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Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
News and Opinion

When Israel is an Issue, Speaking Out to Christian Ears
Jewish Officialdom or Jewish Community, Boycott or Dialogue?

-- Rabbi Arthur Waskow

On Tuesday, October 23, I got several calls, one from a Massachusetts rabbi and then from the Rev. Nancy Taylor of Old South Church, one of the great churches of Boston and a United Church of Christ, a descendant of the Congregationalist churches that founded the Massachusetts Bay colony. Old South was where the Boston Tea Party was planned. Now it is a strong, big, wealthy, and widely respected congregation with a young, vigorous head pastor.

So why was the church calling me? The bottom line is that a Jewish speaker they expected to speak on Sunday, October 28, had just canceled. The church was inviting me to replace him. But this was a decision fraught with deep religious and political implications, which they explained to me --– so that if I accepted I would not walk blind into a cauldron of anger and criticism toward the church and (if I accepted) toward me. The anger and criticism was coming from the official leadership of the central official Jewish institutional structures of Boston.

I understood, and I accepted.

So that's the bottom line. What had happened before? Why the anger, why the criticism? Here is the history:

First, a little "pre-history" of Rev. Taylor. She was last in Boise, Idaho, and was one of the people instrumental there in creating the Anne Frank Memorial – an amazing place that [my wife] Phyllis and I saw when we spoke in Boise. Passages from Anne's diary act like a central text and in a circle around them are many passages of world literature and history affirming human rights, including the Universal Declaration. Similarly, in physical space the memorial on the ground holds exactly the cramped square footage of Anne's attic, but opens up to the universe.

The creators of the Memorial, including Rev. Taylor, initiated it because a huge cross had been erected by right-wing Christians in Boise that felt triumphal and intimidating to Jews and other non-Christians and to many Christians as well. In contrast, the Anne Frank Memorial was intended to be both a direct rebuke to anti-Semitism and a holy place that was open to all and affirming of all faith traditions.

Idaho is not such a welcoming place for such views; it took courage and persistence to create this space. I tell you all this to give you a sense of Rev. Taylor, including her outlook on Judaism and anti-Semitism.

Now the more recent past:

The Old South Church

The church had long ago arranged that on Friday and Saturday, October 26-27, a Palestinian Christian organization called Sabeel could hold a conference at the church. Sabeel's politics are: "The Holy Land is God's gift to Palestinians and Israelis," affirmation of nonviolence, condemnation of terrorism, support for two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, on the 1967 boundaries (with a long-term hope that the two states might freely choose to federate), Jerusalem as capital city of both states, and affirmation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Sabeel uses as part of its rhetoric a version of Christian liberation theology that sees the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as a model for the oppression and ultimate liberation of the Palestinians.

Sabeel invited Nobel Peace Laureate and former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa to be its keynote speaker. He has spoken of the situation of Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel as akin to that of Black South Africans during Apartheid.

The church, which had had warm relationships with the official Jewish Federation of Boston, realized that Sabeel's and Tutu's presence might be a problem for those Jewish organizational structures. So it planned a series of speakers under its own sponsorship, separate from the Sabeel conference, representing a range of religious views, and asked advice from the official Jewish structures about speakers for a series of their own, including one who might speak right after the Sabeel conference to "balance" the Sabeel presentations.

Two Jews acceptable to these Jewish officials were suggested, were invited, and agreed to speak. (The church had raised the possibility with the Jewish organizational officials that Elie Wiesel, a person of world stature similar to that of Tutu's, speak under the church's auspices. That suggestion never received a direct response.)

The person whom the Jewish officials did recommend for the day after the Sabeel conference was Dennis Ross, one of President Clinton's aides at the Camp David conference that sought to achieve a peace treaty between Israel and a nascent Palestine. Ross has laid practically all responsibility for Camp David's failure on Arafat and the Palestinians. He was invited, and accepted.

But then something went awry. The Jewish officialdom demanded that the church cancel its hosting of the Sabeel conference, on the ground that Sabeel was as far beyond the pale as, say, the Ku Klux Klan would be.

The church reexamined Sabeel's statements and positions, and concluded that although some they might well feel unpleasing, they were not beyond the pale of decent discourse. The church refused to cancel the conference.

