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COMMENTARY: What the Presbyterians got wrong on Israel

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

NEW YORK (RNS) Some 2,000 years ago, a prospective Jew in ancient Israel asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.“ Later, Jesus uttered similar words during his Sermon on the Mount.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Love is at the core of the Jewish and Christian faiths. And for the love of God, we must address a looming rupture between us regarding Israel.

Let me be clear: Israel is not immune from criticism. On the contrary, we hold it to a godly standard of justice. We also firmly hold that our own people’s liberation, exemplified in Israel, should not come at the expense of the Palestinian people who deserve to live in freedom and dignity, in an independent state where they can thrive and escape the decades of war and animosity. We believe in a Palestinian state next to Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people and its citizens.

Unfortunately, the recent document, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), takes us farther from this goal. In “Unsettled,“ released in January, the IPMN makes its case clearly: Zionism is at the heart of the problem, destroying both native Palestinian lives and thriving Jewish communities around the world in a supremacist misinterpretation of God’s Word, on par with “Christian exceptionalist beliefs (that) contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality.” The document is profoundly disturbing for its distortion of history and theology.

In contrast, my own rabbinic calling is deeply rooted in the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, with concern for the other, since all of us are created in the image of God.

Based on our firmly held commitment to two states and to the dignity of both peoples, our Reform movement has been on record in support of a two-state solution that is just for both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. As we reiterated in a 2012 resolution by the Union for Reform Judaism (our congregational arm) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (our rabbinical association): “The ongoing failure to establish a viable peace poses security and other risks to Israel.” Neither, we said, does it serve “those Palestinians who desire a peaceful future for their children and grandchildren.”

Settlement expansion threatens such goals and even Israel’s basic character as a democracy. It gives the upper hand to those who aim for an end to Israel as a Jewish-majority state, to those who argue that the two-state solution is “impossible,” and those who say Israel has no intention of making peace. The majority of Jews inside Israel — and the American Jewish community — have consistently opposed settlement expansion at the expense of a two-state solution.

As liberal clergy, we must maintain a civil and honest discourse and always model our values. As those before us — Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad — who traversed this inspired and disputed land, so must we walk together to reach peace in our lifetime. We need honest and open dialogue.

In choosing one harsh narrative over all others (including over other Palestinian or Christian narratives), this new study guide is ahistorical. It doesn’t introduce the totality of the issues; it includes no mention of attacks by Arab states and individuals on Israeli civilians; or the role of Hamas and Hezbollah, who consider the liberal views of the Presbyterian Church as objectionable as they do Israel. The unmistakable premise of this document is that Israel should not exist, that the Jewish people don’t deserve a homeland as do other peoples and that a just compromise can’t be realized.

Most American Jews share our vision. As a recent Pew Research Center survey documented, just 17 percent of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security.

But we need partners from the non-Jewish community to join us in our efforts. As the president of America’s largest Jewish denomination, I urge the leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to publicly declare whether this report represents the policy and practice of the PCUSA. We ask you to stand with us to advocate for a two-state solution that will bring justice and dignity to both peoples.

My faith requires me to build a world of peace by following a threefold biblical commandment to love your God, to love your neighbor as yourself and to love the stranger. Judaism and Christianity are both built upon these divine commands, and they compel me toward relationships of love and respect with Palestinians and all God’s children.

As I, and the majority of my fellow Jews, extend ourselves to find a way to share that volatile corner of the Earth, I hope and pray that my Presbyterian friends will make sure that love and respect guide our relationship. There can be no place for “Zionism Unsettled” in a relationship of love and respect.

It was Protestant theologian Karl Barth who said, “A church that becomes anti-Semitic or even a-Semitic sooner or later suffers the loss of its faith by losing the object of it.” For the love of God, we must do better.

(Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement.)


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  • I agree with the commentary I just read. I am a Southern Baptist and my Wife and Daughter are Catholics they feel the same as I, that here can be no peace unless there is a two state solution. I also believe that Israel would have been long gone without the USA as it’s ally. As the strength an resolve the US has shown to protect our ally continues to diminish under Obama why is that the American Jewish Community continues to support him???

  • A well written article, but I still have trouble taking anything a Reformed Rabbi says seriously given their stance on Torah, that you can take or leave it. There is no ground on which to build any position so all positions just become a battle of power brokering and rhetoric.

  • What Rick Jacobs “Got Wrong on the Presbyterians”:

    As latecomers to monotheism, both Christianity and Islam had a problem with the Jews. In order to justify their replacement/cancelation of Covenant with Abraham and the Revelation at Sinai, both religions incorporated a smear campaign within their founding ethos, vilifying the Jews as being ethically unworthy, untrustworthy, avaricious and ultimately rejected by God.

    In the Christian world, this led to 1800 years of ceaseless persecution, ghettoization, expulsions from most countries in Europe, massacres, and ultimately the Holocaust: The murder of 1/3 of the Jewish people, and 50% of those living within Christian civilization. Horrified by the consequences, many Christian sects finally altered their theology in the past generation.

    Mohammed’s Jihad against the Jews of Arabia, is a central narrative in the Koran. Jews are called the “descendants of Apes and Pigs” and all Moslems are warned to never trust their word. As Peoples of the Book, Jews (and Christians) are permitted to live, and even to worship, but only with humiliating restrictions.

    Rabbi Jacobs bends over backwards, to maintain an all embracing, ecumenical attitude in his column.
    He even strives to prove the Progressive political pedigree of AMERICAN Jews, by quoting the Pew survey.
    Israeli Jews (those who now bear the full brunt of Islamic theology), plus the million or so Holocaust survivors and their children within the USA (those who bore the worst consequences of 2000 years of the Christian “Replacement Theology”) tend to have very different opinions.

