Israel, Palestine, and Christian-Jewish Dialogue:
One Jew’s Perspective
The Israel-Palestine conflict is the longest-running problem on the world stage. Within society in the Holy Land as well as in the United States, the struggle to achieve peaceful coexistence between the peoples of the region has sparked intense and at times heated discussion both within and between faith communities. It is of critical importance that these conversations continue, and that they be based on the fullest understanding of the powerful beliefs and feelings that underlie this topic for all faiths. The conversation challenges each community to remain open to growth and renewal, both within its ranks and in the nature of its interfaith dialogue.
A Jewish American’s Journey
I am a Jewish American, the grandson of a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew. My grandfather was the direct descendant of one of the great Hasidic Rabbis of Europe, a family that settled in Jerusalem in the mid 19th century. As a young man my grandfather left the Holy Land for America – but the heart of the family remains in Jerusalem. Zionism was mother’s milk to me, a Zionism framed in religion. I was born in 1948 – a month before the establishment of the State of Israel. I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not simply a historical event – it was redemption.
I first visited Israel as a boy of 17, and I fell in love with the young state. My Israeli family warmly embraced me. But even as I embraced them in return, I noticed the fear and sense of superiority in the way they talked about “the Arabs.” It was the way that whites talked about blacks in the pre-Civil Rights Philadelphia of my birth. I recognized then that there was a fundamental flaw in the Zionist project -- but my love for Israel stayed strong. After college, I lived on a kibbutz, ignoring the implications of the pre-1948 Palestinian homes turned into Jewish housing and the abandoned olive groves on the edges of the newly-planted apple orchards. Returning to the USA, my concerns about Israel increased in direct proportion to the pace of illegal settlement-building. Still, I held to the Zionist narrative: the Occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, was the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank.
Traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the summer of 2006, I experienced first-hand the damage inflicted by the Occupation on Israeli society and on the Palestinian people. Witnessing the separation wall, the checkpoints, the network of restricted roads, the massive, continuing construction of illegal Jewish settlements and towns, the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers, the terrorizing impact of shelling by Palestinian resistance organizations on Israeli border towns, and the effect of militarization and ongoing conflict on Israelis (especially the young), I realized that, no matter what rationales were advanced in justification of Israel’s current policies, these actions would never lead to peace and security for Israel. I saw that the role of occupier was leading Israel down a road of political disaster, and the Jewish people down a road of spiritual peril.
Contrary to the claims of some of my co-religionists, I do not “Seek the Destruction of the State of Israel.” On the contrary, I am in great fear for its future and seek to preserve Israel – its accomplishments, culture, its security, and most of all, its people -- my people. I feel very much like two other Jews – the prophet Jeremiah and Jesus of Nazareth six centuries later -- standing before Jerusalem and weeping for the self-inflicted destruction to come. I have thus joined the growing ranks of loyal, highly identified Jews who, despite occasional charges of “self-hating Jew,” actively question the actions of Israel that purport to advance the cause of Jewish survival. Interestingly, my journey has led to intense dialogue with American Christians and to an exploration of Christian theology and thought in the post-Holocaust period. I have come to a realization: we Jews are now confronting a theological challenge and identity crisis that bears striking similarity to what happened to the Christian world in the aftermath of World War II.
The Moment of Truth: Christians Confront the Holocaust, Jews Confront the Occupation
In 1995, Gregory Baum, the Canadian Roman Catholic theologian, wrote about the Church’s need to rid itself of its deeply-rooted anti-Judaism. The problem, states Baum, is that “if the Church wants to clear itself of the anti-Jewish trends built into its teaching, a few marginal correctives won’t do. It must examine the very center of its proclamation and reinterpret the meaning of the gospel for our times.” In passionate language, Baum goes to the heart of this crisis for Christians:
“It was not until the holocaust of six million Jewish victims that some Christian theologians have been willing to face this question in a radical way…Auschwitz has a message that must be heard: it reveals an illness operative not on the margin of our civilization but at the heart of it, in the very best that we have inherited….It summons us to face up to the negative side of our religious and cultural heritage.”
Baum calls this realization a “moment of truth.” Undeniably, many Jews who have traveled in Israel’s Occupied Territories have experienced their own “moment of truth.” Like the Christian response to the consequences of anti-Semitism, it is the reaction of a now similarly triumphant, dominant group to the evidence of what their actions have created in the form of injustice to others and threat to their own most deeply-held values. For an increasing number of Jews, confronting the grim reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine – as well as a growing awareness of the actions that created the state over 60 years ago -- has created a personal and collective crisis.
