Events

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue and the Middle East in Amherst (III)


Tonight’s session took off smoothly and was cruising along nicely, only to hit some (not entirely unexpected) turbulence. Though it for a moment threatened to crash and burn, it in the end pulled out of a steep dive to accomplish a graceful landing.The omnibus theme was “Responsibility” in several senses or contexts: When is it our responsibility to criticize? How and when, in exercising our right to criticize, do we owe responsibility to others? For example, to what extent should the sensibilities of our audience shape the fact or form of our criticism?

The featured speaker was Rabbi Joyce Galaski of Rabbis for Human Rights, whose informal commentary painted in broad strokes the dynamics of Christian-Jewish relations and the diversity of internal Jewish discourse on the Israel and the Middle East.



She began by expressing her “dismay at the death and destruction in Gaza,” saying that she prayed for the injured and grieved for the dead. She hoped that the new US president would be able to lead both sides toward peace.

The starting point (echoing the film that we viewed in the first session) was her observation that the history of Christian antisemitism “is what made the Holocaust possible” even though the Holocaust was not the action of Christianity, as such. “If we are to be allies—as Christians and Jews fighting antisemitism, or Palestinians and Jews seeking peace”—we need to begin with “honest discussion” of our past relations.

1) The Holocaust: Whereas Palestinians tend to view the Holocaust as a European problem for which they are forced to bear the burden (colonialism and expropriation), Jews generally see the Holocaust as confirming the need for a place of refuge. Rabbi Galaski cited the plight of those who, on the eve of World War II, could find a haven neither in the United States nor in Palestine.

2) Israel and American Jewry: As Aaron Berman indicated last week, most American Jews were not especially supportive of Zionism (for a variety of reasons) until the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Even today, the Jewish community is more diverse in its views than outsiders may realize. Rabbi Galaski presented a spectrum of opinion, ranging from AIPAC (which she described as tending automatically to support any Israeli action, whether for peace or war) to groups that are supportively critical, such as Brit Tzedek, Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbis for Human Rights. She also provided the audience with some sense of the vast diversity of opinion about questions of war and peace among Israelis themselves.

[All this was more or less standard fare—though by and large new to this group, and therefore essential. The most engaging moments came in the next section, in which Rabbi Galaski attempted to tackle some of the subtleties of criticism and dialogue.]

3) Making a smooth transition from the previous topic, she proceeded to complicate what might otherwise seem a simple topic: the right of criticism. Why, she asked, do so many Jews “freak out” when they hear criticism of Israel? It is not mere resistance to hard truths or outrage at falsehoods, she explained, but a real fear for communal solidarity and safety. Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not simply a religion, but a complex amalgamation of beliefs, culture, and ethnicity entailing global peoplehood.

Politically conservative (or merely cautious) Jews, hearing her criticize human rights abuses in Israel, sometimes accuse her of “giving ammunition to the enemy.” The natural reaction is a defensive one, but to her great credit, Rabbi Galaski confessed, “I sometimes worry about that myself. I worry that my words will get twisted by people who work to destroy Israel, and even kill all the Jews.”

It was a heartfelt confession and a powerful moment, for she put her finger on the most sensitive wound. Although Christians of course have the right to express their views on the Middle East, “some of the criticism of Israel is violently antisemitic,” especially in Europe, as seen during the recent conflict: “There are still those sentiments and there aren’t just a few loonies.” She cited the ever more common cries of “Kill the Jews!” or “Jews to the gas!” at public protests against the actions of the IDF in Gaza.

[This was all excellent as far as it went, though by focusing on the completely outré discourse, she chose to attack the isolated target of opportunity rather than the more numerous and difficult ones: Almost everyone—as the sighs and groans in the audience tonight Indicated—is horrified to hear violent or exterminationist rhetoric. By its very presence, however, this ultimate extreme discourse makes another, scarcely less vile one appear tolerable by comparison: the incessant and monomaniacal criticism of Israel, singling out that state, among all others, for opprobrium and condemning it in the most extreme terms as a “racist” entity—“apartheid,” “Nazi.” Anyone examining videos of leftist demonstrations or postings on “progressive” blogs and discussion boards in the US (yes, for sadly, a significant sector of the left has callously abandoned its honorable tradition) will find similar phenomena here in nominally respectable settings. (More on all this in future postings.)]

Rabbi Galaski went on to note that there is “demonization of Jews in the Islamic world,” including lands outside the Middle East, such as Pakistan, though she added, “it is a relatively new phenomenon.” She also cited the historical record of Jewish-Muslim coexistence.

[A basically sound though greatly simplified version of the traditional view. As noted earlier on these pages, there is now more debate as to the relation between indigenous religious and imported political elements of Islamist antisemitism.]

She read passages from the Hamas Charter/Covenant, quite correctly calling it a hate-filled document that borrowed from European anitsemitic conspiracy theory and would be ludicrous, were it not so dangerous. (Earlier in these pages, we have cited the same passages, in which Hamas blames the Jews not only for capitalism, imperialism, war, revolution, and the persecution of Islam but also for the Rotary and Lions’ Clubs.) She noted, however, that she had never read it until now.

[This was, frankly, an astonishing admission. To be sure, one’s moral compass is not entirely dependent on detailed historical knowledge, yet it is difficult to see how one can fully understand the Middle East conflict without understanding the ideology and aims of one of the major actors. And how else can one understand the ferocity of the Israeli response to Hamas attacks from Gaza?]

“Is Zionism racism?” she asked. “No: for it to be racism, the Jews would have to be a race.”

[It was the right answer for the wrong reason, and in fact, the weakest point of the talk.

Her general point—that Jews come from various regions of the world and are a religion rather than a race was quite true—and, on some deeper level, irrelevant. To the extent that Israel’s most intransigent critics know this, they don’t care.

The charge that “Zionism is racism”—enshrined in the infamous UN resolution of 1975, repealed in 1991 but never totally removed from the consciousness of Israel’s enemies—is not that the Jews are a race (though there’s a complicated new debate and political struggle on that plane, too; and the latest research does actually point to some striking patterns in genetic makeup), but rather, that the Jews have set themselves up as a privileged group that institutionally discriminates against Arabs, through the policies of the occupation—or the very essence of the Jewish state within the Green Line (depending on the animus of the critic).]

She concluded by sharing the insight of a Christian colleague into strategies for effective dialogue: He had learned that, “If I start from a place of showing that I am opposed to antisemitism and support Israel’s right to exist, then it is possible to have a safe conversation.”

As she put it, “Knowing history is one of the things on the road to building trust.”

As a historian, I of course could not agree more. As the discussion session showed, both historical understanding and trust are still sadly lacking in some quarters.

Most of the questions were well-meaning, but the same visitor to the parish who in the first session repeatedly disrupted the moderators with antisemitic remarks attempted again to monopolize the floor with a string of observations and accusations, including the following:
• “perhaps in Europe, where the television is not so influenced by AIPAC, people know the truth”
• “ours [=the media] is [sic] slanted toward Israel as much as it can be”
• “It’s hard to imagine that 80 percent of Israelis have televisions yet support the war in Gaza”
• “Israelis are like the Germans going to the concentration camps and watching and cheering”
[indicative of her level of historical knowledge: even leaving aside the inappropriateness of the parallel, no such thing ever happened, and in fact, the Nazis did all they could to keep the extermination secret.]




To their credit, the clergy again behaved with considerable aplomb. After waiting as long as possible in hopes that the problem would resolve itself, they stepped in firmly but gently. Rev. Hirschfeld perfectly summarized the problem when he observed that the person was making declarations rather than posing questions, and further cautioned, “You are not addressing the State of Israel here. You are addressing, rather, someone who is trying to work for peace.” When the provocation continued, Rev. Bullitt-Jonas rang a gong and imposed a period of silence.

Carolyn Oppenheim, a member of the audience who is a local head of Brit Tzedek, responding to encouragement from those around her, then took the podium. She explained why she was so dedicated to peace-work, but why, when she encountered hostile comments such as these, she was “scared.” Extemporaneously but eloquently, she clearly distinguished between supportive criticism of Israel and bigotry. The audience responded with spontaneous applause.

Far from achieving her purpose, then, the disrupter actually underscored the points that Rabbi Galaski had been trying to make. (This is what we refer to as irony—or the cunning of history.)

* * *

The session closed with brief remarks by two parishioners, as a forestaste of longer presentations that they will give to the parish separately next month. Each has been involved in what she sees as work on behalf of Middle East peace, though from very different perspectives.

The first speaker was Ruth Hooke, a fabled and peripatetic local activist on behalf of all causes “progressive,” from participation in the activities of the “Raging Grannies” (among whom she is known as the "Grandmother Superior"), to trips to Haiti and Bolivia and protests against the School of the Americas and Guantanamo prison, to the local demonstrations of “Women in Black.” In particular, she has been involved with the local branch of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, with a focus on Palestine, including the current Gaza conflict. Her topic here was a trip to Israel and Palestine in conjunction with a conference organized by Sabeel—in her words, “a Palestinian Christian liberation theology organization which is working to bring peace and justice to the Holy Land.”

Almost every experience of the trip left her “very impressed,” but in particular the conference, which compared the Palestinian “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe,” referring to the results of the creation of Israel) of 1948 with the Holocaust, and a corresponding tour of some of the over 500 Arab villages that Israel, she said, had destroyed in the course of driving out some 750,000 Palestinians.

She praised her hosts:

“I have a very high opinion of the Arabs, especially the Christians, many of whom have been forced to leave . . . . We saw lovely Arab dance, music, architecture, storytelling, poetry, the whole great riches. I was very impressed by the amazing works of the Palestinian culture: that’s why I’m wearing this dress!”

[The tone of this enthusiastic description, unwittingly reminiscent of the orientalist travelogues of nineteenth-century westerners, echoed that of the talk as a whole.  The audience may have come away without realizing that Sabeel is a highly controversial organization.

The topic of the conference should have been a signal, of course:  Whatever one thinks of the causes and consequences of the flight of Palestinian refugees during and after the Israeli War of Independence, it is not equivalent--even on the psychological level--to the genocide perpetrated against the Jews but scant years before, and the ulterior motives behind such false analogies are not hard to discern.

Athough Sabeel ostensibly advocates pacifism and reconciliation, it in fact relativizes Arab acts of violence by portraying them exclusively as “products of [Israel’s] own making." It loses no opportunity to delegitimize the Jewish state, branding it as racist and apartheid.  Sabeel founder Naim Ateek--whom Hooke called a "hero for peace"--only grudgingly acknowledges Israel's "need—although not its right—to exist," and says it should have been created (if at all) in Germany rather than the Middle East.  In seeking the security of a state of their own, he charges, the Jews have abandoned their noble "vocation of suffering."  (How inconsiderate of them.)  Sabeel at every turn therefore seeks to undercut any biblical historical or religious connection to a modern Jewish state (though often using "Christian Zionism" as the nominal target), while appropriating--and if necessary reversing--Scriptural images so as to support the Palestinian cause.  Thus, Arab suicide bombers are like Samson, and Israelis are like Philistines (ironically, of course, the Palestinians derive their name from the Philistines).  In so doing, Sabeel does not scruple to draw on discredited Christian supersessionist "replacement theory" and the traditional Christian rhetoric of deicide, identifying the Palestinian people as a whole with Jesus and speaking of “Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified” by the “Israeli government crucifixion system."  Sadly, these are precisely the theological roots and branches of antisemitism that the first session in our series was devoted to identifying and calling before the tribunal of conscience.  Despite the aforementioned coyness when it comes to Israel's past and future, Sabeel's preferred solution to the conflict is evidently the dissolution of Israel in the proverbial new single state.

Denunciations of Sabeel for bigotry have come from quarters ranging from critics of antisemitism and anti-Israel policy within the Christian churches, and the Anti-Defamation League, to left-wing Jewish peace activists who struggle mightily to sympathize with Sabeel’s general orientation (1, 2).

It will be interesting to see what results from the fuller presentation on February 1: specifically, whether the speakers will in fact address any of these issues or whether members of the audience will have to demand that they do so.]

* * *

DeAnne Riddle’s presentation, by contrast, reflected a deeper involvement with the issues, more in keeping with the spirit of the program. She explained how her background—as the daughter of a UN official posted to the Middle East in the 1950s—had helped to spark her lifelong interest in the region and its tragic problems. She began to become actively involved in 2000, when prospects for peace seemed high. The collapse of those negotiations and hopes inspired her to learn more and become still more active.


She described how her experience as one of several non-Jewish participants in a Rabbis for Human Rights trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority this past autumn had enhanced her understanding of both sides and the path to peace.   She was “incredibly impressed” by the organization and the way that its ethical teachings were “based on Scriptural texts”:
• love the neighbor and stranger as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34)
• “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
• “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24)
Noting the harmony with the teachings of Jesus as embodied in his command to love one’s neighbor and the Sermon on the Mount,” she concluded:

“We have so much in common and so much to bring us together if we just follow the precepts that we are given.”

It was an entirely appropriate way to end –and a lesson in how to conduct respectful dialogue.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

25 January: Burns Day

With all the excitement of National Pie Day (23 Jan.) still fresh in their minds, average Americans could be excused for forgetting that other cultures have important holidays of their own.

Today is Burns Day:  the great day of celebration for Scotland's great literary icon. And it's a special one:  the 250th birth anniversary.

This year, however, controversy stalks the poet.

Historian Michael Fry questioned Burns's fitness as a role model, while some replied that a cultural role model did not require emulation of all aspects of his life, and others in effect just said: "lighten up!"
"Burns was a drunk, misogynistic, racist philanderer," he said. "Perhaps he was not untypical of Scots, but we have to wonder whether this is the right image for the modern Scotland. By all means, let us celebrate the poetry according to its merits. But, in the same critical spirit, let us deal honestly with the man who wrote that poetry."

Describing modern Scots acting like Burns, Mr Fry said: "We could repeatedly get drunk. In this condition, the males among us could 'lay' one woman after another, following discussion of their respective merits in dirty talk with our drouthie cronies.

"Needless to say, this would be unprotected sex performed in a spirit of utter indifference to potential pregnancies, amang the rigs o'barley perhaps. Irksome consequences would be the females' own silly fault."

He said: "It is only right to mark Burns' 250th anniversary in a literary sense. But in 2009, his example, in a practical sense, could well send Scotland straight down the tubes.

"Are there not, at the very least, other heroes preferable for a period of adversity? It is difficult to see Burns as an inspiration for testing times."

Peter Westwood, director of the Robert Burns World Federation and editor of the Burns Chronicle, dismissed Mr Fry's criticism and said the poet was a good role model. "There was no way he could have produced the great work that his did during his 37 years if he was always drunk and chasing women," he said.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Robert Burns is an international cultural icon and one of Scotland's favourite sons. He was both a man of his time and of all time. He wouldn't have been human without flaws, and his egalitarian ideals have helped cement his universal and timeless appeal."

The Reverend Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, said: "Rabbie Burns used his educational opportunities to the best possible effect, and was an inspiration for creativity. These are good attributes for any role model to have. All of us have human frailties and none of us are perfect."

Playwright Liz Lochhead said the poet should be celebrated for his work, not life-style. "This is complete rubbish," she said. "It's not relevant to his poetry, it's not the point. We don't look at him for a way to live our lives. We should enjoy Burns as a great poet whose work means a lot to a lot of people.

"Burns' poetry spoke about the wealth of human experience. Of course, I wouldn't look to him as a feminist role model, but he's not a role model, he's a great poet."  (full article)

The BBC treats Burns better, and BBC Radio Scotland has launched an evolving archive that will hold recordings of all of Burns's works by Scottish actors.   Maddeningly, however, if one actually tries to listen, one gets the message, "not available in your area" (a regular topic of frustration regarding other pages, too). Fortunately, one can already download several podcasts.

Here's a backgrounder on the genesis and execution of the project.

No matter what the year, however, the day should be marked with a proper Burns Night dinner.  

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama Inauguration Honors Black Civil War Soldiers: Amherst is part of the story


The Saint-Gaudens memorial to Col. Robert
Gould Shaw and the Mass 54th on Boston 
Common, opposite the State House
lecture by David Lubin (Dartmouth, 2007)

The presidential transition is heavy with symbolism, both coincidental and contrived, beginning with the fact that the inauguration of the first African-American president follows on the heels of the Martin Luther King holiday.  

One of the nicer pieces of deliberate symbolism is that (as noted in an earlier posting) the heritage of the first all-black Army regiment--of "Glory" fame--will be doubly represented in the parade:  by both the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment reenactors.

That we have an active 54th is a situation that dates only from this autumn and is something of a story in itself.  At the suggestion of Major General Joseph Carter, the first African-American commander of the Commonwealth's National Guard, Deval Patrick--the first African-American governor of the Commonwealth--redesignated the state National Guard Ceremonial Unit as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in honor of its famous predecessor.

As chance would have it, the 54th is also part of Amherst's history, and this is our 250th anniversary year.  Although the Mass 54th is famous as the first all-black regiment, African-Americans enlisted in other units as well:  in the case of Amherst residents, in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.  

Twenty-one black residents of the town served in the war (†=killed):
54th Massachusetts Volunteers

• Jason Champlin †
• Charles A. Finnemore
• Sanford Jackson †
• Francis W. Jennings
• William H. H. Jennings
• Alexander Taylor
• James Thompson

5th Massachusetts Cavalry

• Samuel Freeman
• Jarvis W. Jackson †
• Winsor Jackson
• William Jennings
• Howard E. Paxen
• Joseph J. Solomon
• Loreno Sucland
• Charles H. Thompson
• Christopher Thompson
• Henry Thompson †
• John Thompson † 
• Charles Turner
• Charles Waters
• William Williamson
The story of Sanford Jackson is the most dramatic.  In 1840, he was one of several African-American residents of Amherst who forcibly intervened to prevent a young African-American servant, Angeline Palmer, from being sold into slavery by her employers in a neighboring town.  Although temporarily jailed for abducting Palmer and keeping her in hiding, Sanford Jackson and his fellow rescuers were in fact treated as heroes in Amherst.  Jackson later married Palmer.  He was one of three Jackson brothers who enlisted in the Union Army; only one came back alive. Sanford took part in the now-famous assault on Fort Wagner but died soon afterwards of his wounds and was buried in South Carolina.

(photo:  Alan Root)

Sanford Jackson is commemorated on the history mural in West Cemetery: Since we have no portrait likeness, the artist used the features of a soldier depicted on a contemporaneous recruiting poster.  Sanford Jackson stands behind teamster Henry Jackson (no relation), who played a leading role in the rescue of Angeline Palmer.

Selected press coverage of the 54th and the inauguration:

• Emily Rooney, "The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment prepares for the presidential inauguration," WGBH TV [video]
• Foon Rhee, "54th Massachusetts regiment to march in parade," Boston Globe, 8 Dec.
• "Presidential Inauguration Committee Invites Massachusetts Residents to Perform in 56th Inaugural Parade," TuBoston.com, 8 Dec.
• Colneth Smiley Jr., "Local brigade brings 'Glory' to inauguration parade, Boston Herald, 14 Dec.
• Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, "National Guard details support to inauguration," National Guard website, 18 Dec.
• Stephen Kaufman, "Obama Inauguration Will Honor Black Civil War Volunteers," America.gov, 6 Jan.
• Frances Folsom, "Massachusetts 54th Regiment to march in President Obama's inaugural parade," Boston Landmarks Examiner, 13 Jan.
• WBZ TV Worcester:  "Famous 54th Regiment Gears Up for Inauguration," 14 Jan. [video]
• John M. Guilfoil, "Mattapan reenactment group revives Civil War regiment for inauguration," Boston Globe, 11 Jan.
• Susan Anderson, "The history of the soldiers in the inauguration parade," The Loop blogs, 14 Jan.
• David Pevear, "Dracut woman to join Inauguration Day salute to Civil War sacrifice," Lowell Sun, [updated] 19 Jan.
• Bob Haskell, "54th Regiment makes history again," Cape Cod Times, 19 Jan.


(Visit this blog again for updates of Amherst 250th celebrations and commemoration of our African-American heritage.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wanted: A Wikipedia Entry for Radical Historian Harvey Goldberg

A reader who spotted my passing references to Harvey Goldberg in earlier postings on George Mosse and the Humanities Building, at the University of Wisconsin brought to my attention a plea from another blogger.

"Greenbush Boy" (a.k.a. Sidney Iwanter), in "Manning the Barricades One Last Time," notes that, in the second half of the 20th century, the powerful University of Wisconsin History Department produced a number of famous and influential historians. Most, including US social and intellectual historian Merle Curti,  antiwar activist and foreign policy revisionist William Appleman Williams, and pioneering scholar of Nazism George Mosse, have their own Wikipedia entries, some of which are extensive.

Why, he asks, does Harvey Goldberg, radical historian and historian of radicalism, lack one?

It's a very good question.  I don't have the expertise to create it, but somewhere, among his students and devotees, there must be someone who is capable of doing so. Why not?  It would be a nice good deed with which to begin the new year.

Montague: Victory for Preservation of Native American Site at Proposed Airport Expansion

Since 2007, the discovery of piles of old stones near the proposed runway expansion of the small Turners Falls airport north of here has produced mystery and controversy. The issue now seems resolved.

The FAA and its archaeological expert argued that these were the remains of 19th-century wall, and the state historic preservation officer likewise doubted that the site merited inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.  Native American groups represented the Narragansett, Aquinnah-Wampanoag and Mashpee-Wampanoag tribes, by contrast, argued that the stones were remnants of a "sacred ceremonial hill."

According to the Boston Globe:
The history contained within this particular site was uncovered through an attempt to do additional work, [tribal Historic Preservation Officer John] Brown said. "When they cut the trees back on the ceremonial hill, it gave us a bird's-eye view of the magnitude of that site and its relationship to the other sites in the area that were already uncovered."

The tribes believe the stone feature is the central component of a "viewscape," an observation point for distant peaks and lakes to the south and west. And they provided evidence to the National Register that the stones mark celestial events.
The National Register, quoted here in the Greenfield Recorder, ultimately agreed:
''The site is central to the cosmology of the combined tribes and the traditions that have marked Native American sacred and ceremonial practices for numerous generations,'' according to a ruling from the keeper.
''Located in the middle of the Connecticut River region of New England, this site also possesses the potential to yield important information about traditional Native American practices, beliefs and sacred rituals.''
Reacting to the ruling from the National Register, John Brown, tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe, said, ''From our point of view, we simply used modern science to confirm things we already knew from our own history about our own science. The technology of today confirmed the same technology from hundreds and thousands of years ago. The observations of today were no different than the ones we had then. We are not the simple folks that many people think tribes were.
Last fall, the FAA agreed to inclusion of the site on the National Register, and now, the government of Montague has voted to protect the hill from development.

• Arn Albertini, "Indian stones to be protected at Turners Falls airport," Greenfield Recorder, 6 Jan.

Reader comments in the Globe were generally favorable to the decision, though a few, sadly, made disparaging remarks about Native Americans or their alleged cynicism or mercenary behavior, prompting sharp responses from other readers.  Comments in the Greenfield Recorder, by contrast, although including one particularly nasty comment about Native Americans (from an out-of-stater), generally focused more on the merits of the airport project, as such.

Interfaith Dialogue and the Middle East in Amherst (II)



Continuing the educational series at Grace Episcopal Church, my friend and colleague, Hampshire College historian and Dean of the Faculty, Aaron Berman, provided an impressively compact but thorough overview of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Judging from the immediate response and some private follow-up, it was immensely successful.

He began by saying that what is happening now--i.e. the fighting in Gaza--is inevitable. 

[What he presumably meant--judging from his eventual conclusions--was that it was an outgrowth of two irreconcilable nationalisms, but it would have been helpful to elaborate on the nuances, for such a statement could be misleading.  After all, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, and the leading world powers are all agreed on the necessity and desirability of a negotiated peace based on the existence of two states.  As always, the devil is in the details, and the subjective political conditions on each side are less than ideal, but the fact remains that, for the first time in a century, there is a fragile but real consensus.

If  "inevitable" implies equating Hamas and its policies with Palestinian "nationalism," this could distort the nature of both, which was surely not the intention behind the remark.  Intersecting sets might be the appropriate image.  On the one hand, Hamas represents a powerful Islamist ideology that serves as a vehicle for yet also exists independent of Palestinian nationalism, as such--as many supporters of the Palestinian cause would be the first to argue.  On the other hand, there is perhaps more truth in the equation than Aaron and others would care to acknowledge, for the Islamist element of Palestinian nationalism and anti-Zionism, although suppressed by the dominant "anti-colonialist" discourse of the late 20th century, in fact played a large role in the formative years of the interwar era and has become increasingly prominent in recent years, whether as tactic or doctrine.]

He adopted a method that he has used to excellent effect in his classes and teach-ins, showing how, when viewed objectively or in the abstract, each nationalism makes perfect sense in context or on its own terms.

[Truth be told, this statement could of course be applied to virtually any historical phenomenon.  It's simply a useful reminder that an audience needs to strive for a certain critical distance or empathy, as the case may be. What he perhaps means in addition is that each position has some intrinsic and not merely subjective validity. This would be in keeping with the sound notion of two just causes.]

The premise was that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism developed out of their own local contexts, and then, as they came into conflict, also developed in response to one another.  He thus sketched the origins of Zionism as a response to European antisemitism, and Palestinian nationalism as part of the larger phenomenon of Arab nationalism in the late Ottoman Empire and era of imperialism.

He organized the talk around four historical turning points, showing how the result of each was to shape attitudes and policies that in turn influenced later development.

The First World War, in which the British and the French simultaneously pursued three at least potentially conflicting agendas:  privately dividing the postwar Ottoman Empire into their respective client states, while encouraging both Jewish and Arab expectations of sovereignty--the former, of course, in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which expressed support for a "Jewish national home in Palestine."

Aaron explained the workings of the League of Nations mandates for the future Arab states and Palestine, as well as the colonization policies of the Zionists, which depended on cooperation with Arab landlords, but almost inevitably caused conflict with former Arab tenant farmers of the purchased properties.

As he correctly pointed out (though in perhaps rather compressed form for this audience), not all early Zionists expected or desired statehood, at least in the short run, for they saw Zionism as the means to cultural and human renewal.  The unavoidable shift, as he correctly suggests, came at the latest with the rise of Nazism, which created a refugee problem for which there was no solution in Europe or the Americas.

The crisis of the late 1930s in many ways arose from this new state of affairs:  the Arab revolt of 1936 (in which the British rulers and the Jews found themselves on the same side), which led to the report of the Peel Commission, recommending a division of the land between Arabs and Jews (the Arabs rejected it out of hand, and the Jews were divided, as a result of which the plan went nowhere).  When, in the 1939 White Paper, the British reneged on the Balfour Declaration by limiting immigration and in effect killing the prospect of Jewish sovereignty, the Zionists intensified efforts to create a state and to that end also created an underground resistance movement now opposed to the British.

Partition and war, 1947-1949: The United Nations partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, in which Arabs reject the decision and attack the new Jewish state that comes into being.  Among the consequences (aside from the survival of the latter) is the creation of the "Palestinian refugee problem" and the transformation of Palestinian nationalism into a disaporic nationalism (to that extent, ironically, similar to the old Jewish one).

The 1967 war, as a result of which Israel finds itself in control not only of a vast amount of formerly or nominally Arab territory, but also a larger Arab population.  Contrary to Israeli expectations, the Arab nations refuse to negotiate over the territory. Israel establishes scattered settlements in the territories, along the lines of what it expects will be future revised borders. A major shift occurs a decade later, however, with the fall of the Labor government and accession to power of the right-wing Likud, which embarks upon a much more extensive settlement policy, including establishments in Arab population centers that had previously been off-limits. Palestinian nationalism, for its part, now in practice becomes disconnected from the historical Pan-Arab ideal and begins to take on a new identity of its own.

As Aaron correctly points out (most scholars are in the habit of making this distinction, although it is unfamiliar to a popular audience), what we have here is a series of shifts between Jewish/Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts--in a word, intercommunal vs. international.  The former dominated in the pre-1948 era, the latter between 1948 and 1967 (or 1973).  At least since the beginning of the "Intifada," we seem to have witnessed a return to the former, though growing Iranian influence and the rise of Hizbullah in the past few years in turn revive the simultaneous prospect of the latter.

* * *

His  conclusion was not only that the "two-state solution" that has been at the heart of all peacemaking efforts is becoming ever less likely, but also that it may not be a good thing.  At the outset, Aaron expressed skepticism concerning the possibility of creating states or making peace by "drawing lines"--which is also to say: partition of territory. 

At the end, he confessed that he had in the past few years become ever more attracted to the idea of the so-called one-state solution.

This was of course the most surprising and problematic aspect of the talk.  Leaving aside the inevitable oversimplifications of any brief presentation addressed to a general audience (any teacher, blogger, or journalist can empathize) and one's own specific quibbles regarding historical and political interpretation, this remains a stumbling block.  

When western intellectuals propose this solution, it is generally out of either rank cynicism or sheer fantasy.  In the former case, those who promote it most vociferously are precisely those who were never comfortable with the existence of a sovereign Jewish state.  Some in fact are the same ones who used to advocate its violent destruction.  Now that that prospect seems remote, the new catch-phrase functions as the postmodern equivalent of the old revolutionary call for a single "secular democratic state in Palestine" (almost nobody was fooled by that one, either).  Still, it has proven attractive to some idealists, as well as to those who worry that the two populations are now too tightly linked to permit an effective disengagement, given that the moderate forces on each side are too weak to deliver the necessary concessions.  

To be sure, the latter situation is deeply worrisome, but the idea of a one-state solution is just that:  an ideal outcome with no realistic means of attaining it.  Anyone can come up with that sort of solution.

There was a very narrow--or perhaps illusory--window that seemed to offer a glimpse of a binational state (one can argue as to whether the window was real, and if so, in what year it slammed shut), but the fact is that it has not been an option for decades, and certainly not in the 60 years since the founding of Israel.  Given that both nationalisms have been so intent upon achieving sovereignty, and thus de facto separation, it is impossible to see how or even why both would voluntarily agree on such an outcome under the present circumstances.  

To be sure, Palestinians have taken to brandishing it as a rhetorical device, a threat, or both:  Give us our own state, or give us the vote, in which case we'll out-vote you and take your state.  Not likely.  As the recent Gaza operation should have demonstrated, the Jewish commonwealth is not about to vote itself out of existence any time soon.

In other words, the very circumstances that would make a voluntary one-state solution possible would in effect obviate the need for it.

More likely than the one-state solution is a protracted situation of stalemate or war, whether intercommunal or international. Those who wish to prevent it would be wise to focus on the pursuit of the difficult but nonetheless ultimately desirable, feasible, and unavoidable goal of a mutually agreeable separation rather than pipe dreams. Pursuit of unrealistic dreams on both sides is responsible for the majority of the suffering in this conflict over the years. Haven't we learned that lesson yet?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Revolting Royals: Proof That the American Revolution Was Necessary


How is one to react to the news that yet another British "Royal" has provoked a scandal, and not by public drunkeness or fornication or any of those typical foibles of the upper classes? As the Scotsman reports:
PRINCE Harry faced a barrage of criticism yesterday after video footage emerged of him using the term "Paki" about an army colleague.
He was forced to apologise after he was shown referring to an Asian member of his platoon as "our little Paki friend".

In the footage, filmed three years ago while he was a cadet at Sandhurst Military College, the prince is heard calling another officer cadet a "f****** raghead".

Politicians, race relations campaigners and Muslim leaders led criticism of the prince. (full article)
How to react?  Well, not with surprise. After all, this is the dolt who thought it great--and harmless--fun to dress as a Nazi for a costume party. Both acts betray a callous indifference to decency and good taste, but the public culture of camp, as we have noted here (1, 2) has already eroded the barriers to the trivialization of historical racism and suffering.  We still draw the line, however--or so one thought--at racist comments directed at living human beings.  It is therefore curious that the newspapers scruple to spell out a perfectly good term of earthy speech but leave untouched the offending terms. Which is the more offensive?  Personally, I'd rather have them write out "fucking" and camouflage the terms of hate speech with the fig leaves of asterisks.

One wonders:  Only about a year and a half ago, Prince Harry said he was looking forward to a military career and was therefore "very disappointed" that, for security reasons, he would not be allowed to join his squadron in Iraq. Well, why: because he wanted to help one set of "r*****ds" build their country, or because he wanted to kill the other set of "r*****ds" who were trying to prevent them from doing so?  Maybe it's a good thing he stayed home.

One hates to say, "I told you so," but. . . the lesson is clear. In the Bible, the Israelites, living under judges, ask for a king, and God says, "Well I don't know whether that's such a good idea. Think it over, or you'll be sorry" (or words to that effect).  And sure enough (the rest is history).

Fast-forward to 1776. Tom Paine explained the problem very clearly in Common Sense:
Near three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases, where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lord of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of Kings, he need not wonder, that the Almighty ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove of a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven.
   Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.
. . . . . . . . . . .
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honors of his cotemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
Although Harry is only third in line for the throne, there's no mistaking which one he is.

The English almost solved their problem in 1649. The French did likewise in 1793 (we celebrate the anniversary in ten days). We like to tell ourselves that today's constitutional monarchs and their feckless spawn have relatively little power--but perhaps they have more than they and we know: They make headlines when they denigrate Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, they debase themselves and discredit their own country and society.

Off with his head. He won't miss it because, obviously, he hasn't been using it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Evolution: Preaching the Truth of Darwin in the Muslim World



I was delighted to pick up the weekend edition of the Hampshire Gazette today and to see a big cover story on my friend and colleague, Salman Hameed. Although Salman is an astronomer by training, both his personal interests and the definition of his position at Hampshire College--in "integrated science and humanities"--have led him to the history of science.

Among his specialities, as reported earlier here, are the history of Islamic science and the history of Islamic creationist theory, which is much less studied than Western Christian creationism and related beliefs. Part of this work involves talking to Muslim audiences about evolution--especially in his native Pakistan. His most ambitious outreach project is projected documentary on evolution and origins for a Pakistani audience--an reflection of the inspiration that he, as a teenager, felt, when he first saw Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series.

Representative quote:
The Muslim population's acceptance of evolution is necessary for the religiously bound nations to excel in science and technology - advancements that can ultimately yield power and prestige on a global scale, Hameed said.

"We simply cannot afford a mass rejection of evolution by one-sixth of the world's population," said Hameed, referring to the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

"Muslims are already behind in contributions to science and technology," Hameed said. "If they reject evolution, there goes the hope that they could catch up. How many geniuses in this large population could we lose because of a culture that rejects evolution?"
(full article: Kristin Palpini, "Darwin's disciple: Hampshire professor promotes theory of evolution in Muslim world")

The US, however, has no reason to be particularly smug. As the article points out, the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution has slipped from 45 percent (already a disgrace) to 40 percent (scary) since 1986--whereas 80 percent of the French (could this explain why they look down on us?) and 60 percent of Italians accept evolution as true.

This issue of the paper also includes as a pendant an interview with Northampton author Barry Werth on his Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America (Random House, 2009).

Representative quote:
Q: Why did Americans embrace Darwin's "The Origin of Species" in the late 1800s?

A: (Evolution) was an extraordinarily popular idea, much more popular here than in any other country, except maybe Germany. It fit neatly with America's idea about itself: capitalism, the economy, we had just fought a war (the Civil War) in which one side won and one side lost and the victors in business and in government and in war all felt this was part of the natural process. The winners went on to reproduce and create the future.
(full article: Kristin Palpini, "Why Darwin's theory slipping in U.S.")

Jesus-Newton Smackdown Update 2

As promised (or threatened), physicist Bob Park offers the first installment (9 January) of the comparison of the influence of Jesus and isaac Newton.

No big surprises, which means some nice wit, but also some shallow views, for example in what passes for discussion of history and religion--but no one turns to that source for historical or theological analysis, and the self-deprecating aspect of the wit helps to make up for some of the duds in the argument. His main point (neither surprising nor subtle): Religion has brought us stupidity and war; science has brought us knowledge and peace:
1. JESUS: EARTH IS RIVEN BY CONTINUOUS RELIGIOUS WARS.
WN promised to contrast Jesus of Nazareth with Isaac Newton, who came
along 16 centuries later. What was I thinking? A third of the all the
people on Earth count themselves as followers of Jesus. Do I need 2.2
billion people mad at me? They believe Jesus, an itinerant Galilean
preacher and healer, to be the divine Son of God. All that’s known about
him comes from the four gospels. The earliest copies are in Greek and,
according to biblical scholar Bart Ehrman in “Misquoting Jesus” (Harper,
2005) they contain a multitude of mistakes and intentional alterations by
earlier translators. In 585BC, long before Jesus, the Greek philosopher
Thales of Mellitus concluded that every observable effect must have a
physical cause. The discovery of causality is now taken to mark the birth
of science, and Thales is immortalized as its father. But causality also
means the death of superstition. What went on in the 1600 years between
Jesus and Newton? It was the Middle Ages; religious superstition was the
dominant belief.

2. NEWTON: NO WARS ARE FOUGHT OVER SCIENTIFIC DISPUTES.
Himself a devout Christian, Newton was a Unitarian; he did not accept the
doctrine of the Holy Trinity and spent more time on his religious writings
than on the laws of motion. He discovered the laws of gravity and motion,
and invented calculus to derive the orbits of the planets. Also an
alchemist and brilliant experimentalist, he used a prism to decomposed
sunlight into its constituent colors, and invented the reflecting
telescope to avoid chromatic aberration. His greatest contribution was to
show that natural law can be described by differential equations, leading
to hope that science may someday explain everything. There is, in any
case, no other way of knowing. See: Robert L. Park, "Superstition: Belief
in the Age of Science" (Princeton, 2008). Newton became a bit strange in
later life (who doesn’t?) and worked on a literal interpretation of the
Bible.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sunday, 11 Jan. Amherst 250th Lectures: The Native American Presence

Although modern Native Americans did not have permanent settlements in the Amherst area, it was an important transit route and site for hunting and fishing camps.

Elizabeth Chilton will present “Native American History and Archaeology in Amherst Before Euro-American Settlement.”

Sunday, January 11th, 2:00 p.m.

First Congregational Church, 165 Main St. Amherst.

This is the first in a series of monthly lectures hosted by the Amherst Historical Society in celebration of Amherst’s 250th anniversary.

Full lecture series information.

In case of inclement weather all event cancellations will be posted on Channel 40

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interfaith Dialogue and the Middle East in Amherst

For the next month, I’ll be blogging on a series of events on the Middle East at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, with whose planning I have been involved.

Contrary to the impression conveyed in the mainstream media, the Jewish communities in the United States, although generally sharing a commitment to the survival of Israel, are often very divided when it comes to the means of achieving peace or the specific policies of any Israeli government. In the case of Christian communities, one often gets the impression that conservative Protestant churches are in general uncritically pro-Israel, whereas the mainstream/liberal Protestant churches have become increasingly anti-Israel or even antisemitic. This view, too, does not reflect the complexity of the reality, for here, as well, there are internal tensions, and each faction tends to feel that it is being “silenced” by another.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many churches feel they have an intrinsic right to speak out on the Middle East crisis—whether on general moral grounds, or because of some presumed special bond to the so-called “Holy Land.” Jewish groups, by contrast, often take umbrage at these interventions, regarding them as biased in light of the history of anti-Judaism and antisemitism in which the churches are complicit. The issue is particularly complex in the case of the Episcopal Church: It feels a special emotional and institutional bond to the Palestinian churches that, as a legacy of British imperialism and colonialism, are likewise part of the world Anglican Communion.

It was the internal tensions and inability to hold a comfortable conversation about the Middle East at Grace that prompted parishioners and the clergy to organize a series of events within the adult education program last year.  The first classes approached the topic only indirectly, by examining biblical texts that challenged modern sensibilities and assumptions (more on that below).  In this round, interfaith relations figure primarily in the context of the modern political world: To what extent do our histories of religious interaction shape, limit, or foster frank and constructive dialogue about the contemporary Middle East, and with what effect on our day-to-day relations here at home?

Because the program of the church’s educational calendar was included in the local paper, these events may conceivably draw a larger or more diverse audience, with unpredictable results, given the current world political situation.

(Note: Because this installment establishes the context for those to follow, it will be rather longer.)

As the moderator, Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, explained, the title—“Waliking Between the Walls of Water”—was a reference to the Exodus story (14-15): the faith that venturing into the unknown for the sake of the ultimate good was a risk worth taking, and the need to confront “difficult passages,” literal or textual.


The Rev. Robert Hirschfeld offered an excellent introduction, built around two parables: one scriptural, and one his own. Like the title of the series, that of the first session, “Who is My Neighbor?” has multiple connotations. Drawn from Luke 10:29-37, the phrase occurs in the story of the Good Samaritan. Rev. Hirschfeld recounted his own evolving understanding of the passage: When asked to explain the command to love one’s neighbor, and in particular, how to know just who one’s neighbor is, Jesus tells the famous story. A priest and a Levite decline to help a wounded traveler along the road. A Samaritan, a member of an alien group, by contrast, takes pity on the victim of robbers and provides for his recovery. The one who truly “was a neighbor” is “The one who showed him mercy.” On the surface of it, what could possibly be objectionable? he used to think. After all, the expression, “Good Samaritan,” has entered our language as a synonym for empathetic and altruistic behavior. If, however, one looks more closely, Hirschfeld quite correctly explained, one sees that the story can easily be fit into the typical pattern of prejudice in the Gospels: the Jews (represented here by the elites of the religious establishment) behave badly (perhaps because of the “legalistic” restrictions of their religion), and the foreigner behaves better—part of a framework in which negative traits are imputed to Jews even as the Jewish identity of Jesus and his followers is subtly effaced. The second parable was a personal one: When in the emergency room of the local hospital, being treated for a deep hand wound, Hirschfeld at first balked at the thought of the doctor probing and injecting the wound—until he, with her assurance, realized that pain was the necessary prelude to healing.

In that spirit of doing what was painful but necessary, he said, we should embark upon our activity of the evening, the viewing and discussion of the first installment of a documentary on antisemitism: “The Longest Hatred,” a 1991 WGBH documentary based on the book of the same title by Robert Wistrich. It was difficult viewing for many of those present because the first installment, “From Cross to Swastika,” outlines the essential Christian roots of antisemitism. Most scholars distinguish between anti-Judaism—hostility to Jews based on religious difference (e.g. the Jews rejected Christ as messiah), which found expression in doctrinal, legal, and popular forms—and antisemitism—hostility stemming from false or irrational beliefs about Jews (e.g. they conspire against the rest of the world and commit horrible crimes), as well as modern social and political hatred. Obviously, the one feeds the other. This portion of the film—which I have used to considerable success in classroom teaching (that’s one reason that I chose it for screening tonight) covers some 2000 years of history in 45 minutes, but makes the following key points, among others.
• Without Christianity, there could have been no Holocaust. That is: its teaching of contempt over the centuries was, in philosophical terms, a necessary—but not sufficient—condition:

• In the climate in which the Gospels were written, it was advantageous to dissociate the Church from the Jews—identified then with the great armed revolt against Rome—and thus to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews.
• The social isolation and oppression of the Jews deriving from this theological worldview forced them into social roles that fed conflict and prejudice (e.g. the Jews were forbidden to own land and practice trades, but allowed to serve as moneylenders).
• The demonization of the Jews—literal or figurative—allowed them to become the protean object of every possible prejudice that could later arise.
• The rise of modern racial antisemitism absorbed all of these traits but now made escape through conversion impossible.
In its latter sections, the installment dealt with the rise of Nazism and the silence of the churches during the Holocaust, but it ended on a hopeful note, with a service of reconciliation in which Anglicans and Jews came together to commemorate the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190.

Although the average layperson may find these points provocative or deeply wounding, they have been accepted by mainstream scholarship for decades, and indeed, the film includes comments from a panoply of distinguished historians of religion and European history. The audience was clearly moved to reflection.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the penultimate scene in this part of the film, in which John Hapgood, the then-Archbishop of York--he who will, in a moment, preside over the ceremony of reconciliation—clearly ill at ease, slow of speech and of a slow tongue, says: "um, while acknowledging a Christian responsibility for Auschwitz, I also want to say, um, this has really nothing to do with Christianity in its true form."  It is a revealing reaction, for it is dead wrong—because it undercuts the message of the entire film—though in another sense, it is provisionally understandable. (Did the audience notice the problem? I wondered.) The wrong reaction is one that I’ve gotten from some students when I have taught this material in class, and in fact, also when I presented it to a similar audience in town.

The point is: It is impossible to disentangle Christianity historically from the teaching of contempt that it contains. It is not incidental, but essential to the original message contained in the New Testament. There is simply no getting around that. To that extent, the Archbishop was wrong and in total denial. That said, one can understand why he nonetheless likes to pretend (in the sense of "claim" or any other) that this hatred and contempt are not part of the essential message of the faith, or thus of today’s church, whose message he lives and preaches. And in that gap lies the challenge: Christians need to be able to confront the intrinsic dark side of their tradition without either instinctive defensiveness or paralyzing guilt.

I fully understand the challenge, for many of us face similar ones. Germans today still struggle to find a healthy and balanced identity, which acknowledges the enduring shame and moral burden of the Holocaust without negating their entire past or saddling the current generation with personal responsibility for actions that occurred long before it was born. In the case of the United States, our great original sin is that of racial prejudice, and the legacy of oppression of indigenous peoples and African-Americans. No white American likes to be reminded of it, and yet no one can deny it. Most of us regard the election of Barack Obama as a great symbolic and practical step in the overcoming of that legacy, yet it neither washes the slate clean nor negates the fact of continuing discrimination. Not unlike the archbishop, we want to insist that, even though our founding documents institutionalize that very sin, they also contain positive ideals that, however distorted or ignored in historical practice, contain the promise of future transcendence.

This was the spirit in which the participants approached the film. Indeed, the thing that struck me most was the absence of denial, and on the contrary, a willingness to confront the darker side of the tradition. The most common response was for people to say that they had not been raised with these prejudicial teachings and learned of them only much later in life. To be sure, their insistence that, when they encountered prejudicial passages in the New Testament, they either did not think of real Jews or tended to universalize the message of that criticism showed that they had not been sensitive to the existence of a problem—but this postlapsarian innocence stood in welcome contrast to the norm of the historic original sin depicted in the film.

The problem lies in the context and the inconsistency. As I told students when I was teaching a Holocaust course at Mount Holyoke College half a decade ago, I was horrified when, at a Palm Sunday Service at Grace Church, the selection from the Gospel was presented in the form of a dramatic or responsive reading, in which the congregation, taking the role of the Jewish mob in Jerusalem, shouts out: “Crucify Him!” The students—most of whom, incidentally, were not Jewish—were scarcely less shocked. Few if any in the congregation, however, seemed disturbed when this passage or similar ones were read out—for the practice has persisted to the present.  To be sure, I understood their reasoning and accepted their assurances: They saw the passage as warning us that we are all collectively guilty of rejecting truth and goodness. But, knowing how history turned out, can we really read such passages with innocence and equanimity?

