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A Response to Jeffrey Bernstein re: “Zionism Unsettled”

I wish to thank Dr. Bernstein for his thoughtful and irenic response to “Zionism Unsettled” (hereafter, ZU). . . . ZU is indeed a hard-hitting document. It says things many people would rather not have discussed and calls out both Jewish and Christian Zionists for their contribution to the misery and suffering of the Palestinian people. Such a resource, which could be utilized at the congregational level, was sorely needed. The Israeli occupation began in 1967, when I was four years old. I’m now a grandfather, and yet it still continues.

I wish to thank Dr. Bernstein for his thoughtful and irenic response to “Zionism Unsettled” (hereafter, ZU). Having been involved in the divestment debate for the last ten years, and having been the target of barbs by both Christian and Jewish Zionists, I can only wish that all of those with whom I have disagreed were as charitable!

In 2004, it was my presbytery, the Presbytery of St. Augustine in NE Florida which made the original overture to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly (GA) that our denomination, through its Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee, move to divest from companies whose products were being used by the Israeli government in its illegal occupation of Palestine. In 2012. I spoke out as a commissioner to the GA at which divestment was defeated by two votes (but which passed a boycott), while my wife, also a PCUSA pastor was a commissioner to the most recent GA which narrowly passed it.

ZU is indeed a hard-hitting document. It says things many people would rather not have discussed and calls out both Jewish and Christian Zionists for their contribution to the misery and suffering of the Palestinian people. Such a resource, which could be utilized at the congregational level, was sorely needed. The Israeli occupation began in 1967, when I was four years old. I’m now a grandfather, and yet it still continues. In the intervening years, there have been numerous committees, task forces, study papers and “listening events” in which Presbyterians, and sometimes members of the Jewish community, carefully and sincerely, with furrowed brows and in somber tones affirmed year upon year Israel’s right to security and stability while at the same time condemning occupation of and the settlements within Palestinian territory. I myself have participated in such activities on multiple occasions and have never once personally encountered either a Presbyterian or any of my Jewish conversation partners who did not express some moral qualms about the settlements. Not that such persons don’t exist, but in my presence none has ever taken that stance. And the history of official statements by the Presbyterian Church (USA) across the decades bears witness to those moral qualms. Not only have we condemned the occupation and the settlements, but we have also spoken out unequivocally about the use of torture and collective punishment as well as the destruction of Palestinian property. In other words, we have made explicit moral judgments, what Professor Bernstein describes (if I am reading him correctly) as “theopolitical” statements about specific repeated actions by the Israelis and we have been making them for decades. And since that time, what has happened?

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Well that’s not exactly true. While we’ve been tending to our task forces and white papers, and while we have year upon year been registering our disagreement with Israeli government policies, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been pouring concrete, laying pipe and fiber optic cable on land not their own, all in an attempt to create facts on the ground which will thwart any attempt to dislodge them or force them to give back that which was stolen. This arrangement seemed fine with the American Jewish community–so long as we were content with moral pronouncements, they had no problem with us. We could condemn to our heart’s content. But when we began deliberating about bringing our actions into line with our stated values, then, to use Professor Bernstein’s expression, the gloves came off.

In the third chapter of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, he describes the enormous pressure exerted by what he calls “the American Jewish establishment” to silence criticism of Israel within the American Jewish community. As I have already said, The PCUSA, like the rest of mainline Protestant churches, long ago took a stand against the occupation, but only in the last ten years have we now begun discussing acting on those statements. When we did, the reaction from the American Jewish establishment was swift and strident. All across the country, Presbyterians were approached by rabbis and other Jewish leaders and were told that acting on our beliefs would be considered antisemitic and irreparably harm Presbyterian-Jewish relations going forward if we exercised our conscience in this way. This was both surprising and painful. There is great shame and sadness throughout much of World Christianity over, not just the Holocaust, but also the many centuries previous to that in which Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism brought varying degrees of suffering from discrimination to death upon generations of Jews, a history which ZU summarizes. The Holocaust brought home to many of us the horrors of which our religion was capable and in many quarters prompted a thorough review of how we got to that point, which wasn’t pretty. Thus, there is a deep desire to demonstrate as explicitly as possible that we “get it”and are committed to eradicating both speech and actions that would take Christians again down the well-worn path of abuse. So when, all of a sudden, in 2004 when divestment was first proposed, we were confronted with charges of antisemitism, as well as support for both terrorism and the destruction of the state of Israel, it was a response that caught many people off-guard. And frankly, the pain of having to weather such a critique from Jews, with whom Presbyterians had forged relationships and in some cases partnerships, was too great of an obstacle for many of our communion to lending support for divestment, however much they might disagree with the occupation.

