Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Presbyterian Church

Sent by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, Senior Rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

June 23, 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Faith:

There is a Jewish folktale that defines a friend as one who knows what gives his comrade pain. If we do not know what gives our fellow pain, we cannot be a friend. You have caused us deep pain, the kind of pain that penetrates the heart.

Our friendship has been ruptured not because we may disagree on any specific policy of the government of Israel. Good friends often disagree with, and criticize each other. Rather, you have evolved views that come perilously close to classic Christian animosity towards Judaism.

The recently-published study guide Zionism Unsettled is a disgrace. It is an anti-Zionist screed in the guise of intellectual depth. It is propaganda, a hit job that pulls out a few Jewish writings - frequently out of context - to support the anti-Zionist points you want to make. Every single page of the study guide is flawed and biased.

What don't you accuse Zionism of: ethnic cleansing, racial and religious superiority, and exclusiveness! The guide even goes so far as to compare Zionism with Nazism. You ask whether Paul Tillich, an advocate of Zionism, might have expressed the same prophetic critique against Zionism as he did against Nazism if he only knew how Zionism would develop. (p.38) Have you strayed so far from Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich that you would now seriously suggest that were they alive today Tillich and Niebuhr would be anti-Zionists?

You criticize Israel incessantly. But you are silent about Arab rejectionism, intolerance, and terrorism. Your minds are made up. There is little reflection, little sophistication, and little effort to understand underlying causes. There is only superficial bias: no depth of analysis and no friendship. You even ignore the reality that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are comfortable and safe, and Christian holy places are protected and open to all.

It is, indeed, tragic that there is violence in Israel and Palestinian territories. You are not the only liberal movement that seeks peace. We, too, have been fighting for peace our entire lives. But it is even more tragic that Israel has been left with no alternative but to fight against those who have never recognized her and have made it their cause to destroy her.

It is easy to sit in a convention center and debate philosophy and policy far removed from the realities of daily life. It is easy to write resolutions if you have never experienced the fear of sending your children to school in the morning and worrying about whether they will come home at night. It is easy to voice noble sentiments of love and brotherhood if you have never had to don gas masks or spend days on end in an underground shelter. It is easy to condemn the walled section of the security barrier in Bethlehem, utterly ignoring why the security apparatus was built in the first place: That Palestinian terrorists simply crossed into Israel and murdered and maimed thousands of Israelis or climbed onto rooftops in Bethlehem and sniped at Israeli civilians, shooting into homes, schools, shops and playgrounds.

Is it too much to expect fellow liberal believers to take context into account: to understand that our lives are not only about the religious ideal, but also about the real? Is it too much to expect some understanding and some sympathy from fellow religious liberals that we live in an imperfect world, and that we must struggle for justice in the world as it is? Instead, you voice what sounds to us paltry pieties and self-satisfied sanctimonies about peace and "our love for our Jewish brothers."

The test is not whether you can quote religious chapter and verse. The test is to apply religious values to a difficult reality where it takes two to love and two to practice brotherhood and two to make peace. You cannot make peace by yourself. You act as if Israel alone has the sole power and responsibility to make peace: that the Palestinians are potted plants, victims who have no power, no influence and no responsibility.

We hoped that fellow liberals would understand the full complexities of the Middle East. We hoped that fellow liberals would work with us to advance the cause of peace. Instead, you have placed yourselves on the other side. You are on the side of Israel's foes, whether this was your intention or not.

While you attack what you perceive as the exclusivist and even racist elements of Judaism, you mention in Zionism Unsettled the inclusive nature of Islam (p.50). I have no doubt that many Muslims are inclusive. I have met, and deeply respect, many of them, and we have worked together in common cause.

But it is dishonest to ignore the reality that Israel, and the West itself, are fighting not that part of Islam that is inclusive, but the part that is rejectionist. Moderate Muslims are allies in this struggle. If only Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, or just the individual teenager who blows himself up in a restaurant or a hospital were to have read your study guide and be convinced that true Islam is the way of moderation.

In the most recent Anti Defamation League survey, 93% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza express anti-Semitic views. In Lebanon the number is 78%; in Saudi Arabia, 74%, in Jordan, 81%, in Iran, 56%, and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, 74% of the population has an anti-Jewish worldview.

At this moment of anti-humanitarian, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-women's rights, anti-gay, anti-pluralistic, anti-Western tribal savageness in the Middle East - this is the moment that you chose to divest from companies trading with Israel? There is no mention of Israel's fundamental democratic character or sympathy for its struggle to survive in the world's worst neighborhood, encountering challenges the likes of which no other democracy in the world must face.

Divestment is shameful. Boycotting enterprises trading with Israel is reminiscent of dark chapters in Jewish-Christian relations that we thought were forever behind us. You have fallen in with a bad crowd, morally, philosophically and religiously. No matter how much you seek to explain or distinguish, you have fallen in with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) crowd. These are among the worst and most implacable of Israel's enemies. They are not in favor of what you say you support: two states living side-by-side in peace.

In fact, you will forgive me if I voice my doubts about whether you really do believe in a two-state solution. You made a point of emphasizing Israel's right to exist in the divestment resolution. But if, in your view, Zionism was born in original sin, why uphold Israel's right to exist? If the very basis and purpose of Zionism was to dispossess another people, as you claim in Zionism Unsettled, why now uphold, justify and cleanse a philosophy that you consider ethnic cleansing?

Rather, isn't it more natural first to have an anti-Zionist philosophy, and then to pass resolutions expressing it? That is usually how life unfolds. Statements follow beliefs. All your protestations, clarifications and softening language notwithstanding, your words speak volumes because your beliefs are clear.

You should not be comforted by the relative handful of Jewish activists and academics you have found to support your views. We are a famously argumentative, intellectually pluralistic and ideas-loving people. Jews have always disagreed with each other on everything, including as you point out, on Zionism, itself. Your Jewish supporters are marginal and unrepresentative and cannot be the slender reed upon which to justify your anti-Zionism or renew a productive partnership, if that is even what you want.

Finally, and I say this with the deepest respect, and with no intention to offend: It is not for you to decide what constitutes legitimate Jewish devotion to God. That is for Jews to decide. It is not for you to decide whether Zionism is a legitimate expression of Judaism; that is for Jews to decide. It is for you to decide only whether you will respect our understanding of Judaism.  

Perhaps there is some consolation that the vote on the divestment resolution was so close. On the other hand, the fact that it was so close in the first place is deeply concerning.

I join you in praying for peace; may it come speedily in our day. May we work ceaselessly to bring about that day when all shall sit under vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid: a day when justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In peace,

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch
Senior Rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
New York City    

No comments: