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.

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