Anti-Zionism as anti-Judaism

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Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem

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Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem

Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem

Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem

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).

  • samuel Johnston

    Gee Mark, for a guy who prudently avoided defining spiritual, you are suddenly kicking the hornet’s nest. Not having a job a stake myself, I can proceed fearlessly.
    This whole business is based on the most primitive notions, deeply rooted in antiquity. Places were holy (and lots of other long forgotten stuff was too).
    Primitive Gods were confined to places. So much was this accepted, that the Egyptian army was reluctant to leave their homeland, fearing that if their remains were not returned to Egypt they would be lost to their Gods and not have an after life. After the Hyksos invasion (about the 16th century B.C.E. ), the Pharaoh’s advisors and diplomats launched a new idea- the portable God- the God who was everywhere. As a result, the Egyptian army could have permanent outposts outside Egypt proper, and manage remote military campaigns. So much for the “spiritual” origins of monotheism. Portable gods became a necessity for empire.
    The justification of”…the (Zionist) claim of a Jewish entitlement to the Holy Land..” is a bit thin, to say the least. Let’s see: my great, great, ……(50 greats) grandfather murdered all the former residents of
    the area, sometime in the second millennium B.C.E. (and by the way, our portable God said it was O.K.)
    The rule is: if a crime is sufficiently old it is honored!!!

    “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.” Talk about hutzpah! Calvin’s heirs want to lecture folks on tolerance and legitimacy? Their story is not exactly crime free either.
    It is way past time to put limits on what religion can claim. Freedom of worship is one thing, but claims to land are an invasion of secular authority.

  • Someone posted the guide online: !

    Read it for yourself and bask in the hatred.

  • Kevan Scott

    I support the absolute right of the Jewish people to have a homeland but I’ve always wondered why it is so “heretical” of the notion that the Palestinian people cant share that land with the Jews and what is so wrong with the Palestinian people be given a part of that land to call their own? After all, Jesus did command that if you have 2 coats and you see a person with no coat to give them your extra coat. If Jesus did say that and things like if you see one that is in need to help them then why is it such a “sin” to share your land with the Palestinian people? Granted, the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah but they consider him a prophet which means that they don’t discount his words. I do realize that these questions fly in the face of all 3 Abrahamic faiths and how the Jews and Muslims consider that land their’s and no one elses and how the Christians pretty much discount the Muslims and side with the Jews over who has ownership of the land. Having said all this, I’m still left questioning why the Jews and Plestinians can’t each have a part of the land?? The song 1 Tin Soldier plays in my mind, and for me shows the foolishness of fighting over a piece of land rather than sharing it with anyone. So, if anyone can provide me with a logical answer to this question of why the land can’t be shared with both peoples without spouting off a bunch of Bible passages then by all means reply to my comment and tell me!

  • Larry

    “So, if anyone can provide me with a logical answer to this question of why the land can’t be shared with both peoples without spouting off a bunch of Bible passages then by all means reply to my comment and tell me!”

    Its never been religious. It was always political. It is a long story and very complicated.

    Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians want a 2 state solution where both peoples live without conflict and can profit off of each other’s resources in the ultimate language of peace, commerce!

    But the Israelis have no major motivation for moving forward anymore. 2 decades since the last desperately close peace deals fell through have left a generation without hope or optimism. The Palestinians continue to be led by people with no desire to actually govern. Ones who profit by keeping a conflict alive which has never served the interests of their people. Add to the mix settlements which do nothing but inflame conflict, Arab hatred of Palestinians, a failed attempt to take over Jordan, and cultural rifts within the Palestinian and Israeli population and you are left with a bouillabaisse of trouble.

  • Marty

    First, Jews don’t consider Jesus of Nazareth a prophet.

    Second, Israel wants peace.

    Peace has been rejected again and again. More info here:

  • samuel Johnston

    Mark, I have read and reread your essay and I am not sure of your arguments.
    Is it that one must be tolerant of intolerance if it “grows out of the knowledge and experience of a different faith tradition”? Surely not. Or, is your argument just that the Presbyterian Church (USA) (or any religious body) has no business passing judgment on another religious tradition (I agree.) ? Or is it that the idea of God given physical ownership of Land is acceptable, if it is supported by a religious tradition?
    The jews were considered atheists by the Romans precisely because they went out of their way to declare the Roman Gods false. The Old Testament is filled with such warnings and expressions of contempt for other tribe’s religious practices. This intolerant tradition was incorporated into Christianity and amplified as its power increased.
    This is sorry tradition indeed. It is part of the poison.

  • Samuel, I think my answer is “none of the above.” I believe that most religions have “exceptionalist” dimensions to them, and that it is religiously intolerant to rule these ipso facto illegitimate. Presbyterians are as entitled to their form of intolerance as anyone else — but they should recognize that, at least as expressed in the study guide, it is supersessionist vis-a-vis Judaism.

  • Isaace Rubinson

    The problem is the premise. Zionism is not a theology. It is a secular political movement that established a secular Jewish state. I realize that for many if not most Christians the idea of a “secular Jew” is odd. But, for Jews and particularly for modern Jewish identity there is nothing odd about this whatsoever. Christianity is a faith. Judaism is best understood as the religion of the Jewish people. Most Israeli Jews are not religious, at least not in any organized fashion. Most Zionist thinkers from the beginning of the movement to present are secularists.