Our crisis as Jews stands in poignant parallel with the Christian confrontation with the Nazi Holocaust. Christians, in the midst of their struggle to come to terms with their responsibility for anti-Semitism, must at the same time confront the complex reality of a Jewish State. Ironically, political Zionism owes its success in part to the Nazi Holocaust, the same catastrophe that spurred a reevaluation of the foundations of Christianity. To add to this, historians of Zionism have documented a deeply-rooted Zionism among Christians dating from the nineteenth century, crediting this in part for the early growth of the modern political movement and the success of Jewish settlement in Palestine. These facts together help explain the reluctance of many contemporary Christians to call Israel to account for its human rights record. Indeed, although Christians are in the midst of a crisis of faith due to confrontation with crimes against Jews, this is the very thing that blocks them from confronting crimes committed by Jews.
Where does this leave Christians, as individuals and as faith communities, in their commitment to social justice? With the question of Israel and Palestine persistently in the forefront, what should be the relationship to the Jewish people and our national homeland project? A brief look at the work of three progressive Christian thinkers will help us in a search for an answer.
Healing the Rift
“While Judaism exists without essential reference to Christianity, the reverse is not the case. The God of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Church, is the God of Israel. The Jews remain the chosen people of God. And with this comes the Land.”
These are the words, not of a dispensationalist Christian Zionist, but of a liberal Catholic theologian, James Carroll, in his influential Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. According to Carroll, the negative picture of the Judaism of Jesus’ time as presented in the Gospels was a distortion of the true nature of Judaism, a Judaism with which Jesus was in more harmony than the Gospel narrative depicts. To correct for anti-Semitism, claims Carroll, Christians must join with the Jewish people in reaffirming their historic and spiritual ties to the Land. “The Temple,” he writes, “continues even now – if only the idea of it – as the solitary site of Jewish worship… the Jewish hope is rooted not in a mythic never-never land but in a place on earth. Its specificity is the point. The Temple, and by extension the land are tied to the unbreakable covenant God has made with his people.” Constantine’s Sword was important to me – as a Jew raised on scripture and on the prophets in particular, I related strongly to Carroll’s intensely personal experience of Jesus’ life and message. And I connected strongly – still do – with his grief-laden passion about Christianity’s responsibility for anti-Semitism. But returning to his book after visiting the West Bank, I recognized the need for a fresh look at his solution to the problems caused by Christianity’s historically anti-Jewish polemic.
We must honor the deeply ethical impulse to reconcile with the Jews for the anti-Jewishness of the gospels and for two millennia of persecution. But in the process, Carroll risks washing out the rebellious, iconoclastic, anti-cultic nature of Jesus’ message to the Jews of his time. Jesus was Jewish, intensely so. But at the core of Jesus’ Jewishness was his protest against the materialism and injustice of the day. Was not Jesus’ prophetic voice raised in fierce opposition to the exclusivist framework of the Jewish establishment, to the alliance of King, Priest and occupying power? Indeed, what characterized the new faith that arose out of the Judaism of the first Century CE was its universalism and its detachment from a physical location. In contrast, Judaism’s vision of history was about the nations flowing to Jerusalem -- about Zion redeemed, where Zion is embodied in the earthly Jerusalem as the center of worship of the One God. But with the coming of Christianity, the idea of a geographical Zion was transformed. Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus came to challenge the power of empire - the triumphalism of temporal rule - and to replace it with the triumph of the spirit. In the view of many, Christianity made a wrong turn when it threw in with Rome in the 4th century, a mistake that it continues to seek to correct as we leave the 20th century behind. The Jewish people now face a similar set of choices as we confront the consequences of our own empowerment.
To Carroll, therefore, and to those Christians who are, in good faith, attempting to heal history’s wounds and to reconcile with my people, I put it to you this way: Say you’re sorry for your history of anti-Semitism. Affirm your sense of connection and continuity with the Jewish sources of your tradition. Embrace the majesty and breadth of the Hebrew Scriptures, and honor, with us, the Jews’ incalculable contribution to civilization’s commitment to human rights and justice. But be willing, as must we, to leave behind those aspects of Jewish tradition that grant one people a superior right to a land that has for millennia been shared by many.