Thus the IPMN believed that what was needed was a clear, strong statement, one which would speak to the decades of inertia in ending the occupation but which would also speak to the conscience of our denomination in ways that could not be ignored. Not that the world was going to shift on its axis because of our words or divestment, but all one can ever do is to change oneself. “Zionism Unsettled” was written to help the PCUSA do just that.

While time and space will not allow a full appraisal, ZU’s effectiveness as a resource to move the conversation forward in my denomination can be illustrated by referencing at least three aspects of its presentation. The first aspect is in its saturation with Jewish writers who have made the same argument as the PCUSA and who are in the pages of ZU presented collectively, making the case about what’s wrong with the status quo and how it is detrimental both to Israelis and Palestinians. A great example of this can be found in what arguably is the most bracing section in the resource which is entitled ” Extremism and Violence in Israel.” The section is introduced with a quote from the late 20th c. historian Simha Flapan.

There always was an orthodox, fundamentalist current in Judaism, characterized by racial prejudice toward non-Jews in general and Arabs in particular. A substantial portion – perhaps even the overwhelming majority – of the religious movements, and a growing number of the population in general, came to perceive of the West Bank not as the homeland of the Palestinian people but as Judea and Samaria, the birthplace of the Jewish faith and homeland of the Jewish people. Many people not only became indifferent to the national rights of the Palestinians living there, they did not even see the necessity of granting them civil rights.

This quote is then followed by observations by other Jewish writers and intellectuals,including David Remnick, Neve Gordon, Larry Derfner and Zvi Bar’el, and is topped off by a reference to an article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Jewish immigration FROM Israel due to the rise of extremism, which the article’s subjects found to be distressing. Christians and Arabs have made this critique of Zionism before, which has often made it easy, for someone so inclined, to dismiss. When the critique comes from Jews themselves, however, including Israeli Jews, the critique cannot so easily be written off as propaganda.

A second aspect of ZU which I believe made its presentation so effective was its use of examples of Jewish attempts at reconciliation, as seen for example, in the section entitled “A Jewish Theology of Liberation.” Not only are there Jews who recognize the problem within their own house, there are those who are attempting to ameliorate it and thereby mend the fabric of the world. The issue is so often portrayed as intractable but the work of these Jewish members contests that assessment. These Jews are in no way resigned to some inevitable outcome in which the brokenness achieves permanence. As with the critique, if ZU had simply given a solution based solely on maximizing Christian or Arab self-interest, it would ring hollow, but when the reader discovers Jews doing it within the framework of Judaism, the work of reconciliation takes on both legitimacy and urgency. The hopefulness of such Jewish peacemakers in turn invites the Presbyterian readers of ZU to live in hopeful expectation as well.

