I am back from a panel discussion at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati titled Outspoken: Conscience and Responsibility. Dean Jonathan Cohen had invited me to participate in the discussion following the controversy surrounding my letter of August 26 in the New York Times, and I was most grateful to be among a distinguished group of guests that included Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College; President Santa Ono of the University of Cincinnati; President Eli Capilouto of the University of Kentucky, and the President of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Aaron Panken. The two other clergy taking part in the event were Rabbi Irvin Wise of Cincinnati, whose niece – Rabbi Alissa Wise – is active in Jewish Voice for Peace in the Bay area, and Fr. Eugene Contadino, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Cincinnati.
In preparation for the event, which took place on January 26, I purchased a book edited by Dr. Heschel that consisted of essays by her father, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel was enabled to leave his native Poland just six weeks before the German invasion in 1939 through the efforts of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College, and in 1940 he began teaching at the campus in Cincinnati, the “mother house” of Reform Judaism in the United States.
“Outspoken: Conscience and Responsibility”: the written invitation from Dean Cohen to me promised that the theme of the gathering would address the use and misuse of Holocaust-related terminology in political discourse on university campuses in the United States at this time. He wrote, “The purpose of our event will be to recognize the deterioration of the academic environment as a locus of civic conversation and to foster safe, responsible and constructive discussion about current issues.”
During the interval between my acceptance of this invitation of November 25 and the actual event on January 26, there was clearly a good deal of “push back” brought to bear on the Dean, most likely from alumni and benefactors of the college. The format that evolved by the 26th was a panel discussion in which the academics answered questions during the first session, the clergy the second session. The Holocaust was scarcely mentioned in the questions addressed to either group of panelists, nor was there mention of ways in which the Holocaust is misused today to inhibit criticism of Israel over its Occupation/Annexation of the West Bank and its policies in Gaza. The presidents acknowledged a fine line between free speech and hate speech and the reality that there are always economic pressures brought to bear regarding unpopular topics. The civil rights movement was often invoked during the course of the program, and the recent troubles in Ferguson and New York City. I was moved to remark that Abraham Heschel had walked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the second Selma march, and that if both men were to visit the Occupied Territories at this time they would have a lot to say that would make us uncomfortable, and they would not be silenced.
Reading the course of studies offered in preparation for the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR, I was impressed that a year in Israel at the Jerusalem campus is mandatory. I asked if this year includes time in the Occupied Territories and opportunities to engage with Palestinian leaders and members of the Palestinian Authority. A number of my Jewish friends travel often to Israel, but few have been to the Occupied Territories, and I believe that no one can understand the tragedy of the present situation without seeing and engaging the Palestinian population, Moslem and Christian, who live under military rule in intolerable conditions. The Dean and a student replied that HUC-JIR do visit the West Bank and do engage with Palestinians, many of whom are brought to the (West) Jerusalem campus.
When the Dean invited questions from the floor, a lady from Georgia expressed her disappointment that the issues detailed in my invitation of November were glaringly absent from the discussion. “It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge,” someone said, and there was audible assent from the audience. Regarding the Georgia lady, the truth is that the program avoided the issues surrounding my letter to The New York Times. When I was introduced there was no mention of the letter whatever, and I had to raise the subject by asking rhetorically “what am I doing here? Why was I invited to this gathering?” There was no background offered apart from my education and the fact that I had spent most of my ministry as a parish priest. Israel/Palestine and the Occupation was the “elephant in the room” that was gingerly avoided.
There was a change in tone for the remainder of the afternoon, and I reminded everyone of the daring vision of former Speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, who dreams of open borders and an Israel that seeks not an upper hand but an open hand in dealing with its neighbors.
Apart from my gratitude for the hospitality of the Dean and the college, my greatest joy was discovering the work of Abraham Heschel in the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. Of Christians and Jews he wrote, “Over and above mutual respect we must acknowledge indebtedness to one another. It is our duty to remember that it was the Church that brought the knowledge of the God of Abraham to the Gentiles. It was the Church that that made Hebrew Scripture available to mankind. Is it not our duty to help one another in trying to overcome hardness of heart, in cultivating a sense of wonder and mystery, in unlocking doors to holiness in time, in opening minds to the challenge of the Hebrew Bible, in seeking to respond to the prophets?”
( For those unacquainted with my letter of August 26 to the New York Times that eventually cost me my job as Episcopal Chaplain at Yale:
“To the Editor:
Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.
The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.
As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”)