Catalog of all Link issues Since 1968
Over 175 subject matter experts in professions such as medicine, church ministry, archaeology and diplomacy have authored over 300 Link issues since 1968.
The Link Catalog archive below constitutes a body of informed commentary, fact and anecdotal evidence that is all the more valuable for writers, researchers and historians because each issue (for the most part) covers only one subject.
AIPAC, Dark Money, and the Assault on Democracy
November 22, 2023 | Allan C. Brownfeld | Current Issue
The Politics of Archaeology – Christian Zionism and the Creation of Facts Underground
October 2, 2022 | Mimi Kirk | The Link
Apartheid…Israel’s Inconvenient Truth
February 2, 2022 | Chris McGreal | The Link
Israel’s Weaponization of Time
December 12, 2021 | Omar Aziz | The Link
September 12, 2021 | John Mahoney | The Link
On A RANT
July 20, 2021 | Sam Bahour | The Link
How Long Will Israel Get Away With It
April 9, 2021 | Haim Bresheeth-Zabner | The Link
The Decolonizing of Palestine Towards a One-State Solution
January 9, 2021 | Jeff Halper | The Link
Israelizing the American Police, Palestinianizing the American People
November 26, 2020 | Jeff Halper | The Link
The ONE-STATE REALITY and the REAL MEANING of ANNEXATION
August 23, 2020 | Ian Lustick | The Link
June 6, 2020 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
UPDATED: The Latest on the Suspected Murderers of Alex Odeh
April 12, 2020 | David Sheen | The Link
The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine
February 29, 2020 | Rashid Khalidi | The Link
Fact and Fiction in Palestine
December 15, 2019 | Gil Maguire | The Link
Once Upon a Time in Gaza
November 10, 2019 | Rawan Yaghi | The Link
Uninhabitable: Gaza Faces Moment of Truth
October 5, 2019 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
What in God’s Name is going on?
April 14, 2019 | Edward Dillon | The Link
Jews Step Forward
January 31, 2019 | Marjorie Wright | The Link
Palestinian Children in Israeli Military Detention
December 15, 2018 | Brad Parker | The Link
The Judaization of Jerusalem Al-Quds
September 9, 2018 | Basem L. Ra'ad | The Link
Apartheid West Bank
June 6, 2018 | Jonathan Kuttab | The Link
March 12, 2018 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
January 13, 2018 | Rawan Yaghi | The Link
Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism, And Never Was
November 29, 2017 | Allan C. Brownfeld | The Link
The Cult of the Zionists – An Historical Enigma
August 20, 2017 | Thomas Suárez | The Link
Marwan Barghouti and the Battle of the Empty Stomachs
July 1, 2017 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
Al-Tamimi et al v. Adelson et al
April 1, 2017 | Fred Jerome | The Link
In The Beginning…
January 22, 2017 | John Mahoney | The Link
Wheels of Justice
December 3, 2016 | Steven Jungkeit | The Link
August 14, 2016 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
The Murder of Alex Odeh
June 4, 2016 | Richard Habib | The Link
Protestantism’s Liberal/Mainline Embrace of Zionism
April 3, 2016 | Donald Wagner | The Link
The Second Gaza
January 10, 2016 | Atef Abu Saif | The Link
Between Two Blue Lines
October 31, 2015 | Tom Hayes | The Link
A Special Kind of Exile
August 15, 2015 | Alice Rothchild M.D. | The Link
June 13, 2015 | Fred Jerome | The Link
The Art of Resistance
March 7, 2015 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
The Window Dressers: The Signatories of Israel’s Proclamation of Independence
January 3, 2015 | Ilan Pappe | The Link
The Immorality Of It All
October 25, 2014 | Dr. Daniel C. Maguire | The Link
Can Palestine Bring Israeli Officials before the International Criminal Court?
August 16, 2014 | John B. Quigley | The Link
In Search of King Solomon’s Temple
June 9, 2014 | George Wesley Buchanan | The Link
March 2, 2014 | Charles Villa-Vicencio | The Link
In Search of Grace Halsell
January 17, 2014 | Robin Kelley | The Link
November 3, 2013 | Pamela Olson | The Link
What Israel’s Best Friend Should Know
August 24, 2013 | Miko Peled | The Link
Dimona—(Shhh! It’s A Secret.)
June 23, 2013 | John Mahoney | The Link
April 7, 2013 | Charles A. Kimball | The Link
Like a Picture, A Map is Worth A Thousand Words
January 28, 2013 | Rod Driver | The Link
When War Criminals Walk Free
November 18, 2012 | Dr. Mads Gilbert | The Link
Welcome to Nazareth
July 30, 2012 | Jonathan Cook | The Link
The Neocons… They’re Back
May 27, 2012 | John Mahoney | The Link
Is the Two-State Solution Dead?
March 28, 2012 | Jeff Halper | The Link
January 8, 2012 | Maysoon Zayid | The Link
Who Are the “Canaanites”? Why Ask?
November 19, 2011 | Basem L. Ra'ad | The Link
Palestine and the Season of Arab Discontent
September 1, 2011 | Lawrence R. Davidson | The Link
An Open Letter to Church Leaders
June 20, 2011 | David W. Good | 2011
May 1, 2011 | Geoff Simons | 2011
What Price Israel?
January 9, 2011 | Chris Hedges | 2011
Publish It Not
December 20, 2010 | Jonathan Cook | 2010
September 4, 2010 | Khalid Amayreh | 2010
Where Is The Palestinian Gandhi?
July 18, 2010 | Mazin Qumsiyeh | 2010
A Doctor’s Prescription for Peace with Justice
May 20, 2010 | Steven Feldman M.D. | 2010
The Olive Trees of Palestine
January 8, 2010 | Edward Dillon | 2010
Spinning Cast Lead
December 9, 2009 | Jane Adas | 2009
Ending Israel’s Occupation
September 23, 2009 | John Mahoney | 2009
July 28, 2009 | James M. Wall | 2009
April 2, 2009 | John Mahoney | 2009
January 26, 2009 | Joel Kovel | 2009
Captive Audiences: Performing in Palestine
December 18, 2008 | Thomas Suárez | 2008
Israeli Palestinians: The Unwanted Who Stayed
October 5, 2008 | Jonathan Cook | 2008
The Grief Counselor of Gaza
July 10, 2008 | Eyad Sarraj | 2008
State of Denial: Israel, 1948-2008
April 22, 2008 | Ilan Pappe | 2008
January 6, 2008 | Khalid Amayreh | 2008
December 30, 2007 | Kathy Kelly | 2007
Avraham Burg: Apostate or Avatar?
October 4, 2007 | John Mahoney | 2007
Witness for the Defenseless
August 20, 2007 | Anna Baltzer | 2007
About That Word Apartheid
April 24, 2007 | John Mahoney | 2007
One Man’s Hope
January 7, 2007 | Fahim Qubain | 2007
Beyond the Minor Second
December 5, 2006 | Simon Shaheen | 2006
October 9, 2006 | Barbara Lubin | 2006
Why Divestment? Why Now?
August 20, 2006 | David Wildman | 2006
Inside the Anti-Occupation Camp
April 17, 2006 | Michel Warschawski | 2006
Middle East Studies Under Siege
January 14, 2006 | Joan W. Scott | 2006
A Polish Boy in Palestine
December 20, 2005 | David Neunuebel | 2005
The Israeli Factor
October 19, 2005 | John Cooley | 2005
The Coverage—and Non-Coverage—of Israel-Palestine
July 20, 2005 | Allison Weir | 2005
The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud
April 23, 2005 | Thomas W. Lippman | 2005
January 29, 2005 | Geoff Simons | 2005
When Legend Becomes Fact
December 21, 2004 | James M. Wall | 2004
Timeline for War
September 20, 2004 | John Mahoney | 2004
The CPT Report
June 16, 2004 | Peggy Gish | 2004
April 22, 2004 | Mary Eoloff | 2004
Beyond Road Maps & Walls
January 1, 2004 | Jeff Halper | 2004
December 5, 2003 | Cindy Corrie | 2003
Why Do They Hate US?
October 25, 2003 | John Zogby | 2003
In the Beginning, There Was Terrorism
July 5, 2003 | Ronald Bleier | 2003
April 20, 2003 | John Mahoney | 2003
January 20, 2003 | Phyllis Bennis | 2003
The Making of Iraq
December 6, 2002 | Geoff Simons | 2002
A Most UnGenerous Offer
September 27, 2002 | Jeff Halper | 2002
The Crusades, Then and Now
July 5, 2002 | Robert Ashmore | 2002
A Style Sheet on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
April 2, 2002 | J. Martin Bailey | 2002
Law & Disorder in the Middle East
January 15, 2002 | Francis A. Boyle | 2002
Reflections on September 11, 2001
November 20, 2001 | James M. Wall | 2001
Inside H-2 [Hebron]
September 12, 2001 | Jane Adas | 2001
Americans Tortured in Israeli Jails
June 8, 2001 | Jerri Bird | 2001
Today’s Via Dolorosa
April 20, 2001 | Edward Dillon | 2001
Israel’s Anti-Civilian Weapons
January 1, 2001 | John Mahoney | 2001
Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine
December 17, 2000 | Michael Prior, C.M. | 2000
On the Jericho Road
September 5, 2000 | AMEU | 2000
The Lydda Death March
July 13, 2000 | Audeh Rantisi | 2000
The Syrian Community on the Golan Heights
April 27, 2000 | Bashar Tarabieh | 2000
Muslim Americans in Mainstream America
February 20, 2000 | Nihad Awad | 2000
Native Americans and Palestinians
December 20, 1999 | Norman Finkelstein | 1999
Iraq: Who’s To Blame?
October 3, 1999 | Geoff Simons | 1999
July 20, 1999 | John Sugg | 1999
May 20, 1999 | Muna Hamzeh-Muhaisen | 1999
February 20, 1999 | Edward Mast | 1999
Dear NPR News
December 18, 1998 | Ali Abunimah | 1998
Israel’s Bedouin: The End of Poetry
September 22, 1998 | Ron Kelley | 1998
Politics Not As Usual
July 8, 1998 | Rod Driver | 1998
Israeli Historians Ask: What Really Happened 50 Years Ago?
January 8, 1998 | Ilan Pappe | 1998
The Jews of Iraq
January 8, 1998 | Naeim Giladi | 1998
“People and the Land’: Coming to a PBS Station Near You?
November 12, 1997 | Tom Hayes | 1997
U. S. Aid to Israel: The Subject No One Mentions
September 1, 1997 | Richard Curtiss | 1997
Remember the [USS] Liberty
July 24, 1997 | John Borne | 1997
AMEU’s 30th Anniversary Issue
April 8, 1997 | AMEU | 1997
The Children of Iraq: 1990-1997
January 22, 1997 | Kathy Kelly | 1997
Slouching Toward Bethlehem 2000
December 16, 1996 | J. Martin Bailey | 1996
Deir Yassin Remembered
September 2, 1996 | Dan McGowan | 1996
Palestinians and Their Days in Court: Unequal Before the Law
July 22, 1996 | Linda Brayer | 1996
Meanwhile in Lebanon
April 8, 1996 | George Irani | 1996
Hebron’s Theater of the Absurd
January 8, 1996 | Kathleen Kern | 1996
Epiphany at Beit Jala
November 24, 1995 | Donald Neff | 1995
Teaching About the Middle East
September 19, 1995 | Elizabeth Barlow | 1995
Jerusalem’s Final Status
July 8, 1995 | Michael Dumper | 1995
A Survivor for Whom Never Again Means Never Again [An Interview with Israel Shahak]
May 1, 1995 | Mark Dow | 1995
In the Land of Christ Christianity Is Dying
January 24, 1995 | Grace Halsell | 1995
Refusing to Curse the Darkness
December 8, 1994 | Geoffrey Aronson | 1994
Humphrey Gets the Inside Dope
September 29, 1994 | John Law | 1994
The Post-Handshake Landscape
July 19, 1994 | Frank Collins | 1994
Bosnia: A Genocide of Muslims
May 8, 1994 | Grace Halsell | 1994
Will ’94 Be ’49 All Over Again?
January 22, 1994 | Rabbi Elmer Berger | 1994
December 18, 1993 | Ann Lesch | 1993
Save the Musht
October 8, 1993 | Rosina Hassoun | 1993
August 8, 1993 | Colin Edwards | 1993
An Open Letter to Mrs. Clinton
May 8, 1993 | James Graff | 1993
Islam and the US National Interest
February 8, 1993 | Shaw Dallal | 1993
A Reply to Henry Kissinger and Fouad Ajami
December 16, 1992 | Norman Finkelstein | 1992
October 8, 1992 | Don Wagner | 1992
Covert Operations: The Human Factor
August 8, 1992 | Jane Hunter | 1992
AMEU’s 25th Anniversary Issue
May 19, 1992 | John Mahoney | 1992
Facing the Charge of Anti-Semitism
January 20, 1992 | Paul Hopkins | 1992
The Comic Book Arab
December 12, 1991 | Jack Shaheen | 1991
Visitation at Yad Vashem
September 3, 1991 | James Burtchaell | 1991
A New Literary Look at the Middle East
August 25, 1991 | John Mahoney | 1991
Beyond the Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Solidarity with the Palestinian People
February 8, 1991 | Marc Ellis | 1991
The Post-War Middle East
January 2, 1991 | Rami Khouri | 1991
Arab Defamation in the Media
December 21, 1990 | Casey Kasem | 1990
What Happened to Palestine?: The Revisionists Revisited
September 17, 1990 | Michael Palumbo | 1990
Protestants and Catholics Show New Support for Palestinians
July 26, 1990 | Charles A. Kimball | 1990
My Conversation with Humphrey
April 2, 1990 | John Law | 1990
American Victims of Israeli Abuses
January 17, 1990 | Albert Mokhiber | 1990
Diary of an American in Occupied Palestine
November 8, 1989 | Mary Mary | 1989
The International Crimes of Israeli Officials
September 23, 1989 | John B. Quigley | 1989
An Interview with Ellen Nassab
July 8, 1989 | Hisham Ahmed | 1989
US Aid to Israel
May 23, 1989 | Mohamed Rabie | 1989
Cocaine, Cutouts: Israel’s Unseen Diplomacy
January 14, 1989 | Jane Hunter | 1989
The Shi’i Muslims of the Arab World
December 8, 1988 | Augustus Norton | 1988
Israel and South Africa
October 3, 1988 | Robert Ashmore | 1988
Zionist Violence Against Palestinians
September 8, 1988 | Mohammad Hallaj | 1988
June 25, 1988 | George Weller | 1988
The US Press and the Middle East
January 8, 1988 | Mitchell Kaidy | 1988
The US Role in Israel’s Arms Industry
December 8, 1987 | Bishara Bahbah | 1987
The Shadow Government
October 24, 1987 | Jane Hunter | 1987
Public Opinion and the Middle East Conflict
September 8, 1987 | Fouad Moughrabi | 1987
England And The US in Palestine: A Comparison
May 22, 1987 | W. F. Aboushi | 1987
Archaeology Politics in Palestine
January 11, 1987 | Leslie Hoppe | 1987
The Demographic War for Palestine
December 21, 1986 | Janet Abu-Lughod | 1986
October 21, 1986 | Cheryl Rubenberg | 1986
The Vatican, US Catholics, and the Middle East
August 5, 1986 | George Irani | 1986
The Making of a Non-Person
May 2, 1986 | Jan Abu Shakrah | 1986
The Israeli-South African-US Alliance
January 17, 1986 | Jane Hunter | 1986
Humphrey Goes to the Middle East
December 4, 1985 | John Law | 1985
US-Israeli-Central American Connection
November 23, 1985 | Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi | 1985
The Palestine-Israel Conflict in the US Courtroom
September 1, 1985 | Rex Wingerter | 1985
The Middle East on the US Campus
May 24, 1985 | Naseer Aruri | 1985
From Time Immemorial: The Resurrection of a Myth
January 12, 1985 | Mohammad Hallaj | 1985
The Lasting Gift of Christmas
December 29, 1984 | Hassan Haddad | 1984
Israel’s Drive for Water
November 25, 1984 | Leslie Schmida | 1984
Shrine Under Siege
August 21, 1984 | Grace Halsell | 1984
The USS Liberty Affair
May 6, 1984 | James Ennes Jr. | 1984
The Middle East Lobbies
January 21, 1984 | Cheryl Rubenberg | 1984
US Aid to Israel
December 23, 1983 | Samir Abed-Rabbo | 1983
November 18, 1983 | O. Kelly Ingram | 1983
Prisoners of Israel
August 22, 1983 | Edward Dillon | 1983
The Land of Palestine
May 11, 1983 | L. Dean Brown | 1983
Military Peacekeeping in the Middle East
January 5, 1983 | William Mulligan | 1983
US-Israeli Relations: A Reassessment
December 20, 1982 | Allan Kellum | 1982
The Islamic Alternative
September 5, 1982 | Yvonne Haddad | 1982
Yasser Arafat: The Man and His People
July 9, 1982 | Grace Halsell | 1982
Tourism in the Holy Land
May 5, 1982 | Larry Ekin | 1982
Palestine: The Suppression of an Idea
January 18, 1982 | Mohammad Hallaj | 1982
The Disabled in the Arab World
December 14, 1981 | Audrey Shabbas | 1981
Arms Buildup in the Middle East
September 26, 1981 | Greg Orfalea | 1981
The Palestinians in America
July 5, 1981 | Elias Tuma | 1981
A Human Rights Odyssey: In Search of Academic Freedom
April 23, 1981 | Michael Griffin | 1981
Europe and the Arabs: A Developing Relationship
January 12, 1981 | John Richardson | 1981
National Council of Churches Adopts New Statement on the Middle East
December 20, 1980 | Allison Rock | 1980
Kuwait: Prosperity From A Sea of Oil
September 7, 1980 | Alan Klaum | 1980
American Jews and the Middle East: Fears, Frustration and Hope
July 24, 1980 | Allan Solomonow | 1980
The Arab Stereotype on Television
April 22, 1980 | Jack Shaheen | 1980
The Presidential Candidates: How They View the Middle East
January 13, 1980 | Allan Kellum | 1980
The West Bank and Gaza: The Emerging Political Consensus
December 16, 1979 | Ann Lesch | 1979
The Muslim Experience in the US
September 5, 1979 | Yvonne Haddad | 1979
Jordan Steps Forward
July 22, 1979 | Alan Klaum | 1979
The Child in the Arab Family
May 30, 1979 | Audrey Shabbas | 1979
January 12, 1979 | John Mahoney | 1979
The Sorrow of Lebanon
December 22, 1978 | Youssef Ibrahim | 1978
The Arab World: A New Economic Order
October 5, 1978 | Youssef Ibrahim | 1978
The Yemen Arab Republic: From Behind the Veil
May 20, 1978 | Alan Klaum | 1978
The New Israeli Law: Will It Doom the Christian Mission in the Holy Land?
April 24, 1978 | Humphrey Walz | 1978
January 14, 1978 | John Sutton, ed. | 1978
War Plan Ready If Peace Effort Fails
December 19, 1977 | Jim Hoagland | 1977
Concern Grows in U.S. Over Israeli Policies
September 25, 1977 | Allan C. Brownfeld | 1977
Prophecy and Modern Israel
June 5, 1977 | Calvin Keene | 1977
Literary Look at the Middle East
April 16, 1977 | Djelloul Marbrook | 1977
Carter Administration & the Middle East
January 8, 1977 | Norton Mezvinski | 1977
Unity Out of Diversity: United Arab Emirates
December 19, 1976 | John Sutton, ed. | 1976
New Leader for Troubled Lebanon
October 5, 1976 | Minor Yanis | 1976
Egypt: Rediscovered Destiny – A Survey
July 5, 1976 | Alan Klaum | 1976
America’s Stake in the Middle East
June 5, 1976 | John Davis | 1976
January 12, 1976 | Patricia Morris, ed. | 1976
Zionism? Racism? What Do You Mean?
December 21, 1975 | Humphrey Walz | 1975
October 8, 1975 | Marcella Kerr, ed. | 1975
June 20, 1975 | Ray Cleveland | 1975
The West Bank and Gaza
April 16, 1975 | John Richardson | 1975
Crisis in Lebanon
January 8, 1975 | Jack Forsyth | 1975
The Arab-Israeli Arms Race
December 14, 1974 | Fuad Jabber | 1974
The Palestinians Speak. Listen!
October 12, 1974 | Frank Epp | 1974
Holy Father Speaks on Palestine
May 26, 1974 | Pope Paul VI | 1974
History of the Middle East Conflict
March 18, 1974 | Sen. James Abourezk | 1974
Arab Oil and the Zionist Connection
January 21, 1974 | Jack Forsyth | 1974
Christians in the Arab East
December 8, 1973 | Humphrey Walz | 1973
American Jewry and the Zionist Jewish State Concept
September 30, 1973 | Norton Mezvinski | 1973
US Middle East Involvement
May 8, 1973 | John Richardson | 1973
A Prophet Speaks in Israel
March 8, 1973 | Norton Mezvinski | 1973
The Arab Market: Opportunities for U.S. Business
January 21, 1973 | Humphrey Walz | 1973
Toward a More Open Middle East Debate
December 2, 1972 | Humphrey Walz | 1972
Some Thoughts on Jerusalem
September 15, 1972 | Joseph Ryan | 1972
Foreign Policy Report: Nixon Gives Massive Aid But Reaps No Political Harvest
May 13, 1972 | Andrew Glass | 1972
A Look at Gaza
March 2, 1972 | Humphrey Walz | 1972
Religion Used to Promote Hatred in Israel
January 2, 1972 | Humphrey Walz | 1972
Computer Age Answers to M. E. Problems
December 18, 1971 | Humphrey Walz | 1971
Peace and the Holy City
September 5, 1971 | Humphrey Walz | 1971
Why Visit the Middle East?