The Need for the Prophetic
Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the Old Testament and its relevance to our times. In his 2001 The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann describes the prophets as itinerant poets responding to the social and political injustice of their day. Brueggemann is quite clear about the direct link between prophecy and politics: “We will not understand the meaning of prophetic imagination unless we see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.” (emphasis in the original)
Standing in counterpoint to prophetic imagination is royal consciousness. Royal consciousness is what drives the structures of power, devoted to their own perpetuation through exploitation and oppression of the masses. According to Brueggemann, royal consciousness depends on the suppression of a moral and ethical sense as well as the denial of a wide spectrum of experience, chief among them fear and grief: “…royal consciousness is committed to numbness about death. It is unthinkable for the King to imagine or experience the end of his favorite historical arrangements. Royal consciousness consists of and depends upon the denial of pain, fear, suffering. The empire will endure forever – this is the message of numbness and self-deception.”
The prophets, and for Brueggemann Jeremiah chief among them, mourn for the brokenness of Israel and imminent disaster awaiting their people. But the mourning is not about victimhood – it is about the self-inflicted nature of the disaster to come: “I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. It is indeed their own funeral.”
This was my experience witnessing the Occupation and learning about the displacement of three quarters of a million indigenous inhabitants of Palestine to make way for the Jewish state sixty years ago. It is increasingly clear to growing numbers of Jews – and Christians – here in the US and across the world that Israel’s leadership is locked into a destructive cycle of expansion and militarism, a cycle that will never bring peace and security to Israel and that furthermore violates core Jewish values. Brueggemann’s description of the situation in the kingdom of Judah in Biblical times resonates powerfully: “In the time of Jeremiah the pain and regret denied prevented any new movement either from God or toward God in Judah. The covenant was frozen and there was no possibility of newness until the numbness was broken…” Indeed, a new covenant is needed, one that will allow the logjam of conflict to be broken and allow all inhabitants of the land to live in freedom and security, a covenant in which, in Rosemary Ruether’s prescription, Jews and Palestinians can acknowledge each others’ pain and achieve “a compassionate sense of co-humanity.” But how can such a renewal be reconciled with the Jewish yearning for a homeland? Brueggemann’s own struggle with this question is revealing.
Land as Promise, Land as Challenge
In The Land (2nd Edition, 2001), Brueggemann writes about the centrality of the land to the Jewish people. The Jews enjoy special entitlement to the land based on this deep connection: the Jewish people, he writes, “has never forgotten that its roots and its hopes are in storied earth, and that is the central driving force of its uncompromising ethical faith.” But in the preface to the second edition of The Land, written twenty three years after the book’s original publication, Brueggemann is clearly questioning what this entitlement means, in the light, as he writes, of “the ideological import of the text as it impacted other people as a necessary cost of Israel’s land claims.” “This ideology of land entitlement,” writes Brueggemann, “serves the contemporary state of Israel.” It is an ideology which is “enacted in unrestrained violence against the Palestinian population…It is clear that the modern state of Israel has effectively merged old traditions of land entitlement and the most vigorous military capacity thinkable for a modern state.” These are strong words from a theologian who two decades earlier had written about the centrality of the land for the identity and soul of the Jewish people (and, by extension for Christians as the heirs to this Old Testament theology). He continues: “The outcome of that merger of old traditional claim and contemporary military capacity becomes an intolerable commitment to violence that is justified by reason of state.… That is, land entitlement leads to land occupation.” (emphasis in original).
This is the prophetic imagination at work. Military power results from, and indeed reinforces royal consciousness. Brueggemann here is fully in accord with the prophetic requirement to identify royal consciousness, confront its consequences, and bring the people back to God. The land may be a central symbol, the source of joy and wellbeing, but as such it must be understood on this same symbolic level. When it becomes real --when, in Jewish Liberation Theologian Marc Ellis’ term, Judaism becomes empowered -- the result is intolerable.
