Only by moving beyond Zionism will Christian-Jewish dialogue progress

Only by moving beyond Zionism will Christian-Jewish dialogue progress March 10, 2019

Christian-Jewish interfaith dialogue is looking ever more morally compromised when it comes to Israel/Palestine. When you look at the context, it’s hardly surprising.

On the Christian side, there’s the fear of damaging the trust and friendship built up between Jews and Christians over the last 70 years of historic post Holocaust encounter. While on my Jewish side of the conversation, we’re faced with an even greater dilemma: the narrow politicisation of Judaism itself which has skewed our moral compass.

Christian guilt for the sins of antisemitic Europe across two millennia has combined with a Jewish consensus that Zionism is our best hope of longterm security. It’s a joint narrative that too often creates an awkward silence from Christian leaders when confronted with the historic and on-going injustices experienced by the Palestinian people. Meanwhile, mainstream Jewish leaders encourage the silence by insisting that Zionism is central, not only to modern Jewish identity, but to Judaism itself.

Managing the interfaith debate

 In recent years the rising tension in interfaith dialogue, caused by Christian communities around the world choosing to show support for Palestinian Christians, has forced the need to proactively manage the inter-communal debate on Israel.

The most recent example of this in the U.K. has been a series of events around the country organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The tour entitled ‘Investing in Peace’ brought together Jewish Israeli and Palestinian peace activists with a message not to “take sides” but to “build bridges” through grassroots relationships. It’s good as far as it goes. But it’s designed not to go too far. Investing in Peace sets up the discussion within a paradigm of “nuance “ and “balance” that ignores the real power dynamics of oppressed and oppressor. But if that true relationship is not acknowledged and confronted, neither justice nor peace are unlikely to emerge.

So, how do we get the Christian-Jewish interfaith encounter on Israel/Palestine to progress? How can we have conversations that are more honest and challenging while remaining respectful?

While I’m keen for Christian leaders to stop feeling that history places them in a moral straitjacket on Israel/Palestine, I’m going to address the rest of my observations to my own Jewish community’s leadership.

A Zionist bind

Most Rabbis and Jewish community leaders in Britain, and around the world, are trapped in a Zionist bind of their own creation. They feel they cannot speak out against the behaviour of the Jewish State without risking the safety and security of the Jewish people. That’s assuming they recognise (if only privately) that there is a problem to address.

For Christian-Jewish dialogue to climb to a higher level, our Jewish leadership must acknowledge the unjust reality of life for millions of Palestinians. The questions they should be asking of themselves are: How should we speak about this truthfully? What responsibility do we have for enabling injustice to continue? What responsibility do we have for ending it? While it would be antisemitic to accuse all Jews of being collectively and equally responsible for the condition of the Palestinians, there is an obligation to speak out when the State of Israel claims to act in the interest of Jews worldwide in defending its actions.

Neither virtuous nor victimless

Zionism was always more than just a project of European settler colonialism. The Jewish connections to the land through our liturgy, our annual cycle of festivals, and  the belief in the land covenant made to Abraham and his descendants, figure large in our history and culture.

I don’t doubt that most Jews still think of Zionism as a worthy and noble endeavour. Not only that, most of my fellow Jews also see it as the paramount necessity for our long-term safety and security. Against this, all other political and ethical considerations become secondary.

Zionism, once a marginal and highly contested political ideology, has succeeded like no other stream of Jewish thinking in our history. So much so, it has undergone a successful merger with Judaism itself. One can no longer see the join.

But if we continue to think of Zionism as a virtuous and victimless undertaking, it will eventually undo us, both from without and from within. In the end, there is no escaping the role of Zionism in dispossessing and marginalising a people as numerous as ourselves. The sooner we face up to the ethical implications of this, the better. Untangling Judaism from the consequences of Jewish nationalism ought to be both a theological and political priority.

I have no doubt about how difficult this will be. But nor do I doubt how essential it has become.

Post-Zionist theology

Just as mainstream Judaism reached a theological accommodation with Zionism after the Holocaust, it’s now time to start thinking about a theological accommodation with post-Zionism.

Thankfully, Judaism has always been capable of adapting and responding to changing circumstances. The Babylonian exile, the destruction of the Second Temple, life in the ghettos of Christian Europe, the Holocaust, and the political triumph of Zionism – Judaism responded and adapted to all of these challenges.

And now we have a new challenge: an ethical and spiritual crisis caused by the growing understanding, by both Jews and non-Jews, that our project of national salvation has led to an on-going tragedy for another people. And in creating this tragedy, we have failed to provide ourselves with the safety and security that first motivated Zionism.

The crisis is heightened and complicated because it involves us, the Jewish people – a people with a long history of being persecuted by others. The resistance to acknowledging that we ourselves have now become ‘Pharaoh’ is the greatest obstacle to theological progress within Judaism. And it undermines our ability to deepen our dialogue with Christianity.

To move forward from Zionism does not entail an abandonment of Israeli Jews. Nor does it mean forgoing our belief in a Jewish homeland, or God’s promises to our biblical ancestors. It does involve a reimagining of those ideas based on the fundamental understanding that God initiated the spark of life with the intent to create a humanity guided by love and justice, not inequality and oppression.

The time has come to think big, be bold and to question received wisdom. Including the wisdom that says only a ‘Sparta’ state in the Middle East, dependent on the good-will of global empires, will ever be able to guarantee Jewish security around the world.

Towards a new Jewish perspective

From a Jewish perspective, it’s time to recognise that a denial of the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people is undermining our ability to engage with integrity on issues of racism, discrimination and the plight of refugees around the world. These are the very issues to which Judaism and Jewish experience ought to bring considerable learning and authority. As things stand, we look hypocritical.

My advice to Jewish leaders is that national chauvinism of any kind will always be a threat to our ability to repair a fractured world or build a just society.

I’m aware that solidarity with the oppressed nearly always comes with a political cost. That’s because defeating oppression, as Moses discovered, means challenging the most powerful. On this occasion, and in this situation, it is our own people who hold the power. But challenging that power is a cost that’s worth paying. Otherwise, what kind of God are we being faithful to?


Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2018/19 edition of Cornerstone magazine, a publication by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.






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