Talking about Israel at the Greenbelt Festival in the UK – a Yom Kippur Meditation

Dear Subscribers,

I’m back.  It’s been a long time.  Where have I been?  Helping found and run Kairos USA, writing a new book, and moving from Washington DC to wonderful Portland OR. Lots of travel, in the US and internationally.  So there is a bit of catching up to do.  I’ll begin by working backwards and posting something from my time last week in the UK at the Greenbelt Festival. How to describe Greenbelt?  How about as a Woodstock for followers of Jesus? — a 4-day gathering of over 20,000 people of all ages that has been held annually for 40 years.  I was honored to have been invited to give some talks and to participate in the launch of Kairos Britain. A future post on the emerging global kairos movement is in store.  For now, I’ll use this this posting to share a bit about the stir that was caused by Greenbelt’s invitation of me and others (including Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust) to speak, and the Festival’s hosting of the Kairos Britain launch.  The Council of Christians and Jews, a UK advocacy group that, in close coordination with the Board of Jewish Deputies — a Jewish advocacy group that bears some resemblance to our Anti-Defamation League — created a lot of critical press in advance of the Greenbelt Festival, claiming that it presented a biased and unbalanced view of Israel.  They also accused me, and by implication the Festival, of fostering anti-Semitic attitudes and speech. The full statement is here.  Very worthwhile reading is the excellent response by Robert Cohen, a British Jew who I had the pleasure to meet and hear speak at Greenbelt and who puts out a very fine blog.

Stay tuned for further postings.  In the meantime, timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, here is my response to the CCJ’s charge that in challenging Zionism I have committed a “sweeping rejection of traditional Jewish teaching” and revived “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism.”


In its recent comments on my remarks at the 2013 Greenbelt Festival, Council of Christians and Jews has charged that in asserting that the actions of the State of Israel are immoral, I am laying “collective guilt” upon the Jewish people and as such I am committing “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism (How as a Jew I can do such a thing is an interesting question. Is CCJ suggesting that I am no longer a Jew, the implied question being: can one say the things I am saying about Israel and still be a Jew? — but that is another discussion). The reference to collective guilt is of course an allusion to the historic deicide charge, the assignment to the entire Jewish people, in perpetuity, responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.  The evocation of the deicide charge in this context is something that gets my blood boiling. It’s a particularly ugly bit of Christian-Jewish history, something that caused my people untold suffering over the ages. Furthermore, it is a distortion of history and indeed of Christian theology that is a great Christian sin, not only against the Jews but against the heart of the Gospels. Apologists for the State of Israel’s illegal and immoral acts invoke this particular bit of Jewish-Christian history when they want to bring out the heavy artillery against those who challenge the status quo of unconditional support for Israel. Do they do this cynically, knowing full well the logical absurdity of connecting criticism of Israel with blaming Jews for the crucifixion and choosing to play this card because they know the effect it will have on Christians, or do they actually believe this?  The first option makes me angry. The second makes me deeply sad. The fact that apologists or “defenders” of the State of Israel, and this includes not only professional advocates like those at CCJ but also some Jewish academics and clergy, appear unable to make a distinction between taking responsibility for current Jewish sins and the charge that the Jews killed Jesus – or, by the way, between the Palestinian call for boycott divestment and sanctions and the Nazi anti-Jewish laws — is an indication of how stuck we are in our past suffering and how catastrophic this is for the Jewish people today.

Robert Cohen has done a superb job of responding to CCJ’s charges, speaking for himself and – not officially but in my view very much in spirit – on behalf of the Greenbelt organizers, and I cannot add to or improve on what he has written in his blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.  I will however, point out that I have been misquoted and will offer a few words about that.

CCJ has misquoted me as saying the following at Greenbelt:

“My people behind that wall – and I include Jews outside of Israel as well, because the wall is psychological and it is spiritual – have learned to hate.”