There are lessons here for both religious groups. As Jews, we can justly lay claim to a long and rich tradition of support for human rights -- but today this proud tradition has become tarnished. No matter how many “Save Darfur” banners we display in front of our synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, our support for human rights is tainted as long as Israel pursues policies that deny justice to the Palestinian people and thwart progress toward peace. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung termed the unacknowledged, unexamined aspects of individual and group character “the Shadow.” Our Jewish Shadow is our sense of specialness and entitlement, reinforced by millennia of persecution and marginalization. Jews of my generation, growing up in the aftermath of the Holocaust, understand this aspect of our cultural identity all too well – and, as such, we have a responsibility to not allow it drive our behavior. If we love our people, honor our tradition, and seek to preserve Israel and its people, we must confront the evidence of our Shadow in action: the militarism gone amok, houses demolished, land taken, a people humiliated through collective punishment, and fundamentalist settlers acting out the will and design of an expansionist government. We deny this reality at our great peril. To the extent that Christians participate in this denial, they are disempowered from taking the actions they would naturally take in their humanitarian missions and social justice work.
Happily, there are signs that the church establishment in the US is taking up this issue energetically. Many congregations have added Palestine to their global mission projects, and organize trips to the region to witness and lend support to the struggle of Palestinians and Israelis committed to justice and coexistence. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches have longstanding humanitarian and human rights projects in the Holy Land. The Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the US have initiated actions to constructively engage with companies identified as profiting from the Israeli occupation. These latter initiatives have provoked intense dialogue and controversy within these church bodies. This process, despite the discomfort that it engenders, is a positive sign of change and renewal.
A Call for Renewal
In the 2002 Wrath of Jonah, feminist and liberation theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether takes on the thorny issue of Israel’s human rights record. Her conclusions can only be seen as supportive of Israel’s health and its continuation as a cultural and spiritual center for the Jewish people. She writes: “The actual injustices of Israel, and the ideological cover-up of these mistakes, need to be clearly exposed to critical examination. At the same time, the negative energy of disappointment might be transformed into a positive energy of reform, of both Israel and world Jewish institutions.” Ruether continues that this willingness to take an honest look at these human rights issues would be entirely salutary, creating “the new freedom and energy for a broad religious and social renewal of Judaism. It would provide the opportunity for restatements of what it means to be a religiously based and morally concerned global community. This does not mean a rejection but rather a new relationship of world Jewry to the State of Israel, as a political project of the Jewish people.”
I applaud Ruether’s call for a renewal of Judaism, especially with regard to the future of the State of Israel, the continued existence of which she clearly supports. Israel is a remarkable achievement. Its people deserve to live in peace and security with their neighbors. The question, however, remains: how can we continue to pursue our “political project,” to use Ruether’s term, of a Jewish state, while maintaining our commitment to human rights and democracy? It is the challenge facing us as a people and as a faith tradition. Moreover, it is a challenge that we face together with our Christian sisters and brothers, who have been and are the witnesses to our struggle for survival. In view of the political as well as religious crisis wrought by the reality of today’s Israel, the future of Judaism and the Jewish people is as much an issue for Christians as it is for the Jews themselves. Fortunately, courageous thinkers such as Brueggemann and Ruether are helping to point the way. Recently, Ruether addressed one of the most sensitive topics to emerge from this crisis. In 2007 she wrote about the Jewish willingness to use the Holocaust as a justification for, in her words, “a claim to a unique entitlement of the Jewish people to a state built on Arab land.” “Clearly,” she writes, echoing Brueggemann’s imperative to grieve, “what is needed is a breakthrough to a compassionate sense of co-humanity, in which Israelis and Palestinians can mourn each other’s disasters and refuse to use one disaster to justify another.”
Toward a New Interfaith Dialogue
Christianity came to redefine the nature of God’s relationship to humankind and in so doing to promote a faith grounded in love and a commitment to human dignity. As such, it builds directly upon the monotheistic revolution of Judaism and the ethical teachings that spring from God’s Covenant with the Jewish people. In a remarkable and courageous development, post-supersessionist Christian thinkers have rejected the age-old dogma that set up Christianity as the superior faith, with Judaism as, in Carroll’s words, “the shadow against which Christianity could be the light.” We Jews, now in grave peril with respect to where our nationalist project has taken us, must demand of ourselves the same humility, courage, and capacity for self-reflection that has been displayed by Christians. Productive interfaith dialogue, therefore, must address the question: what can be the nature of the relationship between the two faiths today that is faithful to the best in each and that can carry us forward in our shared commitment to justice? Ruether, evoking the prophetic imagination, describes Jesus as a prophet espousing a “reversal of the social order…a new reality in which hierarchy and dominance are overcome as principles of social relations.” If we are to have a new, shared covenant, it must be one that does not look backwards to the past but forward to a day when justice will reign.