Can Liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity open up a new dialogue on peace between Israel and Palestinians?
Delivered at the Chapel without Walls worship Service
As I watch the national movements of liberal Christianity vote in favor of resolutions targeting Israel and advocating Boycott Divest and Sanctions against the Jewish people, I along with many ask; “What happened?” Our friends with whom we have we shared our values to pursue a more just society in America have now turned against us and betrayed all those years that we worked together for the common good.” Many Jews in America are awakening to the impact of Presbyterian, Methodists and United Church of Christ proclamations, resolutions and sermons from the pulpit which invoke Christian theological doctrines of prophetic faith that lead them to identify with the suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank. That mounting energy has begun to turn the decades old solidarity between liberal Christians and Jews on its head.
What is the dilemma for Jews in light of the increasing political activism against Israel from liberal Christian denominations? How are Jews understanding the changing landscape of liberal Christianity in terms of its leadership and the support that leadership gives to causes that enact policies to punish Israel? Is there still ground for ecumenical cooperation and resolution for this growing estrangement between liberal Jews and Christians?
This past summer’s decision by the Presbyterian movement at its convention in Detroit sounded a wakeup call for Jews when they passed a resolution to Boycott and Divest and Sanction Israel by protesting against American companies who do business with Israel in the West Bank territories. Rabbis, Jewish community leaders and a growing base of the Jewish community were deeply hurt and disappointed by this resolution. It is by no means the only example of liberal denominations of Christianity voting to punish Israel for the settlements but this time the Presbyterian vote caught the attention of the Jewish community.
What we learned was that there is a deep gulf between clergy and lay leaders in this BDS movement and the mainstream Jewish community. We learned that Christian clergy who are involved in these issues have expressed deep hostility towards Israel and the idea of Zionism because of the West Bank settlements. We recognized that we had ignored the facts that many of these clergy have been involved in outreach to Palestinian Christians in this area and have developed a deepened sense of empathy and solidarity with Palestinians in refugee camps. We also learned that we had taken for granted our cherished colleagues and friends support for Israel while we were working with them on domestic causes which we shared the same commitments. Now Jews are rethinking those relationships and questioning what they see from their lens as actions tantamount to anti-Semitism from the liberal branches of Christianity.
I have spoken to colleagues from the UCC, Methodists and Presbyterian denominations and they all disavow that accusation but at the same time they tell me we are the ones who do not listen and do not see the injustices Israel has created and fostered by having those settlements which they view as illegal and by the administration of the territories where Arabs live. This has become a launching pad for the more leftists elements of these religious bodies to accuse Israel of being an Apartheid State like the old South African regime. All of these remarks and ideas are an anathema to Israel and to most Jews. Jews hear those kinds of accusations as attacks upon not only Israel but upon them as well. In many cases I see that we are speaking past each other and that each side is entrenched in their own ideologies.
As I see it now Jews feel caught in a bind between the mainstream Christian denominations who they feel betrayed by and the more conservative branches of Christendom in America who avidly support Israel but who also carry a very different political agenda that often runs contrary to liberal Judaism’s social justice orientation in America. The Jewish religious leadership asks, ‘How can we possibly work together with our cherished friends and colleagues on domestic issues when they put their efforts to resolutions that we feel are blatantly anti-Israel?
I believe that Jews feel not only betrayed but misunderstood and that still after all these decades liberal Christians do not get our connection and ultimately not just our commitment to Israel but also our fear that criticizing Israel, especially through the vicious BDS movement, leads to anti-Semitism and threatens the future of Israel and world Jewry. Jews, it is fair to say, are not absolutely united in the different ways we all speak about how to make peace with the Palestinians. What we feel is that despite Israel’s immense and powerful military infrastructure, it is still vulnerable to Arab terrorism and especially Iranian nuclear technology. Seven million people living in a region with over a hundred million Arabs. Those demographics are the lens that Jews must wear and we wonder why Christians choose not to see that aspect of our concern? The wars that rage on in the Middle East contribute to the wariness that Jews and Israelis harbor about how to make an enduring peace. The fact that Palestinians, many of whom are resistant to peace, resent Israelis and Jews’ right to be in the land contributes to the ongoing stalemate as well.
Furthermore what Christians forget is that Israel does an amazing job with its 500,000 Arab citizens by granting them full citizenship. There is an Arab jurist on the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel protects holy sites for all religions. There are some groups like the Druze community who actually enlist in the military for Israel. Are there Arab Israeli citizens who complain that they have second class status? Yes, just as there are ethnic and racial groups in America who are angry and accuse white America of racial discrimination. For a country that is 66 years old it has accomplished a great deal in these areas and it has much more work to do just like America must do with its minorities. I wonder why liberal Christians refuse to see this side of the story and only focus on one narrative of this ongoing dispute.
Jews also question why Christians, liberal Christians in particular, refuse to raise their voices to other Christian denominations in the Middle East who suffer at the hands of Arab terrorism? Why aren’t more Christians angry about and passing resolutions when the entire Christian population of large cities in Iraq like Mosul and other cities are exiled by ISIS and forced to convert to Islam if they want to live? Why aren’t Christians pointing their concern for justice against Christians who ally themselves with the Syrian President Assad? Why does it appear that their efforts and attention seem to focus exclusively on Israel? From our vantage point there seems to be a double standard and a huge disconnect between what liberal Christians say about prophetic justice and how it is applied.
We ourselves struggle with our own values as American Jews who whole heartedly support Israel and embrace the concept of Zionism with policies that individual Jews may disagree with the government of Israel. Jews have a hard time offering that critique for fear others will use it as a justification for their own deeper agendas to discredit Israel on the world stage. Of course there is a feeling that Israelis and Jews have around the world that supports Israel to the extent that we are sometimes blinded to the harsh realities of what justice means and that it must apply to Palestinians in the West Bank as well.
Jews are seeing the outbreak of anti-Semitism around the world particularly in Europe that frightens us. Today Israel is the scapegoat and with the second generation of Arabs in Europe it only heightens the concern that Jews are no longer safe not just in Israel but in Europe and ultimately the fear is that could be in America sooner than later.
We need more dialogue today than ever before. We need to bring together Jews and liberal Christians to discuss these issues rather than passing resolutions which only create more fear, enmity and alienation between long time friends. We share common Scriptures and we should use them to open up more dialogue to see to it that we do not have a parting of the ways but a pathway towards greater cooperation and understanding. I would personally like to see my Christian colleagues join me in visiting Israel and talking to all sides in this conflict and not just one sided vitriolic diatribes against one side or the other. What is tragic is that liberal Christians have missed the opportunity to be a bridge for peace and instead have taken a partisan position. I do not see it bringing the parties closer together.
I never, on the other hand, lose hope and despite the concerns I have presented this morning I am counting on the idea that leaders will take a step back and reassess the importance of keeping the communication going and working through these issues. If we can talk and even visit Israel together there is a chance we can make a difference. That would signal greater hope that peoples of faith could do more to advance the peace in this part of the world and prove how religions can make a difference towards making our world a better and safer place.