Getting beyond name-calling

Liberal Jews and liberal Christians often find common ground on many social issues, but not on Israel.

By DAVID J. FORMAN
March 29, 2006 00:48
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reform stained glass 88. (photo credit: )

 
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American Evangelist Pat Robertson's pronouncement that Ariel Sharon's stroke was an act of Divine retribution for his abandonment of the Gaza settlements - though he subsequently apologized - was a frightening reminder of how extreme the views of those on the religious Right can be. Sadly, Robertson has something in common with some on the religious Right in Israel who have expressed similar sentiments. Yet, even as the Israeli Right can draw support from the Christian Right, the converse is not true for the Israeli Left. The liberal Protestant stance on Israel, particularly with calls from some quarters for divestment, makes an alliance between liberal Jews and Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans - to name but a few - tenuous. Liberal Jews do find a common language with liberal Christians on a host of social issues - abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, separation of religion and state - but when it comes to Israel they often part ways. Not that there is genuine disagreement about Israel's actions in the territories. Here both communities are on the same page. However, the methods that many liberal Protestants employ to pressure the Israeli government to abstain from certain actions carried out against the Palestinians strike those of us in the Israeli peace and human rights movements as disingenuous. The challenge is: How do we Jewish liberals maintain our partnership with liberal Protestants on social/religious issues and, at the same time, reject their criticism of Israel, which often lacks any balance? Concomitantly, how do we avoid going over to the "other side," making common cause with Evangelicals on matters related to Israel, when on so many other issues we hold antithetical positions? • WE need to engage our natural Christian partners in an honest dialogue and not dismiss them as closet anti-Semites. Additionally, we must distinguish between edicts that emanate from those Protestants who sit in some ivory-tower headquarters and the average parishioner. Rarely have I encountered general agreement among local ministers and their constituents with their respective leaders' pronouncements on divestment from Israel or frequent condemnation of Israel's behavior. • Instead of divestment, which would most likely redound negatively on Palestinians, we need to lobby for investment in organizations and institutions within Israel and the Palestinian Authority that jointly promote peace and dialogue. • Because the Jewish people's ancient historical ties to the Land of Israel for over two millennia seem not to bear weight on liberal Christians as they do with their right-wing co-religionists, we need to help them understand Israel's present history, correcting their notion as if the Jewish state began in 1967 with the occupation. We need to remind them that Israel was established by an act of the international community when the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Israel accepted the UN ruling, but, as soon as the Jewish state was declared on May 15, 1948, six Arab countries invaded Israel in order to "drive it into the sea." After the armistice agreements signed in Rhodes in 1949, first with Egypt on February 24 and later with Jordan on April 3, it was Jordan and Egypt that occupied the West Bank and Gaza until the Six Day War. • We need to sensitize our Protestant friends to our narrative that dates back from the time of the exiles, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Cossacks, Czars, Nazis, Arab armies, terrorists to today's virulent anti-Semitism that spews forth from virtually every corner of the Muslim world. If one wants to see inflammatory cartoons, just look at the Arab press's portrayal of Jews, which dwarfs Nazi caricatures of the Jewish people as does Hamas's charter make Hitler's Mein Kampf look moderate. • We need to help them couch their language in such a way that Israelis can listen to their legitimate concerns. • We need to tell them that their constant criticism of Israel, accompanied by calls for any form of divestment, only serves cynical attempts not just in the Muslim world, but also in some European capitals and on college campuses to delegitimize the existence of a Jewish state. With the election of Hamas, fueled by a dramatic increase in Islamic fundamentalism that calls for Israel's destruction, one must be careful when taking Israel to task for troublesome moral actions. •We therefore need to point out that Israel must be judged by universal moral standards. Living as we do with constant terrorism, compared to other countries, not only in the Middle East where we are surrounded by dictatorships, religious fanatics, military despots, feudal lords, sheikhdoms and monarchies, but also to Western democracies, Israel is a model of restraint. If similar standards of behavior applied to Israel were equally applied elsewhere, then we should expect vociferous and unrelenting condemnation of the manifold abuses in the Arab world; and most certainly of Palestinian violence in Israel and within the Palestinian Authority. • We need to disabuse them of the view that Christian Arabs are suffering solely because of the occupation. In his book The Body and the Blood, former Middle East bureau chief of the Boston Globe Charles Sennott traces the disappearance of Christianity from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Egypt to Lebanon. For most of the history in this region, Jews were not in control and it was, and primarily still is, the constant brow-beating by Muslims that has caused Christians to emigrate from the Middle East, reducing them to an insignificant minority in the place of their origins. • We need to convince our liberal Protestant friends to emulate the Evangelicals. While we and they must discard many of the Christian Right's social and political stances, as well as reject their theological belief that Israel is a passageway to the return of the "messiah," at which time all peoples, the Jews being the first among them, will accept Jesus, we must recognize that when Scuds fell and suicide bombings were going off, it was these very Evangelicals who flocked to Israel to show their solidarity with the Jewish state. Such commitment lends both credibility and authority to their positions - an essential ingredient lacking in the liberal Christian community, putting into question its commitment to the existence of a Jewish state in its historical homeland. Finally, we need to emphasize that such a commitment to the existence of the State of Israel is essential to guarantee a continuing dialogue between any Christian denomination and any religious and/or secular stream within the Jewish world.

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