The Ecumenical Deal, 2.0

In 1992, Marc Ellis wrote an important article for the time, “Beyond the Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” which appeared in The Link, published by Americans for Middle East Understanding.  Ellis found that “the Jewish progressive consensus position is a form of oppression vis-à-vis the Palestinian people.” The consensus of the time emphasized the “two rights of Jews and Palestinians to the land,” Israeli atrocities as “aberrations,” and the anguish of “the Jewish soul.”

Ellis instead recognized the genocidal import of Zionism and the state of Israel. “What if… the Jewish character of the state makes expendable, in a terrifying sense, makes logical, the end of indigenous Palestinian culture and community in historic Palestine?” He found that the “ecumenical dialogue” of liberal Christians and Jews had turned into “what one might call the ecumenical deal: eternal repentance for Christian anti-Jewishness unencumbered by any substantive criticism of Israel.”

The ecumenical deal has broken down somewhat as Christian churches have discussed Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and sold investments in companies doing business with “the occupation,” often with great trepidation, against furious Jewish hostility. The interfaith outreach of Jewish Voice for Peace attempts to re-establish the ecumenical deal on more limited but defensible terms.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, of JVP’s rabbinical council, delivered a talk entitled “There for Each Other: On Anti-Semitism, Christian Privilege and Palestine Solidarity” to the Friends of Sabeel North America conference in Vancouver, BC in April 2015.

Sabeel arose in 1993, from the efforts of Reverend Naim Ateek and other Palestinian Christians “to interpret scripture in light of the Palestinian experience under occupation. As local Christians studied together, they forged a Palestinian version of liberation theology, which upholds the Gospel call for freedom from political, social and economic oppression.” ( Sabeel is Arabic for “the way;” it has offices in Nazareth and Jerusalem and affiliates in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Outside Palestine its conferences, political travel and educational material promote awareness and activism on Palestine among Christians; it is the voice of the Christian left, experienced and committed.

For this audience Wise recounted her life of terror as a Jewish American. While traveling to Jewish day school on a Catholic school bus some children asked to see her horns. “I thought they were just being silly. Today I hope I know a bit more about the history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world.”

At her day school, “education about the Nazi Holocaust was a centerpiece of our learning.” In high school she visited Holocaust sites in Europe with her Jewish youth group. “We were told stories of how the Christian world was complicit in Nazism and their crimes. I sobbed and wailed at each visit to the camps, horrified and disturbed.”

In rabbinical school, she nonetheless “adopted as her spiritual mentor” Dietrich Bonhöffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian whose opposition to Nazism cost him his life. She was also inspired by the White Rose German student resistance group, who were likewise executed. The example of “those who benefit from the systems of power and oppression actively opposing and resisting it with their lives continues to feed me in this work.”

This work begins with anti-anti-Semitism. “I see you all working hard to get out from underneath the history of Christian violence against Jews.” She emphasizes “that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian civil society.”

That being said, when I get asked how to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism I do caution people to ask themselves if they are in fact anti-Semitic. While there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic in critiquing Israel, that does not mean you do not also harbor anti-Semitic sentiments toward Jews. This is something worth exploring personally and perhaps also in your congregations or organizations.

Wise continues: while “anti-Semitism certainly does still exist… it has largely lost its power in the US….  Jewish people are not impeded in any material way from pursuing the life of our choosing.” Yet Wise spends three pages of a six-page text on a tour d’horizon of anti-Semitism, before deciding that “anti-Semitism is still real, if not very potent,” and we must “fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective weapon to silence debate on Israel.”

Wise then discusses the actions in the California legislature and the University of California system, to define anti-Semitism in ways that limit free speech, and sharply curtail criticism of Israel. She states that “those of us who are Jewish… strongly feel the obligation—strategically and morally—to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to tar the movement.” The privilege and strategic choice of Jewish people is not opposing injustice in the name of “the Jews” but opposing it on general terms, as injustice for all.

