Time to End the Palestine/Israel Status Quo: ‘Zionism Unsettled’ challenges theological and political exceptionalism

Israel/PalestineUS Politics

During the tumultuous early 1940s, the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr challenged the United States, Great Britain, and the religious leaders of his day to break with the status quo he viewed as the primary reason justice for the Jewish people was being undermined and Hitler’s fascism and the Nazi Holocaust were advancing. Writing in The Nation (February, 1942), Niebuhr issued an urgent, prophetic call for justice, stating “the rehabilitation of every Nazi victim, requires more than the restoration of the status quo.”

If Niebuhr were alive today, I believe he would apply the same logic to the United States and Israel in the wake of over fifty years of failed peace negotiations.   He would probably analyze the reasons why the Oslo Accords, the recent Kerry Plan,  and their predecessors failed to bring peace and justice to the Holy Land.  Paraphrasing the above quotation, Niebuhr would probably say: “It is clear that justice and peace in the Holy Land require more than the old status quo framework.” 

Zionism Unsettled, the booklet prepared by Presbyterian committee

Zionism Unsettled, the booklet prepared by Presbyterian committee

I find it somewhat ironic that Niebuhr’s daughter Elizabeth Sifton and grand-nephew Gustav Niebuhr began their attack on “Zionism Unsettled,” (Huffington Post, May 7, 2014) with this very quote on “status quo” policies.  One would think the elder Niebuhr would be saddened by his relatives still arguing for the status quo and attacking those who call for a dramatic break from failed policies.  

The surprising remarks by Secretary of State Kerry who invoked the “A” word (Apartheid) in describing what Israel has done to occupied Palestinian territories, and his advisor Martin Indyk blaming Israel for the accelerating (illegal) settlement construction, are signals that some leaders in the pro-Israel Obama Administration are sending signals that the status quo framework needs to change.  Even the casual observer visiting the West Bank and Gaza Strip today quickly concludes that can hope for a two-state solution is over.  Many also conclude that the structure of Israel’s military occupation is a form of Apartheid.  And for some, it is time to debate the elephant in the room, the dominant Zionist narrative and those who implement it. It’s time for a new conversation and a new framework for peace based on justice. 

While still a difficult conversation, it is increasingly clear that the type of Zionism practiced by the Netanyahu Government and defended by Israel’s friends in the West is highly problematic.  Their present manifestation of Revisionist Zionism is steadily turning the clock back to such anachronistic political practices as ethnic supremacy, invoking the “divine” argument to justify illegal settlement construction, erecting a wall on Palestinian land proposed for a future state, and adopting a series of discriminatory laws in Israel.   People around the world are waking up to the fact that these strategies are unsustainable and worse, morally repugnant.  They put Israel on a dangerous course.  Still, a succession of U.S. presidents, Members of Congress, and many religious leaders support and defend  Israel’s actions, despite growing opposition among young Jews and on many university campuses. 

Unfortunately, the Niebuhr relatives are also caught-up in these traditional status quo narratives.  For them, any mention of the “A” word (Apartheid) is denounced as a form of anti-Semitism.  Supporting BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) is rejected as “anti-Israel,” usually a silencer in polite theological and political discourse.  The call for boycotting products made in Israeli settlements or divesting from US corporations that support the occupation raise moral and ethical conflicts for many Presbyterians, United Methodists, and others. As an ordained Presbyterian clergyperson I insist that my pension portfolio does not benefit from another peoples’ suffering.  This is simply a matter of conscience.   Most Protestant denominations took similar decisions on divestment from the pro-Apartheid regime in South Africa and in support of the civil rights struggle in the United States.  Now it is time to apply similar ethical standards to Israel and its military occupation of Palestine.

In Zionism Unsettled we challenge Niebuhr’s embrace of the ideology of Zionism and his silence during the ethnic cleansing of entire villages by Zionist terrorist groups during the late 1940s and 50s, events known to Niebuhr.  While we honor the theological contributions of Niebuhr, Krister Stendahl, and others discussed in the study, we believe it is time for an open theological and ethical critique of Zionist ideology and its impact on Christian theology and church policy.