What I said was in the context of a discussion about the effect of the wall on the Jews of Israel.  I said that the Jews living behind the Separation wall (that is what Israel calls it — in Hebrew, hafrada — separation, which can also be translated apartheid) are in a sense the most profound victims of the barrier.  My point — made in the context of my story of the Palestinian child who asks her mother, “Why do they make the Jews live behind that wall?” — is that the wall may be stealing Palestinian land, but what the child sees is that it is really stealing the Jews’ souls. I did not say that the Jews “have learned to hate.”  My words were: “They live behind a wall of soul-killing racism.”

It’s a nuanced difference but it’s key.  My point was not to characterize Jews as hate-filled or acting in a hateful way. It is the wall that is the subject of my words, not the attitudes of Jews about Palestinians.  I am not commenting about Jewish character or beliefs, but about the structure of separation and occupation that creates the conditions under which people learn to hate and fear.  Living behind a wall such as that constructed by Israel effectively makes people into racists.  And the point is that Israelis don’t see themselves that way.  The ugly comments you can hear Israelis making about Palestinians (dirty, thieves, bad parents) and the fear-based beliefs (they want to kill all of us, they hate us, want to push us into the sea) originate because they do not know the Palestinians.  That’s what the wall does, and it does it with chilling and horrible effectiveness. Israelis don’t know that they are racists any more than the Afrikaners identified themselves as such.  I have a friend raised in South Africa, of old Afrikaner stock, who tells me, “I didn’t know about apartheid growing up. In a sense there was no apartheid for me.  It was the air I breathed, the water I swam in.”  The American soldiers who went off to fight in Vietnam, returning shattered psychologically and spiritually because of what they witnessed and in many cases what they did, did not identify the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as human beings – they were “gooks”  — a less-than-human enemy towards whom the American values and even laws governing respect for human life and dignity did not apply. This is what Israel needs to be rescued from, and we only have to look to the Jewish prophets and to the Gospels to find the roadmap for that rescue mission:  speaking truth to power and nonviolent resistance.

So besides my horror and my anger about what Israel is doing, my heart hurts for my people.  And out of that I call for the wall to come down and for Israel to become something that is sustainable (the current course is a fast lane to self destruction — morally, politically, spiritually) and that can provide a decent future for its citizens.

This week begins the holiest season in the Jewish calendar.  In ten days time Jews the world over will stand in the synagogue on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), beat their breasts (literally – we do this) and recite the vidui – the confessional prayer:  We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely… It is a confession recited in the first person plural – and only so. Indeed, unless there is no other option, Jews are required to stand before God as a member of the congregation, of the collective whole of the people.  We pray as a collective, we confess as a people.  We take responsibility for ourselves as a people.  What Israel does in my name is my responsibility and I have the right and the duty to speak to it, not only to my own people but to Christians, who, in following the teachings of that prophetic and fiercely faithful Galilean Jew of 2000 years ago, share the responsibility to seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and above all to put compassion for those who are suffering today – “the least of these my brothers” in Jesus’ words, above all other responsibilities.

Next week Jews will stand before the Ark of the Covenant in countless synagogues and pray for forgiveness.  When I do that I will, like every other Jew in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, have in front of me physically the scrolls of the law, but in reality what I stand before is an 8 meter-high wall of concrete and steel that now stands between me and my maker, between me and my faith, and between me and my sisters and brothers in Palestine who in their call for justice and coexistence are calling me – and my Christian brothers and sisters in the UK and around the world – to faithfulness.  We Jews can be forgiven for our sins – this is without question – but we must begin by acknowledging them.

Mark Braverman

September 4, 2013

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About Mark Braverman
  • Mark Braverman

    This is a test to see if this posting will receive comments.

  • Shelby Tucker

    Excellent, Mark. Expertly analysed and crafted.

  • Raymond G. Helmick, S.J.