After three-quarters of a page on the Jewish Zionist assault on free speech, Wise returns to anti-anti-Semitism, as if her empathy is exhausted. “What can you all do to confront and address Christian hegemony in the world, and in our work organizing for justice? I have frankly been surprised that I am often the person to raise this question, and hope to see organizations like Friends of Sabeel acknowledge, unpack and address Christian privilege, just as we at JVP… with Jewish privilege.” “Christian privilege” is not the force oppressing Palestine, rather Zionism is destroying Christianity in Palestine, and all else non-Jewish. The main sources of Islamophobia in the US today are Jewish, as a member of JVP’s board has attested in a book. (Elly Bulkin and Donna Nevel, Islamophobia and Israel)

Yet Wise calls for “study groups about the legacy of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Christianity.” Wise asks: “Have you ever been given a school vacation or paid holiday related to Christmas or Easter when school vacations or paid Holidays for Ramadan or the Jewish High Holidays were not observed?” Wise carries on for four paragraphs about holidays, the weekend, Christmas ornaments and calendars. This trivializes the threat to Muslims, who face discrimination, physical assault and legal persecution, not mainly problems observing their religion. Christians who support Palestine need no lectures about Christian Islamophobia.

Such gambits allow Wise to claim religious discrimination because public life isn’t based on the needs of the religious fraction of the Jewish 2% or so of the US population. “On top of these types of reflections, I can imagine your communities working to support and encourage each other to ensure that your work advocating for Palestinian human rights does not rely on anti-Semitic ideas.”

Wise offers examples that “help elucidate the differences between a clear criticism of Israeli policy and its backers and anti-Semitic ideas often repeated by activists with no anti-Jewish intentions and lines emerging from Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations.” Thus:

A clear criticism of Israel would be: “Israel has a repeated and ongoing record of human rights offenses.”

A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israel is a worse human rights violator than most or all other countries.”

A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is the root of the world’s problems.”

JVP tells Sabeel what is permissible to say, just like the Jewish commissars it opposed in California. JVP is somewhat more permissive, but equally intent on propaganda and manipulation. Israel does not merely have a “repeated and ongoing record of offenses.” It is the only state on earth that is constituted on a racialist basis; it is growing daily more fanatical and violent within historic Palestine. Israel has provoked increasingly destructive wars ever since its founding, directly and through its influence in the US. In 2003 an EU poll of 7500 Europeans found nearly 60% held Israel to be the leading danger to world peace. For JVP any argument about Israel’s radicalism and extreme menace (including to itself) is prima facie anti-Semitism.

Her final example is:

A clear criticism: “Many Israeli soldiers justify their actions toward Palestinians by saying they are just following orders.”

A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israelis are just like Nazis.”

A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is worse than the Nazis. This wouldn’t be happening if the Nazis were successful,” and so on.

In 1969 Yeshayahu Leibowitz, philosopher and scientist at the Hebrew University, “began to talk of the inevitable ‘Nazification’ of the Israeli nation and society. By the time of the [1982] Lebanon War he had become an international celebrity because of his use of the epithet ‘Judeo-Nazi’ to describe the Israeli army.”

In 1974 Israel Shahak, a faculty colleague of Leibowitz, and president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, stated:

I am not afraid…of the comparison with ‘that which befell the German people between the two world wars.’ I am not afraid to say publicly that Israeli Jews, and with them most Jews throughout the world, are undergoing a process of Nazification. [Jewish silence] includes – exactly as it did in Germany – not only those among us who are in my opinion real Nazis, and there are a lot of those, but also those who do not protest against Jewish Nazism, so long as they think it serves Jewish interest… I am trying to act before it is too late.

Hajo Meyer, a survivor of Auschwitz and an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel, who passed away recently, gave a final interview in August.

“If we want to stay really human beings, we must get up and call the Zionists what they are: Nazi criminals,” Meyer said. The hate of the Jews by the Germans “was less deeply rooted than the hate of the Palestinians by the Israeli Jews,” he observed. “The brainwashing of the Jewish Israeli populations is going on for over sixty years. They cannot see a Palestinian as a human being.”

An analysis of Zionism and the Jewish people as Jewish race doctrine could doubtless be developed with academic rigor, though not by the luminaries on JVP’s advisory board, even as Ellis’s prospect comes to ghastly fruition: “the Jewish character of the state makes expendable, in a terrifying sense, makes logical, the end of indigenous Palestinian culture and community in historic Palestine.” Christian churches are burned within Israel; Palestinians are burned alive in their homes in the West Bank; Palestinians under occupation and Israeli citizens alike are gunned down without provocation; Muslims are banned from prayer in the Islamic holy site in Jerusalem, while Jewish religious fanatics who want to raze the site and build a temple swagger about guarded by Israeli soldiers. Wise and JVP refuse to fight back, rule out deeper analyses of Zionism as prima facie anti-Semitism.

