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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