Musings on Jews and Christians: Israel

This is a substantial excerpt from a letter I wrote in 2005 regarding an anti-Israel resolution:

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Now that the Disciples’ General Assembly has finished its work (passing a resolution that denounces the Israeli defense barrier), we need to think long-term about how to respond to the current crisis in the mainline Protestant denominations.  As someone who is Jewish and works as a faculty member at a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) seminary (Lexington Theological Seminary), I would be glad to contribute to this discussion in any feasible way.  At present, we are in a troubling period (and for Jews an anxious one).  Though we can be glad that no one slipped in a divestment resolution at the General Assembly, I assume that this is coming down the pike.

Jewish-Christian dialogue has achieved some significant goals, but it has obviously not succeeded in getting enough Christians to understand and acknowledge the full extent of persistent anti-Semitism.  This problem of prejudice against Jews has several different elements in the context of Israel.

First, the right of Israelis and Jews to defend themselves evidently exists only when they are perceived as victims.  Once Jews are perceived as self-sufficient and secure, Jews are no longer seen as having the right to engage in the same security measures that other nations use to protect themselves.  For Jews this is painful, because it seems that the only palatable Jews in some Christian eyes are casualties (as in the holocaust) or submissive and self-loathing dependents.  What does it mean to have a right to exist, if you cannot defend yourself?

Second, Israel and Jews are held to different standards than are other countries and peoples.  Of all the nations and groups engaged in gross violation of human rights in the Middle East, mainline Protestant denominations have seen fit to condemn only Israel:  not Saudi Arabia nor Iran nor Syria, which have all engaged in various kinds of ghastly violence and oppression, including the killing of ethnic and religious minorities, mass murder, and imprisonment and execution of dissidents–not to mention promotion of anti-Semitic literature and videos.  Nor do some mainline Christians consider suicide bombings and other terrorist acts of Palestinians and others to be worthy of the kind of serious critique that they apply to Israeli actions.  Mainline denominations do not make proposals to divest from Palestinian businesses on account of their acts of terror.  In fact, divestment, and now educational boycotts (as now proposed by British higher educators), recall the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses during the 1930’s.  Apparently, in liberal Christian eyes, Israel’s human rights violations are viewed as the worst in the Middle East.  Israel has received virtually all the blame and responsibility, while Muslim nations and peoples barely register any notice for their human rights abuses.  As has happened throughout history, some Christians have developed a new twist on an old procedure to scapegoat Jews instead of recognizing the complexity and multi-faceted dimensions of a difficult problem.

Third, some Christians seem to believe that they understand anti-Semitism and can determine whether or not they are anti-Semitic.  After centuries of prejudice and persecution of Jews by Christians culminating in the holocaust, one might think that such persons would at least have the humility to keep silent on such matters.  It is true that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but one-sided resolutions that do not acknowledge the pain of Israelis, that were composed without the consultation of mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. or Israel (but with the extensive consultation of Palestinians), and that treat the conflict in terms of simplistic cliches can only lead to the conclusion that the writers and supporters of such resolutions simply do not care much for Jews.

For those like me, deeply involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, this is all rather depressing.  I have devoted my entire professional life as a scholar and teacher to studying and teaching both Judaism and Christianity.  I studied New Testament and early Judaism at Harvard and Yale and have had the privilege to teach New Testament, Hebrew Bible, comparative religion, and Jewish studies (as well as many other subjects in religion) in several different contexts.  Now I teach at a Christian seminary and have always been committed to working in this kind of interfaith and intercultural context.  From time to time, I wonder what I’m doing when I see the same problems come up again and again and again.  But sometimes you have to follow Sisyphus–just keep trying to roll that rock up the hill.

I still strongly believe in dialogue.  Otherwise, the extremists win and the vast mainstream of peace-loving human beings lose.  In addition, many members of mainline denominations do not share the political beliefs of their leaders and representatives.  Somehow, we have to reach these people and empower them.  Anti-Israel resolutions are essentially done-deals before the national meetings take place and reflect the interests of certain elites.  Jews and Israeli victims of terrorism have certainly not been part of the process.  We need to move proactively at the beginning, not at the end, of the development of these resolutions, if we want to have a significant effect.  At the same time, dialogue has to begin from a different place.  No more can we simply sit and be nice to one another and muse about our commonalities.  We have to find a way to talk about painful topics that engender strong emotions and recognize and celebrate our different approaches to life and spirituality.  Honesty has to enter into the discussion.  Self-criticism on all sides is vital.  I certainly am ready to criticize Israel where appropriate (e.g. on settlement policy), yet am still strongly Zionist.

But, in the end, enough Christians have to decide that Jews are as fully human and as fully accepted by God as are Christians.   The view that they are not is something that ideologues on the Christian left and right seem to share.  Some liberal Christians engage in dehumanization by treating Israel unjustly and expecting Jews to sit quietly and meekly while under attack, by talking primarily to far-left, anti-Zionist Jews outside of the Jewish mainstream, and by viewing Zionism as contemptible.  Some conservative Christians engage in dehumanization by promoting the idea that Jews (and other non-Christians) will not be saved, by attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, and by advocating a conflagration in the Middle East that will culminate in the second coming of Jesus and the triumph of Christianity.

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