Rabbi Irving Greenberg, known to many as Yitz Greenberg, is one of the seminal transformative Jewish thinkers and teachers beginning in the 1960’s through today. Like many in the Jewish community who value our interfaith relationships, Rabbi Greenberg is deeply concerned by some of the proposed actions by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in their upcoming General Assembly. Below is a letter to members of the PCUSA. Reprinted with permission of the author.
To Our Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters
This letter is written with pain and regret—and hope.
In recent decades, we have been the beneficiaries of an historic turn to love and respect between Jews and Christians. After the Holocaust, Christianity’s leaders in the West, Catholic and Protestant alike, determined to end 2000 years of Christianity claiming to have replaced Judaism. They disowned demonizing Jews as deicides. They rejected depicting Judaism as mandating evil, murderous actions against Christian children. They put a stop to portraying Judaism as a soulless, legalistic religion of no spiritual value. The ensuing dialogue, mutual learning and cooperation has warmed our hearts and lifted our souls.
We believe that the new spirit has given great comfort to God who sent two covenantal communities, with children from the same family, side-by-side, to reach out to the world with love, and with the message of God’s presence and care. The Lord hoped that we would, singly and together, proclaim a call to a life of tikkun olam—to bring a world full of life, upheld in all its dignities, into being. We believe that God suffered deeply that these two communities either persecuted or rejected each other, fighting instead of partnering for two millennia. All the more, we have treasured our new era of cooperation.
However, some recent actions of the leadership of the Presbyterian Church are eroding this friendship. This letter is written with anxiety that confronting the issue may lead to a rupture and an end to our era of good faith. But we have no choice. Your actions are assaulting our very being as a people. We pray that for the sake of heaven and earth, you will reconsider and change this path.
In recent years, the Presbyterian Church has explored and partially joined in a process that seeks to delegitimate the state of Israel and that strengthens those who seek to end its existence. The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board has sought to recruit the Presbyterian Church to join in a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions in which legitimate business with the Israel Defense Forces (protecting the Jewish state against terrorism and military threat) is deemed ipso facto illegitimate. There are calls to sanction such businesses—and by implication the state of Israel—as an illegal state with no right to exist or to defend itself. To criticize or disagree with any of Israel’s policies is legitimate. To join the delegitimation campaign which seeks to end it, is not. It is a reversion to the worst policies of the past 2000 years—policies which decent Christians everywhere now regret and express repentance
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Half of world Jewry lives in that state. It is the only country in the world where Jews are guaranteed admission and haven from persecution or death. Any elimination of Israel would inexorably doom its Jewish citizens—and undermine the existence of the rest of the Jews in the world. Aiding or abetting an attempted destruction of a people is not compatible with love. For the sake of our friendship, we must speak out.
The recent climax of the delegitimation campaign has been the issuance by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of a congregational study guide called “Zionism Unsettled.” This publication presents itself as a fair-minded exploration of the issues between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. It is in fact a publication totally devoted to bearing false witness against Israel and the Jewish people. It adopts and presents in a flattering light an extremist, one-sided narrative of the issue that leaves no room for the existence of the Jewish state. It actually is calling for a one state solution, i.e., an Arab Palestine which (unacknowledged, nay covered up, in this publication) would have no room for its Jewish inhabitants.
This narrative is so mendacious that it cannot allow itself to utter the central truths of this whole matter. We list only the most blatant omissions (and some gross distortions).
1. The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was formed. Here they wrote most of the Bible. Here Judaism grew into its own right and gave birth to Christianity as well. The Jewish state was destroyed when the land was militarily conquered by the Roman Empire; subsequently most of the Jews were exiled. Yet Jews never stopped living in Israel. The Romans were succeeded by Byzantine, then Islamic, later Ottomanic conquerors who ruled over the land, while persecuting the Jews who lived there. Yet the entire Jewish people, wherever it lived, never broke its daily spiritual connection to the land or stopped its yearning and prayers to go back.
2. Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Zionism grew out of millennia-old Jewish culture, memory, and prayers. It became a political movement, functioning alongside numerous other national liberation movements—including Arab, Asian and European hitherto suppressed national minorities. Most of them won their nationhood, as did Israel, in the 20th century. The Zionist cause developed particular resonance due to the growth of anti-Semitism in modern Europe. The urgency of immediate sovereignty was confirmed by the unprecedentedly brutal, total annihilation of the Jewish people attempted in the Holocaust. This genocide in the making was essentially unchecked by the Allies and desperately needed haven for the Jews was widely refused. To now deny only this people its right to exist as a nation is blatantly discriminatory. It is recrudescent anti-Semitism, cosmetically covered up by the claim that it is ‘only’ anti-Zionism.
3. The Arab population of Palestine has every right to want to live in their own state. The United Nations recognized that the only resolution that could do justice to the needs of the two peoples in the Holy Land was to partition the land. The Jewish population accepted this humane compromise solution (while promising “complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.” [Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel]) The Arab nations and the Palestinians did not accept. The armies of six nations invaded Israel in 1948, proclaiming their intention to destroy the state and/or drive the Jewish inhabitants into the sea. Israel barely survived and lost 1% of its total Jewish population in the war. The net result was a Naqba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians—but it was self-inflicted.
During 1948—1967 when the West Bank was under Arab control, a Palestinian state was not established. Nor was the Jewish state recognized. Arab leadership determined to keep the Palestinians everywhere as refugees, segregated in refugee camps. They were not allowed to relocate or to become citizens in the Arab countries where they were. This was a cruel policy, designed to use the refugees has an inflammatory factor to prevent making peace. In a burst of ethnic cleansing, the Arab states overwhelmingly expelled their Jewish populations (This is sanitized in Zionism Unsettled as “escape [by Jews] from the actual violent blowback or fear of blowback. As the region became inflamed at the perceived injustice of the enforced partition of Palestine.”) Most of the Jewish refugees came to Israel where they were given full citizenship and enabled to make new, dignified lives for themselves. Starting with the handicap of being immigrants, they have risen to be the largest sector of Israel’s population and are represented or leaders in every area of society.
5. In 1967, the Arab nations, unreconciled to Israel’s existence, went to war against the state, starting with expelling United Nations peacekeeping troops and blockading Israel’s shipping lifelines. Again, leaders such as Abdul Gamal Nasser of Egypt and Ahmed Shukairy of the nascent PLO announced that the goal was to wipe out the Jews and their state. Israel won the war of self-defense which is how it came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza. Israel offered to return the territories in exchange for a negotiated peace. The Arab nations replied: no negotiations, no recognition, no peace.
6. Since 1970, the Palestinians have taken charge of their own destiny. Unfortunately, they have used terrorism in Israel and against Jews abroad as a central policy. There have been negotiations on and off. In 1993, Israel recognized the Palestinians. Israel’s Prime Ministers since then, including Benjamin Netanyahu today, have affirmed the principle of two states for two peoples. They insisted only on a secure peace for Israel. The Palestinians have never given up the terrorism tactic.
Hamas, the group which governs Gaza, proclaims, as its unchanged goal, the destruction of the state of Israel.
7. The vast majority of the procedures which disturb the Palestinians and supply the basis for the criticism and delegitimation of Israel—checkpoints, some separate roads on the West Bank, the separation barrier—constitute security protections to prevent terrorism and block the unrelenting infiltration attempts to assault life inside Israel. The separation barrier was built after a flood of terrorist attacks killed hundreds of Israelis and threatened to make life unlivable in the country.
In fact, terrorist attacks dropped over 90% after its construction. This was a remarkable life-saving tactic; the purpose was to avoid attacking the terrorists in their home base amidst the citizen population which sustains them, in order to prevent civilian casualties. Zionism Unsettled inverts this truth and alleges that the Israelis practice apartheid and segregation. Yet all these practices would be removed were the Palestinians to genuinely embark on a policy of nonviolence. Again, their suffering is real—but self-inflicted.
8. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank are supported by many Jews as a return to biblical lands. Many—perhaps most—Jews are critical of this enterprise. But the settlements are not a permanent obstacle to peace settlement. In the most recent peace offer by an Israeli government, Israel asked to keep 6% of the West Bank land on which more than 80% of the settlers live. In return, Israel would give an equivalent area of land from within the present borders of Israel to the Palestinian state—as well as evacuate all the other settlements. The only reason that this offer has not been implemented is that the majority of Israelis—including the majority which would halt settlements or would give them up—does not believe that the Palestinians are ready to give a secure peace to Israel.
9. Far from being an apartheid racist state, Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East. Its Arab population enjoys the highest standard of democracy, education, health and religious freedom in the entire area. Like all democracies, Israel is imperfect. Its Arab population lags the Jewish population in many areas—but it is catching up, aided by government investment and affirmative action. Furthermore, as Justice William Brennan said decades ago, Israel is the only country in the world (including the United States) in which, despite being under siege for 60 years, civil liberties for all—including minorities—have been expanded throughout the period.
This also explains another essential statistic, totally omitted in Zionism Unsettled. Israel is the only country in the Middle East whose Christian population has swelled, doubled more than once, in the past six decades. In all the Arab neighboring countries—including the Palestinian Authority—Christian populations are shrinking significantly, due to restrictions on religious expression (or outright persecution). These hostile conditions are frequently driven by aggressively Islamicizing governments or groups
The only state in danger of becoming ethnically cleansed in Palestine/Israel is the Palestinian Authority’s projected state. President Mahmoud Abbas has already declared that there is no room for any Jews in the future Palestinian state. And Christians on the West Bank, in such places as Bethlehem, are drawing their own conclusions and leaving. Again, Zionism Unsettled bears false witness by blaming Israel for the phenomenon of Christian flight.
10. Israel is not faultless and one may criticize or totally disagree with any of its policies. Contrary to the lies in Zionism Unsettled, there is a robust debate on Israel/Palestinian issues inside Israel and in the American Jewish community. The critics of Israel are neither silenced nor suffering. Nor are we asking Presbyterians to silence their consciences or stop criticism of Israel. We are asking that they stop abetting intended destruction.
The ultimate injustice in Zionism Unsettled is that by disseminating this extremist, one-sided narrative, it encourages the worst tendencies among the Palestinians. Thus it undermines the chances of peace with a resulting dignity and sovereignty for Palestinians. By covering up the existence of profound, long-term, legitimate roots for Jews in the land of Israel, by demonizing Zionism and implying that the Jewish state is illegitimate and so evil that it is unworthy of existence, it encourages Palestinians and others who are unreconciled to Jewish sovereignty in an area once ruled by Islam. The Palestinians would have long ago given up ideas of revenge. Their radicals would have given up on a policy of eliminating Israel, if their allies had not given them hope that the elimination narrative could be sanitized and then adopted by Christians of goodwill and by the nations of the world.
NOTE: Some Presbyterian leaders have sought to avoid responsibility by suggesting that Zionism Unsettled is not a formal declaration of the General Assembly. This evasion is disingenuous. The Presbyterian Church would not tolerate a Jewish religious organization circulating a scurrilous pamphlet (taken from the medieval polemic) by an extremist group, stigmatizing Jesus as an illegitimate child and Virgin Mary as a slut. Then the church or its boards should not be distributing a publication demonizing Zionists/Jews as ‘crucifying’ Palestinian children or poisoning the wells of civic society in Palestine. “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” Zionism Unsettled and the Sabeel Center with whose larger publication this guide is coordinated—has revived tropes of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism from the darkest days of medieval persecution. They have repeatedly evoked these tropes to discredit the state of Israel. Such false witness and suborning of hatred should be repudiated not circulated.
We close with a plea to our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. Turn from the path of delegitimation and abetting elimination. Join us in working for a just peace, based on dignity, equality and security for two peoples in two nations (with full rights for all minorities). Help us strengthen the better angels of our nature in both our religions, rather than fortify a new ‘teaching of contempt.’ The last era when such tropes dominated ended catastrophically for the body of Jesus’ family, the Jewish people—as well as for the moral health of Christianity and the West. We are determined not to let it happen again. Let us work together for tikkun olam, with justice and dignity for all in the Middle East and throughout the world.
This article appeared first on JCPA.org