May 15, 1971 | Humphrey Walz | 1971
Arab-Israeli Encounter in Jaffa
March 12, 1971 | Humphrey Walz | 1971
At Stake in UNRWA’s 1971 Budget
January 1, 1971 | Humphrey Walz | 1971
Is the Modern State, Israel, A Fulfillment of Prophecy?
December 6, 1970 | Bradley Watkins | 1970
Council of Churches Acts on Middle East Crisis
September 26, 1970 | Humphrey Walz | 1970
Mayhew Reports on Arab-Israeli Facts
May 24, 1970 | Christopher Mayhew | 1970
Sequel Offered Free to Refugee Agencies
March 22, 1970 | Humphrey Walz | 1970
Responses to Palestine Information Proposal
January 3, 1970 | Humphrey Walz | 1970
Churches Plan for Refugees and Peace
December 15, 1969 | Humphrey Walz | 1969
End UNRWA Deficit for Refugee Aid
September 28, 1969 | Humphrey Walz | 1969
Church Statement Stresses Mideast Needs
May 3, 1969 | Humphrey Walz | 1969
Mosque to Add Minaret to NYC Skyline
March 9, 1969 | Humphrey Walz | 1969
Black Bids New Administration Face Facts
January 3, 1969 | Humphrey Walz | 1969
UN Struggles for Mideast Peace
November 3, 1968 | Humphrey Walz | 1968
How The Link Was Born and Can Grow
September 1, 1968 | AMEU | 1968
It was inevitable that when the coronavirus pandemic reached the occupied Palestinian territories, as it did in early March, it would find its first purchase in Bethlehem, a few miles south-east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.
Staff at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, one of Bethlehem’s satellite towns, tested positive after they were exposed to a group of infected Greek tourists. Israel worked hurriedly with the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinians’ permanent government-in-waiting in the occupied territories – to lock down Bethlehem. Israel was fearful that the virus, unlike the city’s Palestinian inhabitants, would be difficult to contain. Contagion might spread quickly to nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank, then to Jewish settlements built illegally by Israel on Bethlehem’s lands, and finally on into Israel itself.
The Palestinian territories were under a form of lockdown long before the arrival of the coronavirus, however. Israel, the occupying power, has made sure that the entire Palestinian population is as isolated from the world as possible – their voices silenced, their experiences of oppression and brutality at Israel’s hands near-invisible to most of the Israeli public and to outsiders.
But Bethlehem, the reputed site of Jesus’s birth 2,000 years ago, is the one Palestinian area – outside East Jerusalem, which has been illegally annexed by Israel – that has proved hardest for Israel to hermetically seal off. During visits to the Church of the Nativity, tourists can briefly glimpse the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.
Some 15 years ago Israel completed an 26 foot-high concrete wall around Bethlehem. On a typical day – at least, before coronavirus halted tourism to the region – a steady stream of coaches from Jerusalem, bearing thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, came to a stop at a gap in the concrete that served as a checkpoint. There they would wait for the all-clear from surly Israeli teenage soldiers. Once approved, the coaches would drive to the Nativity Church, their passengers able to view the chaotic graffiti scrawled across the wall’s giant canvas, testifying to the city’s imprisonment and its defiance.
Like the plague-bearing Greeks, visitors to Bethlehem could not avoid mixing, even if perfunctorily, with a few locals, mostly Palestinian Christians. Guides showed them around the main attraction, the Church, while local officials and clergy shepherded them into queues to be led down to a crypt that long ago was supposedly the site of a stable where Jesus was born. But unlike the Greek visitors, most pilgrims did not hang around to see the rest of Bethlehem. They quickly boarded their Israeli coaches back to Jerusalem, where they were likely to sleep in Israeli-owned hotels and spend their money in Israeli-owned restaurants and shops.
For most visitors to the Holy Land, their sole meaningful exposure to the occupation and the region’s native Palestinian population was an hour or two spent in the goldfish-bowl of Bethlehem.
In recent years, however, that had started to change. Despite the wall, or at times because of it, more independent-minded groups of pilgrims and lone travelers had begun straying off grid, leaving the Israeli-controlled tourism trail. Rather than making a brief detour, they stayed a few nights in Bethlehem. A handful of small, mostly cheap hotels like the Angel catered to them, as did restaurants and souvenir stores around the church.
In tandem, a new kind of political tourism based in and around Bethlehem had begun offering tours of the wall and sections of the city, highlighting the theft of the city’s land by neighboring Jewish settlements and the violence of Israeli soldiers who can enter Bethlehem at will.
A few years ago, the famous anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy gave a major boost to this new kind of immersive tourism by allying with a Bethlehem tour guide, Wisam Salsa, to open the Walled-Off Hotel. They converted an old building boxed in by the wall, liberally sprinkling it with Banksy’s subversive artworks about the occupation, as well as installing a gallery exhibiting the work of Palestinian artists and a museum detailing the occupation’s history and Israel’s well-tested methods of control and repression.
Admittedly, few visitors managed to get a room in Banksy’s small hotel, but many more came to sit in the lobby and sip a beer, produced by one of a handful of newly emerging breweries run by Christian Palestinians, or add some graffiti to the wall just outside with the help of a neighboring art supplies shop.
Before coronavirus, the Walled-Off offered daily tours of Aida, a refugee camp attached to Bethlehem, whose inhabitants were expelled from some of the more than 500 Palestinian communities Israel erased in 1948 – in the Nakba, or Catastrophe – to create a Jewish state on their homeland. There, visitors not only learned about the mass dispossession of Palestinians, sponsored by the western powers, that made Israel’s creation possible, but they heard the camp’s inhabitants tell of regular violent, night-time raids by Israeli soldiers and of the daily struggle for survival when Israel tightly controls and limits essentials like water.
Until the coronavirus did Israel’s work for it, Israeli authorities had noted with growing concern how more tourists and pilgrims were staying in Bethlehem. According to Israeli figures, there are about a million tourist overnights annually in Bethlehem. And that figure was growing as new hotels were built, even if the total was still a tiny fraction of the number of tourists staying in Israel and Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem.
The new trend disturbed the Israeli authorities. Bethlehem was proving an Achilles’ heel in Israel’s system of absolute control over the Palestinians for two reasons.
First, it brought money into Bethlehem, providing it with a source of income outside Israel’s control. The Israeli authorities have carefully engineered the Palestinian economy to be as dependent on Israel as possible, making it easy for Israel to punish Palestinians and the PA economically for any signs of disobedience or resistance. Aside from its tourism, Bethlehem has been largely stripped of economic autonomy. After waves of land thefts by Israel, the city now has access to only a tenth of its original territory, and has been slowly encircled by settlements. The city’s residents have been cut off from their farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. Jerusalem, once Bethlehem’s economic and cultural hinterland, has become all but unreachable for most residents, hidden on the other side of the wall. And those working outside the tourism sector need a difficult-to-obtain permit from Israel’s military authorities to enter and work in low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture inside Israel, the settlements or occupied Jerusalem. Israel’s second ground for concern was that foreign visitors staying in Bethlehem were likely to learn first-hand something of the experiences of the local population – more so than those who simply made a brief detour to see the church. A self-serving narrative about Palestinians central to Israeli propaganda – that Israel stands with the west in a Judeo-Christian battle against a supposedly barbaric Muslim enemy – risked being subverted by exposure to the reality of Bethlehem. After all, anyone spending time in the city would soon realize that it includes Palestinian Christians only too ready to challenge Israel’s grand narrative of a clash of civilizations.
From Israel’s point of view, a stay in Bethlehem might also open tourists’ eyes in dangerous ways. They might come to understand that, if anyone was behaving in a barbaric way and provoking an unresolvable, religiously inspired clash, it was not Palestinians – Muslim or Christian – but Israel, which has been brutally ruling over Palestinians for decades.
For both reasons, Israel wished to prevent Bethlehem from becoming a separate, rival hub for tourism. It was impossible to stop pilgrims visiting the Church of the Nativity, but Israel could stop Bethlehem developing its own tourism industry, independent of Israel. The wall has been part of that strategy, but it failed to curb the development of new tourism ventures – and in some cases, as with the Banksy hotel, had actually inspired alternative forms of tourism.
In early 2017 the Israeli authorities finally acted. The daily Haaretz newspaper revealed that the interior ministry had issued a directive to local travel agencies warning them not to allow their pilgrimage groups to stay overnight in Bethlehem, with the implication that the firms risked losing their licenses if they did so. According to Haaretz, the government claimed that “potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists”.
Bethlehem is lucky that, unlike other Palestinian communities, it has allies Israel cannot easily ignore. Haaretz’s exposure of the new policy led to a rapid backlash. International churches, especially the Vatican, were worried that it was the thin end of a wedge that might soon leave the City of the Nativity off-limits to its pilgrims. And Israeli travel agencies feared their business would suffer. Pilgrim groups from poorer countries that could not afford Jerusalem’s high prices, especially for accommodation, might stop coming to the Holy Land.
As one agent told Haaretz: “The meaning of a letter like this is the end of incoming tourism from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. All the tourists who visit Israel and sleep in Bethlehem are doing that primarily to reduce costs.” The loss of such tourists not only threatened to deprive Bethlehem of the benefits of tourism but threatened Israel’s much larger tourism sector. Soon afterwards, the Israeli authorities backtracked, saying the directive had been a draft issued in error.
Why the Shrinkage?
Bethlehem’s plight – a microcosm of the more general difficulties faced by Palestinians under occupation – offers insights into why the region’s Palestinian Christian population has been shrinking so rapidly and relentlessly.
The demographics of Bethlehem offer stark evidence of a Christian exodus from the region. In 1947, the year before Israel’s creation, 85 percent of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christian. Today the figure stands at 15 percent. Christians now comprise less than 1.5 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank – some 40,000 of a population of nearly 3 million – down from 5 percent in the early 1970s, shortly after Israel occupied the territory in 1967.
In 1945 Bethlehem had nearly 8,000 Christian residents, slightly more than the 7,000 who live there today. Natural growth should mean Bethlehem’s Christian population is many times that size. There are, in fact, many times more Palestinian Christians overseas than there are in historic Palestine. The 7,000 Christians of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, are outnumbered by more than 100,000 family members who have moved to the Americas.
Israel ostensibly professes great concern about this decline, but actually it is only too happy to see native Christians depart the region. Their exodus has helped to make Israel’s clash of civilizations narrative sound more plausible, bolstering claims that Israel does indeed serve as a rampart against Muslim-Arab terror and barbarism. Israel has argued that it is helping Christian Palestinians as best it can, protecting them from their hostile Muslim neighbors. In this way, Israel has sought to mask its active role in encouraging the exodus.
The rapid decline in the numbers of these Christians reflects many factors that have been intentionally obscured by Israel. Historically, the most significant is that Palestinian Christians were nearly as badly impacted as Palestinian Muslims by the mass expulsions carried out by Zionist forces in 1948. In total, some 80 percent of all Palestinians living in what became the new state of Israel were expelled from their lands and became refugees – 750,000 from a population of 900,000. Those forced into exile included tens of thousands of Christians, amounting to two-thirds of the Palestinian Christian population of the time.
Palestinian Christians who remained in historic Palestine – either in what had now become Israel or in the territories that from 1967 would fall under Israeli occupation – have naturally shrunk over time in relation to the Muslim population because of the latter’s higher birth rates. Palestine’s Christians mostly lived in cities. Their urban lifestyles and generally higher incomes, as well as their greater exposure to western cultural norms, meant they tended to have smaller families and, as a result, their community’s population growth was lower.
But rather than acknowledge this historical context, Israeli lobbyists seek to exploit and misrepresent the inevitable tensions and resentments caused by the mass displacements of the Nakba, developments that had a significant impact on traditionally Christian communities like Bethlehem. During the events of 1948, as rural Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces, the refugees sought shelter either in neighboring states like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or in West Bank cities.
Bethlehem found its demographics transformed: an 85 percent Christian majority before the Nakba has been reversed into an 85 percent Muslim majority today. These dramatic social and cultural upheavals – turning the city’s majority population into a minority – were not easy for all Bethlehem’s Christian families to accept. It would be wrong to ignore the way these changes caused friction. And the resentments have sometimes festered because they are incapable of resolution without addressing the source of the problem: Israel’s mass dispossession of Palestinians, and the continuing tacit support for these abuses by the international community.
Given this context, it has been easy for inter-family rivalries and conflicts that are inevitable in a ghettoized, overcrowded community like today’s Bethlehem to be interpreted by some members of the minority group as sectarian, even when they are not. The lack of proper law enforcement in Palestinian areas in which Israel rather than the PA is the ultimate arbiter of what is allowed has left smaller Christian families more vulnerable in conflicts with larger Muslim families. In the competition for diminishing resources, family size has mattered. And whereas globalization has tended to encourage increased identification among Palestinian Christians with the west and its more secular norms, the same processes have entrenched a religious identity among sections of the Muslim population who look to the wider Middle East for their ideas and salvation. Consequently, a cultural gap has widened.
These problems exist but it would be wrong to exaggerate them – as Israel’s loyalists wish to do – or to ignore who is ultimately responsible for these tensions. That is not a mistake most Palestinian Christians make. In a recent survey of Christians who have emigrated, very few pointed to “religious extremism” as the reason for leaving the region – just 3 percent. The overwhelming majority cited reasons relating in some way to Israel’s continuing malevolent role in controlling their lives. A third blamed a “lack of freedom”, a quarter “worsening economic conditions”, and 20 percent “political instability.”
To make sense of the specific problems faced by the Christian community, other historical contexts need to be understood. Palestinian Christians break down into four broad communities. The first is the Eastern Orthodox Churches, dominated by the Greek Orthodox. The second is the Catholic Churches, led by the “Latin” community that looks towards Rome, although they are outnumbered among Palestinians by Greek and Syrian Catholics. The third category is the Oriental Orthodox churches, which include the Copts, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. And finally, there are various Protestant Churches, including the Anglicans, Lutherans and Baptists.
Long before Israel’s creation on most of the Palestinians’ homeland, Christians were concentrated in and around Palestine’s urban centers. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, large numbers of Christians coalesced around sites associated with Jesus’s life. This tendency was reinforced as Palestine’s cities flourished and expanded from the 18th century onwards under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans encouraged the immigration of Christians to these centers of worship and cultivated a confessional system that made conditions attractive for the foreign Churches.
The result was a relatively privileged urban Christian population that consisted largely of merchants and traders, and benefited from the resources poured in by the international Churches as part of their missionary work, including schools and hospitals. Christians were typically wealthier, better educated and healthier than their Muslim counterparts often living nearby in isolated rural communities as peasant farmers. In addition, Christian families had good connections to the international Churches through local clergy, as well as the staff of Church-run schools and hospitals.
Those differences have proved significant as Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike have struggled under Israeli colonization, whether inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders or in the occupied territories.
Israel’s institutionalized racism towards Palestinians – systematic land thefts, uninhibited state and settler violence, as well as restrictions on movement and the denial of educational and employment opportunities – have put pressure on all Palestinians to leave. But Christians have enjoyed significant advantages in making their escape. They could tap their connections in the Churches to help them settle abroad, chiefly in the Americas and Europe. And that path was made easier for many given that relatives had already established lives overseas following the mass expulsions of 1948. As a result, the emigration of Palestinian Christians is generally reckoned to have been around twice that of Muslims.
Israel’s oft-repeated claim that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are responsible for the exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land is given the lie simply by examining the situation of Palestinian Christians both inside Israel, where neither Hamas nor the PA operate, and in East Jerusalem, where the influence of both has long been negligible. In each of those areas, Israel has unchallenged control over Palestinians’ lives. Yet we can see the same pattern of Christians fleeing the region.
And the reasons for Gaza’s tiny Palestinian Christian population, today numbering maybe only 1,000, to leave their tiny, massively overcrowded enclave, which has been blockaded for 13 years by Israel, barely needs examining. True, it has been hard for these Christians – 0.0005 percent of Gaza’s population – to feel represented in a territory so dominated by the Islamic social and cultural values embodied by the Hamas government. But there is little evidence they are being persecuted.
On the other hand, there is overwhelming proof that Gaza’s Christians are suffering, along with their Muslim neighbors, from Israel’s continuing violations of their most fundamental rights to freedom, security and dignity.
The picture in the West Bank, meanwhile, needs closer study. As noted, Palestinian Christians have generally enjoyed historic privileges over their Muslim compatriots that derive from their historic connections to the Churches. They have been able to exploit tourism as guides, drivers and guesthouse owners. They enjoy greater access to church-run schools and, as a consequence, improved access to higher education and the professions. They possess more valuable urban land, and many own shops and businesses in the cities. There are both Muslim and Christian lawyers, shopkeepers and business owners, of course, but proportionately more Christians have belonged to the middle classes and professions because of these various advantages.
While Israel’s occupation policies have harshly impacted all Palestinians, some have been hit harder than others. And those who have tended to suffer most live not in the main cities, which are under very partial Palestinian rule, but in rural areas and in the refugee camps. Those in the camps, in places such as Aida, next to Bethlehem, lost their lands and property to Israel and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch since 1948. Those living in isolated farming communities designated by the Oslo accords as “Area C” (a temporary designation that has effectively become permanent) are fully exposed to Israel’s belligerent civil and military control.
The residents of these communities have few opportunities to earn a living and have been most vulnerable to Israeli state and settler violence, as well as land thefts and the severe water restrictions imposed by Israel. In practice, these precarious conditions are endured disproportionately by Muslim Palestinians rather than Christians.
Nonetheless, Israel’s policies have increasingly deprived urban Christian families of the opportunities they had come to expect – the kind of opportunities westerners take for granted. And significantly, unlike many Muslim Palestinians, Christians have continued to enjoy one privilege: an escape route out of the region to countries where they have a chance to live relatively normal lives.
The damage to Christian life has been felt particularly keenly in relation to movement restrictions – one of the ways Israel has established a system of near-absolute control over Palestinian life. Those involved in trade and business, as many Christians are, have struggled to succeed as those restrictions have intensified over the past quarter-century, since the introduction of measures under the Oslo accords. An elaborate system of checkpoints and permits was established to control Palestinians’ freedom to move around the occupied territories and to enter Israel in search of work. Over time the system was enforced by a lengthy steel and concrete “separation barrier” that Israel began building nearly two decades ago.
Taybeh’s Beer Challenge
Typifying the difficulties of trading under these circumstances is the Taybeh micro-brewery in a West Bank village of the same name, in a remote location north of Ramallah overlooking the Jordan Valley. Taybeh is exceptional: its 1,300 inhabitants comprise the last exclusively Christian community in the occupied territories. The village – its name means both “good” and“delicious” in Arabic – is reputedly on the Biblical site of Ephraim. A small church marks the spot where Jesus reputedly retired with his disciples shortly before heading to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. Taybeh has its own Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools, and a Catholic nursing home.
Nonetheless, Taybeh has long been in demographic meltdown. Today, its population is dwarfed by those of its diaspora: some 12,000 former residents and their descendants live abroad, mostly in the United States, Chile and Guatemala. Daoud and Nadim Khoury, two brothers who were themselves raised in the US, established the Taybeh brewery shortly after their return to the West Bank village under the Oslo accords. The business depended on the experiences and connections they had gained abroad.
For them, developing a sustainable business like the brewery was a way to halt and reverse the gradual demise of their village and the loss of its Christian heritage. They feared that any further decline in numbers would leave Taybeh’s lands and its ancient olive groves vulnerable to takeover by the three Jewish settlements that surround the village. The business was seen as a way to save Taybeh.
Maria Khoury, Daoud’s Greek wife, whom he met at Harvard, says the conditions of village life have continued to deteriorate. Unemployment stands at 60 percent, and Israel shuts off the water four times a week to preserve supplies for the Jewish settlements. The drive to the nearest Palestinian city, Ramallah, takes five times longer than it did 20 years ago – when it took little more than 15 minutes. That was before checkpoints and roadblocks were established on local roads to protect the settlers.
The Khourys have succeeded in their ambition to develop a range of award-winning beers made to the highest purity standards. The family has expanded into making boutique wines, and has built a prestige hotel in the village center, belying Taybeh’s small size. An annual Oktoberfest, modeled on German beer-drinking celebrations, has helped to put the remote village on the map. And a few restaurants have opened as Taybeh has tried to reinvent itself, with limited success, as a weekend-break destination.
But despite all these achievements, their larger ambitions have been foiled. Movement restrictions imposed by Israel’s military authorities have stymied efforts at growing the business. With a domestic market limited by opposition to alcohol consumption among most of the Palestinian population, Taybeh brewery has depended chiefly on exports to Europe, Japan and the US. But the difficulties of navigating Israel’s hostile bureaucracy have sapped the business of money, time and energy, making it hard to compete with foreign breweries.