    Well stated, Mark. These reflex suppositions that critique of Israel has to be somehow rejection of Jews deserve refutation every time we see them. I don’t know the British Jewish scene at present. It was much more open when I lived in London during the 1970s. But in the U.S., where of course you would get these accusations from the big traditional Jewish organizations or the professionals like AIPAC, the mainstream of Jewish opinion seems to have changed. There is plenty of sensitivity to any insult, but American Jewish majority opinion is very free now to criticize Israeli policy, even, with much concern for the safety of Israel, to worry that the policies of Israel were putting the state and the society themselves at serious risk. American Jews remain seriously concerned, as Jews, for the Jews of Israel, but they no longer see “Israel” and “the Jews” as synonyms. Israel is a state, with its own political interests and needing to worry about its own integrity.

  • Judy Neunuebel

    Excellent response, Mark. I, too, was wondering how you, as a Jew, could be “laying collective guilt.”

    In particular I appreciate your analysis of the wall as something that makes people into racists. I don’t hear this critique of the wall anywhere else, but it certainly has validity and it seems to me it could be an effective argument against its existence.

  • Brad Gerrish

    There is so much sloppy, disingenuous, tangled thinking that surrounds highly emotional topics, it is a gift, Mark, to write in such an insightful and well reasoned way. The non-sequetors of parochial Zionist reasoning speak not to honest debate but rather to the ability to distract, shift the issue, confuse, and divert. Similarly, the Christian Zionists go out on tangents that tangle and distort. Your blog message is precise and expertly crafted to focus on the destructive extrapolation of the “separation” to apartheid, racism, and ignorance of the long range issues. Each one of us that puts on blinders and offers “reasoning” that only confuses and justifies will erode our soul.

  • Arthur Dan Gleckler

    Beautifully done, Mark. Thank you for speaking for us all. Arthur Dan Gleckler, Baltimore (United Methodist pastor).

  • Jewish American Princess

    It’s nice to finally see the dark cloud of Zionism lifted from the discussion about Israel’s sins and virtues. Under that cloud, one finds denial, deflection, moral relativism, minimizing, reaction formation, and a host of other really toxic methods we have become accustomed to using in the defense of the State of Israel and her repugnant behaviour towards mankind…and yes, I dare to call the Palestinian people, mankind.

    Beyond the obvious destruction of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel and her policies, Braverman understands the greater danger, and that is the destruction of the collective Jewish conscience, resulting in the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. He gets that when crimes against a people are committed, there are 2 victims. The perpetrator becomes as much a victim as the victim does, because of the dark stain left on its soul. It’s by this dark stain that Zionists are now defined, because of their disregard for their fellow human beings at the hands of Israeli policies, and their zeal to defend those untenable policies.

    Instead of leading the way towards reconciliation and ultimately, recovery from decades of hate, deprivation, and war, the most influential organ of interfaith relations, the Council of Christians and Jews has chosen to bicker the merits of Greenbelt’s programme choices. Being subservient to the Board of Deputies and its agenda, the CCJ is showing that it no longer represents true interfaith understanding, in favor of a rather tainted version that includes the imposition of the BoD’s primary directive, which is to deny any wrongdoing by Israel and to quash any criticism of her. This is not what the CCJ was supposed to be about. The coming together of Christians and Jews in this organisation was supposed to lift both communities up as the model of interfaith harmony and acceptance but instead, the CCJ has been subjugated by the Board of Deputies and the petty criticism of Greenbelt and Kairos so far, is the result.


  • Harvey Kailin

    Dear Mark,

    I have been getting your emails for some years now and they are always appreciated. We are roughly of the same generation and it would seem we have walked the same path of having been at one time big boosters of the State of Israel only to become totally disaffected. I will say I have not found it easy to be constantly agin something all the time. The way I deal with this is to further define what I am for. For instance, all the people whom the State of Israel has been hurting. One thing I did a few days ago was make my own transcript of the letter the Syrian Parliament sent to the British Parliament and email this to my Congressman. I think it will help him as it did the British Parliament to come down on the side of no aggression. I have posted the letter in PDF format on my website but if you are interested I could email it to you. My web site is Sincerely, Harvey Kailin

  • Jewish American Princess

    From the CCJ response to British Kairos….