Zionism Unsettled zeroes in on the theme of theological and political “exceptionalism,” the assumption that some nations and/or ethnicities are superior to others and deserve special treatment.  We believe this is one of the core problems inherent in most forms of Zionist ideology.  Exceptionalism usually leads to destructive policies and practices that are in direct conflict with our understanding of the concept imago dei.  We find common ground with our Abrahamic traditions, secular colleagues, and other religions whereby we affirm that every person is created in the image of God, with no exceptions.  This should be the basis for future peace negotiations based on justice in the Holy Land.  What is taking place today in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is a far cry from justice and presents an ongoing test case for the global community. 

Like King, Gandhi, Mandela, Tutu, and the ancient Prophets, authentic moral change agents cannot retreat when attacked by the stakeholders of the old narratives.  Those who choose the prophetic path of justice will open up new space for others, whether in Israel/Palestine or elsewhere.  In the Holy Land, it is a call to Jews, Christians, and Muslims to return to their core ethical values and redress the sins of the past and present, including the Nakba/Catastrophe and the Holocaust.  It demands a struggle against anti-Semitism, anti-Christian practices, and Islamophobia.  It’s time to work for a new society where Palestinians and Israelis honor and respect each other as equal citizens under the law.

About Rev. Dr. Don Wagner

The Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister and the National Program Director of Friends of Sabeel—North America, the voice of Palestinian Christians.  He was a contributor to the Israel-Palestine Mission Network’s study guide Zionism Unsettled.

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20 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    May 27, 2014, 2:41 pm

    I think this was the main impulse behind the book:

    And for some, it is time to debate the elephant in the room, the dominant Zionist narrative and those who implement it.

    Wagner makes a good point here: “In Zionism Unsettled we challenge Niebuhr’s embrace of the ideology of Zionism and his silence during the ethnic cleansing of entire villages by Zionist terrorist groups during the late 1940s and 50s, events known to Niebuhr.”

    Zionism Unsettled zeroes in on the theme of theological and political “exceptionalism,” the assumption that some nations and/or ethnicities are superior to others and deserve special treatment.

    Their formal claim is often not that they are superior, but that they deserve special treatment due to antisemitism, and that the treatment deserved is sole ultimate control over the land that they claim. Even their proposal for a 2SS is part of that, because the Palestinians are not to have their own army.

    Now, does their nationalism also see itself as superior in practice? If the justifications for sole control are unreasonable ones, then it seems so.

  2. Citizen
    May 27, 2014, 3:38 pm

    Duh. Yes, of course–for anybody concerned with Justice. Why don’t you address why this is not happening?

  3. Donald
    May 27, 2014, 4:24 pm

    I don’t know enough about Tillich and Niebuhr’s writings, but for someone who does it should be very easy to clear them of the charge of anti-Palestinian bigotry. Simply point to the passages in their writing where they condemn the expulsion and killings of Palestinian civilians by the Israelis in the late 40’s and early 50’s. Demonstrate that they were aware that the silly claim that the Palestinians all left voluntarily was nothing more than noxious propaganda.

    Are there any such passages? Or do they only write about Israel and its founding in exclusively positive terms? I don’t know enough to say, but if they ignore what happened to the Palestinians or make excuses for it, then they were bigots. They allowed their quite proper feelings of shame over Christian anti-semitism to cloud their recognition that Palestinians were being subjected to an enormous crime. Basically, Palestinians had to suffer so these Christians could feel better about themselves.

    • W.Jones
      May 27, 2014, 5:00 pm

      Niebuhr willingly acknowledged that the establishment of a separate, sovereign Jewist state in Palestine would entail injustice to Arabs but asserted that the collective will of Jews to survive as “a nationality” outweighed the abrogation of Arab rights… Niebuhr had been the chief Protestant proponent of Zionism in the forties… he would consistently refuse to criticize Israel’s actions, even when fellow Christianity and Crisis editor John Bennett took more circumspect positions, citing concern for Arab refugees.