Daoud told me at one Oktoberfest that the brewery faced Israeli “harassment in the name of security.” He noted that even when the crossing points were open, Israel held up the company’s trucks for many hours while bottles were unloaded and individually inspected with sniffer dogs. Then the bottles had to be reloaded on to Israeli trucks on the other side of the checkpoint. Apart from local spring water, all the beer’s ingredients and the bottles have to be imported from Europe, adding further logistical problems at Israeli ports. The ever-creative Khourys have been forced to circumvent these problems by licensing a plant in Belgium to produce its beers for foreign export. But that has deprived the village of jobs that could have gone to local families.
And while the Khourys struggle to get their products into Israel, Israel has absolute freedom to flood the occupied territories with its own goods. “The policy is clearly meant to harm businesses like ours. Israel freely sells its Maccabee and Goldstar beers in the West Bank,” Daoud told me.
Such experiences are replicated for Palestinian businesses, big and small, across the West Bank.
In Jerusalem, the Christian population has been shrinking too, even though the city has been entirely under Israeli control since its eastern neighborhoods were occupied and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967. The Palestinian Authority was briefly allowed a minimal presence in East Jerusalem in the late 1990s, but was effectively banished when the second intifada erupted a few years later, in 2000. A similar fate soon befell Jerusalem’s politicians associated with Hamas. After they won the Jerusalem seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel expelled them to the West Bank.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel has not been keen to provide official figures for the exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. However, rather than growing, as one would have expected over the past five decades, the numbers have dropped significantly – from 12,000 in 1967 to some 9,000 today, according to Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Of those, he estimated that no more than 2,400 remained in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, where Israel has made life especially difficult.
Jerusalem is historically, symbolically, spiritually and economically important to the Palestinian people, and houses key Muslim and Christian holy sites. It has long been regarded by Palestinians as the only possible capital of their future state. But Israel views the city in much the same terms – as the religious and symbolic heart of its hybrid religious and ethnic national project. It has shown no interest in sharing the city as a capital, and has instead viewed it in zero-sum terms: whatever benefits Israel requires a loss to the Palestinians.
Gradually Israel’s stranglehold over Jerusalem has become complete. The wall it began building through the city more than 15 years ago has not only separated Palestinians in Jerusalem from Palestinians in the West Bank but has divided the city itself, placing more than 100,000 Palestinians on the wrong side, cutting them off from the city of their birth.
Two years ago, President Donald Trump added a US seal of approval by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.
Those Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem still on the “Israeli” side of the wall have found themselves isolated and ever more vulnerable to the abuses inherent in Israel’s system of control. They have suffered planning restrictions that make it almost impossible to build homes legally. Israel demolishes dozens of Palestinian houses every year in the city, leading to ever greater overcrowding. Meanwhile, Israel has seized vast tracts of land in East Jerusalem for its illegal settlements and has helped Jewish settlers take over Palestinian homes.
The city’s security forces act as an occupying power in Palestinian neighborhoods, while city authorities pursue an official policy of “Judaization,” making Jerusalem more Jewish. Israel has accorded the city’s native Palestinian population a “residency” status that treats them as little more than immigrants. Many thousands who have left the city for extended periods to study or work abroad have returned to find their residency permits revoked.
The city’s Christian residents face similar problems to Muslims. But as a very small community, they have also faced specific pressures. Israel’s policy of cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank, and especially from the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, has left the city’s Christians particularly isolated. With many working as merchants and traders, the so-called “separation” policy has hit them hard economically.
Similarly, because the communal marriage pool is small for Christians in Jerusalem, many have been forced – at least, before the wall was erected – to search for a spouse among Christian populations nearby in the West Bank. That now leaves them disproportionately exposed to Israel’s increasingly draconian family unification policies. Typically Jerusalem’s Palestinians are denied the right to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or to register the children of such marriages as Jerusalem residents. That has forced many to move into the West Bank or abroad as the only way to stay together.
As in Bethlehem, many of Jerusalem’s Christians work in tourism, either as tour guides or as owners of souvenir shops in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. That has proved a particularly precarious way to make a living in recent decades, with tourism collapsing on repeated occasions: during two lengthy intifadas, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and now from the coronavirus.
Israel will soon make it even harder for the Old City traders to make a living, when it completes a cable car into East Jerusalem. Currently many tourists enter via Jaffa Gate into the Christian Quarter, where shopkeepers have a chance to sell them goods and souvenirs. But the cable car will “fly in” tourists from a station in West Jerusalem directly to an illegal settlement complex at the City of David in Silwan, just outside the Old City walls. From there, either they will be guided straight into the Jewish Quarter through Dung Gate or they will pass through a network of underground passages lined with settler-owned shops that will take them to the foot of the Western Wall. The aim appears to be not only to make the Old City’s Palestinian population invisible but to deprive them of any chance to profit from tourism.
Land Sales by Churches
But the problem runs deeper still for Palestinian Christians – and is felt especially acutely in Jerusalem. Local Christians have found themselves effectively pawns in a three-way international power-play between Israel, the established, land-owning Churches in the region, primarily the Vatican and Greek Orthodox Churches, and the evangelical movements. None of the parties represent their interests.
It is easy for pilgrims to ignore the fact, as they tour the Holy Land, that the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are not local. They are vast foreign enterprises, based out of the Vatican and Greece, that are as concerned with their commercial viability and diplomatic influence on the global stage as they are with the spiritual needs of any specific flock, including Palestinian Christians. And in recent years that has become increasingly evident to local congregations.
The problems were symbolized two years ago when, for the first time in living memory, the main Churches shuttered the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the presumed site of Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem. Church leaders said their actions were in response to Israel launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” In that way, they mobilized international sympathy, and Israel quickly backed down. But only in the most tangential sense were the Churches looking out for the interests of local Christians. Their show of force was actually motivated by concern for their business interests.
The then mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, had sought to impose back taxes on the Churches’ substantial land-holdings in Jerusalem, hoping to recoup $180 million. Despite the impression presented by Church leaders, the row was not really about holy sites. Over the centuries, the Churches have become major real-estate enterprises in the Holy Land, benefiting from donations of land and properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere that have been made by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, is the largest land-owner in the region after the Israeli state.
Historically, the Churches enjoyed a tax exemption derived from the charitable status of their spiritual mission and outreach work with Palestinian communities, including the provision of schools and hospitals. But increasingly the Churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels have been redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels. Part of the income has then been siphoned off to the Church authorities in the mother countries rather than reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.
That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council, described the Holy Sepulcher protest as a “charade.” The Church had not been closed to protest Israel’s savagery towards Palestinians during either of the two intifadas, or in protest at the exodus of local Christians from the region. The foreign Churches found their voice only when they needed to protect their profits from real-estate and investment deals.
That does not, however, mean that Palestinian Christians have no reason to be concerned about Israel’s efforts to bully the Churches’ into paying more taxes, or that they were indifferent to the brief stand-off at the Sepulcher Church. The Vatican and Orthodox Patriarchate have become increasingly cowed in relation to Israel in recent decades, both as Israel has become ever more assertive of its powers in the region and as western states have shown they will support Israel however badly it treats Palestinians.
Israel has many points of leverage over the international Churches. It can, and has, frozen clerical work visas needed by their thousands of staff in the Holy Land. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for the Church needed to build or renovate properties. And far-right groups close to Israel’s governing coalition regularly menace clergy in the streets and vandalize Church property, including cemeteries, under cover of dark. Israeli police have rarely caught or punished the perpetrators of such attacks.
Most notable of these attacks was a fire set by arsonists in 2015 that gutted sections of the Church of the Multiplication, the site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is reputed to have fed a large crowd with loaves and fishes. Graffiti in Hebrew scrawled on a church wall read: “Idol-worshippers will have their heads cut off.”
This strategy of weakening and intimidating the international Churches has been particularly glaring in relation to Orthodoxy. Each new Patriarch, the highest Orthodox figure in the region, must be jointly approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Israel. And in the case of the last two Patriarchs, Irineos I and Theophilos III, Israel, unlike the PA and Jordan, has dragged its heels before approving their appointment. Irineos had to wait nearly four years, and Theophilos two and a half. The reason why has gradually become clear to local Christians.
Shortly after each Patriarch has belatedly received approval, evidence has come to light that his advisers have overseen the sale of some of the Churches’ vast landholdings in Israel and the occupied territories. These shadowy deals, usually selling invaluable land for a comparative pittance, have been made to Israeli companies or overseas organizations that it has later emerged acted as a front for Jewish settler groups.
The most infamous case concerns the sale to settlers of two large properties, serving as Palestinian-run hotels, at a highly strategic location by Jaffa Gate, the entrance into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. These sales appear to be part of the price paid for Irineos to win Israeli approval. Israel has long been keen to Judaize Jaffa Gate because it effectively serves as a bridge between West Jerusalem, in Israel, and the Jewish Quarter, the main settler colony in the occupied Old City. Reporting on the land sales at Jaffa Gate, the Haaretz newspaper revealed tape recordings of a Jerusalem settler leader boasting that his organization, Ateret Cohanim, had a veto over the appointment of each Patriarch. He said Ateret Cohanim would only give its blessing once the Patriarch had sold it land.
The pattern appears to have repeated with Theophilos, who is accused of selling numerous plots of land near Bethlehem, West Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea. The Church is reported to have pocketed more than $100 million from the deals. In 2017 some 300 Palestinian Christians filed a criminal complaint to the Palestinian attorney general in Ramallah, accusing the Patriarch of “treason.” The same year, 14 local Orthodox institutions – representing many of the half a million Greek Orthodox Christians in the occupied territories, Israel and Jordan – severed ties with Theophilos and his synod, and demanded his removal.
Palestinian Christians have increasing grounds for concern that the Churches are not looking out for their interests when they make these deals. Historically, lands were donated to the Greek Orthodox Church as an endowment, and the income used for the collective good of the Orthodox community in the Holy Land. But local communities say the money is nowadays siphoned off to the foreign Church authorities.
Further, nearly a quarter of land in East Jerusalem is reported to be Church-owned, including the Mount of Olives, Sheikh Jarrah and large swaths of the Old City. Many Palestinian Christians live in these areas, which are being aggressively targeted by the settler movement. Local Christians have little faith that the Church will not sell these lands in the future, leaving them vulnerable to eviction by settlers.
Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian serving as a Greek Orthodox archbishop, has been repeatedly punished for speaking out against the Patriarch’s policies. He issued a statement about the land sales at Jaffa Gate: “Those who sell and forfeit our real estate and Orthodox endowments do not represent our Arab Church, its heritage, identity and historical presence in this holy land.”
The effort to financially “squeeze” the Churches by the Jerusalem mayor in 2018 should be seen in this light. If the Churches face big new tax bills, the pressure will increase on them over the longer term either to be more submissive to Israel, for fear of attracting additional taxes, or to sell off yet more land to cover their debts. Either way, Palestinian Christians will suffer.
An Obstacle to the End-Times
A separate essay could be written about the role of overseas Christian evangelical movements in damaging the situation of Palestinian Christians. Suffice it to point out that most evangelical Christians are largely indifferent to the plight of the region’s local Christian population.
In fact, Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, draws heavily on a Christian Zionism that became popular among British Protestants more than 150 years ago. Today, the heartland of evangelical Zionism is the United States, where tens of millions of believers have adopted a theological worldview, bolstered by prophecies in the Book of Revelation, that wills a Jewish “return” to the Promised Land to bring about an apocalyptic end-times in which Christians — and some Jews who accept Jesus as their savior — will be saved from damnation and rise up to Heaven.
Inevitably, when weighed against a fast-track to salvation, the preservation of Palestinian Christians’ 2,000-year-old heritage matters little to most US Christian Zionists. Local Christians regularly express fears that their holy sites and way of life are under threat from a state that declares itself Jewish and whose central mission is a zero-sum policy of “Judaization”. But for Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians are simply an obstacle to realizing a far more urgent, divinely ordained goal.
US evangelicals have, therefore, been pumping money into projects that encourage Jews to move to the “Land of Israel,” including in the settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their leaders are close to the most hawkish politicians in Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The political clout of the evangelical movements in the US, the world’s only superpower and Israel’s chief patron, has never been more evident. The vice-president, Mike Pence, is one of their number, while President Donald Trump depended on evangelical votes to win office. That was why Trump broke with previous administrations and agreed that the US would become the first country in modern times to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively killing any hope for the Palestinians of securing East Jerusalem as their capital.
Given this international atmosphere, the isolation of Palestinian Christians and their leaders is almost complete. They find themselves marginalized within their own Churches, entirely ignored by foreign evangelical movements, and an enemy of Israel. They have therefore tried to break out of that isolation both by forging greater unity among themselves and by setting out a clearer vision to strengthen ties to Christians outside the Holy Land.
One important milestone on that path was the publication of the Kairos Palestine document in December 2009, drawing on a similar document drafted by mainly black theologians in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Kairos Palestine, which describes itself as “the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine,” has been signed by more than 3,000 leading Palestinian Christian figures, including Atallah Hanna, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for the Sebastiya diocese; Naim Ateek, a senior Anglican priest; Mitri Raheb, a senior Lutheran pastor; and Jamal Khader, a senior figure in the Latin Patriarchate.
The Kairos document calls unequivocally on “all the churches and Christians in the world … to stand against injustice and apartheid” and warns that “any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings”. It asks Christians abroad to “revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land”. And further, it supports the wider Palestinian BDS call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and those who conspire with the oppression of Palestinians. It describes non-violent resistance as a “duty” incumbent on all Palestinians, arguing that such resistance should end only when Israeli abuses end, not before.
Faced with inevitable accusations of antisemitism from Israel partisans in the west, most of the overseas Churches – including importantly, the World Council of Churches – have failed to respond to this Palestinian Christian call. Only the Presbyterian Church in the US has endorsed the document, while the United Church of Christ has praised it. Predictably, Israel lobbyists have tried to undermine the document’s significance by correctly highlighting that the foreign Church leaderships in Palestine, such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, have refused to endorse it. But then, these kind of Church leaders have rarely had the interests of their Palestinian congregations foremost in their minds.
Nonetheless, Israel is deeply concerned by the document. Were it to be accepted, it would bring the international Churches onboard with the wider Palestinian BDS movement, which calls for an international boycott of Israel. Israeli leaders deeply fear the precedent set by the international community’s treatment of apartheid South Africa.
Of the three planks of the BDS campaign, the most troubling for Israel are not the boycott or sanctions components, but the threat of divestment – the withdrawal of investments from Israel by Churches, civil society organizations, trade unions and pension funds. Were the Churches to adopt BDS, such actions could quickly gain a moral legitimacy and spread. The Kairos document is therefore viewed as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.
Atallah Hanna, as the most senior cleric to have signed the document, has found himself particularly in the crosshairs from Israel. In December last year he ended up in hospital in Jordan, treated for “poisoning by chemical substance,” after a tear gas canister was reportedly thrown into the grounds of his church in Jerusalem. In the circumstances, Hanna’s claim that Israel had tried to “assassinate,” or at the very least incapacitate, him resonated with many Palestinians.
Certainly Hanna has found himself repeatedly in trouble with the Israeli authorities for his Palestinian activism. In 2002, during the second intifada, for example, he was seized at his home in the Old City of Jerusalem and charged with “suspicion of relations with terrorist organizations,” a trumped-up allegation relating to the fact that he had spoken in favor of the popular uprising against Israeli occupation.
In a meeting with a foreign delegation last year, Hanna warned that Israel, with the support of the international community, was being allowed to gradually transform Jerusalem: “The Islamic and Christian holy sites and endowments are targeted in order to change our city, hide its identity and marginalize our Arabic and Palestinian existence.”
Unwelcome Israeli Citizens
The final community of Palestinian Christians to consider is the largest group, and the one most often overlooked: the 120,000 living in Israel with a degraded form of citizenship. These Palestinians have been exclusively under Israeli rule for more than 70 years. Israel falsely trumpets the claim that its Palestinian minority enjoys exactly the same rights as Jewish citizens. And yet the decline in the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel closely mirrors the situation of those in the occupied territories.
The Palestinian Christian population emerged from the events of 1948 in relatively better shape than their Muslim compatriots inside the territory that was now considered Israel. Aware of western states’ priorities, Israel was more cautious in its approach to the ethnic cleansing of communities with large numbers of Christians. As a result, the 40,000 Christians in Israel at the end of the Nakba comprised 22 per cent of the country’s new Palestinian minority. A few years later members of this minority would gain a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.
Israel’s early caution in relation to Palestinian Christians was understandable. It feared antagonizing the western, largely Christian states whose backing it desperately needed. That policy was typified in the treatment of Nazareth, which was largely spared the wider policy of expulsions. However, as with Bethlehem, Nazareth’s Christian majority began to be overturned during 1948, as Muslims from neighboring villages that were under attack poured into the city, seeking sanctuary. Today, Nazareth has a 70 per cent Muslim majority.
The proportion of Christians among the Palestinian population in Israel has fallen more generally too – from nearly a quarter in the early 1950s to about 9 percent today. There is a similar number of Druze, a vulnerable religious sect that broke away from Islamic orthodoxy nearly 1,000 years ago. The rest of Israel’s Palestinian population – over 80 per cent – are Sunni Muslim.
The Christian exodus has been driven by similar factors to those cited by Palestinians in the West Bank. Within a self-declared Jewish state, Christians have faced diminished educational and employment opportunities; they must deal with rampant, institutional discrimination; and, after waves of land confiscations to Judaize the areas they live in, they can rarely find housing solutions for the next generation. Israel has encouraged a sense of hopelessness and despair equally among Christians and Muslims.
Problematic for Israel has been the fact that Palestinian Christians have played a pivotal role in developing secular Palestinian nationalism in both the occupied territories and in Israel. For obvious reasons, they have been concerned that Palestinian national identity should not deform into a divisive Islamic identity, mirroring Israel’s own hybrid ethnic and religious nationalism.
Given the difficulties of political activism for Palestinians inside Israel — for decades it could lead to jail or even deportation — many, especially Christians, joined the joint Jewish-Palestinian Communist party, on the assumption that its Jewish cadre would ensure protection. The most prized benefit of membership of the Communist party were scholarships to universities in the former Soviet bloc. Israel’s segregated school system, which included a near-dysfunctional state system for Palestinians, ensured higher education in Israel was mostly off-limits.
The scholarships were a boon to Christians because they enjoyed access to surviving, private Church-run schools in cities like Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa that offered a better education. But Israel’s hope was that, once outside the region, many would never return — and indeed, this did become an additional factor in the decline of Israel’s Palestinian Christian population.
Onward Christian soldiers
But the advantages enjoyed by Palestinian Christians soon came to be seen by Israel as a liability. The Christians lived mostly in cities. Many had the advantages of access to good schools and higher education. Some had been exposed to the wider world through attending universities abroad. And Christians enjoyed connections to sympathetic communities abroad. Their continuing presence in the Holy Land, as well as their articulation of Palestinian nationalism to outsiders, served to undermine Israel’s claims of a simple Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations with Islam.
It was in this context that in late 2012 Israel secretly revived plans to recruit into the Israeli army Christian youth in Nazareth and its environs, using Christian Scout groups as the vehicle. Neither Muslims nor Christians in Israel are drafted into the army on leaving school, unlike Jewish and Druze youngsters. However, they can volunteer, though in practice only a tiny number do. Figures suggest there are a few dozen Christian families, typically poorer ones, whose sons join the army. But from 2012 onwards, the Netanyahu government worked hard to introduce a draft for Christians, hoping to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Israel.
Netanyahu schemed on several fronts. He aggressively promoted the small number of Christian families with children in the army to suggest that they were representative of the wider community. Meanwhile, he claimed that the overwhelming majority of Christians who publicly opposed his plan did so only because they had been intimidated by their Muslim neighbors.
The Israeli media trumpeted too the fact that Netanyahu had recruited a “religious leader” – Jibril Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox bishop in Nazareth – to support the draft of Christians. In fact, it was widely rumored in Nazareth at the time that Nadaf was being pressured by Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, to offer his support. Only much later did the Israeli media report that Nadaf had been investigated for sexual assaults on young men, and that the Shin Bet had hushed up his case.
At around the same time Israel introduced the option of registering a new nationality, “Aramaic”, on Israeli identity cards. Israel has always refused to recognise an “Israeli” nationality because it would risk conferring equal rights on all Israeli citizens, Jews and Palestinians alike. Instead many rights in Israel are accorded to citizens based on their assigned nationalities – with the main categories being “Jewish”, “Arab” and “Druze”. “Jewish” nationals receive extra rights unavailable to Palestinian citizens in immigration, land and housing, and language rights. The new “Aramaic” category was intended to confer on Christians a separate nationality mirroring the Druze one.
The obscure “Aramaic” identity was chosen for two reasons. First, it referred to a time 2,000 years ago when Jews like Jesus spoke Aramaic – now almost a dead language. Aramaic therefore fused Jewish and Christian identities, replicating the claim of “blood ties” Israel had fostered with the Druze community. And second, Aramaic had already been cultivated as an identity by the handful of Palestinian Christian families that volunteered to serve in the army. For them, Aramaic lay at the heart of a pure, proud, supposedly original Christian nationalist identity. They argued that their forefathers’ Aramaic heritage and language had been usurped and corrupted by the arrival of Arab and Islamic identities in the region during the Arab conquests in the seventh century.
For those who promoted it, including the Israeli government, “Aramaic” was not a neutral Christian identity but consciously intended as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim identity. It was intimately tied to the government’s larger, fanciful agenda of turning the local Christian population into Palestinian Christian Zionists.