    “For all the tone of righteous anger in the document, its blind spot about what repentance for prejudice against Jews actually requires of British Christians in the real world is grave and risks undermining the whole.”

    Anyone want to give a guess where this is going?

  • Dee Poujade

    Well, said, Mark – but then you always do express yourself so clearly. Even after my experiences in Palestine, I struggle to understand WHY so many people just “don’t get it” – and, worse, don’t even appear to care! Yes, we have our own lives to live and yes, there are a lot of wrongs in the world that need to be righted, but as a Christian – and as a human being – how this “situation” has been allowed to exist for 60+ years while the US government, and most of the mainline Christian churches, turn a blind eye is the most horrific crime that I can imagine!

  • Dr. Hedwig Raskob

    Thank you so much, Mark Braverman, lucid and humane and loving, what you write and how you write. God bless you and all of us, so that brother- and sisterhood of all humans will become a real realitiy. Thank you. Hedwig

  • http://harriscarolynp Carolyn Harris

    Hi Mark:

    It’s good to hear from you again. Your analysis of the results of the wall is so insightful. I also especially appreciated your describing the collective aspect of the Yom Kippur confessions. Unfortunately, because of the wall Israelis do not see with their own eyes what is happening on the other side of the wall.

    Will you be telling us about your new book?

    Carolyn Harris

  • Patrick Morrow

    The CCJ quotation is correct. Itis, word for word, what you say 31 minutes into your second talk at Greenbelt, ‘Beyond Interfaith Dialogue’.

  • Richard Armbach

    Patrick Morrow ( project manager of the CCJ ) expresses the wish that Mark Braverman would keep away from ” notions of Jewish exceptionalism and the putative Jewish mindset.”

    May I express the wish that Rev Morrow ( project manager at the CCJ ) and his colleagues would return the CCJ to the laudable principles of its founders Archbishop Temple and Chief Rabbi Hertz. That is, encouraging mutual understanding , respect and dialogue between Christians and Jews.

    This would of course involve the CCJ giving up its recently assumed role as a ” hitman ” for the extremists at the Board of Deputies and the bullying of Christian organisations on their behalf.

    For example….

  • Steven Bell

    Patrick Morrow says that the question of the ” Jewish covenant ” is a debate and one that Mark Braverman should keep away from. Perhaps he would be good enough to tell us who may participate.

  • Raymond G. Helmick, S.J.

    I’ve been following the responses to your talk, Mark, and the objections from Patrick Morrow are among the most interesting thing, picked up my many others.

    I understand Murrow’s consternation well: to find objection to the exceptionalism of the Jews. It’s such a familiar part of Jewish self-understanding.

    That’s where they can hit you hardest, Mark. Your call against exceptionalism for Jews is actually the best of what you’ve learned. Other religions, Catholicism quite flagrantly, make the same kind of exceptionalism claims — God seems to be especially interested in us, and just yawns about anyone else. We even heard an explicit claim of exceptionalism for the U.S. of A. from Barack Obama, who should know better, last Tuesday, as Mr. Putin noted.

    All of us, though, Christians and Jews, have read all those things about God’s special people, his favor and all that. It’s about, as I read it myself, the mission of this special people to be the light to the nations, which certainly gets a lot of attention especially after Isaiah, but I know others read it differently, and see even the light-to-the-nations part as world submission to the special people. That, of course, is to ignore that the exceptional position is held by God alone.

    We all have to account for what is said there, even as we reject any exceptionalism in the sense of entitlement or privilege. As Putin reminded us, it’s an unhealthy self-concept for anyone.

    Ray, S.J.

  • Richard Armbach

    Dear Rev Morrow

    I am always puzzled by the use of the word ” unacceptable” . Any and every opinion or position is going to be ” unacceptable” to someone, so its use is usually redundant. I am not familiar enough with Mark Braverman’s work to know if he is given to using the term. I suspect not, but if he is then he probably would be better off not doing so. There are plenty of more meaningful words like ” wrong ” or ” dangerous ” etc.

