast-burgeoning conversation among American (and Israeli) Jews about Israel, Zionism, and Jewish identity. These important voices are actively rebelling against the constraints placed on acceptable speech by the very “mainstream” Jewish organizations with whom EIWG has chosen to sit at the dialogue table.
A courageous voice for justice to the church from within the church.
IPMN’s mandate as a network that speaks “to and not for” the church is transparent and clearly visible in all media produced by the organization. Periodic statements by church leaders continue to clarify any lingering uncertainties about the independent relationship between the network and the denomination.
IPMN’s activities and published resources fall solidly within the best traditions of the PC(USA). In particular, IPMN draws inspiration from the PC(USA)’s stated commitment to justice issues. In 2012, the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh overwhelmingly passed a resolution to “recognize with joy and thanks to God the historic stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in pursuit of justice as a central mandate of our church, a mandate that calls us to uphold the need to be faithfully partisan in situations of injustice and to speak truth to power, wherever necessary as we pursue justice, without fear of retribution or the delay of deflection.”
While IPMN has certainly received criticism from some within the church and some outsiders, we have also been gratified by enthusiastic support from many quarters. IPMN affirms the urgency and timeliness of our work as witnesses for justice in Israel/Palestine. We are emboldened by the example of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, now revered as a visionary, who in his own time was criticized by his fellow Christian leaders for his radical challenge to the status quo. May we, too, as a church, promote justice and hope with fearless persistence.