In tandem with these developments, Netanyahu’s government also began aggressively squeezing the resources available to Church schools operating in Nazareth and elsewhere. An arrangement that had historically provided partial state funds for private religious schools, primarily to help the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, began to be progressively withdrawn from Church schools. Pupils in the dozen such schools in Nazareth, which serve both Christians and Muslims, staged an unprecedented strike in 2014 as it became harder for the schools to cover costs. The government offered a way out: the schools, it proposed, should come under the umbrella of the state education system. So far the Church schools have managed to resist.
Although the policy has not been implemented yet, there are indications of what Israel ultimately hoped to achieve. The aim, it seems, was to reinvent the Church schools as “Aramaic” schools, limiting the intake to Christians and teaching a curriculum, as with the Druze, that emphasized the “blood ties” between Jews and Christians and prepared pupils for the army draft. The first such school, teaching in Aramaic, has opened in Jish, a village in the central Galilee that is home to some of the main families that volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.
In fact, Israel failed dismally in its efforts to persuade Christians to accept the draft, and appears to have largely abandoned the plan, even after dedicating several years to bringing it to fruition. Israel should have guessed that such a scheme was unlikely to succeed. In a city like Nazareth, too many Christians are professionals – doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers serving their community – and have no interest in gaining the sole advantage of military service the poorer Druze have depended on: lowly jobs after the draft in the security sectors, as prison wardens or security guards.
But that may not have been Israel’s only goal. In line with its long-standing ambitions, Israel also doubtless wanted to intensify sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims in places where the two communities live in close proximity, especially Nazareth. And for a variety of reasons, sectarian divisions have started to emerge over the past few years. The causes are manifold, but Israel’s efforts to recruit Christians to the army – to divide them from Muslims – undoubtedly exacerbated the problem.
Another significant factor was the gradual demise of the Communist party, especially in Nazareth, after it came to be too closely identified with Christians and was seen as playing a role in maintaining their relative privileges. That led to a backlash in Nazareth that saw Ali Salam, a populist politician who revels in comparisons with Donald Trump, becoming mayor after subtly exploiting these sectarian tensions.
It also did not help that for nearly two decades nihilistic Islamic movements edged ever closer to Israel’s borders – first with al-Qaeda, and later with Islamic State. That has unnerved many Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel. In recent years it has provoked a political reaction from some who have begun to wonder whether a militarily strong, western-backed Israel was not the lesser regional evil.
Israel has every interest in reinforcing such developments, exploiting tensions that shore up its clash of civilizations narrative. Paradoxically, it is Israel’s long-term interference in the region and a more recent policy of direct military intervention by the US in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran that has created the very conditions in which Islamic extremism has prospered. Between them, Israel and the US have sown despair and generated political voids across the Middle East that groups like Islamic State have filled with their own narrative of a clash of civilizations.
For Israel, recruiting Palestinian Christians to its side of this self-serving clash narrative – even if it is only a few of them – is helpful. If Israel can muddy the waters in the region by finding enough allies among local Christians, it knows it can further dissuade the international Churches from taking any substantive action in addressing the crimes it has perpetrated against Palestinians unhindered for more than seven decades.
Israel’s great fear is that one day the international Churches may assume moral leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the traumas set in train by the Nakba.
Judging by the Churches’ current record, however, Israel appears to have little reason to worry. ■
Jews Step Forward – By Marjorie J. WrightWithin every film there’s a story beyond the narrative itself and the filmmaking process. There is a compulsion, a reason to devote the considerable resources necessary and seemingly endless hours over several years, to create that visual message. Nowhere is this more true than with the documentary and with this issue in particular.
For me, the genesis for Jews Step Forward traces back to 1988 with the beginning of the First Intifada and moves through a self-education regarding Jewish social justice and its current re-awakening within that community regarding Israel.
A large proportion of American Jews today trace their roots through Ellis Island and the Yiddish speaking working class wave from 1880 to the early 1920s. Landing in New York with few resources and in search of work, many became part of that hard fought struggle on behalf of organized labor, women’s suffrage and equal rights as a religious minority. That is a shared solidarity, which has survived, even as religious observance has thinned — a kind of cellular memory shaping Jewish political loyalties today.
Early Jewish organizers, like British immigrant Samuel Gompers, who in the 1880s championed craft unionism and founded the American Federation of Labor, which he led until 1924, wielded enormous influence.
The power of Jewish leadership created and sustained a force inside that organization and as a model for others. The Socialist Labor Party, United Hebrew Trades, the Yiddish socialist press, Russian Bundists, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Emma Lazarus Clubs all had Jewish leadership and played a role in labor and social justice issues. The Socialist United Hebrew Trades, a Federation of Jewish unions, numbered some 250,000 members in 1913.
As Jews climbed the economic ladder, political engagement and educational levels increased inside the community, as did an expanding consciousness for social justice. The children and grandchildren of some of those Jewish immigrants did not abandon those roots and went on to be part of the “New Jewish Left” of the 1960s and ‘70s, the ”New Jewish Agenda” in the 1980s, as well as the Anti-Apartheid movement supporting indigenous South Africans, and the Feminist, Gay and Civil Rights Movements nationally.
This has dovetailed with reinterpretations of Jewish liturgy, to fuse with those activist causes. The concept of “Tikkun Olam” — do something that will repair the world — emerged from a prayer in the middle of the 20th century, to be the motto of a new generation’s self-understanding.
Shlomo Bardin advanced the idea that Tikkun Olam should move beyond a religious abstraction and into an active obligation “to work toward a more perfect world.” While later also assuming a role in Kabbalah, Tikkun Olam brought together the synagogue with secular branches of a new generation, joined in common cause.
Jewish social justice is not a modern concept however, but one with roots in communitarian medieval Jewish society, Judaism’s value-based foundation, and the life, work and influence of Eastern European Orthodox Rabbi Salanter.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin (1809-1883), known as Rabbi Salanter, was the founder of a new movement termed Musar. The word Musar literally means instruction, discipline or conduct, but the Rabbi applied that concept to ethical development. Believing that ethical consciousness and actions were closely tied to spiritual enlightenment, ritual observance was empty without it. Musar thought was and is an important foundation for Jewish social justice, and its resurgence today has brought a new generation of secular Jews closer to their religious roots.
Originally, Zionist institutions mirrored in many ways the initiatives spearheaded by the Jewish labor movement in Europe and America. In the U.S., the Workman’s Circle network of services included health care programs, old age homes, schools, libraries, summer camps, sports teams, women’s clubs, reading circles, orchestras etc. It represented Jewish culture and values, but without religion. This was also the essence of Labor Zionism’s model at its outset.
As the communitarian kibbutz movement and the Israeli Labor Party have eroded with the rise of Israel’s hard Right, along with an increasingly violent military necessary to maintain the Occupation, Israel’s shared consciousness with American liberals has dwindled.
Today, a growing number of young Western Jews do not want to identify with Israel, irrespective of the notable cultural, academic, and intellectual achievements that Israel has developed. Their issue is really with Zionism, by definition exclusionary and supremacist. As Yosef Weitz of the Jewish National Fund wrote on 20 March 1941: “The complete evacuation of the country [Palestine] from its other inhabitants and handing it over to the Jewish people is the answer.”
Today, what was termed solidarity has been expanded into political intersectionality, which recognizes Palestinians as indigenous peoples. Even Moment Magazine, co-founded by Elie Wiesel, in 2016 ran a cover story entitled: “How the Black Lives Matter and Palestinian Movements Converged.”Moment has conducted symposiums on topics which would have been untouchable before: “Can Religious Pluralism and an Official Rabbinate Coexist in Israel?”, “What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel Today?”, and “Is There Such a Thing as the Jewish People”?
So, while official American Jewish organizations still support Israel without scrutiny, an increasing number of mainstream Jews just can’t go with the old story or current PR, for which Israel pays so exorbitantly every year to manage their image and ’brand.’
In Jews Step Forward, every interviewee began as a devoted follower of the state of Israel, investing their collective hope in the idea of European Jews rising from the ashes of genocide to create a safe haven and utopian society inside the Middle East.
It is almost impossible to overstate how deeply the Jewish community internationally wanted to believe collectively in this abstract construct and how difficult and painful it is for many to relinquish a beautiful myth and see clearly the reality of Israel today.
Each interviewee reflects upon his or her own journey from that deeply socialized ‘group think’ to a ‘eureka moment,’ where they were compelled to leave hasbara [Zionist propaganda] behind.
For some, it felt intensely painful and tragic, while others manifested anger and shame. For still others, it was a call to action, to shed hypocrisy and define Israel with the same standards of deep commitment to human rights, social, and political justice, which defined who they are as Jews. Dorothy Zellner said: ”I could not work to make sure that Black people in Mississippi had the right to vote and then turn around and be supportive of a state where every citizen does not have equal rights before the law…. We’re human beings, and we refuse to be stampeded by so-called group loyalty or blindness to Israel….It is not a privilege to fight to change our community. It is a moral imperative. “
Some experienced their ‘eureka moment’ in the late ‘40s, some during the 1967 Six Day War, others in the ‘70s or ‘80s, and with two writers as late as 2006. My own was in 1989, one year into the First Intifada.
Mixing interpretations of theology in both Jewish and Christian communities with a 19th-century ethnic nationalism that required colonialism to depopulate and repopulate its religio-political state, this marked the beginnings of Zionism. It was a strategy, whose presentation was carefully managed and presented in the West, but which ignored or concealed ethnic cleansing, advocacy for genocide, institutionalized theft of assets, homes and property, racism, repression, incarceration, torture and murder of the indigenous population.
The biblical term “Land of Israel” created cover to use any means necessary to drive Herzl’s “dream.” While a number of important Jewish intellectuals resisted the idea of Zionism at its outset, the Holocaust sealed Israel’s acceptance throughout the West, both among Jews and non-Jews. European governments had no desire to take back thousands of impoverished displaced survivors and many of those victims had no desire to return.
So, a perfect storm marked the first time, during the process of modern decolonization that a country was given, not to its indigenous inhabitants, but instead to an outside population. This kind of exceptionalism continues in Israel to the present day, exacerbated by codependent relationships with current corporate and political world powers, coupled with historic guilt.
Regarding my own experience, I was raised a Christian Zionist and socialized much like Jewish children on the subject of Israel. It was all about ‘God’s chosen people in their land’ with ‘all those Arabs’ as ‘amalek.’ The words Israeli and Israelite were almost interchangeable terms, which is still true today across many Christian fundamentalist congregations.
One of the only films in a cinema that I was taken to see as a child was Exodus. As with most American school children, nothing about this subject is taught beyond the Holocaust. So, I coasted along in ignorance, despite going on to attend an Ivy school.
My epiphany came in the late ‘80s. I recall reading an article in a mainstream American magazine about the Israeli military policy of breaking children’s bones if they threw stones, as a punishment and disincentive. The inherent atrocity of that idea hit me and (although not at the time) I now retrospectively realize how symbolic that is of the disproportionality between Israelis and Palestinians in this conflict.
That moment led to more reading, the discovery of Tikkun Magazine, and a short film by Israeli filmmaker, Haim Bresheeth: State of Danger, which I sponsored on public access TV, creating a furor. As Ellen Davidson has written about that period: “The needle on this debate has moved considerably since the 1980s, when just to say the word “Palestinian” was considered inflammatory, even in some left circles.” Norman Finkelstein was among a few leading voices deconstructing Israel’s policies and practices and he was receiving constant threats.
From that day forward, I began wading into activism. My first real contact with Palestinians came in the mid-1990s in Dubai, followed by my first filmed interview in 2003 with Israeli activist Jeff Halper, the founder of ICAHD: Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
As one thing led to another, I met a young European director also committed to this issue. In 2008 we produced an hour-long documentary, based on interviews with 16 Israeli Jewish peace activists, which won four awards internationally. Some of these activists represented leadership within the movement and important key organizations: B’tselem, Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence, The Parents’ Circle, Seruviks refusing military service from New Profile, Machsom Watch, Gush Shalom Ta’ayush, ICAHD and the extraordinary Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom.
That film is entitled Voices From Inside, Israelis Speak and from that, came the momentum for the current documentary Jews Step Forward.
The latter was really set in motion by Joel Kovel, whose inspiring book: Overcoming Zionism was a catalyst and whose help was immeasurable. He was an eloquent, modest and self-effacing intellect, hugely respected inside the movement. Tremendous credit goes to my very creative co-producer and editor, Elika Rezaee, who breathed visual life, music, animation, dimension and continual movement into spoken words. Without her, this would still be a script of talking heads. Recognition is also due our archivist Sage Brucia, composer Joe Berry, and Dan Walsh and his Palestine Poster Project of over 8,000 archived images at Columbia University.
Jews Step Forward is a confession by informed Jews who deconstruct Zionism, paired with on-the-ground stills and moving footage, which make their words undeniable.
The American media is saturated with entertainment violence. However, on the subject of Israel, there is a blanket blackout on showing any violence perpetrated by its Jewish citizens or military. Consequently, war crimes can remain conjecture, a ‘he said, she said’ with no visual evidence. Our film moves from the safety of intellectual abstraction to visceral reality, as we don’t visually tiptoe around the institutionalized racism and atrocities discussed.
Jews Step Forward is based upon interviews with 24 American Jewish activists, spanning generations, socioeconomic divides, geographical locales, and extremely varied experiences inside religious practice and observance.
Each of their personal stories led them to a 180-degree turn and a call to action. Some had that epiphany through reading and research, some by first hand experience on the ground. A number of them have written books, taught courses, founded organizations and initiatives, or led direct action organizing and disruptions or protests on this issue, bringing it to the public square. Some approach the issue, along with assisting indigenous Palestinians, through the lens of their profession, be it law, medicine, journalism, religion or academia. All are introducing form and leadership to this growing movement across America today, like pixels shifting to change the larger picture.
There has evolved a kind of Jewish solidarity around Palestinian rights, which binds them the way religion or Zionist loyalty formerly did. Palestine work is a new way of expressing and developing spiritual values, the way fighting segregation or ending apartheid had been in the past. And although in its infancy, there is a new way of worship and observance, purged of the Israel of today and without any reference or allegiance to the Zionist state. This is instead referenced with the prophets, Rabbi Salanter, Musar, and the concept of Tikkun Olam.
Modern Judaism views Mashiach — Messiah — not as a literal savior, but as a metaphor for an age of Messianic enlightenment, with liberal Jewish belief in a world perfected through striving to reach the highest Jewish ideals of justice and compassion. Listen to Rabbi Alissa Wise: “There is no Judaism without that experience of being in exile, right?….Exile itself is a metaphor….One of the dangers of Zionism is that belief, that we’ve reached that place of redemption, of Mashiach….and I see Zionism eclipsing the spiritual and ethical work that is our heritage.” Or, as Dorothy Zellner puts it: “They have hijacked our Jewishness, and they have made it into a place, a country—so our Jewishness became a place.”
Following are summary descriptions of some of the activists in Jews Step Forward, who now define their lives in large part by working to change Jewish attitudes, influence Christian congregations, and improve the lives of Palestinians living under brutal military Occupation.
Three interviewees were in their 80s, two being German Holocaust survivors: Hedy Epstein and Silvia Tennenbaum and the third, a noted writer for The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs: Rachelle Marshall. These ladies have all recently died, but inspire a lasting moral legacy with the memory, work, and writing that survives them.
Born Hedwig Wachenheimer on Aug. 15, 1924 in Freiburg, Germany, Hedy Epstein grew up, an only child in Kippenheim. During the Kristallnacht period, her father was arrested, suffered a heart attack during four weeks incarcerated in Dachau, and Hedy, like all other Jewish children, was expelled from school by edict. In 1939, her parents arranged her escape on a Kindertransport to England, while they and almost all her extended family died in Auschwitz.
After the War, Hedy returned to Germany, worked at the Nuremberg trials and later emigrated to the U.S., working with displaced refugees in New York and Minneapolis. After marrying and moving to St. Louis, most of her career there was devoted to fair housing and employment discrimination issues in the African American community.
It was during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon that Hedy had her eureka moment and began active opposition to Israeli actions. She helped organize chapters of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as in 2001 founding a Women in Black group in St. Louis. Nearly 80, Hedy began visiting the West Bank as a volunteer with ISM, the International Solidarity Movement, where she was tear gassed and suffered hearing loss from IDF sound bombs.
At Ben Gurion Airport in 2004, tiny Hedy was accused of being a terrorist and roughly stripped and cavity searched, a violation which viscerally took her back to her childhood responses during the Nazi era. That indelibly engraved her definition of what Israel had become and strengthened her resolve to be a witness to effect change.
Meeting and hearing Hedy’s story was an indescribable experience, as few times in one’s life will anyone meet someone as transcendent as Hedy Epstein. Her 1999 memoir, written in German and published in Germany, is entitled “Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug” (“Remembering Is Not Enough”).
Writer and activist Silvia Tennenbaum was born into a wealthy family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1928. Anne Frank was her cousin. Her stepfather was a conductor for the Jewish orchestra there during the early Nazi period and subsequently in 1936, helped found the Palestine Orchestra, which became the Israeli Philharmonic. The family sailed to America in 1938, sponsored by Arturo Toscanini of the NBC Symphony.
Growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y. and attending Barnard College, in 1951 she married a young Rabbi attending Columbia, Lloyd Tennenbaum. After a posting in Virginia, the family came to Long Island where Rabbi Tennenbaum took the pulpit at the Huntington Jewish Center. The couple shared leftist political views and were very active in anti-war and social issues.
Silvia’s controversial, semi-autobiographical exposé novel, “Rachel, the Rabbi’s Wife,” was on the N.Y. Times bestseller list. Silvia was active in Women in Black vigils well into her 80s, protesting the Occupation and writing letters to the editor, where she was considered an octogenarian radical. She discussed hearing extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane speak in N.Y. in the ‘70s, when his Kach party was banned in Israel, and his similarities with today’s Israeli Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is even more extreme than Kach during that period. In Silvia’s words: “My God, that experience with Kahane was extremely prescient, given things that are happening in Israel now…..What was the point of giving Israel a state, if this is what was going to happen to it.”
Writer, Rachelle Lubarsky Marshall was born in New York City into an observant immigrant family in 1927. Marrying Hubert Marshall, a Stanford academic, they spent 53 years in that community. Both were active in civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and worked on housing issues in West Virginia.
Like others of her generation, as a young woman she felt there was “no inconsistency in working for civil rights in America and giving my full support to Israel”. However, it was U.S. involvement in Vietnam that opened up a more objective evaluation of Israel, which she had denied or dismissed earlier. She wrote: “The light began to dawn as I learned the Jewish haven I had welcomed, was established on the land the Palestinians have a right to claim as their own…..the more I read, the greater my sense of betrayal.”
Rachelle’s anger turned to activism and she went on to research and write on Israel in The Progressive, Foreign Policy in Focus, and for 25 years in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Maintaining that all wars were inherently war crimes, she wrote: “I am compelled to speak out against acts of brutality and injustice, no matter who commits them.”
Jeffrey Blankfort was a pioneer in the movement, at a time when almost no Jew dared question Israel in any forum. Jeff was raised as a secular leftist, whose father was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter during the Red Scare. After organizing the largest fundraiser in history for the newly declared Jewish state at The Hollywood Bowl in 1948, his family became very disillusioned with Israel and the corruption they saw at the outset. Favoring a bi-national state, they never supported Zionism.
Jeffrey is a photographer, print and broadcast journalist with extensive work on the Middle East, his own radio program, a former editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin and co-founder of the Labor Committee of the Middle East.
As a member of the first generation of Jewish critics of Israel, Jeffrey was targeted by the ADL. Subsequently, he exposed their spying operations against Americans speaking and writing critically of Israel, winning a lawsuit in 2002 against them. His articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Mondoweiss, Pulse Media, Left Curve, TIKKUN, the Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and other publications.
Phil Weiss grew up in Boston, where his father was an academic at Harvard, which he attended too. He has written for New York Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, and The New York Observer.
A visit to Hebron in 2006 marked his turning point, compelling him to write about Israel. He is an anti-Zionist journalist who , in 2007, after pushback from the newspaper where he was a writer, created with Adam Horovitz, the daily independent blog Mondoweiss, which they describe as “a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective.” [The newspaper Phil worked for was The New York Observer, and the pushback came from its young new owner Jared Kushner.]
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Mondoweiss, which is probably the most widely followed English language blog and website on this topic existing today, a daily ‘go to’ read for activists internationally on this issue, as well as a platform for their voices. As Phil puts it: “We are editors and we guide the stream, but there is a large stream of people who are actively questioning these issues and who want to join us: young Jews, young Muslims, young Palestinians, young Americans.”
Psychologist and Writer: Mark Braverman, grew up in Philadelphia, attended Jewish Day Schools, was a leader in Zionist youth groups and is a fifth generation descendant of a Jerusalem Lubavicher. With many relatives in Israel, he originally revered it as the only safe haven for Jews. However, in stages he began to enlarge his perspective, meet Palestinians, and deeply educate himself.
Today, he works full time on this issue speaking with Christian groups to empower them to be informed and forceful in demanding accountability from Israel. He is a leader of Kairos USA, a pro-Palestinian group for American Christians. He also authored: Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land and A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine.