      GOD-FEARING AND FREE
      By Jason W. Stevens, p.62

      • Woody Tanaka
        May 27, 2014, 5:47 pm

        “Niebuhr willingly acknowledged that the establishment of a separate, sovereign Jewist state in Palestine would entail injustice to Arabs but asserted that the collective will of Jews to survive as ‘a nationality’ outweighed the abrogation of Arab rights”

        And thus, how easy it is to justify or even excuse away evil when you make someone else suffer for your grand plans. What a fraud.

      • Donald
        May 27, 2014, 6:08 pm

        Thanks W Jones. That answers my question. And while it’s understandable that Niebuhr’s relatives would try to defend him, it leaves them without a leg to stand on. I thought they might be dancing around the issue. The next question is whether they realize this. Or do they unconsciously share Niebuhr’s view that Palestinian rights just don’t matter?

        Oh well. Perhaps Niebuhr offered up his own home and property to homeless Palestinians. It would be the least he could do, given his stance.

      • W.Jones
        May 27, 2014, 6:50 pm

        Donald,

        You can read through the rest of that cited page on Google Books. The author explains how Niebuhr had a more status quo kind of thinking in general than one might have at first imagined after noting his critical approach to mythology.

      • ritzl
        May 27, 2014, 7:06 pm

        @Donald- Yep. Expanding your question: “Or [knowing NOW what they didn’t, or chose not to, know then] do they unconsciously share Niebuhr’s view that Palestinian rights just don’t matter?” That’s even more damning.

      • W.Jones
        May 27, 2014, 7:13 pm

        If you read Stevens’ page on Niebuhr, you see that he had a somewhat liberal, status quo viewpoint in general. The Israeli state in the 1950’s would somewhat fit in with that. The Israeli State was a mixed liberal/status quo effort at that time. It was status quo in that it repeated status quo European nationalist movements that had developed through the 19th century, and it was liberal because the immigrants were often seen through the lens of the Holocaust as victims accomplishing a kind of nationalist revival. One could also question how much Niebuhr was siding with the poorest elements of US society and the “lowest” in the Holy Land (the Pal.refugees who even some leftists like Finkelstein practically disregard in their “solutions”).

    • SeaPort
      May 28, 2014, 1:55 pm

      Excerpt from Introduction of 2014 book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John Judis (Sr. Editor at The New Rebuplic) p. 6:

      Should American Zionists have been expected to fight tooth and nail for their Jewish brethren overseas? Yes and no. The American Zionist movement was led in its first decades by liberals and progressives like Louis Brandeis, Stephen Wise, Felix Frankfurter, David Dubinsky, and Horace Kallen. Zionism also attracted the enthusiastic support of Christian liberals, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Wallace, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and of the country’s most liberal media, including The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Post (in its earlier incarnation), and the daily PM, which featured I. F. Stone’s journalism.

      These liberals and progressives supported labor rights, civil rights, and the first amendment. Wise was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Many of them had also backed Wilson’s call for the self-determination of colonial peoples. But when it came to Palestine, they were oblivious to the rights of Palestine’s Arabs. In the movement’s first decades, American Zionists averred that the Jews were emigrating to a largely unoccupied wasteland or desert; later, when it became clear that Arabs already lived there, they insisted that these Arabs, who could trace their lineage in Palestine to 638 C.E., could easily pick up and move to Jordan, Iraq, or Syria. After the 1948 wars, they contended that the Palestinian refugees had either fled of their own accord or were induced to flee by Arab leaders. As liberals and progressives, they might have been expected to help Truman fashion a compromise that recognized the rights of Jews and Arabs, but they did nothing of the kind. They excoriated Truman for doing what in any other context they would have condoned and supported. In 1948, Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party targeted Jewish voters unhappy with Truman’s attempts to reach a compromise between Jew and Arab with pamphlets warning that “a vote for Truman is a vote to rebuild Nazi Germany.” 3 These liberals seemed to be willfully ignorant of what was actually going on in Palestine.