    By striving not to offend the wider, friendly Christian readership, Rabbi Jacobs is avoiding the theological aspects of statements by this self-declared religious, Presbyterian group.

    As a Progressive, Rabbi Jacobs is avoiding addressing this scapegoating of Jews, by fellow Progressives; scapegoating Jews for the their own civilization’s crimes of Colonialism.

    The great irony is that both European intellectuals and the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA ) have adopted this very groovy, Post Colonialist narrative, used so effectively by pro Palestinian propagandists:

    Jews, who were never accepted by Europe as being European, are now being characterized as the latter day European colonists! Violent, avaricious, all powerful colonists displacing an “indigenous” powerless “People of Color”, in a land to which they have lost all claim. (This disregards the fact that half of all Israeli Jews are themselves refugees from Islamic countries in the Middle East)

    As they see it, Pharisaic Jews are once again crucifying a guiltless Palestinian Christ.

    Even greater is the irony that this network of specifically AMERICAN Presbyterians, are themselves the children of European expansionists! They daily enjoy the fruits of the ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous Americans, fully knowing that they have no historical ethnic claims to their own homes and church property.

    The Network and their likes, go beyond addressing particular grievances of the Palestinian Arab populations – to condemning Jews of being colonists in their own national homeland!

    Thus, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network casts the entire premise of Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement as being inherently racist, while joyfully allowing for Arab and other national aspirations.

    If the Network members are such upstanding Post Colonialists, please let them set an example for us Jews.
    Let them pay 250 years back rent for their churches, to whichever Native American Nation’s home they are built upon.
    Let them do what they demand that the Israelis Jews do; crawl back to Scotland or wherever else in Europe they came from.

    The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA ) has not chosen to mince their words, in respect of our Jewish sensitivities and beliefs.

    I have chosen to put all of my cards on the table, and avoid pleasantries. I hope that my words to not offend friends within the Presbyterian Church, and that you continue to find joy andcloseness with God with your tradition.

  • I do wish to point out that there are many other Presbyterian denominations that have nothing to do with the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, as well as members of the PC(USA) who totally refute what it says, and are embarrassed that it has anything to do with the PC(USA).

    So please do not tar all Presbyterians with the same brush.

  • Yes, I am aware that this self appointed group does not represent the entire denomination – and that the Presbyterians themselves are subdivided.

    I wrote my comment with a heavy heart. After growing up I the shadow of the of much of my extended family, I came to realize that there are so many good people out there.
    People of who’s differing religious traditions, can form a shared motivation for ethical behavior (in Judaism, ethical behavior between people takes precident over any personal salvation, or even the “Comandments between Man and his Creator.)
    Not all is about competition for the sole possition of the truth.
    Yet, everything has its limits. “Turning the other cheek” to those who want you not to exist, is one of them.

  • Your narrative is well presented and I expect that you think it explains that historically speaking, only the goyim are at fault.
    The Romans called the Jews atheists, because they denied the ( reality of ?) Roman Gods. The generally accepted social behavior of the time, was to accept all the Gods as expressions of the social and cultural history of the various peoples, hence the Pantheon. The (religious) Jews then and even now reject pantheism, and indeed all other religious expression that is at variance with their views.
    This does not in any way excuse the Christians from persecuting the Jews and other religions, but it should allow one to ask if the Jews would have behaved any better if they had achieved the power. Modern Israel is a sort of test case. Things do not appear to be going in an exemplary manner.

  • Finally a truly godly post about the Palestinian/Israeli “situation”. I believe God wants both people to live in peace and to prosper. If extremists would not keep violating this, the middle east would prosper because so many more would come as tourists and enrich the area financially. Both Jew and Arab are descendants of Abraham.

  • Nanush, I am a session member to a Presbyterian USA church and I fully agree with your comments. Problem is the left wing zealots have taken over the leadership. Subjects such as this are the reasons why so many Presbyterian USA churches are leaving the denomination.

  • As a Christian, I am profoundly ashamed of any history which demonstrates anti-semitism on the part of those who self identify as ‘Christian,’ of which there is ample evidence as you have shown, however, I question your thought that Christianity ‘came late to monotheism;’ If one accepts (as I do) the proviso that God is One represented in three persons, then Christianity is monotheistic from its inception.

  • That makes no sense whatsoever.

    Mr. Glaser was making a statement about Christianity’s (and Islam’s) arrival historically and you respond with a blanket statement of faith which is by its nature ahistorical.

    “Late to monotheism” meaning that Judaism had already established monotheism as a religious concept. Christianity and Islam came afterwards and acquired elements already established by Judaism. These are not debatable matters of religious faith and dogma. Its just history.

  • As a Presbyterian, I want to thank Rabbi Jacobs for his offer on the floor to invite Presbyterians to a summit with Netanyahu urging changes in Israeli policy. It’s a shame it didn’t turn the tide.

    However, something now disturbs me even more deeply than the narrow divestment passage. The San Francisco overture, 04-01, calling for reconsideration of Presbytery’s previous support for two states, was approved by over 400 votes! This was a whopping majority. There was nothing narrow or close about it at all.

    Frankly, in my view, if voting up divestment is an unfriendly gesture toward Israel, then questioning the two-state idea is ten times that. It shows even more clearly just where the atmospherics of the General Assembly really were. I am appalled by the ease with which it passed, and it indicates we’re still not done with the unfortunate after-effects of the “Unsettled” pamphlet.

    Geoffrey Riggs

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