Mark speaks decisively against Israeli exceptionalism and ‘chosenness’ as tribal anachronisms impeding equality and justice; as he puts it: “The role of occupier is leading Israel down a road of political disaster, and the Jewish people down a road of spiritual peril…..the greatest crisis in Jewish history since the Babylonian exile…Our task is to rescue Judaism from an ideology that has hijacked the faith, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today…..I am a proud Jew. I love Israel. And I am heartsick about her.”
Miko Peled could safely be termed Zionist royalty. His maternal grandfather, Avraham Katznelson, was a signatory to the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence and a member of the Provisional Council of State, which comprised the leaders of the state-in-making. Mr. Katznelson was a Labor party politician, diplomat, director of the Health Department of the Zionist Executive and a member of the Va’ad Leumi, as well as the central committee of Hashomer Hatzair and Mapai. Miko’s father was Matti Peled, who fought in the 1948 war, rose to be a Major General in the 1967 War and became an architect of the modern IDF, where Miko himself served in the Special Forces. When Miko’s 13-year-old niece was killed in a suicide bombing, it began his path to transformation, after her parents joined Bereaved Families.
Beginning with dialogue groups in San Diego, where he felt more at home with Palestinians offering tabbouleh and hospitality, than liberal American Jews, he abandoned the ‘2 state solution’ and began advocating for full democratic rights for all in a single secular state. In our film he states openly: “The Zionist state is a bad thing, it was that way from the beginning.” He has written 2 important books: The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine and Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five. He is now married to a Palestinian and is a dynamic speaker, lecturing internationally on this issue.
Rabbi Alissa Wise (family name originally Schnautski) grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where her grandfather was involved with kosher food distribution. She is part of the Nahalat Shiva through her Rivlin forebears, one of the original seven families from Lithuania to settle outside the wall of Jerusalem’s old city in 1809.
Raised with that pedigree in a large patriarchal, modern but Orthodox extended family, observing Shabbat, Alissa attended both Jewish day school and Zionist summer camp. She said while growing up: “Zionism was like a cornerstone of my Jewish identity….really a centerpiece.” Visiting Israel and the death camps in Europe, like many Jewish teens, cemented her loyalty and desire to attend university in Israel.
Her Junior year abroad at Hebrew University led to her epiphany. From the first day on campus, with a Nakba demonstration, she began to deconstruct both her socialization and Zionism itself in what she describes as “a very painful year, realizing I had been lied to.”
Since graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in 2009, she has been an activist for justice in Israel/Palestine, first with Jews Against the Occupation in N.Y.C., on the West Bank with the International Women’s Peace Service, and as the founding co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council.
Rabbi Wise is now a spiritual leader within the movement, as the Director of Campaigns at Jewish Voice for Peace and serving as the National Coordinator for the We Divest Campaign.
Barbara Lubin is a very unique activist. Growing up in a staunchly Zionist home, the family attended synagogue every Friday night and she remembers the joy when Israel became a state. Her mother was president of the local ORT, a Jewish service organization, and her father was a lawyer defending Jews during the Red Scare. When she was 16, he died. With that shock, she dropped out of high school, became a beatnik in the circle of Alan Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and worked actively against the Vietnam War. Raising four children, she continued activism across various issues.
It was not until a visit to the West Bank during the First Intifada, where she was tear gassed inside a Palestinian home in 1988, that her life completely changed. With Howard Levine, she founded The Middle East Children’s Alliance, MECA immediately thereafter. Having witnessed the grave injustice, poverty and violence of the Israeli Occupation paid for with U.S. tax dollars, Barbara and Howard decided to speak out about what was happening to Palestinian children.
The initiatives, projects, organizing and outreach of MECA would fill this publication. Possibly in part because she did not follow a formal education, Barbara thinks outside the box and is consistently unafraid of creative solutions. With a special needs child herself, Barbara responds like a mother for all Arab children. She steps out of Judaism and into Ahl-i-Kitab — People of the Book — and an Arab consciousness.
MECA has done projects in Iraq, donating food, medicine, school supplies for children and raising consciousness all over America of the deprivation of children there.
In Palestine, inside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, MECA has supported a women’s embroidery collective, computer center, and many educational workshops on health and nutrition in the camp.
In 1999, MECA brought The IBDA dance troupe of 20 children and their leaders to the United States, raising funds to build a four-story guest house with a restaurant, computer center, multipurpose hall, as well as a five-story computer center, multipurpose hall, as well as a five-story
women’s building, which houses a kindergarten, children’s library, mental health clinic and other projects for women.
In 2002, Israeli tanks and helicopters invaded Dheisheh Camp and soldiers took over one of the buildings. They used the roof as a sniper’s nest and critically wounded four small children. Then they destroyed most of what was inside that center. MECA, along with other partners, rebuilt it.
MECA gives hundreds of scholarships for university education inside Palestine, as well as some for colleges in the U.S.
In Gaza, where malnutrition is widespread and many families live on one meal a day, MECA has provided tons of powdered milk, fortified children’s cereal, an ambulance, wheelchairs, and surgical instrument—as well as art and school supplies and has partnered to buy and distribute food, blankets, and plastic sheets to cover windows in winter, broken by IDF bombing.
In September 2009, MECA launched what I think is their most brilliant and important idea: the Maia Project, a long-term initiative to decentralize water purification in Gaza. Its purpose is to address and circumvent the repeated IDF policy of bombing the water treatment plants, intended by Israel to increase infant mortality and spread disease inside the captive population. MECA provided funds for clean drinking water systems in kindergartens, elementary and middle schools in Gaza, where children have filtered drinking water at school and fill containers daily to take home for family use at night. This empowers children to participate in family survival.
Since 1988, MECA has brought the reality of the suffering of Palestinian children to thousands of Americans, through public events and the media, organizing dozens of demonstrations and actions to protest Israeli bombing, occupation and sanctions against the children of Palestine. “I’m really glad that my children and my grandchildren, that every one of them, they’re in touch with being Jewish, but they’re all anti-Zionist.”
Dorothy Miller Zellner was born in 1938 in Manhattan, the child of immigrant Jewish leftists, who supported racial equality and social justice. After graduating from Queens College and during the summer of 1960, she trained with the Congress of Racial Equality in non-violent resistance. In 1961, she worked with the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta and subsequently the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), run exclusively by young people from 1962 to 1967, and worked with Julian Bond to help build a national network. She spent Freedom Summer 1964, in Greenwood, Mississippi.
After SNCC, Zellner and her husband Bob moved to New Orleans to join the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Having returned to New York after 22 years living in the South, a trip to Israel in 2002 galvanized her to devote herself to ending the Occupation, the same way she had worked for equal rights in the Civil Rights movement in the South. She is a founding member of Jews Say NO and has toured with Open Hillel, making a mark on the next generation of Jewish college students.
In her own works: “I do not think that states that privilege one group over another are viable states…. I’m a Jewish activist organizing against the Israeli occupation of Palestine…the attacks on us are going to be worse. This is like a cornered animal: its fangs are out now….. Remember, it’s not because of our failure that we’re being attacked, but because of our success….. You can see this happening already….. And as far as the established Jewish organizations are concerned, this is the beginning of the end of the hand on our throats preventing us from talking or thinking…. I’ve been in two big struggles in my life. The Civil Rights Movement, and this…… And relying on Jewish tradition, I felt that I could not stand idly by. ”
Alice Rothchild grew up in Sharon, MA, attended Bryn Mawr, became an obstetrician-gynecologist involved in healthcare reform and women’s issues, and was a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty. With Orthodox family roots in Brooklyn and having received a Jewish education, Alice took a more secular direction and became very active with the Boston Workman’s Circle in Brookline.
Visiting Israel as a teen charmed her, but witnessing Israel/Palestine as an adult, she felt called to activism, where she has been a leader across the last 20 years: doing pro bono medical work for women in Palestine, authoring 3 books: Broken Promises, Broken Dreams; On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion; and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, and directing a documentary on the Voices Across the Divide.
Now retired from medicine, she writes and travels to present screenings and speak on the Occupation across the country. “When you don’t see people as human, you do really awful things to them…And then, for the same Jews to be inflicting… massive demonization and destruction on other people is horrible, is just devastating. We really should know better.”
Rich Forer was born in New Jersey into a family of lawyers, raised in a Reform congregation, with grandparents who were immigrants from Russia and Poland. He grew up acutely aware of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, feeling fearful and defensive as a Jew, particularly regarding Israel. His identical twin brother, after college, went to Israel and during a kibbutz year became an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher. Rich like others believed that Israel had been a land without a people, that Arabs had fabricated the existence of the Palestinians, and that Jews there were superior to the Arabs and only benevolent. He joined AIPAC, fought with anyone criticizing Israel, attributing all criticism to anti-Semitism, which he felt was everywhere.
In 2006, during Israel’s second invasion into Lebanon, he supported the bombing as perfectly appropriate, rationalizing anything Israel did. This came to a crescendo when he read Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah.
From shock to anger to embarrassment to shame to sorrow for the Palestinians in one sitting, this culminated in a kind of spiritual experience for Rich. His epiphany freed him from Zionism, like a Zen transformation.
After that day, Rich authored a book, lectures nationally, writes prolifically, travels to the West Bank, and pursues activism and the truth with compassion on this issue.
His articles on the conflict include: “Lack of Self-Reflection Leads to Moral Disintegration”, “Perpetuating Distrust and Conflict: Israel’s Use of Character Assassination,” “The Root Cause of Delusion, Prejudice, Suffering and Conflict,” and “Fighting Slander and Oppression. “
The next group of activists, also often writing, are direct action, grassroots organizers working to bring visibility to the Occupation and reframe the issue in order to counter Israel’s narrative.
They bring numbers and outrage to force recognition of the problem, but as Rae Abileah states: “We have a lot of creative tactics, a lot of humor in our actions.” These include street theater, flash mobs, disruption of speakers including Prime Minister Netanyahu, demonstrations, visits to Congressmen, billboard and boycott campaigns, marches, rallies, and attempts to break the Gaza siege by sea.
Although local and ‘in the moment,’ they build both solidarity and awareness, particularly among young people, using social media to magnify and document their ‘moment.’
Rae Abileah, whose father is Israeli, grew up in suburban California in a secular family, sought out religion at 12 and continues to be observant today, as an ordained Kohenet.
While initially in love with Israel as a teen on her Young Judeah Hadassah trip, after visiting the West Bank with her ordained Israeli partner, they both had an epiphany, which turned them to work for Palestinian rights.
She studied human rights at Barnard College, has written for Mondoweiss, AlterNet, Common Dreams, Tikkun, and is a direct action activist, disrupter and organizer. She served as co-director for CodePink Women for Peace for eight years and is a founding member of Young Jewish and Proud, the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her work in the Jewish community includes past projects with American Jewish World Service, Wilderness Torah, B’nai Brith Youth Organization, Hillel, and synagogues.
In Rae’s own words: “It’s an unlearning of a brainwashing that I think needs to happen around this issue….We really got to see some of the harshest forms of Israeli cruelty…..and felt so much more empathy being there in person, so for me that’s the crystallizing experience”.
Tarak Kauff and Ellen Davidson:
Tarak is a longtime NY antiwar and social justice activist from the Vietnam War onward, after serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962. He is a member of Veterans for Peace, a founder and editor of the bimonthly Woodstock International and quarterly War Crimes Times, both Progressive papers. Veterans for Peace was awarded the 2016 Peace Prize by The U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation “in recognition of heroic efforts to expose the causes and costs of war and to prevent and end armed conflict.”
Ellen is an activist reporter and photographer, who began her work at the New York Guardian and has written for Mondoweiss, Ma’an News, and the NY Indypendent. As the Vietnam War radicalized Tarak, the anti-Apartheid Movement did Ellen. Moving from her childhood perception of Israel, as a victim beset by terrorists and threatened by attacking armies, she writes: “I realized that Israel was on the wrong side of all the struggles for freedom and national liberation I supported, that it backed dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile, Brazil and elsewhere. The more I learned about Israel, the more I realized that what I had been taught growing up was a lie.”
Tarak and Ellen took part in the 2009-10 Gaza Freedom March in Cairo and were part of a nine-person Veterans For Peace Team that went to the West Bank and the Negev in 2017 to make these three demands:
An end to the Occupation.
An end to the system of apartheid, referred to by Desmond Tutu as worse even than South Africa’s.
An end to the four billion dollar U.S. military aid to Israel.
Hannah Mermelstein grew up outside of Philadelphia in a Jewish suburb and loved Hebrew, Hebrew school and synagogue, but more than anything else, the sense of Jewish community. Attending Zionist summer camp, taking a gap year at a kibbutz in Israel and attending Goucher College which had no Arab or Muslim students, Hannah states: “So, I still, throughout my life, into college had never heard a non-Zionist narrative, never heard an Arab narrative.”
It was while living in Nicaragua that her perspective on Israel began to change. Senior year in college and a trip with International Women’s Peace Service to the West Bank, followed by spending time in Dheisheh refugee camp, prompted Hannah to become anti-Zionist.
In 2005, Hannah co-founded Birthright Unplugged, in response to Birthright Israel, which leads free 10-day Zionist trips, intended to indoctrinate and bind Jewish youth to Israel. Birthright Unplugged trips introduce youth to the Palestinian narrative, visiting Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps in the West Bank and encouraging engagement and activism.
In Hannah’s own words: “I haven’t been to services in years. Most synagogues have the American flag and the Israeli flag hanging in their sanctuary; I don’t feel comfortable in synagogues now and so that part of Jewish community and identity and consensus I’m not part of anymore. What inspires and sustains me now, is Palestinian people, the work and relationships with Palestinians.”
Jane Toby, a New York academic living in Verona in the 1990s, first learned about Women in Black. The group was founded in Israel in 1988 by Jewish and Palestinian women, who stood in silent vigils wearing black, against the Occupation and for a just peace. During the Balkan war, women of varied factions there also joined ranks, to hold vigils of solidarity against the atrocities and division in their own country. Jane brought Women in Black to America to protest Israel’s Occupation and other wars. She wrote: “Our future rests on ethical behavior and personal responsibility, not on nationalistic orientation.”
In conclusion: Judaism is not a template, despite the success over several generations of utilizing Israel as the ‘tie that binds’ disparate American Jews together into a loyal consensus.
Dissolving the shtetl created a liberation moving outward in all directions. Ironically, the ‘in gathering’ inherent in Zionism’s creation of its religion-based state is seen by some as a new ghetto of consciousness, beholden to militarism, racism and violence to sustain it.
“Zionism” as Mark Braverman says “has served to keep Jews trapped in an isolationist, exclusivist past…… yoked to a theology of territoriality and tribal privilege.”
Or, as Miko Peled puts it: “Israel is faced with two options: Continue to exist as a Jewish state while controlling the Palestinians through military force and racist laws, or undertake a deep transformation into a real democracy where Israelis and Palestinians live as equals in a shared state, their shared homeland. For Israelis and Palestinians alike, the latter path promises a bright future.”
There is no question that Zionism has tried to overlay itself across Judaism. Perhaps that is changing, as we are seeing diaspora Jews across every divide free themselves and step away. Some with indifference, others with open rejection. But this is happening in America, as the move for justice and equal rights for Palestinians is increasingly led by Jewish activists.
As Dorothy Zellner told Mondoweiss: “Look at the large number of Jews in the anti-Occupation movement. These are people who have been told since babyhood that Israel is everything…. And the miracle of this is that so many people who were brought up like that began to see with their own eyes. Who would have thought that Jewish Voice for Peace would have 140,000 people on their list now.”
Jews Step Forward is dedicated in memory of Hedy Epstein, whose life exemplified Jewish humanism and Ali Lallo, whose journey from Dheisheh refugee camp to Al Khaleej, has inspired all my films.
A word about Ali. He was born in Dheisheh refugee camp, worked hard to learn English, ultimately becoming a journalist. I met him in Dubai at a lecture given by a British Muslim discussing Palestine. I had raised my hand and mentioned Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and Tanya Reinhart, all writing inside Israel. Ali approached me afterward, introduced himself and that began the friendship between our two families. He was working for Al Khaleej in Shariah, the largest publishing house on the Gulf at the time, where among his duties, he chose the English language books to translate into Arabic. I remember he zeroed in on Norman Finkelstein’s “The Holocaust Industry.” It was through Ali that I met the Consul General representing Palestine and members of that Consulate in Dubai, who shared footage and photographs for my first film. Sadly Ali passed away in 2013.
By Allan C. Brownfeld
For many years there has been a concerted effort to redefine the meaning of the term “anti-Semitism,” which traditionally has referred to hatred of Jews and Judaism, to mean criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism. This campaign has as its goal the silencing of those who are critical of Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories and are engaged in activities such as support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The fact that large numbers of Jews are, and have always been, critics of Zionism, and are deeply involved in the BDS movement, through groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, does not give pause to those engaged in this enterprise.
The Re-Invention of Anti-Semitism
In recent days, this campaign has achieved some notable success. In July, French President Emmanuel Macron condemned anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism at a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the round-up by French police of more than 13,000 Jews at the Winter Stadium, or Velodrome d’Hiver. The men, women and children were imprisoned there for days in unsanitary conditions and without sufficient water, leading to dozens of fatalities. The Jews were then transported to Nazi death camps in Eastern Europe. The French president declared: “We will never surrender to the expressions of hatred. We will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a re-invention of anti-Semitism.”
Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has consistently called anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism, but a French president in office had never made such a statement. Natan Sharansky, board chairman of the Jewish Agency, praised Macron. He declared: “When one of the most important leaders in Europe recognizes that modern anti-Semitism frequently cloaks itself with the veil of anti-Zionism, tearing the mask off the face of radical anti-Zionists, this is a highly significant development. President Macron’s remarks serve to further clarify the nature of modern anti-Semitism and facilitate efforts to combat it.”
At the end of a speech on healthcare on the floor of the U.S. Senate in July, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Democratic minority leader, thanked French President Macron for saying that anti-Zionism was a form of anti-Semitism. He said, “Anti-Semitism is a word that has been used throughout history when Jewish people are judged and measured by one standard and the rest by another. When everyone else was allowed to farm and Jews could not; when anyone else could live in Moscow and Jews could not; when others could become academics or tradesmen and Jews could not. The word to describe all of these acts is anti-Semitism. So it is with anti-Zionism, the idea that all other peoples can seek and defend their right to self-determination but Jews cannot; that other nations have a right to exist, but the Jewish state of Israel does not.”
In Schumer’s view, a recent manifestation of anti-Jewish bias is the BDS movement. “The global BDS movement is a deeply biased campaign,” he declared, “that I would say, in similar words to Mr. Macron, is ‘a reinvented form of anti-Semitism’ because it seeks to impose boycotts on Israel and not on any other nation.”
In June, the European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution calling on member states and their institutions to apply the working definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Most of the 28 EU states participate in the Alliance, though only Austria, Romania and the United Kingdom have formally adopted its definition. In addition to defining anti-Semitism as “Rhetorical and physical manifestations…directed toward Jewish individuals…toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” it adopted the following declaration: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
Needless to say, there is much criticism of the effort to define criticism of Israel and Zionism as a new form of anti-Semitism. Prof. Mazim Qumsiyeh of Bethlehem University, a Palestinian, notes that, “Nobody is denying anybody the right of self-determination. Polish or Palestinian or U.S. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a right of self-determination in their own countries per international law. Self-determination does not include deciding to go to someone else’s country, claim it by ‘divine power’ and kick the natives out (as European Jews did to us, making 7.2 million refugees). The State of Israel and Zionism are factually racist endeavors.”
Another element in the EU definition of anti-Semitism is “applying double standards by requiring of it (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” To this, Prof. Qumsiyeh responds: “Will Israeli journalists like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass and Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem all be lumped under ‘anti-Semites?’ After all, their words and fact-filled reports violate most of these Zionist definitions. Will the United Nations, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the International Committee of the Red Cross?”
Editorially, the Los Angeles Times rejected the idea that the BDS movement “is a form of anti-Semitism, as some claim…Whether one agrees with the goals of BDS or not, the fact remains that boycotts are a form of speech, a classic tool of political expression. Truly free countries tolerate peaceful dissent. The 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories seized during the Six Day war has gone on for too long and must eventually be brought to an end.”
In July, a pro-Palestinian organization in Scotland had a landmark victory in a United Kingdom court that ruled in favor of its members, who were accused of racism for having participated in a protest against the Israeli occupation three years ago. Glasgow Sherriff’s Court announced on July 14 its verdict in favor of two members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC), which supports Palestinian issues in Britain. The members of SPSC, Mick Napier and Jim Watson, had been facing charges of racism and aggravated trespass for a protest against an Israeli firm in 2014.
The two were arrested in a shopping center when they refused to leave the demonstration that was held against the Israeli company Jericho Cosmetics, which operates in the occupied West Bank and had been involved in Israel’s 2014 military offensive against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Napier said they “were accused of being motivated by hatred of Israelis rather than opposition to Israel’s repeated massacres, apartheid across the whole of Palestine and genocidal violence in Gaza.” The prosecutor claimed that the two were recycling an ancient anti-Semitic “Jewish blood libel” by speaking about Israel’s murdering of Palestinians. The SPSC has been under pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists and Scottish prosecutors who have been trying to criminalize their actions in support of Palestinians. Last year, two employees of the pro-Israel Community Security Trust made allegations against SPSC members but that was also thrown out by a court.