      • W.Jones
        May 28, 2014, 5:15 pm

        Zionism also attracted the enthusiastic support of Christian liberals, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Wallace, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and of the country’s most liberal media, including The Nation, The New Republic, the New York Post (in its earlier incarnation), and the daily PM, which featured I. F. Stone’s journalism.

        For what it’s worth, it was not all liberals, as they differed from the international socialists and Communists (ie. the most “leftist” ones)on that point. Eleanor Roosevelt and the others were “liberals”, but to some extent were also “status quo”.

        But Yes, I do find the PEP phenomenon weird, when it is analyzed the way that Judis does.

    • SeaPort
      May 28, 2014, 2:01 pm

      but wait, there’s more…

      excerpt from 2014 book by John Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (pp. 213-216).
      Chapter 11
      THE SEARCH FOR AN ANGLO-AMERICAN CONSENSUS

      …Niebuhr, perhaps the most famous liberal of his day, put forth Jabotinsky’s old argument that “while Palestine was the logical place for homeland for the Jews … the Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East.” Niebuhr also endorsed the Revisionist case for population transfer. “Perhaps, ex-President Hoover’s idea that there should be a large scheme of resettlement in Iraq for the Arabs might be a way out,” he told the committee.3 It was another example of how American liberals, in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency it lent to the Zionist case, simply abandoned their principles when it came to Palestine’s Arabs.

      …Chaim Weizmann, always the diplomat, acknowledged that there would be “some slight injustice if Palestine is made a Jewish state” but, following Jabotinsky’s old argument, insisted that “Arab national sentiments can find full expression in Damascus and in Cairo and in Baghdad.” The Arabs, he told the committee, “have so many kingdoms,” while the Jews have none.

      …Hutcheson, mirroring Truman’s views, objected strenuously to these arguments. He didn’t think it was right to “import people into a country for the deliberate purpose of creating there a majority in order to dominate the country and take control from its inhabitants.”10 And he also didn’t accept the idea that a Palestinian Arab could easily move or be moved to Baghdad to accommodate Zionism, which he compared to forcing a Texan like himself to “go to Virginia.”

  4. HarryLaw
    May 27, 2014, 4:31 pm

    Unfortunately it is not just Zionists who regard themselves as exceptional, many American politicians including Obama and McCain regard the US as “the exceptional nation” in my opinion this is very wrong, and dangerous.

  5. MHughes976
    May 27, 2014, 5:37 pm

    ‘More than the status quo’ seems to be interpreted as the acquisition, on top of normal human rights, of a permanent hereditary right, such as no one else has, to acquire territory unjustly. I can’t understand what shred of argument there could have been in Niebuhr’s so Christian mind.

    • W.Jones
      May 27, 2014, 6:48 pm

      MHughes:
      If you read Zionism Unsettled, they go into this way of arguing. What I got is that the first line that is presented is protecting from anti-semitism. This is similar to J.Slater’s reasoning: Slater sees it as the justification for such a system and for compensated forced “transfer”, which I consider unjust. However Slater is conflicted and strongly disagrees with the brutality imposed when the population, naturally, did not want to be transferred from their ancestral lands.

    • Citizen
      May 27, 2014, 6:50 pm

      Here’s a blast from the MW past on the subject: link to mondoweiss.net

      Seems to me Christian guilt is very easily manipulated, eh? Bibi knows…

      • W.Jones
        May 27, 2014, 11:09 pm

        Citizen,

        Holocaust Education is quite frequent in US schools. However, why is there not a typical class on the genocide of the Native Americans, the Armenians, or other groups?

