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Quick Takes

The Unsettling Theopolitics of “Zionism Unsettled” (Jeffrey A. Bernstein)

As I compose this, the gloves are being taken off on all sides, and in every direction, over the matter of the Presbyterian Church USA’s 310-303 approval of divesting from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) whose business with Israel are seen to impact the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

As I compose this, the gloves are being taken off on all sides, and in every direction, over the matter of the Presbyterian Church USA’s 310-303 approval of divesting from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) whose business with Israel are seen to impact the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union of Reform Judaism, who worked with members of the Presbyterian Church for an alternative solution to divestment, has condemned the boycott. Presbyterian Reverend Chris Leighton’s Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church argues that the boycott is explicitly connected to the publication (and circulation) of the booklet “Zionism Unsettled” (ZU) by the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN). Today one can find impassioned statements by Jews, Christians and Muslims on such politically diverse websites as Commentary and Democracy Now. Splits in the Presbyterian Church (that doubtless existed prior to this past week) are now visible to all interested parties; at the same time, Jewish organizations, usually bitterly divided along political and religious lines, are now finding a bit of de facto common ground. Presbyterian Reverend Larry Grimm, in calling for Jews to leave Israel and come “home” to the “promised land” of America, paradoxically reminds one of the American exceptionalism of folks like Dick Cheney.

I can best express my own experience with all of this through a few vignettes:

  1. A friend of mine announced that she was in support of the Presbyterian boycott despite the fact that “AIPAC and Neo-Conservatives would, out of anger, label the boycott anti-Semitic.”
  2. When I mentioned my frustration over the boycott and ZU to a Jewish friend to my political and religious right, the response was, “Why are you so concerned about the Presbyterians? Are you a Presbyterian all of a sudden? This is what religions have been doing to each other for centuries. At least they don’t Jihad us. Besides, isn’t it hard to get worked up over it when you compare it to the bombs being dropped on Israeli towns from Syria and Hamas?”
  3. When I mentioned this frustration to a Jewish friend whose politics more closely resembles my own, the response was, “Yes, I don’t agree with the vote either, but you can understand the concerns—what’s happening in the territories is horrific and it affects both Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims.”


If I disagree with my first friend’s assessment of the terms of the debate, I don’t dispute that the impassioned responses include the charge of “anti-Semitism.” And while I don’t take the position she does, I acknowledge that boycotts (as in the case of South Africa) are legitimate political tools in a liberal democracy; and I don’t begrudge people for using such political tools. Organized religious institutions are a different matter, as I will explain shortly. If I disagree with my second friend’s (humorous, if somewhat snarky) question about whether I’m now a Presbyterian, I have to concede that Reform Judaism (the branch of Judaism in which I grew up) share many common political aims with the Presbyterians (their affirmation of marriage equality being only one example); I am, therefore, closer politically to them than to many members of my own religion. I also have to concede that, as far as criticisms go, the boycott is about as “mellow” as it gets—it’s a largely symbolic protest that affects only three companies (a total of around 25 million dollars) and is registered more as a conscience vote than anything else. If Mahmood Abbas doesn’t support boycotts, why should I get so worked up over them? And, at this point, my second and third friends are in agreement: Israelis and Palestinians are the real objects (and targets) of these kinds of political actions. They are the ones who are suffering from the violence in the Mideast. Why am I losing sleep over it? Can such a “mellow” boycott be anything more than simply a private institutional vote of conscience and (at most) a gentle rebuke to American Jews?

The answer to the last question would be “no” if the PCUSA’s decision to boycott was simply a political matter. In fact, the existence of ZU prior to boycott transforms it (despite some protests to the contrary) into a theopolitical matter. This is where my concerns lie.

Please note what I’m not arguing. I don’t believe that all Presbyterians affirm ZU—i.e., it would be no less ridiculous and generalizing if I wrote an essay called “Presbyterianism Dissected.” I’m also not suggesting that the intent of the IPMN was to produce an anti-Semitic document. I’m not even sure that the authors and/or editors of ZU are aware of the problematic character of the book (I suspect that some are). These are issues for others to debate. In any case, the PCUSA seems to have acknowledged the problems with ZU by recently removing the document from their website. However, the damage has already been done.