Students, staff and faculty at San Francisco State University (SFSU) are now under investigation by the University on charges of “anti-Semitism” brought by Hillel. Mondoweiss reports that, “Pro-Israel groups have time and again sought criminal and punitive charges for political and scholarly expressions critical of Israel on college campuses…One case involves the Irvine 11, in which the Orange County District Attorney’s office charged students who protested a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on the UC Irvine campus with two misdemeanors…More recently, pro-Israel legal organizations have brought a civil rights based lawsuit alleging the institutionalization of anti-Semitism on the SFSU campus and blaming a group of defendants, including top level SFSU administrators, staff and Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, the founding director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies program and the long-time adviser to the General Union of Palestinian Students on campus.”
The Lawfare Project and the law firm of Winston and Straw filed the lawsuit on behalf of three Hillel students. It is similar in nature to a 2011 lawsuit alleging an “anti-Semitic climate” at UC Berkeley. U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg dismissed the lawsuit as its accusations presented no coherent or plausible argument. The latest allegations of anti-Semitism by Hillel were made in reaction to the organization not receiving a table at the “Know Your Rights” (KYR) Fair held in February 2017 at SFSU. The purpose of the Fair was outreach to groups viewed as vulnerable in the new political climate, with a focus on Arab and Muslim, LGBTQ and undocumented communities. Participants included Palestine Legal, La Raza Centro Legal and the ACLU. Jewish Voice for Peace participated in the Fair. Hillel alleged that Jews were excluded from the Fair and that excluding Hillel was an act of religious discrimination.
The Jewish Studies program at SFSU and its Hillel group made claims of institutional anti-Semitism at SFSU and cited the unanimous decision to deny Hillel a table at the KYR Fair as part of its evidence. Saliem Shehadeh, a graduate student in Anthropology at SFSU, argues that, “Providing a table to Hillel, whose conduct has threatened the safety of Palestinians and other advocates for justice in Palestine is akin to giving a table to ICE at a gathering of undocumented communities…The objections to Hillel were always, and are still, about the organization’s conduct threatening students’ rights. It was in no way an issue of religious discrimination…Hillel’s activity centers on Zionist expressions of Judaism and has invested much political currency and funds into making such articulation mainstream and part and parcel of hegemonically imaged Jewish-American experiences. As such, Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network have been cast as fringe organizations and expelled by Hillel…It must be remembered that there has never been a consensus among Jewish communities on Israel or on Zionism. Jewish communities are not a monolithic unit.”
Hillel International is not an organization which represents a wide range of Jewish opinion. Its Guidelines, for example, exclude those who oppose Jewish nationalism and “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” and rejects those who support the BDS movement, which includes an increasing number of Jews. Hillel works closely with the David Project to isolate students and groups that are critical of Israel’s occupation. David Project executive director David Bernstein wrote a report titled, “How To ‘Name-and-Shame’ Without Looking Like a Jerk.” The David Project promotes targeting advocates of Palestinian rights on campus. It notes that, “Accusing faculty members who propagandize against Israel of ‘academic malpractice’ is likely to be a much more effective strategy than challenging specific allegations or invoking anti-Jewish bigotry.”
Saliem Shehadeh assesses the approach used to silence criticism of Israel by Hillel, the David Project and similar groups this way: “This indicates their willingness to use anti-Israel and anti-Semitic accusations interchangeably, in a deliberate and false conflation of the two. This distinction is important because anti-Zionism and anti-Israel politics are legitimate anti-colonial positions and protected civil liberties while anti-Semitism is hate and oppression. And the David Project, in clear terms, reveals that the tactics they use for smearing are neither anti-Semitic nor an infringement of rights despite their accusations to the contrary. Pro-Israel organizations have often cast the challenge on campus as an assault on Jewish students rather than as a spreading pervasive negativity toward Israel.”
In July, the State Department issued a report on terrorism in 2016, and said that some Palestinian violence is driven by “a lack of hope in ever gaining sovereignty.” It declared, “Continued drivers of violence included a lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount and IDF tactics that Palestinians considered overly aggressive.” In response, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) demanded that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson step down. The ZOA said, “In light of the U.S. State Department’s new, bigoted, biased, anti-Semitic, Israel-hating, error-ridden terrorism report, the ZOA calls on Secretary of State Tillerson to resign.”
The effort to redefine anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel has been going on for nearly four decades. In 1974, Benjamin Epstein, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), co-authored “The New Anti-Semitism,” a book whose argument was repeated in 1982 by his successor at ADL, Nathan Perlmutter, in a book entitled “The Real Anti-Semitism In America.” After World War ll, Epstein argued, guilt over the Holocaust kept anti-Semitism at bay. But as memories of the Holocaust faded, anti-Semitism had returned—this time in the form of hostility to Israel. The reason: Israel represented Jewish power. “Jews are tolerable, acceptable in their particularity, only as victims,” wrote Epstein and his ADL colleague Arnold Forster, “and when their situation changes so that they are no longer victims, or appear not to be, the non-Jewish world finds this so hard to take that the effort is begun to render them victims anew.”
Nathan Perlmutter embarked upon a campaign to redefine anti-Semitism. He declared:
The search for peace in the Middle East is littered with minefields for Jewish interests…Jewish concerns are confronted by the Semitically neutral postures of those who believe that if only Israel would yield this or that, the Middle East would become tranquil and the West’s highway to its strategic interests and profits in the Persian Gulf would be secure. But at what cost to Israel’s security? Israel’s security, plainly said, means more to Jews today than their standing in the opinion polls.
Perlmutter substituted the term “Jewish interests” for what were, in reality, “Israeli interests.” By changing the terms of the debate, he helped create a situation in which anyone who is critical of Israel becomes, ipso facto, “anti-Semitic.”
One of the leading practitioners, for many years, of the effort to silence criticism of Israel by calling it “anti-Semitic” has been Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, which was originally published by the American Jewish Committee. In an article titled “J’Accuse,” (Commentary, September 1983), Podhoretz charged America’s leading journalists, newspapers and television networks with “anti-Semitism” because of their reporting of the war in Lebanon and their criticism of Israel’s conduct. Among those so accused were Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, Nicholas von Hoffman, Joseph Harsch of The Christian Science Monitor, Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Mary McGrory , Richard Cohen, Alfred Friendly of The Washington Post, and a host of others. These individuals and their news organizations were not criticized for bad reporting or poor journalistic standards; instead they are the subject of the charge that always seemed to be on Podhoretz’s lips: anti-Semitism.
“The war in Lebanon,” he wrote, “triggered an explosion of invective against Israel that in its fury and its reach was unprecedented in the public discourse in this country…We are dealing here with an eruption of anti-Semitism.” Ignored by Podhoretz was the fact that Israeli government policy in Lebanon was even more harshly criticized by the Israeli media.
In the political arena, those few politicians who have dared to criticize Israel have been subjected to brutal attack. In 1982, Rep. Paul McCloskey (R-CA) was a candidate for his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate. After a trip to the Middle East in 1979, he concluded that new Israeli policies were not in America’s best interests. He was alarmed over Washington’s failure to halt Israel’s construction of West Bank settlements—which the U.S. Government had labeled illegal—and to stop Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons.
Beyond this, McCloskey raised a provocative question: “Does America’s ‘Israel lobby’ wield too much influence?” In an article in The Los Angeles Times, he wrote, “Yes, it is an obstacle for Mideast peace…If the U.S. is to work effectively toward peace in the Mideast, the power of the lobby must be recognized and countered in open and fair debate. I had hoped that the American Jewish community had matured to the point where its lobbying efforts could be described and debated without raising the red flag of anti-Semitism.”
The response was quick in coming. The B’nai B’rith Messenger charged that McCloskey had proposed that all rabbis be required to register as foreign agents. Columnist Paul Greenberg, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, compared McCloskey with such notorious anti-Semites as Gerald L.K. Smith. Douglas Bloomfield of AIPAC described McCloskey as “bitter” with “an intense sense of hostility” toward Jews.
During the 1981-82 congressional campaign period, pro-Israel PACs spent $104,236 in an obscure House race in downstate Illinois to defeat Rep. Paul Findley (R-Il), a 22-year House veteran.
Findley’s sin was criticism of Israel and the urging of a more even-handed U.S. policy in the Middle East. In his book on the subject, “They Dare To Speak Out,” he writes, “If one particular group can succeed in inhibiting free expression on a particular subject, others inevitably will be tempted to try the same in order to advance their favorite causes…If a lobby can force government officials into ignominious silence in one vital area of public policy, other parts of the body politic could be similarly disabled..When a lobby stifles free speech nationally on one controversial topic—the Middle East—all free speech is threatened.”
During this period, former Under Secretary of State George Ball, a frequent critic of U.S. Middle East policy, was described in a public letter by Morris Abram, former president of the American Jewish Committee, published in The Washington Post, as “one who is willing to accept and spread age-old calumnies about Jews.” It was Ball’s view that silence had been imposed upon the discussion of Middle East policy by the broad use of the charge of anti-Semitism: “Most people are terribly concerned not to be accused of being anti-Semitic, and the lobby so often equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. They keep pounding away at the theme, and people are deterred from speaking out.”
The term “anti-Semitism” was used to characterize the arrest, trial and incarceration of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. In May, 1987, Pollard, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, was found guilty of espionage, having sold some 360 cubic feet of classified documents to Israel. So damaging to U.S. security was Pollard’s role as a spy that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne that Pollard should have been executed.
The organized pro-Israel community did not hesitate to embrace Jonathan Pollard. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) called upon the entire Reform Jewish community to express support for Pollard. Rabbi Mark Golub, a spokesman for CCAR, declared: “All the images about Pollard by the press turned out to be a terrible slander.” On April 25, 1989, a group of 15 rabbis and others participated in a Passover “Freedom Seder” in front of the maximum security federal prison in Marion, Illinois in support of Pollard. The Seder, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, began with a brief ceremony on the front steps of the historic Old Courthouse in St. Louis, where the landmark Dred Scott case was argued in 1846. Rabbi Weiss called Pollard “a Jewish political prisoner.”
Shortly after Pollard’s conviction, a Justice for the Pollards Committee was organized. It portrayed Pollard as a victim of a vindictive and anti-Semitic Justice Department. “We have before us a new Dreyfus affair,” said a newsletter put out by the committee. Discussing this analogy, Robert Friedman, writing in The Village Voice, noted that, “Unlike Dreyfus, who was framed by the French army, Pollard is an avowed spy.”
The tactic of using the term “anti-Semitism” as a weapon against dissenters from Israeli policies is not new. Dorothy Thompson, the distinguished journalist who was one of the earliest enemies of Nazism, found herself criticizing the policies of Israel shortly after its creation. Despite her valiant crusade against Hitler she, too, was subject to the charge of “anti-Semitism.”
In a letter to The Jewish Newsletter (April 6, 1951) she wrote:
Really, I think continued emphasis should be put upon the extreme damage to the Jewish community of branding people like myself as anti-Semitic…The State of Israel has got to learn to live in the same atmosphere of free criticism which every other state in the world must endure…There are many subjects on which writers in this country are, because of these pressures, becoming craven and mealy-mouthed. But people don’t like to be craven and mealy-mouthed; every time one yields to such pressure, one is filled with self-contempt and this self-contempt works itself out in resentment of those who caused it.
A quarter century later, columnist Carl Rowan (Washington Star, Feb. 5, 1975) reported that “When I wrote my recent column about what I perceive to be a subtle erosion of support for Israel in this town, I was under no illusion as to what the reaction would be. I was prepared for a barrage of letters to me and newspapers carrying my column accusing me of being ‘anti-Semitic.’…The mail rolling in has met my worst expectations…This whining, baseless name-calling is a certain way to turn friends into enemies.”
A list of those who have been falsely accused of anti-Semitism because of their criticism of Israel would be a long one. In 2014, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick declared that Secretary of State John Kerry is “anti-Semitic.” According to Glick, “Kerry is obsessed with Israel’s economic success…The anti-Semitic undertones of Kerry’s constant chatter about Jews and money are obvious.” At the same time, Moti Yogev, a Knesset member in the governing coalition, said that Kerry’s efforts at achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians had “an undertone of anti-Semitism.”
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Cameron Kerry, a brother of the Secretary of State and formerly general counsel to the U.S. Department of Commerce, declared that charges of “anti-Semitism” against his brother would be ridiculous if they were not so vile.” Cameron Kerry, a convert to Judaism, recalled relatives who died in the Holocaust. The Kerrys’ paternal grandparents were Jewish.
The reaction to the 2014 Presbyterian study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” issued by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was vitriolic. The ADL claimed the study guide “may be the most anti-Semitic document to come out of a mainline church in recent memory.” J Street, which promotes itself as a more moderate pro-Israel lobbying group than AIPAC, was almost as harsh. It said that the church document promotes “polarization” and “intolerance.” Saying it was “deeply offended,” J Street asserted that “one has to question the…motives in publishing this ‘resource.'”
“Zionism Unsettled,” is a 74 page, illustrated study guide of the Presbyterian church; for free download, Google “Zionism Unsettled.”
In fact, the church document, which examines the role of Zionism and Christian Zionism in shaping attitudes and events in Palestine and the region, devotes extensive space to a discussion—and harsh criticism —of anti-Semitism within Christianity and its influence in the rise of Nazism. It rejects racism and religious bigotry in all its forms. And it has many strong Jewish supporters. Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of “Wrestling In The Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path To Palestinian Solidarity,” notes that, “As a Jew, I’m especially appreciative that while ‘Zionism Unsettled’ is strongly critical of Zionism, it doesn’t flinch from extensive Christian self-criticism.”
Discussing the Presbyterian study guide, the respected Israeli political scientist Neve Gordon said, “I welcome the effort to emphasize a conception of Judaism and Christianity that espouses universalistic ethics—whereby all humans are imago dei—and to use it to expose injustices carried out in my homeland.”
Jewish critics of Israeli actions are as likely to be denounced as “anti-Semites” as non-Jews. For example, columnist Caroline Glick, writing in the International Jerusalem Post (Dec.23-29, 2011), found New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman guilty of employing “traditional anti-Semitic slurs” and “of channeling long-standing anti-Semitic charges.” She described Friedman as a “dyed-in-the-wool Israel-hater” for writing that he “sure hopes that Israel’s prime minister… understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. The ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
In 2009, the ADL, AIPAC, and other Jewish groups, condemned the White House’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she had criticized Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. What the Jewish groups did not mention was that Robinson had been instrumental in helping remove language about racial discrimination and Zionism from the U.N. Durban Conference’s final report, thereby angering Syria and Iran. Neither did they mention that after discovering an Arab non-governmental organization at the parallel NGO forum across the street in Durban was displaying anti-Semitic cartoons, Robinson offered an impassioned public denunciation of anti-Semitism, declaring, “When I see something like this, I am a Jew.” While American Jewish groups categorized Mary Robinson as an anti-Semite, Israeli human rights groups issued a joint statement in her defense.
Those who have been labeled “anti-Semitic” by Jewish groups because of their criticism of Israeli policies include former President Jimmy Carter, journalists Andrew Sullivan and Bill Moyers, and groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Peter Beinert, a contributing editor to The Forward and author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” calls the idea that such individuals and groups are anti-Semitic “absurd.” He argues that, “If they really hated Jews, wouldn’t they express their hatred in some form other than criticism of Israeli policy? But for prominent American Jewish leaders, any criticism of Israel that is not accompanied by equally harsh criticism of other countries constitutes anti-Semitism.”
Writing in The Jerusalem Report (July 18,1991), editor Ze’ev Chafets, discussing Orthodox anti-Zionism in Israel, argued that “the Jewishness of these anti-Zionist rabbis is not authentic. It is autistic, fearful and a sick outgrowth of the long nightmare of exile.” In response, Rabbi David Hartman, founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute and professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, rejected this view. He wrote that, “The ultra-Orthodox community holds a very particular understanding of Jewish history. For it, the Jews are a nation only because of God’s selection of Israel and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For it, the Jewish people’s birth as a nation in the desert teaches us that it is not land but the search for holiness, the challenge to be God’s witnesses in history, that constitutes Jewish existence. Jews are the symbol of divinity in history. ‘And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.’ A land without Torah, for the ultra-Orthodox, has absolutely no significance. They repudiate secular Zionism because for them nationalism separated from Torah is not a Jewish value.”
While not sharing the anti-Zionist perspective himself, Rabbi Hartman points out that, “I cannot ignore its intellectual power. Nor do I see it as a distortion of tradition…Allegiance to the State of Israel is not the only legitimate form of giving expression to Judaism. In the spirit of Hillel, I am prepared to present an intelligent argument for their position. ‘These and these are the words of the living God’ should be the way we deal with Jewish disagreement.”
Writing in Haaretz (July 19, 2017), Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace provided this analysis:
Seventy years into the ongoing dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, 50 years into Israel’s military occupation, and 10 years into the siege on Gaza, we think it is time for American Jewish communities to have some really uncomfortable conversations…Challenging anti-Semitism requires us to distinguish between anti-Jewish ideas or actions and legitimate criticisms of the human rights abuses of the Israeli state and of Jewish institutions which aid in supporting or justifying the domination of another people.
The Long History of Jewish Anti-Zionism
Zionism, many now forget, has always been a minority view among Jews. Most Jews believe that their Jewish identity rests on their religious faith, not any national identification. Jews in the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Italy and other countries do not view themselves as living in “exile,” as Zionist philosophy holds. Instead, they believe that their religion and nationality are separate and distinct. The God they believe in is a universal God, not tied to a particular geographic site in the Middle East.
In 1841, in the dedication of America’s first Reform synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski told the congregation, “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.”
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, did not believe in God or in Judaism. The state he sought to create would be secular, based on the idea of Jewish “national” and “ethnic” identity and incorporating those features he found most attractive in 19th-century Europe, particularly Germany. This immediately brought opposition from Orthodox Jews as well as those Jews who rejected the idea of a separate Jewish nationalism and considered themselves full members of the societies in which they were born and lived.
The chief rabbi of Vienna, Mortiz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism. “Belief in One God was the unifying factor for Jews,” he declared, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings. The Jewish Chronicle of London judged that the Zionist scheme’s lack of a religious perspective rendered it “cold and comparatively uninviting.”
The executive of the Association of German Rabbis, representing the Jewish communities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Breslau, Halberstadt and Munich, denounced the “efforts of the so-called Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine” as contrary to the “prophetic message of Judaism and the duty of every Jew to belong without reservation to the fatherland in which he lives.”
Adolf Jellinek, who became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called a “small state like Serbia or Romania outside Europe, which would most likely become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future would be very uncertain.” This, however, was not the real basis for his opposition. He argued that it threatened the position of Jews in Western countries and that “almost all Jews in Europe” would vote against the scheme if they were given the opportunity.
For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal, prophetic Judaism. The first Reform prayerbook eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion. The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the distinguished rabbi and author Abraham Geiger, argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was ethical monotheism. The Jewish people were a religious community destined to carry on the mission to “serve as a light to the nations,” to bear witness to God and His moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, but part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism.
In Nov. 1885, Reform rabbis, meeting in Pittsburgh, wrote an eight-point platform that one participant called “the most succinct expression of the theology of the Reform movement that had ever been published in the world.” The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism denied nationalism of any variety. It stated: “We recognize in the era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution declared, “Zion was a precious possession of the past…as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”
In 1904, The American Israelite noted, “There is not one solitary prominent native Jewish American who is an advocate of Zionism.”
In 1919, in response to Britain’s Balfour Declaration calling for a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled “A Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the dominant American Jewish view on Zionism and Palestine. The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political unit…in Palestine or elsewhere,” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic descent.” It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and held against the founding of any state upon the basis of religion and/or race. The petition asserted that the “overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and the other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.'”
Among those signing this petition were Rep. Julius Klein of California, Henry Morganthau, Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Simon W. Rosendale, former Attorney General of New York, Mayor L. H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas, E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange, Jesse I. Straus of Macy’s, and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs.
In a speech to the Menorah Society Dinner in New York City in December 1917, Chief Judge of the New York State Supreme Court Irving Lehman, brother of Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, stated:
I cannot recognize that the Jews as such constitute a nation in any sense in which the word is recognized in political science, or that a national basis is a possible concept for modern Judaism. We Jews in America, bound to the Jews of other lands by our common faith, constituting our common inheritance, cannot as American citizens feel any bond to them as members of a nation, for nationally we are Americans and Americans only, and in political and civil matters we cannot recognize any other ties. We must therefore look for the maintenance of Judaism to those spiritual concepts which constitute Judaism.
In England, most Jewish leaders opposed the Balfour Declaration. In fact, they argued that the proponents of a Jewish state in Palestine were, in fact, “anti-Semites.” Rabbi Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association opposed the idea of special privileges for his co-religionists in Palestine. He asked rhetorically in The Edinburgh Review for April 1917, “How can a man belong to two nations at once?” No man, he declared, could belong equally and simultaneously to two nations. One who tried opened himself to the charge of divided loyalties. “No wonder,” he declared, “that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists.”
A Jewish member of Lloyd George’s cabinet, Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, insisted that Jews be regarded as a religious community. In a memorandum circulated to other Cabinet members, Montagu used the term “anti-Semitism” to characterize the sponsors of the Balfour Declaration. The document of Aug. 23, 1917 was titled, “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government.” He noted that:
…I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country of the world.” He declared: “I assert that there is not a Jewish nation…It is no more true to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation…I deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history…The Government should be prepared to do everything in their power to obtain for Jews in Palestine complete Liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the inhabitants of that country who profess other religious beliefs. I would ask that the Government should go no further.