    However, we have a pots and kettles situation here. Your own organisation and its ” allies ” are very much given to telling us what is ” unnacceptable ” ( invariably to ” the Jewish community ” )

    Maybe you might resolve to do something about that ?

  • Mark Braverman

    Dear Mr. Morrow,

    I did not take the time after reading the CCJ piece to find the recording and check the accuracy of the quotation. Let us grant for the purpose of this discussion that you are correct. In that case I would have to say not that I was misquoted but that I was misunderstood, and that the quote, used out of the context of the story of the Palestinian child who asks why the Jews “have to live behind that wall” was used to misrepresent what I went on to say very clearly in my talk. I stand by the point that I was making in response to the CCJ article. I tell this particular story almost every time I speak, that’s how important it is to me. “Living behind a wall of soul-killing racism” is the way I always phrase the point I make (so I guess not always and this must be an exception), and this is how it has appeared in print. Actually I am grateful to the CCJ for having caused me to expand on it and become clearer in my own mind about what I mean and why it is so important to me to consider what a catastrophe the wall is for the Jews, not only of Israel, but worldwide. Let’s grant that you are correct and those are the precise words that I used at that moment. Do you want to dispute the point that I was making in the talk and the way that I expanded upon it in my response to the CCJ? Again, I’m grateful to the CCJ for the opportunity to express, again, and more strongly, exactly what I mean when I say that the wall teaches hate and has turned my people into racists, that this is its function and its effect, and that my people are its true prisoners, as are those who support the State of Israel — politically or theologically — in its self-destructive course. Talk with me about that.

    Mark Braverman

  • Patrick Morrow

    Dear Dr Braverman

    Thank you very much for taking the time to reply. The story that you tell about the Palestinian child is indeed moving. It is not my brief to defend the wall at all.

    I share CCJ’s sense that the issue is not the politics but the theology.

    I share CCJ’s sense that in both your talks you did speak of the collective guilt of the Jewish people. It is one thing for Jews to acknowledge their guilt as a people in their liturgy (because in that context it is clear that not all Jews have committed all the sins listed, but nevertheless all are taking responsibility for all – precisely to rule out any possibility that one can point a finger at anybody else) and quite another for a Jew to say that to a group of Christians, where the resonances are different.

    That criticism can still stand even though you are a Jew and not a Christian. One does not have to be a Christian to fall into Christian ways of speaking (both good and bad). In making the claim, you were of course saying that Jews who agree with you are not ‘deep in sin’ – only those who disagreed with you.

    I would also say that in Fatal Embrace (not in your Greenbelt talks) you are clear that the root problem, behind even Zionism, is the traditional Jewish theology of ‘exceptionalism’ (in fact you give it different names), i.e. belief that the Jewish covenant with God is unique, without parallel. I appreciate that Jews have been debating what the covenant means from earliest days. But it is a debate, and simply to dismiss the traditional view of unique chosenness takes you down theological roads you really do not need to travel.

    I struggle to engage with your response to CCJ more fully, as the allegation of misquotation is so central to it. But my wish would be that you spoke more – not less – about the political realities and kept away from notions of Jewish ‘exceptionalism’ and the putative Jewish mind-set. Thank you for this exchange.

  • Patrick Morrow

    Dear Steven Bell

    I have never said that Dr Braverman should keep away from debates on the Jewish covenant, only that he should not presume to lay down for Jews (or others) what views are acceptable and what views are unacceptable because they are ‘exceptionalist//tribalist’ etc. Inasmuch as he does the latter, it is fair enough to say he is doing the latter.

    My contention is that in Fatal Embrace he does the latter.

    May we all be sealed for a good year!

  • Patrick Morrow

    Dear Richard

    Is there anything in what I say you care to disagree with?

  • Judy Neunuebel

    You make a very good point: the point of being a special people is the responsibility that goes along with it. That part is too often overlooked.

    Judy Neunuebel