The problem with ZU, and therefore with the subsequent boycott, is that it bases its political position on a theological characterization of Judaism that is strangely and insidiously distorted. It is, no doubt, accurate insofar as it notes that there are abiding differences between Judaism (and Islam) on the one hand and Christianity on the other when it comes to construing the relation between religion and politics. It is distorting insofar as (1) it draws the conclusion that the atrocities in the territories are wholly reducible to these differences and (2) in drawing a straight line from Judaism to Zionism to these atrocities. The takeaway from ZU is that Judaism’s conception of the religion-politics relationship is the cause of the Palestinian misery—thus (in the words of Reverend Naim Ateek) “Zionism is a false theology.”

To be sure, ZU does not begin with that tone. One of the interesting (but again, insidious) aspects of the text is that it begins with general, and even somewhat reasonable, attempts to cover all the topical bases of the debate. It contains excerpts, and summaries, of writings by authors from all three Abrahamic religions. It acknowledges Christian anti-Semitism, as well as Islamic fundamentalism as real problems that face Jews. And it acknowledges that Jewish voices have been valuable in the recognition of a more well-rounded and critical awareness of the history of Zionism and Israel.

However, things begin to get more ugly (and global) as the text continues: “The major American Jewish organizations bear considerable responsibility for spreading . . . fear and blindness by their uncritical support for Israel over the years, especially since 1967.” I was born one year later, and I can’t recall any Jewish organization (to which I belonged, or to which I was exposed) denying the fact that atrocities were occurring. Thus, while one can legitimately criticize these atrocities as political failures of Israeli governmental policies (as well as those of other political bodies in the Mideast), it does not follow that “The time has come for us all to name . . . the Jewish theological and ethical failures that Zionism has produced.” What are these “theological and ethical failures”? Simply put, “the emergence of Zionist movement in the twentieth century is a retrogression of the Jewish community into the history of its very distant past, with its most elementary and primitive forms of the concept of God. Zionism has succeeded in reanimating the nationalist tradition in Judaism.” So Zionism = violent Biblical theocratic Jewish nationalism. All of it? Well, no. However, ZU spends precious little time on cultural Zionism (portraying it as merely a failed minor experiment), focusing instead on political and religious Zionism. These two streams, for ZU, amount to “the merging of Judaism with idolatrous political nationalism.”

One doesn’t need to believe that the political and religious streams of Zionism are without blame to view the discussion in ZU as extremely one-sided. Why, for instance, are all attempts to reconceive Zionism as other than “idolatrous nationalism” futile? This is the picture that ZU portrays. Diaspora Judaism is also viewed through a narrow lens. The section entitled “What Diaspora?” ends with the following claim: “The Judeo-Arab cultural world of Maimonides and Judah Halevi has been sacrificed on the Ashkenazi-Zionist altar, and along with it the deep and rich historic culture of Mediterranean Judaism.” Zionism is somehow responsible for the sacrifice of Mediterranean Judaism. I would have thought that the combined effects of Medieval Christendom, Dar al Islaam, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust had something of a hand in this destruction as well.

The full theopolitical point is driven home in charges made by Ateek: “[Our charges are] the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life. Of course Christian theological statements have little merit in the eyes of non-Christians (Jews included) . . . [But i]n the Christian Church such condemnations carry the weight of heresy.” It is unclear whether Judaism (as Zionism) is heresy, or whether Jews are sufficiently “non-Christian” to be ignored in this profession of faith. If Zionism is a “false theology,” then it either is a Christian heresy or a non-Christian alien doctrine. In this way, Ateek and ZU are able to call out Christian Zionists as well as Zionism/Judaism. In sum, it looks like the only Judaism that is worthy of dialogue is the “life-affirming” Judaism that has eschewed its archaic ties to the Old Testamentary violent deity and the idea of nationalism.