These views were widely held by prominent Jews in England. Lucien Wolf discussed the fundamental premise of Zionism: “The idea of a Jewish nationality, the talk of a Jew ‘going home’ to Palestine if he is not content with the land of his birth, strikes at the root of all claims to Jewish citizenship in lands where Jewish disabilities still exist. It is the assertion not merely of a double nationality …but of the perpetual alienation of Jews everywhere outside Palestine.”
A prominent voice for Jewish universalism in England was Rabbi Israel Mattuck. In his book “What Are The Jews?” Mattuck argues that the distinctiveness of the Jews is religious, not national:
The dispersion of the Jews, which gives them universality, is a condition of their religious value that they remain distinctive and dispersed…By its very nature, religion tends to universalism. There have been national religions. All religions began in tribalism, but religion long ago outgrew its nationalist swaddling-clothes. Judaism cast them off at least 26 centuries ago—in the time of Isaiah, Amos and Micah…The genius of the Jews is a genius for religion, the contribution of the Jews to the life of humanity has been in the field of religion. The chief argument against Zionism is that the nationalization of Jewish life would interfere with the religious function and value of the Jews…When the Zionist answers: ‘But it will save the Jews,’ the non-Zionist asks, ‘Save them for what?’ To be a small nation in a small corner of the world! Is that to be the issue of Jewish history, its struggles and achievements, its sufferings and glories? How small, insignificantly pathetically small, is the result of the process?”
It was not just Reform Jews who opposed Zionism, but Orthodox Jews as well. Indeed, prior to the mid-twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of all Jews rejected the philosophy of Jewish nationalism.
In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He noted that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which may be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.’”
The distinguished rabbi and academic Arthur Hertzberg, in his book “Jews: The Essence and Character of a People,” (written with Aron Hirt-Manheimer) argues that the Zionist idea of making Jews a “normal” people is a rejection of the very uniqueness of Judaism and the Jewish mission: “The Jew…lives in two dimensions—the now and the forever. Jews have lived within changing and often tragic circumstances, but their religion has lifted them up to another realm in which nothing changes. The holy days and the commandments that Jews observe are timeless. Historical events are fleeting. The Zionist settlement in Palestine is no more important to the continuity of Judaism than the revolt against Rome or the expulsion from Spain or the pogroms in Russia…Chronology is irrelevant in the study of Torah: all of its divine teachings and interpretations are eternal values that transcend time.”
Rabbi Hertzberg said that Jews should be asking not how to perpetuate the Jewish people, but what God expects of them. If God has some role for Jews to play, they will, in some mysterious way, find themselves able to do it. If there is no belief in God, or in Judaism’s uniqueness, there will be no Jews.
One of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights for all people, said, “Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Israel.”
In 1938, alluding to Nazism, Albert Einstein warned an audience of Zionist activists against the temptation to create a state imbued with “a narrow nationalism within our own ranks against which we have already had to fight strongly even without a Jewish state.”
Another prominent German Jew, the philosopher Martin Buber spoke out in 1942 against the “aim of the minority to ‘conquer’ territory by means of international maneuvers.” From Jerusalem, in the midst of the hostilities that broke out after Israel unilaterally declared independence in May 1948, Buber cried with despair, “This sort of ‘Zionism’ blasphemes the name of Zion; it is nothing more than one of the crude forms of nationalism.”
In his book, “What Is Modern Israel?,” Professor Yakov Rabkin of the University of Montreal, an Orthodox Jew, shows that Zionism was conceived as a clear break with Judaism and the Jewish religious tradition. In his view, it must be seen in the context of European ethnic nationalism, colonial expansion and geopolitical interests rather than as an incarnation of Biblical prophecies or a culmination of Jewish history. The religious idea of a Jewish return to Palestine had nothing to do with the political enterprise of Zionism. “Jewish tradition,” writes Rabkin, “holds that the idea of return must be part of a messianic project rather than the human initiative of migration to the Holy Land…There was little room for Jewish tradition in the Zionist scheme…It is not the physical geography of the Biblical land of Israel which is essential for Jews but the obligation to follow the commandments of the Torah.”
To the question of whether Jews constitute “a people,” Yeshayahua Leibowitz, the Orthodox Jewish thinker and Hebrew University professor, provides this assessment:
The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor a people of this country or that, nor as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and its commandments…The words spoken by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) more than a thousand years ago: ‘Our nation exists only within the Torah’ have not only a normative but also an empirical meaning. They testified to a historical reality whose power could be felt up until the 19th century. It was then that the fracture, which has not ceased to widen with time, first occurred: the fissure between Jewishness and Judaism.
The early Zionists not only turned away from the Jewish religious tradition but, in their disregard for the indigenous population of Palestine, Jewish moral and ethical values as well. In his book “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State,” the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson writes that, “Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th century could not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and the development of a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis to a military confrontation.”
In the wake of growing anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the nineteen thirties, many Jews began to look positively upon the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine as a refuge for those being persecuted. Jewish organizations in the U.S. that had always opposed Zionism, slowly began to view it more favorably. The American Council for Judaism was created in 1942 to maintain the philosophy of a universal Judaism free of nationalism and politicization. In his keynote address, Rabbi David Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible: “Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of Eastern Asia.” The first pledge of major financial backing was made by Aaron Strauss, a nephew and heir of Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame.
An early leader of the Council, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who served from 1915 to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was originally a supporter of cultural Zionism, but later altered his views. Slowly, he discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of nationalism: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy of separateness as a people who would always and inevitably be rejected because they were Jews boldly asserted itself. The idea seems to have been to break down the self-confidence and opposition to Jewish nationalism…Behind the mask of Jewish sentiment, one can see the specter of the foul thing which moves Germany and Italy. Behind the camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to Jewish feeling, one can hear a chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews—Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.” Speaking at the January 1937 annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: “Judaism cannot accept as the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German, but accept it as Jewish?”
Rabbis who joined the Council led some of the nation’s leading congregations. Among them were Samuel Goldenson of New York, Irving Reichert of San Francisco, David Marx of Atlanta, Edward Calisch of Richmond, Henry Cohen of Galveston, Samuel Koch of Seattle, and Julian Feibelman of New Orleans. The Council also recruited many nationally prominent laypersons, including Judge Marcus Sloss of the California Supreme Court, Herbert and Stanley Marcus of the Nieman-Marcus Company in Dallas, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, and Alfred M. Cohen, president of B’nai B’rith. The first president of the Council was Lessing J. Rosenwald, who had retired as chairman of Sears Roebuck and Co., which was founded by his father, the respected philanthropist Julius Rosenwald who, among many other things, worked with Booker T. Washington to build schools for black children in the South after the Civil War.
Rabbi Reichert made his first significant declaration of opposition to Zionism in a January 1936 sermon:
If my reading of Jewish history is correct, Israel took upon itself the yoke of the Law not in Palestine, but in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and by far the greater part of its deathless and distinguished contribution to world culture was produced not in Palestine but in Babylon and the lands of the Dispersion. Jewish states may rise and fall, as they have risen and fallen in the past, but the people of Israel will continue to minister at the altar of the Most High God in all the lands in which they dwell…There is too dangerous a parallel between the insistence of some Zionist spokesmen upon nationality and race and blood, and similar pronouncements by Fascist leaders in Europe.
When the American Council for Judaism was established, Judah Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote a letter endorsing its statement of principles: “It is true that Jewish nationalism tends to confuse people not because it is secular and not religious, but because this nationalism is unhappily chauvinistic and narrow and terroristic in the best style of Eastern European nationalism.”
From 1943 to 1948, the Council conducted its public campaign against Zionism. One of the speakers at its 1945 conference was Hans Kohn, a one-time German Zionist associated with the University in Exile in New York. He declared, “The Jewish nationalist philosophy has developed entirely under German influence, the German romantic nationalism with the emphasis on blood, race and descent as the most determining factor in human life, its historicizing attempt to connect with a legendary past 2,000 or so years ago, its emphasis on folk as a mythical body, the source of civilization.”
In the face of the 1947 partition of Palestine, the Council wished the new state well, and declared its determination to resist Zionist efforts to dominate Jewish life in America. Rabbi Elmer Berger, who served for many years as the group’s executive director, published an extended essay that outlined the challenges to all Americans who are Jews by religion presented by Zionist plans to foster an ‘Israel-centered’ Jewish life in the U.S. He wrote: “The creation of a sovereign state embodying the principles of Zionism, far from relieving American Jews of the urgency of making that choice, makes it more compelling.” This year, the American Council for Judaism commemorates its 75th anniversary.
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of the book “American Judaism,” says that, “Everything they (the American Council for Judaism) prophesied—dual loyalty, nationalism being evil—has come to pass.” He states that, “It’s certainly the case that if the Holocaust underscored the problems of Jewish life in the Diaspora, recent years have highlighted the point that Zionism is no panacea.”
Indeed, in recent years, sympathy for Zionism among American Jews has been in steady decline. A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54% feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen asserted, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and the notion that “there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.” Other polls show that among younger non-Orthodox Jews, only 30% think that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”
In his book “Trouble In The Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,” Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University writes:
A historic change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel…Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry…A new era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of solidarity…This echoes earlier debates about Zionism that occurred before 1948. Then, as now, there were fierce disagreements among American Jews and the American Jewish establishment…It was only after Israel’s founding that the communal consensus came to dominate American Jewish politics. Thus, from a historical perspective, the pro-Israel consensus that once reigned within the American Jewish community is the aberration, rather than the rule. Jewish division on Israel is historically the norm.
Beyond this, in Waxman’s view, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while supporting Israel and wishing it well, were never really Zionists. He writes that:
Classical Zionism…has never had much relevance or appeal to American Jewry. Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic elements of classical Zionism—that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think that they live in exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland…For many American Jews, America is more than just home, it is itself a kind of Zion, an ‘almost promised land.’ Zionism has never succeeded in winning over the majority of American Jews.
By the 1980s, a host of liberal Jewish groups emerged such as New Jewish Agenda, Breira, Americans for Peace Now, Project Nishma, and the Jewish Peace Lobby. More recently, groups such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have appeared, and have attracted much support. Established in 2008, J Street, by 2013, had around 180,000 registered supporters, 20,000 donors and over 45 local chapters. Jewish Voice for Peace was established in Berkeley, California in 1996. Expressing the view of establishment Jewish organizations that were slowly seeing themselves displaced, the Anti-Defamation League publicly listed JVP as one of the “ten most influential anti-Israel groups in the U.S.” For many years the journal Tikkun, edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, has been an important advocate for Judaism’s commitment to universal moral and ethical values. Philip Weiss has provided a widely read website, Mondoweiss, as a place for Jews and others who are critical of Zionism and Israeli policies to express their views.
The views expressed by establishment Jewish organizations—-the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the ADL, AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations–clearly do not represent the views of most American Jews. In December, 2016, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution criticizing Israel’s policy of settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Obama administration decided not to veto this resolution. The U.N. Resolution was followed by an address in which Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Israeli government was undermining any hope of a two-state solution. Establishment Jewish groups immediately expressed outrage. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared, “Obama has made it clear that he is a Jew-hating anti-Semite.” David Friedman. now U.S..ambassador to Israel, compared J Street and other Jewish critics of Israel to “kapos,” Jews who assisted the Nazis at concentration camps during World War II.
In expressing such views, these groups were not representative of the thinking of most American Jews. Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College specializing in Jewish life, said that, “These days the right-wing has a louder voice in Israel, and, in some ways, it also has a louder voice in America, because the people who are most actively and publicly Jewish, sectarian Jewish, share the right-wing point of view, and are very pro-settlement. But it’s not the mainstream point of view.” Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College, said that Secretary Kerry’s speech represented the thinking of most American Jews: “On survey after survey, American Jews are opposed to Jewish settlement expansion. They tend to favor a two-state solution and their political orientations are liberal and moderate.”
Cohen reports that “serious donors” to Jewish organizations have started to balk at giving money to Israel. He cites his work with Jewish Federations, the largest Jewish charity organization: “The issue of Israel is and will continue to be a major source of polarization and friction. I was having questions—-what pulls our community apart? Is it Orthodox, secular, Reform, Haredim? And people say, that’s the number two issue. What’s number one? Number one is Israel. Recently, we’re seeing a lot of tension on Israel, we really have a hard time managing the Israel conversation. It’s like our donors are telling me, I’ll give you money as I have before…But not if you’re going to give it to Israel.”
Rabbi Henry Siegman, a former leader of the American Jewish Congress, declared concerning the debate over the U.N. Resolution, “Netanyahu’s ‘J’Accuse’ against Obama is a concoction of lies and deceptions.” Rabbi John J. Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California, applauded Secretary Kerry’s speech: “I felt Kerry was exactly right. The people will criticize him and will take a leap and say he’s anti-Israel, just as some are saying Obama is an anti-Semite. This is ridiculous.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organization, says, “There’s a very clear values clash going on. On the one hand, we have a small but vocal minority of American Jews who believe that supporting Israel means supporting the right-wing agenda, the current government. And on the other, there is a larger percentage of American Jews who are committed to Israel and committed to democracy and want to see it as a safe place that reflects our values.”
The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the 50-year occupation that followed has focused much attention upon the contradiction between Israel’s reality and its claim to be a Western-style democracy. The realization that more and more American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel, a society which repeatedly proclaims itself “Jewish,” but seems to be moving away from the Jewish moral and ethical tradition, is being increasingly discussed by those in the Jewish establishment who have sought to defend Israeli actions in the name of a “solidarity” not shared by those in whose name they try to speak.
In an article, “Why Many American Jews Are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” (Mosaic, May 8, 2017), Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Chair of the Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem, notes that:
The waning of attachment to Israel among American Jews…has rightly become a central focus of concern…The emerging impression among significant numbers of American Jews is that Israel and modern day progressive America are two fundamentally different if not antithetical political projects…The most obvious difference between the American and Israeli project lies in the ethnic particularism at the core of Israel’s very reason for being…American Jewish life and Israeli life reflect the difference between voluntary and non-voluntary communities…Add the American idea of the primacy of the universal over the particular and the ideological insistence that religion is a strictly private matter, the more American Jews think of Judaism in religious terms, without the component of peoplehood, the less necessary and less justified Israel becomes, the more anomalous and abnormal. Religions, after all, do not have countries. Is there a Methodist country? A Baha’i state?
When many American Jewish groups criticized Israel in June 2017 for its government’s backtracking on a decision to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women could pray together and non-Orthodox rituals could be practiced, some critics noted that these same groups have been silent when it comes to Palestinians.
Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Tedek Chicago Congregation and also serves as Midwest Regional Director of The American Friends Service Committee, wrote an article in The Forward (July 2, 2017) with the headline, “The Real Wall Problem: When Will Diaspora Jews Fight For Palestinians?”:
The North American Jewish establishment is furious with Israel…Has the Jewish institutional community finally broken their abject silence over Israel’s human rights abuses? Are Jewish communal leaders finally finding the courage of their convictions on the issue of Israel/Palestine?…While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its 50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the rights of all who live in the land…We will willingly violate our own values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people. The silence is all the more egregious given the humanitarian crisis Israel is currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now, 11 years into its crushing blockade, the government announced this past month that it will start cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could cause 21-hour blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up. Surgeries have already been canceled…According to UNICEF, the 2014 war took a heavy toll on children. More than 500 were killed, 3,374 were injured, and more than 1,500 were orphaned..I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish establishments over these cruel human abuses? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism—even the more ‘liberal’ among us seem only to be able to express their tolerance selectively.
Many Israelis, concerned about their country’s treatment of Palestinians, lament its departure from Jewish values. Prof. David Shulman of the Hebrew University notes that:
No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideologies of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is first of all based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population…In the end, it is the ongoing moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most dangerous, most unacceptable. This failure weighs…heavily on our humanity. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.
The history of Jewish opposition to Zionism is a long one and the evidence that American Jews largely reject the Zionist idea of Israel as the “homeland” of all Jews, and that they are in “exile” in America, is everywhere to be seen. Those who promote the idea that “anti-Zionism” is “anti-Semitism” have no legitimate historical basis for doing so. Their purpose in promoting such a view is simple and transparent: to silence criticism of Israel and its policies. In this, they are failing and their failure is most dramatic among Jews who are increasingly outspoken in their dismay over those who violate Judaism’s humane values in their name. Sadly, we have seen examples of real ant-Semitism in recent days, as in the case of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. Any comparison of real anti-Semitism with the criticism of Israel which has been characterized in that way shows us how ahistorical and irrational such claims really are. □
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and the Office of the Vice President.
By Donald Wagner
This issue of TheLink examines how, in order to subvert international law, human rights, and justice for all the parties to the conflict in the Holy Land, three “liberal” U.S. presidents and two mainstream Protestant theologians were influenced by domestic political considerations and a false theology of religious exceptionalism.
Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President, 1913 – 1921
When the Princeton University student group Black Justice League assembled at historic Nassau Hall in mid-November, 2015, it demanded former President Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from all campus buildings and programs due to his racist legacy.
When the protest moved inside President Christopher Eisgruber’s office, the students insisted that their demands be met in a timely fashion and submitted two additional demands: the university must institute cultural competency and anti-racism training for staff and faculty, and a cultural space must be provided for black students on the Princeton campus.
The Princeton incident should be seen in the context of similar campus and city-wide protests now underway across the United States, including the broad-based movement against police brutality in Chicago and other major cities. But the Princeton protest had a unique dimension as it focused on the legacy of a prominent leader who had been president of both Princeton University and the United States. The so-called “liberal legacy” of Woodrow Wilson’s impeccable image was suddenly brought under scrutiny and, indeed, it is a significantly tarnished legacy. Wilson was, without question, a notorious advocate of racial segregation. President Eisgruber acknowledged as much by stating: “I agree with you that Woodrow Wilson was a racist. I think we need to acknowledge that as a community and be honest about that.”
This strange case of President Wilson elicits yet another dimension of his racism and flawed decision-making: his betrayal of a just solution for the indigenous Palestinian Arab majority amidst the rise of the Zionist movement. When presented in the fall of 1917 with the British request to support a draft of the Balfour Declaration, which favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, Wilson had to decide between political pressure from the British and Zionists and pressure from his own State Department to continue advocating for his “Fourteen Points,” especially the guarantee of self-determination to majority populations in the Ottoman territories. Moreover, as a Presbyterian, he may have been influenced by his church’s inclination to be favorably disposed to the Zionist cause.
Wilson’s initial response was to postpone the decision. There was simply too much on his plate with the pressures of World War I, various domestic disputes, and promotion of his “Fourteen Points.” The British elevated the pressure on him through his friend, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, a committed Zionist. Brandeis received a cable from Chaim Weizmann, leader of the World Zionist Organization, asking for the United States to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The British Parliament had not at that point adopted the Declaration, but Balfour believed support from the United States was crucial if it was to be passed by Parliament and eventually the Allied nations.
About a month after the Weizmann telegram to Brandeis, Balfour raised the stakes with a personal visit to Washington and a face to face meeting with Brandeis. He urged Brandeis to secure a favorable decision from Wilson as time was running out. When Brandeis followed up with Wilson he was told that a decision would need to be delayed as the State Department was concerned about the unpredictability of the War and the potential for negative consequences if the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration were to be adopted.
On September 23, 1917, the British made an official request directly to President Wilson. Despite strong opposition from the State Department, Wilson approved the Declaration, but on the condition that the decision remain confidential. Nahum Goldman, later the leader of the World Zionist Organization, said: “If it had not been for Brandeis’ influence on Wilson, who in turn influenced the British Parliament’s decision and the Allies of that era, the Balfour Declaration would probably never have been issued.”
What was the role of religion in Wilson’s decision to embrace the Balfour Declaration? There is no clear statement from Wilson on this matter but it is worth considering that he was self-defined as “the son of the manse.” His father was a Presbyterian minister and Wilson was a student of the bible, a rather conservative student at that, which may have predisposed him to favor the Zionist narrative and its exclusive claim to the land of Palestine. Former C.I.A. analyst Kathleen Christison makes the case:
For Wilson, the notion of a Jewish return to Palestine seemed a natural fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and so influential U.S. Jewish colleagues found an interested listener when they spoke to Wilson about Zionism and the hope of founding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Few people knew anything about Arab concerns or Arab aspirations; fewer still pressed the Arab case with Wilson or anyone else in government. Wilson himself, for all his knowledge of biblical Palestine, had no inkling of its Arab history or its thirteen centuries of Muslim influence. In the years when the first momentous decisions were being made in London and Washington about the fate of their homeland, the Palestinian Arabs had no place in the developing frame of reference. (Kathleen Christison, “Perceptions of Palestine,“ Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001; 26)
Wilson’s now famous statement to Zionist Leader Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1916 seems to confirm Christison’s analysis: “To think that I, a son of the manse, should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.”