Hajo Meyer was a self-proclaimed Reform Jew in the classical, anti-Zionist mold, who rejected the idea of the Jewish people and its state ,and accepted the status of Jews as a religious minority (or secular citizens) in modern liberal terms. That outlook belongs to the legacy of the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation, from pre-modern Jewish religious society, as well as from gentile restrictions.

In late July Jewish Voice for Peace rolled out a new web site. The substantive “frequently asked questions” were reduced from eight to five. One omitted question was: “Are you Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist or something else?” JVP requires gentiles to condemn anti-Semitism, but Zionism is, or was, merely a “FAQ,”, while Jewish moderns condemned it on principle.

Commenting on this now-vanished public, and internal JVP material, New York University law student Amith Gupta argued that “JVP has taken at least 4 different positions on Zionism, implying a lack of any principle regarding racism and colonialism against Palestine in particular and the Middle East as a whole.” “JVP’s statements imply a lack of principled positions regarding racism against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, while taking a staunch position against perceived racism toward the Jewish community. This is a racist double-standard.”

Yet Zionism is not only racism and settler colonialism in Palestine, but the Jewish people, eternally distinct, separate, unintegrable. As anti-Semitism has been driven to the margin, and all society opened to Jewish accomplishment, separatism has been deliberately cultivated. The Judaic scholar Jacob Neusner coined the term the “Zionism of Jewish peoplehood,” to describe Jewish attitudes in the United States. “The Jewish people is my homeland. Wherever Jews live, there I am at home.”   Neusner described himself as “on the margins of the group,” and has few illusions about it. “I wonder if history can provide an example of a Jewish community more ethnocentric, and less religiously concerned, than our own.” (Stranger at Home, p. 31)

We who preach brotherhood so self-righteously to our fellow citizens preserve in our hearts the least edifying part of our heritage, the hostility to gentiles… One hears Jews speak frequently of all non-Jews as goyim… One sees the preservation of Jewish neighborhoods and social facilities as unwalled ghettoes in towns where Jews are freely accepted into the social life of the general community. (p. 32)

The “Zionism of Jewish peoplehood” is most crucially the “Israel lobby,” after the celebrated article and then book by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, about the lobby’s decisive, detrimental influence. JVP vilifies the “Israel lobby” critics as anti-Semites. The first article in JVP’s 2004 collection Reframing Anti-Semitism warned that “the relative success of Jews in the United States and some parts of Europe has spawned some reactionary rekindling of late 19th/early 20th century Jewish conspiracy theories, harkening back to the infamous Russian forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The publication of The Israel Lobby checked such talk, and JVP introduced the term guardedly in its work, but it dislikes the argument and its proponents, as shown by its attack on Alison Weir.

Weir’s short book Against Our Better Judgment. The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel  has sold nearly 20,000 copies, extraordinary for a dry, factual, self-published work. Weir was denounced as an anti-Semite by JVP and the US Campaign to End the Occupation for granting interviews to far-right journalists whose work is full of anti-Semitic tropes. A petition in support of Weir gathered 2,000 signatures, including many prominent Palestine movement people, many Palestinians in Palestine, and many members of JVP and US Campaign member organizations.

As Weir pointed out, the same journalists had interviewed dozens of people in the Palestine movement, whom JVP and End the Occupation have not attacked. Clearly, the Israel lobby critique, in the form of Weir’s book and her public following, were the reasons for the attack, not anti-Semitism. The movement people interviewed by these journalists include many Jews, which suggests that the journalists’ anti-Semitism is a crude, ugly misapprehension of the real problem of the Israel lobby, not principled. In any case anti-Semitism has no more political prospects than Islamic religious law, is utterly marginal, as Wise admits.

Wise “personally, at least, finds [anti-Semitism] to be an extremely small problem, much smaller than the issues of Jewish privilege and Islamophobia issues.” But Wise devoted most of a talk to a Christian audience to this extremely small problem.

My work alongside Christians is an important challenge to those dangerous and disempowering messages I learned growing up. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other.

Wise and JVP are “there” to impose the new ecumenical deal: no critique of Zionism, in Palestine or in the US Israel lobby, only of “the occupation;” and constant flagellation about Christian privilege and anti-Semitism.

For this Wise claims inspiration from Pastor Bonhöffer and the White Rose students, who gave their lives fighting Nazism. Such aggrandizement, extravagantly moralized, is a frank statement of Jewish superiority. Physicians, heal thyselves.

Harry Clark can be reached at his web site,