In 1998, Barbara Brown Zikmund, the president of Hartford Seminary, contributed a short essay to the Hartford Courant on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel. “To survive into the next century,” she wrote, “Jews will need to let go of the idea that a Jewish state located in a physical place is crucial to Jewish identity.” Not surprisingly, the Hartford Jewish community was shocked and dismayed, and in the ensuing uproar, Zikmund admitted that her words had been ill chosen. Not long afterwards, she resigned her position as head of the mainline Protestant institution.
The episode comes to mind in contemplating “Zionism Unsettled,” the study guide put out under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last month. What makes this document significant is not its wholesale embrace of the Palestinian cause but its theological rejection of Zionism as a species of religious exceptionalism — a rejection that, these days, amounts to a rejection of Judaism itself. It is, in fact, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of anti-exceptionalism.
The theme that unites and underlies this congregational study is the toxic relationship between theology and politics in all three Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all suffer from a common condition: theological and ethical exceptionalism. Although this resource focuses primarily on Zionism, exceptionalism is not unique to Zionism; rather it is present wherever exceptionalist religious ideology is fused with political power.
Theological exceptionalism is the root of this evil, which rears its head whenever a particular religious community claims that its own path is superior to any other religious path. The study guide therefore “affirms the revelation of God in Christ while at the same time recognizing the limits of our knowledge and experience and honoring analogous claims by others which grow out of the knowledge and experience of their different faith traditions.”
Bottom line? “The fundamental assumption of this study is that no exceptionalist claims can be justified in our interconnected, pluralist world.” Indeed, the Presbyterians concede that it’s not only the Jews who must give up any sense of entitlement to territory in the Middle East. “Peace in the Holy Land” also requires that “radicalized Muslims relinquish the dream of an Islamic theocracy.”
Now it does occur to me that it might be a tad exceptionalist to refer to the slice of territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as “the Holy Land.” I mean, isn’t it spiritually hegemonic to privilege one corner of Mother Earth as the Holy Land, as if all corners were not equally holy, or unholy, or a-holy?
But I digress. The study guide concludes with a “A Palestinian Christian Postscript” by Naim Ateek, an Anglican clergyman who runs the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Ateek, who once told a Jewish visitor that any theology that takes land seriously is “immature,” writes that for “Palestinians and a growing number of internationals around the world it is clear that Zionism is a false theology” — false inasmuch as it “commits theological injustice by its appeal to God, history, and race.”
The casual reader may miss the severity of these charges. It is the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation that a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life.
Just to be clear about this, Ateek is not calling Jews heretics, since by definition only those who claim to be members of your own religion can be heretics. He’s saying that any Christian who accepts the (Zionist) claim of a Jewish entitlement to the Holy Land is guilty of a (Christian) heresy.
To be sure, the significance of the Land of Israel in Judaism can be debated. Jewish anti-Zionists were not hard to come by in the first half of the 20th century, and they still exist today on the margins of the Jewish mainstream. But a religious community that insists on the importance of “recognizing the limits of our knowledge and experience” might consider the possibility that the idea of a Jewish state located in a physical place is a revelation that grows out of the knowledge and experience of a different faith tradition.
Instead, the study guide considers it an immature theological position that has been superseded by the ecumenism of the Presbyterian Church (USA).