Interfaith bullying, and a feckless letter from the Episcopal bishop

Israel/Palestine
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Bullying is not limited to schoolyards.  It happens in political fights as well.  It’s particularly shocking when it occurs between faith groups, but seems to be the norm whenever Israel is discussed in an open room.  The bullies are doing their best to make sure that discussion never happens. 

Recently a conference held by the organization, Friends of Sabeel North America, was the subject of “interfaith bullying.”  Jewish community agencies and several local rabbis tried to shut down the conference by spreading rumors about Sabeel’s anti-Semitism (read Sabeel Program Director Don Wagner’s excellent Huffington Post piece entitled “Stop the Bullying Now.”)  The conference went on, of course, but on its heels arrived another instance of attempted bullying, which is the subject of this column.  

This latest case of bullying was the stunningly aggressive response of major Jewish organizations to the ground-breaking letter of fifteen church leaders calling for an investigation of U.S. aid to Israel. Lining up to express their outrage were the Anti-Defamation League, the Rabbinical Assembly and the American Jewish Committee. Accompanying the outrage was the threat to abandon “interfaith” dialogue with the churches.

I am personally pleased that we are seeing the end of this kind of dialogue, which has been no dialogue at all but what I would call “soft bullying,” a conversation in which those who claim to represent the Jewish community have set the rules that Christians have obediently followed. In Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis’ terms, it was a deal designed to relieve Christians of their guilt over anti-Semitism by making any meaningful criticism of Israel or challenge to Zionism out of bounds. “Ecumenical deal crumbles,” announced Adam Horowitz, calling on American Jews to move away from the old rules and to instead confront the hard issues raised by Israel’s actions. One group of rabbis has already done so. Christians should follow blogger M.J. Rosenberg’s advice to not be intimidated but to go forth to speak the truth. And, following Jesus, pray for these persecutors—and for the day when meaningful conversation can resume. 

Five days later a second letter appeared. In it, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of America wrote to President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, calling for “the full engagement of the United States and its president in the resolution of the conflict.” This letter must be seen as the Bishop’s response to hard questioning from her own ranks about her conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the Oct. 5 letter. In tone and thrust it differs dramatically from the earlier letter. Reaffirming the Episcopal Church’s commitment to a “two-state solution” that creates a “viable” Palestinian state, the letter ignores the policies that have destroyed the possibility of such a state. In deploring “unacceptable levels of violence on all sides,” the letter rides roughshod over the reality of an overwhelming power imbalance between an occupying military superpower and an unarmed subject population. Most important, Bishop Schori calls for “resumption of negotiations” while ignoring the conditions that have rendered them fruitless and will continue to serve only as political charade while the annexation and ethnic cleansing continue. In the words of today’s letter to the Bishop from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network, “restarting bilateral negotiations may create the illusion of progress but will simply condemn the Palestinians to continued loss of their land and resources.” 

These two letters tell a story, and it is the story of a church struggle. I learned this term from the South Africans. It’s how they characterize the struggle between those churches that stepped out in the 1980s to stand against Apartheid, and those who held back, stuck in the mud of reform, pacification and accommodation with the oppressive regime. The struggle we are witnessing here is the same struggle. It is not a struggle between those who believe that Greater Israel with Jerusalem “unified” (i.e., Judaized and Arabrein as Israel’s capital is the will of God) or that the Jewish people have a moral or historical right to displace the Palestinians, and those who work to liberate Palestinians—and their Israeli occupiers—from tyranny and Apartheid. No, this struggle is between the prophets and the moderates, those who understand that following the justice imperative is the key to peace and those who, although declaring their commitment to justice seek above all not to rock the boat—or, to use a better image, not to step out of the boat.

 The fifteen faith leaders have summoned up their faith and have stepped out of the boat. Yes, their letter serves up the obligatory “balanced” language condemning violence on “both sides,” but, that out of the way, it gets right to the point—that the U.S. policy of unconditional financial and diplomatic support for Israel lies at the heart of the problem and is the barrier to peace, “sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” The divestment and boycott initiatives undertaken by the denominations that have drawn so much attention are not mentioned in the letter, but they are there in the background, and, together with strong statements like this one, will eventually bring about the required change. It is the church that will lead, as it did in the anti-Apartheid struggle and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. 

In contrast, the Bishop’s letter serves as a moderate “alternative” to the bold advocacy of the Oct. 5 letter. We have seen this before. We saw it in the “Call to Unity” of the eight white pastors and one rabbi to whom Martin Luther King Jr. addressed his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To their urging that “negotiation is the better path,” he answered, “Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” We saw it when the mounting resistance to the status quo of racist minority rule in South Africa was met by “reform” efforts by a Pretoria government seeking to preserve Apartheid through black bantustan “homelands” and a two-tiered system of justice and legislative representation for black South Africans who were not equal citizens at all but a captive underclass. And the authors of the 1985 South Africa Kairos document responded, “no:” a tyrannous system cannot reform itself. As the church, they maintained, we must resist. 

The authors of the Oct. 5 letter likewise say “no” to the continued policy of “humanitarian” and economic aid to an occupied Palestine and continued “dialogue” between the parties while a program of annexation and human rights violations surges ahead with the massive financial support of our government. It says “no” to pleas for “reconciliation” where, in the words of the Kairos South Africa document, “‘reconciliation’ has been made into an absolute principle … There are conflicts where one side is a fully-armed and violent oppressor while the other side is defenseless and oppressed. To speak of reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian idea of reconciliation; it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has ever meant.” 

The Kairos USA document speaks to this church struggle. It says “no” to “a system of control, inequality and oppression [we have supported] through misreading of our Holy Scriptures, flawed theology and distortions of history … theological and political ideas that have made us complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Instead of speaking and acting boldly, we have chosen to offer careful statements designed to avoid controversy and leave cherished relationships undisturbed.” 

Bishop Jefferts Schori’s letter effectively says “yes” to that very system of control, inequality and oppression. In stark contrast, the Oct. 5 letter of the fifteen church leaders provides welcome evidence of the Church’s awakening to the “fierce urgency of now” spoken of by Martin Luther King Jr. It is a resounding “no” to the bankruptcy, futility and heresy of the old, familiar path of making peace with oppression—a peace, as the prophets and Jesus cry out, that is no peace. “Division” is the word chosen by Jesus to describe the process that brings about the peace he proclaims for the world. A real peace, the peace emerging from embracing the kairos, comes only with the clarity of knowing what is right and what is wrong, willingly taking up that cross and carrying it proudly amid the name calling, the charges of treachery and treason, and the pleas to be silent, the pleas to stay in the boat. 

As I write this today, more salvos against the leaders’ letter charging anti-Semitism and betrayal of Christian-Jewish friendship are being released. We know that responsible advocacy for human rights for Palestinians and a sane, compassionate U.S. policy have nothing to do with anti-Jewish feeling. But make no mistake—we are seeing only the beginning of the battle that will be waged to silence this church movement. Church leaders will need to learn to withstand the charges and the foot-stamping— and must be prepared for the tougher measures that are certain to be taken as this movement gains momentum and adherents across the ecumenical spectrum. But the real struggle faced by the church is not with the organized Jewish community. The real struggle will be waged within the church itself. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed this out to his fellow clergy almost 50 years ago, and the words ring out with startling clarity: 

The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.

About Mark Braverman

Mark Braverman serves on the Advisory Board of Friends of Sabeel North America and is National Program Director for Kairos USA. He is the author of A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine, Jericho Books, 2013.

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