The Jewish festival of Hanukah is celebrated this year on December 11-19th. The Hebrew word refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after driving out the Seleucid Greek occupiers in 165 BCE. It’s one of the most joyful holidays in the Jewish calendar, in which we celebrate our commitment to the values of freedom and human rights that have given us strength and resilience as a people. Today, the Jewish people face a challenge equal to or greater than the crisis we faced in the Palestine of 2,000 years ago. The circumstances, however, are reversed: today, it is the Jewish people who are the occupiers. And the threat to our survival, now that we are the ones in power, concerns the fate of those same enduring and sustaining values.
As a Jew born in 1948, I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation and redeemed my people from the suffering of millennia. Over the years, living for a time in Israel and visiting frequently, I became increasingly concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and about its illegal settlement activity. Still, I held to the Zionist narrative: Israel’s militarism and expansionism were the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank, Israeli occupied Palestine. I saw the separation wall and knew it was not for defense. I saw the damage inflicted by the checkpoints on Palestinian life and on the souls and psyches of my Jewish cousins in uniform. I saw the Jewish-only settlements and the restricted roads and I witnessed the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers. I learned that the events of 1948, what I had been taught to call the War of Liberation, was for Palestinians the Nakba, Arabic for the Catastrophe: the expulsion of three quarters of a million people from their villages, cities and farms.
When I returned home and began to speak about justice for Palestine as the only path to peace, I found that Christians understood my message very well. But they felt constrained from speaking out for two reasons: 1) their sense that the Jewish people were owed a state because of their history of suffering and 2) their feeling of responsibility for that suffering. In fact, I discovered that for Christians, a new theology had grown up after WW II in an effort to reconcile with the Jews and to atone for the evil of anti-Semitism. This theology exalted the Jews as God’s elect and lauded our quest for safety and self determination. The Jews were no longer condemned to wander the earth. In fact, we were reinstated as God’s elect — the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force. Christianity’s correction of the anti-Judaism is in itself laudable – but there is a problem with this new theology: it includes a real estate deal. Christians were now being asked to support the superior right of the Jewish people to the territory of historic Palestine.
Examples abound of this tendency among contemporary Christian theologians. James Carroll writes in Constantine’s Sword: “The God of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Church, is the God of Israel. The Jews remain the chosen people of God. And with this comes the Land.” In a May 2009 article, John Pawlikowski, a progressive Catholic theologian, wrote that the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel was pivotal in correcting Christianity’s historic anti-Judaism. With that act, he wrote, “the coffin on displacement/perpetual wandering theology had been finally sealed.” I find this an astonishing argument: recognizing the Jewish state corrects Christian theology! Just as astonishing, Palikowski takes exception to a fundamental feature of Christianity: its lifting of the land out of the original tribal context of the Abrahamic covenant. In the original Christian revisioning, Jerusalem became a symbol of a new world order in which God’s love was available to all of humankind. But Pawlikowski was now maintaining that Christianity’s spiritualization of the land repudiated God’s covenant with the Jews and deprived us of our birthright! We have to be very concerned about this — generations of mainstream pastors and theologians have been educated in versions of this revised theology. The Christian impulse for reconciliation has morphed into theological support for an anachronistic, ethnic-nationalist ideology that has hijacked Judaism, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most egregious, systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today.
Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today: not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. As Jews we need to take a hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. The theology of the land, like that of election or any other aspect of scripture, must be open to conversation with history. As theologian Harvey Cox said in the recent World Council of Churches conference in Bern, Switzerland:
What does the Bible mean by ‘promised land’? How has the term been hijacked and used for various political reasons, when maybe that is not the significance of the texts at all? Ancient Israel is often confused with modern Israel. They are not the same. The Jewish people and the modern State of Israel, though they overlap in certain ways, are not the same, and therefore we have to be thoughtful and self-critical about how that theme is dealt with.
Happily, Harvey Cox’s statement in Bern is only one example of how some scholars are beginning to understand the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. the Jews) of Jesus’ time. They see the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to tyranny. Jesus was confronting the evil of the Roman Empire. Through his actions and his sayings, he was telling his people what was required to bring about the Kingdom of God. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk where Jesus walked! For you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw. You will see land taken through illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots. You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life. But you will also see nonviolent resistance: in demonstrations against the separation wall, in families of Palestinians and Jews who have lost children to the conflict coming together and refusing to be enemies, and in farmers who refuse to abandon their land, even as the walls go up, the restrictions on movement tighten, and the everyday harassment and violence against them intensifies.
I know that for Christians in the U.S. today, calling Israel to account puts half a century of interfaith reconciliation at risk. Institutional, personal and family relationships are on the line. But the church must fulfill its historic calling to stand for justice for all the peoples of the earth. And we Jews must reclaim our prophetic tradition. In our Hanukah liturgy, we thank God for “standing by your people in their time of trouble…achieving great victories and deliverance.” Indeed, we are in need of deliverance — but today, as the anniversary of the bombardment of Gaza approaches, it is from our reliance on violence and military force as a solution to our suffering that we need to be rescued. Christianity has struggled to overcome the creedal rigidity and triumphalism that has plagued it since the time of Constantine. It is to our own work of reformation that we Jews must dedicate ourselves in this Hanukah season.
Mark Braverman is Executive Director of Friends of Tent of Nations North America. He serves on the advisory board of Friends of Sabeel North America and on the Board of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA. He is the author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land. Information and additional writing at www.markbraverman.org.