So, at that point Dennis Ross and a Boston rabbi who had agreed to speak later during the church's series on religious life both withdrew. And at that point, the Jewish officialdom organized a demonstration at the church. Though it focused on condemning Sabeel, one key Jewish official said the decision to hold it stemmed from being "tired of the constant criticism of Israel in the mainline protestant community without any attempt to hear the other side or provide 'equal time' " -- even though the whole point of Ross' speech had been precisely the church's effort to hear "the other side."

The demonstration, held on the Friday when Archbishop Tutu spoke, was calm and respectful. Two hundred people took part in that rally -– far fewer than the number of Jews who took part in a demonstration of many thousands of people in Boston on Saturday, calling for an end to the Iraq war -- a call that no large Jewish organizations other than Reform Judaism have made, though 70% of American Jews call the war a profound ethical and practical disaster. Do you see why I insist on making a distinction between "Jewish officialdom" and "the Jewish community"?

So when Dennis Ross withdrew, the church called me, on the recommendation of a different Massachusetts rabbi who was distressed by the pressure from Jewish officialdom upon the church and thought I might be willing to speak from a seriously Jewish and pro-Israel perspective, though one quite different from that of the Boston Jewish officialdom.

I agreed to speak on Sunday, the day after the Sabeel conference ended. I named my talk "The Tent of Abraham: Peacemaking among Jews, Christians, and Muslims."

For the next two days, I received a number of email letters and phone calls from various Boston Jewish officials urging me to withdraw my acceptance. One of the reasons they gave was that the church had said that itself and the national UCC church body viewed Sabeel as a partner, and (presumably) I should not speak for such a church. Another was that my presence would make publicly clear that some Jews hold views regarding Israel other than the "official" ones. A third was that some people might think I was speaking for "the Jewish community."

Of course I spoke. There were about 200 people, unfortunately but expectedly fewer than the 700 or so who had heard Archbishop Tutu. Most of them were Christians, with a sprinkling of Jews and at least one Muslim. What I said will have to wait for another day.

But two things I said, I do want to note now:

It is true that now some of the Boston public knows that there are different views in the Jewish community – meaning real-life flesh-and-blood Jews, not just Jewish officialdom -- about how to protect and revivify Israel, many such views quite different from those espoused by many "official" Jewish institutions. This is a good thing, and I wish the official Jewish world would celebrate and broadcast the fact, rather than try to hush it up.

Of course I don’t speak for the whole Jewish community – and neither does anyone else, including any appointed or elected official of any Jewish organization. It would be good for everyone to make the distinction I have been making in my choice of words here, between the Jewish "community" of real live Jews and the officialdom of Jewish institutional structures.

Now here are some further thoughts of mine about this whole controversy and the attempt to persuade Jewish speakers not to speak at the church:

Why was it not enough for the church to make an effort to present a speaker the very day after Sabeel's own conference who would take a different view? Why is public debate not enough? Why is not the cure for speech we think wrong, more speech? Who is it we believe cannot listen and then make sensible choices? Or is there a sheer desire, rising from stark fear that grows from an oft-repeated bloody past and a recent bloody summer -- a sheer desire to use every bit of political power to coerce criticism into silence?

In the long run, it won't work, any more than forever depending on military domination works. I understand the desire, out of fear, to coerce critics into silence --- and even have compassion for that impulse as a response to fear. But my compassion does not mean condoning or bowing to that impulse.

To make the point most direct, why did Dennis Ross --- who at first thought it would make sense to speak the day after the Sabeel conference --- then decide not to? Why did the Boston Jewish officialdom urge me also to withdraw? What changed?

What follows is my own hypothesis, my own hunch, and no more than that: that some right-wing elements of Boston Jewish life, like the David Project, put the heat on the centrist institutions. The David Project, for example, recently mobilized fear into a virulent campaign against allowing the construction of a new mosque in the Boston area. They failed, baruch haSHEM, hamdulillah, thank God, but they created deep tensions between some Jews and some Muslims that didn’t need to happen – but fit their hostile hopes.