The third aspect of ZU that I think made it so effective to its Presbyterian audience was its recognition of the problems within the Christian house as well. Its easy to spot the weeds in your neighbor’s garden but difficult to deal with those in your own. ZU does not flinch from its criticism of Zionism within Judaism, but it takes the same hard line with its own tradition when its gaze falls there. As I already mentioned, ZU confesses the church’s disgraceful history of antisemitism. But the problems that it identifies are not just in Christianity’s past. The church, ZU asserts, needs to deal with its own Zionist problem, which feeds the parallel phenomenon within Judaism. I know Christian Zionism well, having grown up in my grandfather’s house with a framed photograph of him shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin from the late 70s. My grandfather was at the time the editor of a prominent weekly Baptist publication and was therefore courted by the Israeli government to become an apologist for hard line Likud policies against the Palestinians. This phenomenon has become quite widespread in evangelical circles–Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by evangelicals like a rock star whenever he comes to US, despite the fact that most of the people who pay him so much attention actually believe that when the Prime Minister dies that he’s going straight to hell because he hasn’t accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Presbyterians, ever the advocates of ecumenism, cringe in response to situations like this, but mostly follow the dictum taught to us as children that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. ZU makes it clear, however, that such a stance is no longer tenable, requiring that the same confrontational attitude that we hope will prevail within Judaism is required of Christians as well. As with my first two observations, had ZU called out Judaism for its faults and left it at that, it wouldn’t have to be taken seriously. But with its call for repentance and transformation it solidifies its case and makes its larger argument more credible to people from my communion.

I understand and am sympathetic to the ways in which Professor Bernstein found ZU to be “unsettling”. It was intended to be, although it was calibrated for a very different audience. It was dialed in to the communication frequency of the average Presbyterian church member with the intention of jolting him or her into a greater awareness of issues, an awareness that would then result in action. I believe that ZU well-served its purpose internally, even though I acknowledge that both ZU and the subsequent divestment it helped spawn have been deeply hurtful to members of the Jewish faith. I don’t, however, believe that was its intent. Our denomination had a problem, namely that our actions were not in line with our words. We had made all the right ethical statements about the occupation. But we were too anxious about the discomfort we might experience from running into the rabbi at Costco or our Jewish neighbors at the country club to do what we have long decided we had to do with our investments: To stop making money off of other people’s suffering. We have divested from scores of companies over the last few decades based on that principle, and we needed to do that again with regard to what is happening on the West Bank. Though ZU was ultimately withdrawn as an official denominational resource, I believe that it achieved the key aim for which it was written, which namely was provoking our denomination to risk a “holy tension” with our Jewish friends in the exercise of conscience in our investments.

Timothy F. Simpson is a member of the national committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.

2 thoughts on “A Response to Jeffrey Bernstein re: “Zionism Unsettled”

  1. I think everyone in this conversation is overestimating the significance
    of ZU to the divestment debate in the PC(USA). If we did a survey, I
    would wager we’d find that maybe 30 of the 600+ delegates at the
    assembly had read Zionism Unsettled in any detail and many of those had
    done so critically. Presbyterians tend to be highly suspicious of
    anything that appears to be propaganda and even those likely to be
    sympathetic to the aims of divestment would most likely reject a
    document that overtly tried to sway their opinion on a theopolitical
    matter like Zionism. My sense, as a volunteer who was at GA specifically to advocate for divestment, is that ZU hurt our side of the argument, providing fodder for those who accused us of antisemitism. It did not help.

    That said, I do think there are some very
    interesting conversations to be had about nationalism and ideology and
    how these forces are undoubtedly sources of violence even if they’re not
    wholly illegitimate.

    1. Eric, I don’t doubt your assessment of GA. I wasn’t there, although my wife was a commissioner and I watched all of the plenary sessions on the live stream. My point was not so much that ZU won the issue on the floor of the GA, but rather that across the denomination, there was way more focus for months before this GA on Zionism, rather than just Israel, than there has been before any other GA. And that change in subject, in my judgment, is one that will always be successful when it comes to discussing the PCUSA’s understanding of the Middle East. As you know, there is widespread appreciation for Israel in our denomination and sympathy for all of the suffering that has been so much apart of their nations history. Nobody thinks that the Palestinians thought to be firing rockets into people’s backyards. So long as the conversation stays on that level talking to people about the occupation is extremely difficult. Talking to Presbyterians about the ideology within Israel that authorizes them to treat the Palestinians like they do, however, puts the whole issue in a different light, because, as it turns out, we have significant theological problems with that ideology. My point is that making Zionism rather than Israel hour focus allowed for a stronger, more robust critique into the conversation in the run-up to this GA than would have otherwise been acceptable, not just because we have issues with the ideological framework, but also because there are Jewish voices that have problems with that ideological framework as well which ZU was able to utilize.

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