More on “Zionism Unsettled”: A Response to Timothy Simpson (Jeffrey A. Bernstein)

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I thank both Timothy Simpson for taking the time to respond to my post and the current editors of Political Theology Today for allowing me to respond. It is an uncomfortable issue for people on all sides of the debate. I can only imagine the frustration wrought by “having been the target of barbs by both Christian and Jewish Zionists.” If my tone is irenic, I can only be glad; I do not desire to be the cause of frustration (even at those moments when I feel frustration). If Rev. Simpson views my tone as irenic, I find the content of his response to be ironic.

I thank both Timothy Simpson for taking the time to respond to my post and the current editors of Political Theology Today for allowing me to respond.  It is an uncomfortable issue for people on all sides of the debate.  I can only imagine the frustration wrought by “having been the target of barbs by both Christian and Jewish Zionists.”   If my tone is irenic, I can only be glad; I do not desire to be the cause of frustration (even at those moments when I feel frustration).

If Rev. Simpson views my tone as irenic, I find the content of his response to be ironic.  I had hoped to raise an issue concerning the “theopolitical” problems with “Zionism Unsettled” (hereafter, ZU).  Rev. Simpson interprets the term “theopolitical” to mean “making explicit moral judgments” about “the use of torture and collective punishment as well as the destruction of Palestinian property.”  In fact, I have little problem with such judgments; I view them to be the basis of any political critique or action such as proposing a divestment from companies that are (in some way) complicit.  So I view the divestment proposal to be a political action (one which is, in fact, a historically legitimate form of such action in the United States); I view the judgment about the atrocities to be a moral viewpoint underlying the political action.  This, for me, is not under dispute.  As I wrote in my initial post, regardless of whether or not one supports divestment (as a particular strategy), one can agree both with the moral sentiment as well as the legitimacy of others in taking a political stance.  By “theopolitical,” I mean, (1) the explicit reduction of an entire religion to a particular construal of politics and (2) the use of that particular construal of politics to critique the entire religion.

In defining “theopolitical” thus, I realize the conflict between my statement and Rev. Simpson’s claim that one of the reasons for “ZU’s effectiveness” (in Rev. Simpson’s view) is “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 to both Israelis and Palestinians.”  Again, no one to my knowledge (save followers of John Hagee and Meier Kahane) would dispute the problematic character of the status quo and its dangers for both sides.  Moreover, as Rev. Simpson clearly acknowledges, the Jewish political views on the subject are far from homogeneous.  There are, in my view, two problems with Rev. Simpson’s aforementioned statement:

First, ZU is, in fact, not saturated with Jewish writers.  While it does refer to, summarize, and quote a number of Jewish writers (e.g., Simha Flapan, Brant Rosen, Marc Ellis—to mention only those in the sections to which Rev. Simpson referred), it is clear that the representatives agree not only with the political critique concerning the treatment of Palestinians, but also with the theological critique of Zionism as articulated by Naim Ateek (which I cited in my initial post)—i.e., that Zionism is “a retrogression of the Jewish community into . . . its most elementary and primitive forms of the concept of God.”  My point is that one does not need to accept this claim in order to either feel outrage or even undertake a boycott.   It is as general and unfair a claim as the one stating that all forms of Islam that do not conform to Western ideas of the religion between politics and religion amount to a lapse into barbarism.  Similarly, the presentation of Israeli historian Flapan’s statement, claiming that, “[t]here always was an orthodox, fundamentalist current in Judaism, characterized by racial prejudice,” is extremely one-sided; that there was such a current at the beginning of Israel’s inception (or even in Zionism’s inception) in no way entails that this was the majority (let alone only current).  ZU seems uninterested in providing its readers with a reasoned discussion of the history of Zionism and Israel (e.g., it contains an entire section on Political Zionism and generous discussions on Religious Zionism while dedicating precious little discussion to Cultural Zionism).  This leads me to believe that ZU is not terribly interested in the Jewish discussion of Zionism and Israel.  In fact, ZU makes this claim startlingly explicit:  “For all the critical insight that Jewish writers bring to the process of moving the public consciousness, it is important not to privilege their voices at the expense of others’ lest Jewish analysts inadvertently dictate the pace at which once-unthinkable notions become normalized and accepted as self-evident.”

I understand that ZU is a “Congregational Study Guide”—thus, I do not wish to overstep boundaries in attempting to “dictate” what the PCUSA ought to say to its own congregations.  This type of study guide (which exists in all denominations and religions) serves specific purposes—and this brings me to my second point:  As a Presbyterian congregational study guide, it is (I assume) supposed to be used in study groups and events within the wider Presbyterian community.  There is, then, a rhetorical and pedagogical function to ZU.  As a teacher, I cannot have a problem with attempting to teach a religious community about another such community.  However, the specific rhetorical strategy gives me pause:  What does it mean to (1) claim that Jews ought not “dictate the pace” of a discussion and (2) present only those Jewish voices that agree with you?  Am I “dictating” if I suggest that ZU could have explored in more depth other forms of Zionism, why they didn’t succeed, and whether they might be of use today in thinking about alternative  political paths for Israel? Is the only acceptable form of “Jewish attempts at reconciliation” one that holds Zionism per se to be a confessable sin?  If, at this point, my irenic tone has faltered, it is not because I find the moral and political dimensions of the PCUSA’s concern to be anti-Semitic, but because I find the piecemeal and one-sided construction of ZU to be engaging in a theopolitical enterprise that does not express the full reality of Jewish history and life with respect to Israel.

The PCUSA has every right to make the moral judgments and political decisions that (in its view) best accords with the tenets of Presbyterian Christianity.  Insofar as ZU calls out American (and worldwide) Judaism to answer for the claims that it makes, it involves Jews everywhere.  This is, I believe, the reason why so few Jews have been able to adopt an irenic tone about this issue.  But given that the PCUSA (like any other denomination or religion) has the right (perhaps even the obligation) to address and inform its own members about national and international issues, I am compelled to ask the following question:  What, in fact, does the PCUSA want to teach Presbyterians about Jews?

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