    The problem is some or many Christians project their own identities as members of a faith onto Jews, who see their own identities very differently .

    For myself, I am a religiously liberal Israeli Jew but a secular Zionist, I do not give any theological weight to Israel’s establishment. Israel serves but one purpose: to give power to the Jewish people, who have been historically powerless for centuries and as a result were marginalized, often massacred, expelled and ultimately by the 20th century, were the victims of genocide. We were powerless to prevent and stop the genocide, and worse, the Allies took no direct action to help save Jews despite there having been many opportunities to do so.

    The reason why anti-Zionism today among Jews is in the margins of the Jewish community is because prior to the Holocaust, there was still a hope — even though a thin one — that Jews would be able to integrate fully into the majority cultures of Europe. There was a widespread belief that anti-Semitism would ultimately diminish as modernity and liberalism inexorably marched on (or in the case of Marxist Jews, the Revolution would sweep away all racism and anti-Semitsm). But, this did not happen. Some two-thirds of European Jews (1-in-3 of the total global Jewish population) were murdered, and most Jews (the ones who survived) decided the time had come to take our own fate into our own hands.

    It did not help matters that the Palestinian Arab political leadership was collaborating at the highest levels with Nazi Germany. The same leadership after World War Two instigated the violence that led to the first Arab-Israeli war of 1947-49, enlisting the Arab states’ armies to try to accomplish what Hitler could not after the defeat of the Wehrmacht at El Alamein: invade Palestine and kill or deport all the Jews.

    Of course, none of this salient feature of the Middle East’s history made it into the travesty called “Zionism Unsettled.” And why should it? Afterall, it is much easier and far more traditional to continue the century-old Christian practice of blaming the Jews for all evils. And, sugar coating this practice with the term “anti-Zionism” does nothing to diminish from the intent: to render Jews once again powerless.

    Sorry, but we ain’t going there.

  • samuel Johnston

    Thank you Isaace, for your clear and concise summary. If I were Israeli, I would likely see things from a similar point of view. Certainly the outrages of WW2 are still fresh in the collective mind. But the result of Zionism is power in the form of a highly militarized state in the midst of a culture steeped in revenge as its primary value.
    Are the Israelis better off or more secure than the Jews that live elsewhere?
    More to the point, can Israel survive without the support of the U.S.? If not, Zionism will ultimately disappear. Democratic states are always just one vote away from a change of policy.

  • Larry

    “Are the Israelis better off or more secure than the Jews that live elsewhere?”

    Outside of the US and Western Europe, the answer has always been yes. The mere existence of the State of Israel triggered the forcible exile of the majority of the Jewish populations in the Middle East and North Africa. They were a vulnerable, oft discriminated minority to begin with. They became forcibly stateless.

    Can Israel survive without the US? The time when Israel absolutely depended on US support to survive has been gone since the October War of 1973.

    One has to bear in mind, what support means these days. Economic aid to Israel is virtually non-existent these days. Israel having one of the more robust economies in the region (not based on one product) means much of the commercial links between the US and Israel go in both directions.

    Military aid has been self-serving on the US side for the last generation in the form of arms sales. The US isn’t giving military aid away, they are making money from the effort. So important are US relations that Israel’s own military industry suffered accordingly. Homegrown weaponry and equipment giving way to US ones dumped on the IDF. Also as part of the mix is the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which allows the US to share regional military/intelligence assets without question. Dumping support of Israel would entail the US shooting itself in the foot.

    Unfortunately a lot of the more objectionable forms of Zionism are spurred on because of a lack of trust or tangible hope of peace with the Palestinians. As long as Palestinians keep leaders who are in thrall to the Arab League or Iran, there is no motivation for ending the conflict on that side.

    If the US wants to stamp out the nasty elements of Zionism (the settlements, the religious bigotry, the lack of respect for arabs), they should apply pressure towards their other allies such as Saudi Arabia. They should be providing alternative forms of support for Palestinians besides the blood money and arms they get now. When Israelis can get the impression that the other side of the wall/blockade/barricades are reasonable people looking for peace, you will see those elements of Zionism disappear.

  • Ted Burton

    The Presbyterian piece brings to mind the distinction in language between “Jew” and “Hebrew”. (St Paul was a Hebrew Christian.) Maybe Hebrews are entitled to a homeland touching and beyond the Mediterranean shoreline, and Judaism may or may not be the faith of any given Hebrew.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi Ted. Let us assume I am Scottish American (well mostly Scottish) Presbyterian (well a lapsed Presbyterian). My ancestral language is Gallic. Let’s say the English suppressed this language and punished any school child that did not use English instead (The suppression the Welch language, lasted well into the 20th Century.) It goes without saying that my ancestral religion was suppressed, its rites and ceremonies declared illegal and thousands of Gallic women were burned as witches. Our holy sites were desecrated or confiscated. Am I entitled to a homeland in the British Isles?

  • Larry

    Didn’t the Irish use that exact argument?

  • samuel Johnston

    The Irish have suffered even more indignities, including some of my ancestors being “given” lands in the North of their Island by the English. It was much like what the Chinese are doing settling themselves in Tibet today, or dare I say it, like the Israelis settling in the West Bank today. As the Classic Greeks said “War is the Father of All Things” or “Justice is the Weaker Yielding to the Stronger”.

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