Shaking up Zionism: A review of ‘Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide’

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It’s hard to do justice to the extraordinary new booklet Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide in a brief review, because of the breadth of the topics it manages to cover in its 74 pages – from the history of Zionism, to issues in Christian theology and Christian-Jewish relations, to the grim prospect of Israel’s spiral into racism and fascism, to examinations of current Jewish and Muslim attempts to make sense of Zionism’s ill-fated ascendancy, and much more.  But one theme runs through the entire piece — the destructiveness of religious and nationalist exceptionalism.

Zionism Unsettled cover art

Zionism Unsettled cover art

A statement from the introduction sums it up: “The fundamental assumption of this study is that no exceptionalist claims can be justified in our interconnected, pluralistic world.”  I jokingly remarked to one of the authors that I would have titled the booklet “Unsettling Zionism” because a shake up is exactly what is needed. As a comprehensive, compassionate, and fearless critique of Christian and Jewish Zionism, this slim booklet does just that.  As indicated by its subtitle, Zionism Unsettled is intended for study by churches (although the choice of the word “congregations” may be an implicit invitation to synagogues and mosques to make good use of it, as well they should). This jewel of a publication provides an urgently needed tool for a church that is poised to fulfill its social justice calling, as it did in the struggle against Jim Crow and South African apartheid. Zionism Unsettled should also be used by seminaries, universities, and community groups who are ready to move away from the destructive impact of Zionist ideology and theology.

“Put simply, the problem is Zionism,” announces the opening section, and the truth telling proceeds from there. In the words of Palestinian Anglican priest and founder of Sabeel Naim Ateek in his contribution, Zionism is “a false theology…a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice.” Zionism Unsettled makes it abundantly clear that the position that has been taken by the institutional church with respect to the State of Israel presents a critical challenge to Christianity.  What we have seen with the publication of the 2009 Palestine Kairos document and the global church-based Kairos movement that has emerged in response is a call to the church as a force for justice, societal transformation and political change. This publication lends its voice powerfully to that call. In like fashion, the booklet showcases the courageous work of Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, who  makes the case that the actions of the State of Israel present an ethical and spiritual crisis for Jews.

The section entitled “Mainline Liberal Protestants and Israel” might have been just as aptly titled “The Interfaith Conundrum.” Along with the section that follows it, “Evangelicals and Christian Zionism,” it occupies the center of Zionism Unsettled. This is one of the strengths of the booklet, because dominating the current discourse on Israel and Palestine is the attitude of Christians, on individual as well as institutional levels, toward the Jewish community. The authors masterfully describe what happened in mainline Protestant theology in the work of Paul Tillich, Krister Stendahl, Reinhold Neibuhr and the American-born theologians who followed them, notably Paul van Buren — giants of American liberal Protestantism — for whom the State of Israel was the answer to the Nazi Holocaust. The movement to atone for historic church anti-Semitism, which began in the German Protestant church in the postwar years and soon spread to North America, has morphed into an interfaith industry that supports, not only a particularly compelling form of Jewish exceptionalism, but, ironically, the very same Christian triumphalism that fueled the anti-Jewish sins of the church from its earliest history. For Krister Stendahl this exalted image of the Jewish people included a merging of political Zionism with Jewish identity – in his words, an “intertwining of the Jewish faith with the State of Israel.” What we have in the current uncritical support of the institutional church, the academy, and governmental and nongovernmental civil society institutions for the State of Israel and in the varied forms of Christian Zionism to be found across the theological spectrum is a potent Judeo-Christian triumphalism, and its language is Zionism. In an intelligent, comprehensive treatment of the history of Zionism and the sociological, political and religious implications of its realization in the State of Israel, Zionism Unsettled lays it out for us, and it doesn’t hold back.

A wonderful feature of the booklet are powerful, one-page vignettes that illustrate the major sections. For example, “Hasbara goes to college” covers the recent phenomenon of the revolt of Jewish campus groups in response to the attempt of national Jewish organizations to shut down programs that challenge Zionism and the actions of Israel.  Both shocking and holding out hope, the story demonstrates vividly how the academy has been captive to Zionist red lines, but also how the cracks are appearing. It points to a future in which the discourse will come unfrozen.

Get a copy of the booklet if only for these one-page gems.  “A Tale of Two Villages” tells the story of a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Haifa, Ein Hawd (Arabic, “Spring of the trough”), depopulated by Jewish forces in July 1948, renamed “Ein Hod” (Hebrew, “Spring of Glory”) in 1954 and turned into a Jewish artist’s colony. Here is the whole story of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe” and the Palestinian word for the ethnic cleansing of 1947-49) and the continued project to erase the Palestinians – their culture, their presence on the land, their very existence as a civilization.  Like “Hasbara goes to college,” these vignettes in Zionism Unsettled takes it from what could have been a dry exposition on theology, history and ideology to a living, heartbreaking story of what Zionism has wrought.  And when I say heartbreaking, the heart – this heart anyway – breaks not only for the Palestinians, and it does – but for my own people, who as the dispossessors are the prisoners of what Israeli historian of the Nakba Ilan Pappe has termed “Fortress Israel.”  Imagine living in Ein Hod, on the ruins of a Palestinian village, erased and renamed. Imagine that this is the fundamental reality of your country, of your dream of liberation and rescue — built on the ruins of another civilization.  For this the heart breaks, but it is also filled with gratitude for accomplishments like Zionism Unsettled, and with the hope that it will do its job in advancing the movement to bring about the political change that is needed to rescue both Palestinians and Israelis from this deepening and increasingly frightening human rights catastrophe.

Order this booklet.  Read it for your own education and enlightenment.  Order a box of them for your activism work – whether it is based in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or a secular grassroots organization. As the voices calling for justice grow louder, and the nonviolent movement for a just peace spreads and gains momentum, the forces marshaled in opposition will also increase. Indeed, the battle is joined — and much of it will be fought on theological and ideological grounds. Zionism Unsettled – its layout and visuals beautifully designed, its narrative flow and organization almost flawless, an expertly produced and powerful DVD — provides another tool for the struggle, one that is powerful, timely, and invaluable.

Zionism Unsettled:  A Congregational Study Guide.  Published by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Click on the link for more information and to order.

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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