What the Presbyterians Got Wrong on Israel

April 1st, 2014

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.

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.

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