        M. Ellis and N.Finkelstein seem to have different views on whether the Holocaust is used to justify Mideast policies. But either way, it must be admitted that there is a strong mentality that has been created in the last, say, 40 years on the topic. Finkelstein said that his family was practically ignored when he grew up, despite their status as survivors. I agree with Finkelstein when he says that the Holocaust has the potential to be a lesson for peace and rights in the Mideast, but that it is not being used that way, unfortunately.

      • Feathers
        May 28, 2014, 11:49 am

        It would be helpful, and also more true-to-history, to separate holocaust from the zionist project and Israel.

        Zionists had already acquired major portions of Palestine’s finest agricultural land — the Jezreal valley — by ~1908; Tel Aviv was built by 1910

        “In his recommendation to the JNF in support of the founding of Tel Aviv he explained that a Jewish urban settlement would create a market for the agriculture produce of the Jewish agriculture sector, and would also divert the flow of capital from the Arabs of Jaffa (who profited from the rent of apartments), into Jewish hands (in: Shavit & Biger 2001, 66). Ruppin explained the attraction of Tel Aviv for immigrants and Jewish capital as being a place where immigrants can live in a “healthy European atmosphere” (in: Shavit & Biger 2001, 24) as opposed to Arab Jaffa. This same policy of separating the Arabs (economically and culturally) from the Jewish cultural space lay behind his decision to build the Hebrew Gymnasia in the Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv, even though it was far from the homes of most of the pupils and many of their parents opposed Ruppin’s choice of location (ibid., 76).

        link to tau.ac.il

        Major political, territorial, financial, industrial, infrastructure, and cultural elements of Jewish dominance of Palestine were “securely in place” by 1923; Chaim Weizmann boasted that Keren Hayesod (The Palestine Foundation Fund) had collected collected nearly as much that year — $40 million — for Palestine as England had collected for the Red Cross during World War I ($50 million).

        Apparently that well ran dry around the end of 1932, in the time of the worldwide depression. Edwin Black notes in “The Transfer Agreement” that the Jewish project in Palestine was facing financial ruin, absent an infusion of financial support.

        In his autobiography, “Challenging Years,” Rabbi Stephen Wise records a conversation he had with Louis Brandeis sometime in the first two weeks of February, 1933. Brandeis told Wise,

        All Jews must leave Germany; that is the only way. . . .I urge that no Jew remain in Germany.”

        By 1935, Jewish Palestine had reversed its financial distress and was the most prosperous enclave in the world in the midst of Depression. By 1937, Erich Mendelsohn had completed numerous monumental constructions in Rehovoth and other locations in Palestine, thereby establishing the “international style” of architecture in Palestine. Mendelsohn’s projects included residences for Chaim Weizmann and the Schockens (for whom Mendelsohn had built department stores in Germany), Haifa Hospital, the Anglo-Palestinian Bank, the Agricultural College at Rehovoth, and sections of Hebrew University. link to amazon.com

        Many scholars, such as Allan Lichtman and Richard Breitman mark Kristallnacht, in November 1938, as the opening note of holocaust link to amazon.com

        By that time, zionists had established everything but the formal, explicit declaration of Jewish state, as occurred in 1948.

      • MHughes976
        May 28, 2014, 4:32 pm

        I agree that the dire events of WW2 are not the real foundation of the Zionist project, already in full operation at the time. The foundation is 19th Century nationalism, both in its manifestation as anti-Semitism (especially in Herzl’s Vienna) and its manifestation as a claim to hereditary right based on a certain interpretation of the Bible. If people who are Jewish are entitled to the utmost legitimate protection against anti-Semitism (I would say that they are) how could that mean that they were entitled to protection by illegitimate and unjust means – a paradox, since the right to act wrongly could never deflect, only encourage, hostile sentiment. What other sentiment does action which by all normal standards is wrong encourage?

  6. SQ Debris
    May 28, 2014, 2:35 pm

    Great, well grounded post. For those unaware, Rev. Wagner has been tied to the whipping post of Palestine consciousness for several decades. It’s great to see that he is still reaching out to grasp the hand holding the whip.

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