I feel bad for those who are involved in the committee that has to decide whether to issue a statement in response to current events, and has to create any statement that is felt necessary and appropriate. The Society of Biblical Literature is a mixed bag that includes atheists, Jews, Christians, agnostics, and many other faith stances, and includes conservative religious believers, liberal religious people, and a variety of other ideologies. There are Zionists and supercessionists and people who just want to do biblical scholarship without having to get entangled with either.
After issuing statements condemning the Hamas attack and also calling for concern for Palestinian civilians, and having displeased both those concerned about antisemitism and those advocating for justice for Palestine, the SBL has now issued another statement hoping to reach the people who have said they are simply going to quit the organization because of previous statements. Here it is.
31 October 2023Dear SBL Members:At a time when both silence and words are subject to multiple interpretations, often contradictory ones, we regret the pain and indignation our successive statements have caused to many of our members. Council does not wish to issue further statements about the tragic events in Israel and in Gaza. Rather, Council wishes to clarify that both of its recent statements stand side by side.The first statement (on 16 October 2023) condemned unequivocally the horrific attacks conducted by Hamas against Israel on 7 October, firmly rejecting any excuses for such actions. The statement further supported the people of Israel, and especially members of our Society who were directly affected by this terrorist attack. The second statement (on 20 October 2023) addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Israel and in Gaza, with attention to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, uninvolved in perpetrating those terrorist atrocities. This concern in no way displaced the solidarity for the ongoing sufferings of SBL members and their loved ones, then missing or taken hostage to Gaza.We do not claim moral equivalencies. The second statement was meant to supplement the first statement, and we apologize if it was understood as a replacement or modification of the first. The two statements represent the mind of Council, and they should be read together.We as council have agonized over the crisis in Israel and in Gaza for weeks. In good faith, we issued two statements. We have committed to stay in the room and work through the pain so many of us and our members are feeling. We urge all members of SBL to stay in the room with us and work towards a scholarly and intellectual means of working towards realization of the goals of our Society.The members of Council are aware of the rise of anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, anti-Muslim, and anti-Palestinian sentiments, as well as verbal and even physical attacks, especially on Jews, on college campuses in the United States. The Society will make every effort to provide adequate security for those attending the Annual Meeting in San Antonio. We are committed to having an inclusive environment in the Annual Meeting.Council expresses sympathy with all members of the Society who continue to be deeply affected by the lack of clarity in our statement making. Even if we have not gotten our wording right in every instance, be sure that we remain committed to our values of inclusivity, transparency, equity, accountability, diversity, critical inquiry, scholarly integrity, and openness to change. We are a plural society, and a single statement will never capture all facets of our diversity. In these extremely difficult times, a learned society must maintain its mission and core values to think about how our varied scholarly pursuits can contribute to the world at large.Sincerely,SBL Council
I’m disheartened by the fact that study of the Bible seems to have so little of a transformative impact on those who study it. The Bible contains nationalism and challenges to nationalism, ethnocentricism and even fictional tales of genocide on the one hand and inclusion even when breaking the law to do so on the other. This is not easy stuff, but it is stuff that I’d expect anyone in my field to be ready to wrestle with. I’ve said relatively little precisely because I am Jewish by maternal ancestry and yet am a Christian. I support the desire for a Jewish homeland and a democratic modern Israel and understand the impossible tension between the two. I support and am ready to advocate for any people walled in and denied citizenship in the nation of those who have taken over their land, including but not only the Christians of the Holy Land who find themselves in that situation. I know there is no easy solution and even as I stand ready to condemn those who have carried out atrocities I know I am called not to demonize but to love. I know that merely writing this I’m liable to sound soft on terrorism, soft on colonialism, and a variety of other things. Hence my only decision in light of all this, which is not to volunteer to serve on an SBL committee at any point in the near future.
As someone who works in a field that intersects with people’s deeply held beliefs, I am not surprised that there is controversy about this. What surprises me most, however, is something that often surprises me in academia: the willingness to assume ill intentions and malevolence on the part of colleagues in an organization. Sometimes those things are to be found, but when we assume everyone is bad and we must fight for our own interests, we become that which we think we are fighting against. I’ve seen lots of reactions but relatively little effort at communication and understanding. One exception was, not surprisingly, led by two outstanding scholars, who wrote an open letter that they’ve asked others to sign. Here’s what they had to say (circulated shortly before the above was released):
November 1, 2023Dear Executive Director Steed Vernyl Davidson and President Musa Dube,Many among us are deeply concerned by the acrimony within the Society surrounding the Israel-Hamas war and SBL’s two statements. Some members feel quite alienated from the Society and some of its members. Meanwhile, other members report feeling too intimidated to share their minds.We recommend, and a few of us would be happy to help organize, a conversation and/or workshop during this year’s Annual Meeting. A skilled mediator could lead a workshop in which members could better try to understand one another. A conversation could include a panel of persons who hold diverse, even conflicting opinions and who will commit to maintain collegiality to share what they believe, why they believe it, and how relationships may sustain our disagreements. Such a conversation could generate ideas on which types of educational programs SBL might develop.We acknowledge that we do not know what initiatives SBL may already be working on, and we would be delighted to support those as well.We realize this is a big ask at this late date, especially considering the intensity surrounding these matters. We understand the work required even to clear physical space and time for such an event, not to mention the potential for backlash. Extreme tensions, however, already exist.Thank you for your consideration of this initiative, and thank you for your wise, diligent service under extremely challenging circumstances.Sincerely,Bernadette BrootenGreg Carey
Their reaction is to scholars who have resigned or otherwise disaffiliated themselves from SBL, rather than persist in communicating in what is the only way to genuinely stand against hate, bigotry, and intolerance: communication with others in a way that respects our common humanity even when it is hard and costly to do so.