It would be easier to think so were it not for a very clear countervailing example. When it came to certain “Old Testament” (itself a prejudicial term, implying Christian replacement and supersession) readings, a small but vocal group of congregants—many associated with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, which sees so-called peace activism and anti-Israel activism as virtually identical—repeatedly went so far as to demand that some of these texts be expunged from the service. They objected either to general depictions of violence, or to references to the death of Egyptians and Canaanites, in particular.  Even leaving aside the theological problem, it was ironic, of course:  On the one hand, they heard the words, “Egyptians” or “Canaanites”—whose ancient states and civilizations long ago vanished—in a Jewish text, and worried that this would promote prejudice against modern Arabs. On the other hand, they heard accusations against the "Jews" in a Christian text, and it did not cross their minds to associate this with real Jews, dead or living--even though these very passages had directly or indirectly inspired persecution and slaughter for nearly two millennia.

Because these "Old Testament" texts are part of the official lectionary of the Anglican Communion, however, and not just some arbitrarily chosen local flavor of the week, the clergy, to their credit, insisted on retaining them.  During the last Lenten season, the clergy moreover instituted a series of oral and written explanations, calling attention to the problem of anti-Judaism in the New Testament and liturgy. It was in that context that our first series of meetings, dealing with descriptions of biblical violence and other "difficult passages," took place.  This month's workshops are the next phase in that process.

One sees the nature and magnitude of the challenge.  Thankfully, the clergy and the participants showed that they were willing to take it up tonight.  The conversation was serious, thoughtful, and respectful.  

It was marred only by the recurrent interventions of a single person—a visitor to the parish, one should emphasize, for it turned out that she was an adherent of the nearby Peace Pagoda (your sarcastic comment here) in Leverett.

At every possible opportunity, she chose not only to take issue with the material being presented (which was of course her right), but also to assert rather than engage, and above all, to convey her opinions in a blatantly antisemitic (a word I would normally hesitate to use) manner. At every juncture, her semi-coherent comment could be boiled down to:
But the Jews are bad, too—or: the Jews deserved it.
To refute her rants in detail here would be to dignify them, so I cite them simply because they exemplify the problem that we were trying to talk about:
• in response to Rev. Hirschfeld’s sensitive reading of the Good Samaritan parable and the general question of Christian anti-Judaism:

“It’s a two-way street! There are so many rules in Deuteronomy that tell Jews to treat each other well but others badly.”

Because this is wrong in so many ways, suffice it to say that it exemplifies the classic anti-Judaic prejudice that Judaism is a religion of “law” rather than “love,” or “letter” rather than the “spirit,” and glides smoothly into the antisemitic belief that Jews regard themselves as superior to and possess an ingrained hatred of others.

• In response to the film’s wrenching depiction of the Holocaust and silence of the Christian churches:

“It didn’t mention the Balfour Agreement [sic], in which the continental Jews made a deal with England! They betrayed their country in wartime! Can you blame people [i.e. the Nazis] for being mad??”

So the Jews invited their own genocide?!  First, none of the presumed facts are true: the Balfour Declaration (1917) merely endorsed the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine; it was not a treaty between Britain and the Jews of the enemy Central Powers.  Second, I never thought that I would hear a clerico-hippie version of the Nazi stab-in-the-back theory (give her points for originality) used to justify the Holocaust here in “progressive” Amherst (but then again, we do call it a vocal and surreal place, “where only the ‘h’ is silent” and “reality is an option”).

• and, in case you thought that the Holocaust was a topic that could not be morally denigrated and diminished:

“I’m really offended when there was a war and over 100 million people died but we only talk about 6 million of them! 94 million people died, but we can’t talk about them because they weren’t Jews!”

(Has anyone seriously made this argument? Is any commentary on this sort of racism really necessary?)

• when another participant, sensitively trying to come to terms with the history of Christian antisemitism said, “I certainly would not want someone to identify me with that,” the interlocutor felt obliged to add:

“Certainly not the Palestinians. They had nothing to do with it.”

(No one said that they did. This comment embodies the increasingly popular though utterly erroneous belief that Zionism is a product of the Holocaust rather than a national movement of longstanding and a response to conditions that existed long before Hitler was even born.)
To their general credit, the moderators chose to pass over these bigoted, ignorant, and deeply wounding comments in silence. It’s a tough call, as any classroom teacher can tell you. Somebody says something stupid and offensive: Do you confront it publicly, and possibly in a heavy-handed manner that may generate undeserved attention for the offensive view (or just otherwise prove counterproductive)? Or do you let it pass, but possibly thereby incur the risk of seeming to tolerate if not endorse it. It’s the kind of judgment call that depends very much on the chemistry of teacher/moderator, institution, and audience. I think that the clergy made the right decision tonight, though I have to confess that, having sat silently through the whole series of tirades, I finally could not restrain myself from at least correcting the erroneous historical description of the Balfour Declaration by the end of the evening.

The contrast between these hateful harangues and the thoughtful closing comment by a parishioner could not have been more apparent, and it was not lost on the other participants.  He perfectly summed up the dilemma.  Having recognized the anti-Judaic elements of the Gospel narratives, he agonized:
“We see it’s plausible that it’s not true, but it’s in the Gospel. We just read it in church without commentary, it’s just put out there. What do we do??”

As noted, the congregation has now begun to address the issue. There is in fact a very good answer to the question and guide for the larger endeavor.  For years, I have recommended to friends and colleagues a book written over a generation ago by the Lutheran scholar Norman A. Beck, entitled, in its revised edition: Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testament (NY: American Interfaith Institute/World Alliance, 1994).

Beck argues that, for a variety of intrinsic and historical reasons, Judaism alone developed a powerful self-critical impulse that has by and large yet to take hold in Christianity and Islam. The “continued health and vitality of the Christian tradition in the future” require the development of a “self-criticism of the New Testament and of contemporary Christianity” even though this may appear “far more radical, for example, than the demythologizing of the language of biblical and liturgical material advocated during the past half century.”

That self-criticism must begin, he says, with the recognition of anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament. That polemic takes three essential forms: (1) the christological (“In the past, Adonai was Lord, but now Jesus is Lord.”) (2) the supersessionist (Christianity has superseded or replaced Judaism and denies the validity of the latter as a living faith); and (3) the defamatory. The book dissects these polemics in detail and provides differentiated practical advice for scholars or clergy seeking to avoid perpetuating the harm that each has done.

From all the available evidence, the audience tonight was indeed receptive to the idea of theological maturity.  At the opening, Rev. Bullitt-Jonas said that she was convinced the event was a sign of hope, and one can only agree.  The conversation established a very firm ground for the more difficult steps to come.

So far, so good.