I don’t want to belabor the salient points made in other statements (i.e., if Palestinians can have a nation, why can’t Jews? Who else have the Presbyterians boycotted and who’s next? Etc.). It strikes me that the theopolitical point contained in ZU (and therefore the PCUSA boycott) illustrates something more than a straightforward political cry of outrage. If it were simply that, I might share it (one doesn’t have to support, or even agree with a boycott, to be outraged at policies that would be supported by John Hagee or Meier Kahane). ZU, the IPMN, and the PCUSA boycott all suggest that Zionism is problematic because it amounts to a theology of nationality, land, and law. But what is the alternative? ZU does not state outright that it is unity “in Christ,” but it is difficult for me not to wonder about supercessionist motives in this context. In any case, the argument has yet to be made as to why the Western Protestant model of religion and politics is the only model (1) in which peace can be obtained and (2) through which it can be maintained. Until then, the stated views of the aforementioned Presbyterian organizations (in other matters quite progressive) have a weird resonance with the sorts of totalizing critiques of Islam one frequently finds among commentators on the Right.

Jeffrey Bernstein is an associate professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA).  His research interests include Modern European philosophy, classical German philosophy and Jewish Thought.


5 thoughts on “The Unsettling Theopolitics of “Zionism Unsettled” (Jeffrey A. Bernstein)

  1. Nice points on the ZU–which I haven’t read–sounds awfully flat-footed on Zionism. But what of the boycott itself? My sense is that support for the boycott runs much deeper than ZU.

    1. My sense is that that’s right, David, especially now. My hope is that its more an expression of legitimate political frustration than anything else.

  2. I have noticed that the sharp distinction between Judaism and Zionism in ZU is supported by the chapter on Rabbi Brant Rosen’s thought, which in turn draws on the writing of Marc Ellis. My perception is that there is not unanimity in the Jewish community regarding Zionism — whether Zionism is intrinsic to Judaism, or simply an accepted stream of thought within Judaism, or a deviant offshoot of Judaism — and that ZU promotes the approach to Zionism that is characteristic of Jewish Voice for Peace (namely, that adherence to the ethical teachings of the Hebrew prophets should trump Israeli nationalism and should certainly exclude home demolitions and population transfer). Unlike Dr. Bernstein, I do not see Protestant triumphalism in this book (and I am not a Protestant).

    1. Thanks for your reply to my post, Monica. You’re certainly right that one of the sharpest criticisms of Zionism in ZU was written by Rabbi Rosen (basing himself on Ellis). Its also true that the prophetic tradition in Judaism is oftentimes seen as a counterpoint to the ‘nation’ tradition. While Rosen and Ellis are not (to my knowledge) triumphalists, my concern with their approach to the question of Zionism is that it is too reductive. Zionism (as you note) is not a unitary phenomenon in the Jewish community, but I found Rosen’s analysis of it to be too reductive. I don’t have the text in front of me at this moment, but (if memory serves) it was Rosen who held that Zionism is a devolution of Judaism to its most archaic forms of nationalism. In my view, this is to conflate the atrocities in the territories with (a) the traditional concept of ‘nation’ in Judaism (of which there are also many interpretations), and (b) Zionism (the cultural and non-agressive religious forms [i.e., Buber] of which get, in my view, short-shrifted). I think that one can both legitimately express outrage (even protest) over the atrocities without having to (in my view reductively) tie it to Zionism and Judaism. Given that ZU excerpts and summarizes Rosen’s view, it becomes difficult to separate his own views from the overall intent of ZU, which seems to me to wish to characterize ‘living’ Judaism as an exilic faith tradition that has no connection to questions of ‘nationhood’ (whether this be construed as a nation-state or simply as a homeland). I certainly have no authority to deny the validity of that construal of Judaism; but I do deny that it is a foregone conclusion that that is the only legitimate construal of Judaism (that’s the moment that I was referring to as ‘triumphalism’–i.e., that the separation of religion and politics must take the form that it does here in the US). My point is that one can agree that home demolitions and population transfer ought to be excluded without agreeing with the characterizations of Zionism (and its relation to Judaism) that are present in ZU.

  3. 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.

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