My guess is that they want to stir just such hostility between centrist Jews and liberal Protestants. From fear into rage. I understand the fear – we are all coping with the world earthquake in which every old pillar of reality is shaking, and one response to that is fear. But understanding the fear does not justify or condone turning it into rage and coercion and overreaching.

I also understand the overreaching of some who are oppressed, living under occupation, as also a response to fear and oppression. That does not mean condoning or bowing to that impulse to over-reach. When the over-reaching includes the use of violence, it should be condemned. And Sabeel does that. I don't agree with their call for a Palestinian right of return and I don't like the rhetoric of their version of Christian liberation theology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think that calls on us for debate and discussion, even for a protest, but not a boycott of the church for allowing them to meet.

The criticism of Israeli policy is rising. There are two basic responses: listen to the criticisms, acknowledge the justice of some of them, and act seriously, without dissembling, to correct the misdeeds. Or -- circle the wagons and get out the machine guns. Some actual machine guns, some rhetorical ones.

What would have happened if the Boston Jewish officialdom had said, "We think Sabeel is partly but not entirely mistaken. We think its opposition to terrorism is right, its call for two states is correct, its call for refugee return wrong.

"And we think it important to point out that applying liberation theology and all the vivid rhetoric about Jesus' crucifixion raises deep dangers in the Israel-Palestine context, strikes a deep nerve of Jewish pain from centuries when Christian charges that the Jews killed Christ, killed God, led to rivers of shed Jewish blood. We need you to hear and deeply understand how different that comes out from, say, Hugo Chavez invoking Jesus vs. the Roman Empire when he is facing the American Empire." (I did say that in my speech on Sunday, and urged Christians to say it to Sabeel.)

What would have happened if Boston Jewish officialdom had encouraged Ross or Wiesel to speak at the church, to discuss what is wrong as well as what is right about Israeli policy? What if the Jewish officials had said proudly, "We welcome debate. We trust Americans to make sense out of the debate!"

Do we think the United Church of Christ is more willing to take Jewish criticism of them and Jewish defense of Israel more seriously after the tack the JCRC did actually take than if they had taken the tack I'm describing?

Do we think that Jewish boycotts and denunciations can forever frighten Jews and other Americans into silence?

When will Jewish centrists tell groups like the David Project and David Horowitz's Front Page and "Islamofascism Awareness Week" and people like Norman Podhoretz with his bloodthirsty calls to bomb Iran, to get lost, instead of letting them drive Jewish fear into rage and unnecessary conflict?

When will Jewish centrists take a deep breath and decide -- instead of retreating to the past out of sheer fear in the world earthquake -- to move forward, , to realize that the other communities are also suffering in the earthquake and reach out to make new connections and create new possibilities?

In Boston, the leadership of Old South Church will be meeting this week with the Jewish officials. Thank God! (and I mean that.) May both take a deep breath from the Breath of Life and rethink how to strengthen, not shred, the threads of connection not only between Jews and Christians but also with Muslims as well. (Buying Jewish-Christian amity at the price of war with Islam would be the devil's bargain, and many deaths would seal the deal.)

I hope that a new effort at dialogue among all three of the Abrahamic traditions can come out of that meeting.

And more than dialogue. As I also said at the church, the human race is facing a supercrisis in the danger of global climate disaster. Every scrap of wisdom on the planet is going to be necessary to limit the damage and provide a decent earth to our grandchildren, not only for the sake of "earth" but for the sake of a decent human life. No one of our traditions has yet bent anything like enough of our energy to deal with this profound concern. I urge, I plead, that when you meet this week, that be one of the concerns you address. It could be the grounding on which all three traditions can act together. And working together on that could open up new possibilities of hearing each other better in other areas.

Let us not only pray but act in accord with the way some of us nowadays chant the last line of the Kaddish, as we all did at the end of my talk at Old South: Oseh Shalom bi'm'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael v'al kol yishmael v'al kol yoshvei tevel -- v'imru: Amein.

You who make harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe, teach us to make harmony within ourselves, among ourselves -- and peace for the children of Israel; for the children of Ishmael; and for all who dwell upon this planet.

And let us say: Ahmein, Amen, Ahmin.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace.

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