Wilson was very much a product of his southern heritage and his era happened to be one that was undergoing a resurgent racism as a reaction to the limited gains of Reconstruction. This period was known as the “Great Retreat,” or the “Nadir.” Historian James W. Loewen places Wilson in this context as the most racist president since Andrew Johnson. Loewen writes: “If blacks were doing the same tasks as whites, such as typing letters or sorting mail, they had to be fired or placed in separate rooms or behind screens. Wilson segregated the U.S. Navy, which had previously been de-segregated…His legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African-Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government stayed segregated into the 1950s and beyond.” (James W. Loewen, “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005; 41)
Loewen’s analysis of the “Nadir,” and the white reaction to Reconstruction points out that it was nation-wide, with several counties in states such as Illinois and Wisconsin returning to enforced systemic racism, including the humiliating “sundown towns,” where blacks were forced by local laws to vacate certain cities and towns by “sundown” or face imprisonment or brutal beatings. Wilson was clearly a product of the “Nadir” and racism may have played a significant role in his disregard for justice in the case of the “brown” Palestinian people, while favoring the white Zionists of Europe.
One final note should be mentioned regarding Wilson and Palestine. In 1919, pressure from Secretary of State Lessing and others in the State Department convinced Wilson to send a commission to investigate the opinions of people living in the former Ottoman territories. The King-Crane Commission included Charles Crane, a wealthy contributor to Wilson’s campaigns, and Henry King, the President of Oberlin College, both supporters of the Zionist cause. Also included were four clergymen.
The Commission visited Turkey and most of the Arab territories of the Levant, listening to the opinions of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders and their organizations. When the Commission submitted its report to the Wilson administration, it gave a devastating analysis of the Zionist project and the direction the British and French were embarking upon by implementing the Mandates and Balfour Declaration. In the course of their visits, King and Crane dropped their support for the Zionist program. The Commission itself stated that the Zionist program as it was being planned and implemented would be a “gross violation” of the principle of self-determination and of the Palestinian people’s rights, and should be modified. Under pressure from the British and the Zionists, the King-Crane report was essentially buried. If heeded, it might have averted the dispossession of the Palestinians and the violence that followed.
Harry S. Truman, U.S. President, 1945- 1953
On January 11, 1951, Harry S. Truman received the Woodrow Wilson Award, marking the 31st anniversary of the founding of the League of Nations. Truman had great admiration for Wilson, whom he called one of the five or six great presidents this country had produced.
Ironically, the celebration of the League of Nations took place at the White House, certainly a stretch of the political imagination, as Wilson had failed to secure Congressional support for the League while president. More ironically, the Wilson Foundation presented Truman with the award for his “courageous reaction to armed aggression on June 25, 1950,” when North Korea invaded South Korea. While that was a noble decision, one might wonder where Truman’s courage was in April, 1948, and thereafter, when Zionist militias committed a series of massacres and the newly established Israeli army and the Zionist militias drove 750-800,000 Palestinians into permanent exile.
Truman was similar to Wilson in another respect. He was a liberal Democrat and a politician influenced by Zionist pressure with a theological orientation that may have influenced his decision. Several analysts, including Truman biographers, argue that he was always sympathetic to the Zionist cause and was in fact a Christian Zionist. This is a false assumption and drawn from a narrow analysis of Truman’s political and religious development. Most of these analysts focus on Truman’s statements after he left office, including his “Memoirs,” which gave the impression he was consistently sympathetic to the Zionist cause. One familiar case occurred when he was honored by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953, and his old Jewish friend Eddie Jacobson introduced him as “the man who helped create Israel.” Truman stood up and retorted: “What do you mean ‘helped create?’ I am Cyrus!,” a reference to the Persian King who allowed the Jews to return to historic Palestine in 530 BCE.
Most scholars now see a far more complicated process behind Truman’s eventual embrace of Zionism. Christison and others note that Truman’s support of Zionism was more complex than in Wilson’s case. Like Wilson, Truman knew little about Palestine when he became president in 1945. From that moment he was lobbied heavily by the leaders of the Zionist movement, led by Rabbis Abba Silver and Stephen Wise. Prior to their efforts Truman had been deeply moved by the plight of the Jewish people during the Holocaust and the agony of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. His lifelong passion for the underdog may have underscored his sympathy for the Jewish people, but he did not initially give in to the rabbis when asked to support a Jewish state in Palestine. As he learned more about the situation, his thinking evolved in the direction of supporting a democracy for all the citizens of Palestine and opposing ethnic or religious states anywhere.
Once the United States supported the Partition Plan in the United Nations (November 29, 1947), chaos broke out and the violence gradually escalated across Palestine. In March, Truman questioned the wisdom of Partition and became more suspicious of the political pressure from the Zionists. His views on Palestine, however, were still fluid and gradually changed again, primarily due to pressures dictated by domestic politics, and increased U.S. dependence on Middle East oil.
In 1948, Truman found himself in a difficult presidential campaign against Thomas Dewey, governor of New York. Staff in his administration suggested he consider supporting the Zionist project, including Clark Clifford, a fellow Missourian and ardent Zionist. Two other Zionists were important in this regard, Clifford’s assistant Max Leventhal and David Niles. These three committed Zionists probably were decisive in moving Truman toward the Zionist camp. Truman then agreed that the United States would be the first country to recognize Israel, which he announced shortly after midnight on May 15, 1948, eleven seconds after Israel officially became a nation.
Another factor in Truman’s embrace of Zionism and Jewish exceptionalism was his personal style of fighting for the underdog. Truman came to resent the pressure he received from the State Department’s pro-Arab stance. Like Wilson before him, Truman’s State Department was opposed to Zionism and they were not shy about letting him know their views. Head of the Near East Bureau, Loy Henderson, informed Secretary of State George Marshall that the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish States was unworkable, “a view held by nearly every member of the Foreign Service or of the department who has worked to any appreciable extent on Near Eastern problems.” Henderson went on to add five substantive political points that spelled out why this was the case. When this advice was brought to Truman he resented the pressure from “the boys in pin striped pants,” as he called the State Department. At that point Truman decided to make up his own mind and the result was U.S. recognition of Israel.
Christison supports this view with a comment from a former desk officer in the State Department during Truman’s presidency, who asked to remain anonymous: “Truman was motivated at first by humanitarian concerns for Jewish refugees in Europe after World War II but domestic political considerations had a much greater impact on him.” (Christison, Ibid. 62). Truman’s journey was complicated but in the end Palestinians were sacrificed for domestic political considerations.
Two Liberal Christian Zionist Theologians
Today we hear from such pro-Zionist Christian evangelicals as Pat Robinson, and John Hagee. But before them there were pro-Zionist mainstream Protestant intellectuals such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Krister Stendahl.
The influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was at the height of his career during the Truman administration but his legacy continues to influence today’s theological academy, clergy, and a variety of political leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. cited Niebuhr’s influence on numerous occasions, including his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Former President Jimmy Carter acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence as has President Barack Obama, who called Niebuhr “my favorite philosopher” and a lasting influence on my thinking.
When asked by journalist David Brooks of The New York Times about his “take-away” from Niebuhr, Obama responded: “The compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
Niebuhr continues to be heralded as one of the most influential liberal Protestant theologians of the twentieth and now the early twenty-first centuries. He was a prolific author, seminary professor, and crusader for justice. He was also a passionate supporter of the Zionist cause and worked closely with mainline Protestant and Jewish Zionist organizations for a U.S. decision to support the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine.
With Nazi Germany occupying more European countries and news of the genocide against Jews (and others) reaching the west, Niebuhr grew increasingly impatient with those who cautioned against U.S. military involvement. In 1941, he left the respected liberal Christian journal, The Christian Century, and launched Christianity and Crisis. The first issue appeared on February 10, 1941, in which Niebuhr wrote the following: “I think it is dangerous to allow Christian religious sensitivity about the imperfections of our own society to obscure the fact that Nazi tyranny intends to annihilate the Jewish race.”
Niebuhr had embraced Zionism well before this 1941 statement. His still developing theology of Christian realism and his political ethics were part of the theological motivations for his wholehearted embrace of Zionism. As news of the Holocaust reached the United States and Nazi war crimes became clear, Niebuhr affirmed the Zionist movement’s adoption of the “Biltmore Platform” in 1942, which was to pursue nothing less than a Jewish state in Palestine as the only hope to save world Jewry. Also emerging from the Biltmore meetings was an aggressive lobbying campaign across the United States that included the establishment of two Christian organizations to work closely with the Zionist leadership: the American Palestine Committee and the Christian Council on Palestine. Both organizations received financial support from the Zionist movement.
Niebuhr was active with the Christian Council on Palestine. In 1946, the United States and England decided to appoint the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into Palestine to investigate the issues. When hearings were held in the United States, the Commission heard from Christian and Jewish organizations. The Christian Council on Palestine had the opportunity to testify and selected the popular preacher and editor of the journal The Christian Herald, Rev. Daniel Poling, who stated: “it was God’s will, as revealed through biblical prophecy, for Palestine to belong to the Jews. And not only God,” he stressed, “but the Gallup poll supported this doctrine,” according to which three-fourths of informed Americans believed that there should be unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine.
When it was Niebuhr’s turn to testify, he provided a remarkably different Christian perspective. He emphasized the morally ambiguous dilemma of the Palestine question. He recognized that injustice would come to Arabs by allowing a flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine, but thought it less unjust than the universal rootlessness of the exploited Jews. Arabs had several territorial homelands, but Jews had none. For identity and security needs, Jews deserved at least one geographic center, and Palestine was the best option for these needs. Utilizing classic Zionist arguments, Niebuhr blended his “political realism” with religious and ethical exceptionalism to demonstrate the superiority of Zionist claims over any moral concern for the destiny of the Palestinians.
The ethical dilemma of Niebuhr’s position was compounded further after the Partition vote when a series of devastating events occurred. Before a single Arab army entered Palestine, Zionist militias initiated a series of massacres and eventually expelled nearly half of the 750–800,000 Palestinians who would be made refugees by the end of the fighting. Niebuhr was aware of the ethnic cleansing and chose to say absolutely nothing to oppose it. On one occasion he went so far as to support the concept of forced mass expulsion of Palestinians, often softening it by using the words “resettlement” or “transfer.” Shortly after these events he remarked: “Perhaps ex-President Hoover’s idea that there should be a large- scheme resettlement in Iraq for the Arabs (Palestinians) might be a way out.” As John Judis remarks in his book “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict,” “It was another example of how American liberals, in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency it lent to the Zionist case, simply abandoned their principles when it came to Palestine’s Arabs” (p. 214).
Another interesting case is Professor Krister Stendahl (1921-2008), a Swedish New Testament scholar and Harvard Divinity School professor. Having been influenced by Swedish missionaries who educated him on the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany, he became a strong supporter of Zionism and, like Niebuhr, he viewed the state of Israel as the answer to the Holocaust. But Stendahl went beyond Niebuhr by claiming that the Jews, as God’s primary “chosen” people, are intimately tied to this particular land, the land of Palestine, to which he gives a religious value.
Stendahl was a close friend of Rabbi David Hartman, founder and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Upon Stendahl’s retirement, Hartman offered him an annual appointment to teach at his Institute. During his many visits to Jerusalem, Stendahl met several Palestinian Christians, including Lutheran Pastor Rev. Mitri Raheb, Bishop Munib Younan, and Episcopal priest Rev. Naim Ateek, later Director of Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. These encounters had little or no impact on Stendahl’s embrace of the Zionist narrative.
On March 3, 2002, Stendahl was at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home when a fax arrived with an International Herald Tribune article describing a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem that had killed 11 Israelis and injured over 50. As he came to the end of the article, he saw that his friend Rabbi Hartman was quoted, saying, “What nation in the world would allow itself to be intimidated and terrified as this whole population [Israel] is, where you can’t send your kid out for a pizza at night without fear he’ll be blown up?” Then came Hartman’s solution: “Let’s really let them understand what the implication of their actions is,” he said of the Palestinians. “Very simply, wipe them out. Level them.”
Stendahl was stunned by his friend’s words and immediately faxed him a handwritten letter: “Dear, dear David: How to answer?” He then pasted the text of the interview into his letter, with these anguished words: “If this is true, it puts much stress and pain on one of the most precious friendships I have been given. We will be in Sweden [phone number supplied] March 9-13. Then back in C-e [Cambridge]. Yours Krister.” (Paul Verduin, Praiseworthy Intentions, in Monica Burnett, “Zionism Through Christian Lenses,” Eugene, OR. Wipf and Stock, 2013; 159-160)
Hartman, it appears, never replied and Stendahl went to his grave without an answer.
I have singled out these two liberal pro-Zionist Protestant theologians who influenced several generations of clergy, theologians, and other leaders shaping U.S. policy on behalf of Israel. Others could be cited, including Paul van Buren, Clark Williamson, Karl and Marcus Barth, John Bright, W. F. Albright, and many scholars in the Albright School of Archaeology. Regrettably, the Christian Century should also be included, as its coverage of Israel-Palestine has been oriented toward the Zionist narratives since 2004.
Barack Obama, U.S. President, 2008 to Present
When the first African-American president began his initial term in 2008, he decided to bring more balance to U.S. policy in the Arab and Islamic world. Obama and his staff recognized that previous presidents had favored Israel to such a degree that the U.S. was losing influence in a vital area, resulting in growing Islamophobia at home and the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Africa. It was time for a U.S. president to send a different signal to these parts of the world.
Like Wilson and Truman, Obama was influenced by progressive political and theological traditions. His early career as a community organizer in Chicago sensitized him to the needs of the poor, as did his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, the influential black theologian, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Despite feeling a need during his campaign to distance himself from Reverend Wright, the pastor’s liberation theology and scholarly work on Islam had an impact on the future president.
The critical event for Obama’s new signal to the Arab and Muslim world came with his June 4, 2009, speech at Cairo University, titled “On a New Beginning.” Obama was in his finest rhetorical form as he projected a tone of rapprochement: “I’ve come to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Later he turned to what the Middle East had been waiting for: new policies on Israel and Palestine. After acknowledging the historic suffering of the Jewish people and the Holocaust, Obama addressed the historic injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people, and concluded: “So let there be no doubt. The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own…The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
For a moment, perhaps a month, there was cautious hope that there might be a “new beginning,” but the Arab world had been hopeful before, only to see their hopes dashed. Obama seemed to be sincere, and his staff and advisors in the State Department were supportive of the new direction. But it was not to last. Obama’s commitment to force Israel to end the settlements and negotiate an end of its occupation of Palestine and support Palestinian statehood did not sit well with the more extreme policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who returned to office with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
A bruising and intense power struggle ensued between the Obama administration, the pro-Israel lobby and Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government. Netanyahu laid down the gauntlet shortly after Obama’s Cairo address in a speech at Bar Ilan University, where he invoked Israeli security needs and Israel’s right to all of the land as a biblical mandate. He added: “Our right to build our sovereign state here, in the land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people, where our identity was forged. This is the land of our forefathers.” He then added what would be a non-starter for Palestinians in future negotiations: Israel is “the nation state of the Jewish people.” Netanyahu knew the Palestinians would never accept an ethno-religious “Jewish state,” but placing this as a demand would allow Netanyahu to blame the Palestinians for not negotiating with him.
This hardline Israeli position, while not new, became the deal-breaker. Within a year Obama and his envoys George Mitchell, and then John Kerry saw the negotiations die. Settlements had expanded at a record pace virtually eliminating any hope of a realistic Palestinian state. Soon the “new beginning” was over and it was business as usual, status quo politics for Israel and an intensification of the occupation and suffering for the Palestinians.
Obama decided to abandon the Palestinian cause in his second term and focused more intensely on the issue of Iran’s nuclear development. Rob Malley, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, wrote in a November 5, 2015 Washington Post editorial that for the first time in two decades, an American administration faces the reality that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not in the cards for the remainder of a presidency.
Ten days after the editorial, Netanyahu met Obama in the White House and requested a new ten-year agreement on U.S. and Israeli military “cooperation.” This “cooperation” will cost U.S. taxpayers $50 billion. The agreement is likely to pass the pro-Israel Congress with minimal opposition. With this arrangement in place, Israel will have no motivation to change its current policies in Palestine. Palestinians will continue to lose their land to Israeli colonization; the brutal occupation will intensify; human rights abuses and violence will accelerate. There seems to be no hope at this time for a negotiated agreement and clearly the “two state solution” is totally moribund.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
When Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed for protesting the racial discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama, his colleagues smuggled into his jail cell an “Open Letter” from leading Christian and Jewish clergy published in a local newspaper. King read how they characterized him and his movement as “outside agitators” whose methods were “unwise and untimely.” As King sat in the jail that Easter weekend of April 16, 1963, he wrote a remarkable 7,000 word article that has been honored through the decades as one of the finest statements on racial justice.
In the “Letter”, King offers a passionate defense for his strategy of non-violent direct action and the urgency of the civil rights cause. These often quoted phrases summarize why he came to Birmingham: “ I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Noting that he was invited to Birmingham by its civil rights community, he reminds them that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Next his focus was on the white moderate religious leaders: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.”
And so it is today with the struggle for justice in the Holy Land. One expects the religious right in the Jewish and Christian communities to support Israel’s extreme policies, but more troublesome is the neglect of justice by the so-called progressives, as we have seen in Presidents Wilson, Truman, and Obama and in the theologians Niebuhr and Stendahl.
Jewish theologians Marc Ellis and Mark Braverman have coined the phrases “the ecumenical deal” (Ellis) and “the fatal embrace” (Braverman) to summarize this moral malaise among the moderates. They point to the impact of the “Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue,” which silences the call for justice among churches and synagogues and among church denominations, theologians, and politicians.
As we move toward the conclusion of this essay, we will consider five challenges or opportunities to change the discourse and begin to embrace justice rather than settle for the “ecumenical deal.”
Liberating the Mind and Heart
A passage from the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew/Christian Bible (Old Testament) is a helpful place to begin: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 28:18). The ongoing violence between Israel and the Palestinians will not be resolved by pursuing the policies that have failed for a century. Israeli Jews are less secure today under the Netanyahu administration than they were fifty years ago. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are not leaving and Israel is steadily losing international support, according to BBC-World Service opinion polls. Israel’s occupation may last years, even decades, but it will end.
The Palestinians have been demanding their freedom for well over 100 years, sometimes through violent means but more often through nonviolent direct action and diplomacy. As noted above, the political “deck of cards” has been consistently stacked against them and, for the immediate future, this will continue to be the case. Israel’s power is concentrated at the upper levels of the U.S. political system, primarily with the so-called “white moderates” maintaining the present status quo. Where Israel is vulnerable in the United States and globally is at the grass roots, where change is underway on the Palestine question at a faster rate than Israel can respond.
Having just returned from an intensive Friends of Sabeel–North America and Kairos USA witness trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, one of the most important themes I saw during approximately 30 meetings in 9 days was the need to “liberate our minds” from the Israeli occupation and Zionism. Israel’s all-pervasive military occupation with its Apartheid Wall, systems of military checkpoints, night-raids on homes, relentless land confiscation and colonization can dominate how one thinks and acts. Despite what may be the most brutal military occupation in recent history, Palestinians are struggling to keep their hearts, minds, and spirits liberated from such a depressing and humiliating reality.
We heard such spokespersons as Nabil al-Raee, the artistic director of the “Freedom Theater” in Jenin’s refugee camp, tell us: “Our number one job is to liberate the minds of the next generation.” In the West Bank village Nabi Saleh, organizer Bassem Tamimi delivered the same message, as did Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour, Director of the Al-Rowwad Center in Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp, as did Bethehem University Professor and community activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, as did Hebron’s Youth Against the Settements and Daoud Nassar of Tent of Nations; they all delivered the same message: “We must liberate our minds from the occupation.”
On Friday January 22nd, I witnessed women and children move to the front lines in the Nabi Saleh weekly demonstration to challenge the powerful Israeli Defense Forces with a nonviolent demonstration; here I watched them meet a barrage of teargas which, in its concentrated form, may constitute chemical warfare against unarmed civilians. The Palestinian women were joined by Israeli activists who, together, sang to the soldiers, and for a few moments the teargas and live ammunition stopped. This was “liberation of the mind” by women and children facing military might without fear.
A critical reflection on key biblical concepts
If you look back on the early history of the United States and its conquest of the western frontier and destruction of the indigenous native American Indian population, you will encounter the terms “manifest destiny” and “settler colonialism.” Settler colonialism is the political shorthand for the permanent occupation and displacement of native populations, whether in the United States and Canada, Israel, or Australia and South Africa. Manifest destiny is a concept still invoked not only by Israeli politicians, but also by Donald Trump and surprisingly Hilary Clinton in 2016.
At the heart of the concept is the familiar biblical narrative of the Hebrew tribes’ “Exodus” from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The book of Joshua and the repetition of the conquest narrative throughout the Hebrew scriptures provides a meta-narrative that has been translated into religious and political justification for conquest movements and ethnic cleansing operations from ancient Canaan to the Crusades, North and South America, and now Palestine. Imbedded within “manifest destiny” is the theological concept of chosenness or exclusivism.
Let me be clear that the critique here is not against the Jewish religion or the Jewish people, but of the misuse of the biblical texts by Zionist ideology and its proponents. One example is how Christian hymns and spirituals in the mainline Protestant and Black churches embrace the Exodus and conquest motif with little or no critical analysis of the texts, particularly the genocide of the Canaanite population that follows in the book of Joshua. This uncritical adoption of these motifs has provided Zionism and the state of Israel with a degree of immunity thanks to unconditional support from western pulpits to the halls of Congress. It should not be surprising when we find white, liberal moderates supporting Israel’s colonization of Palestine with these same arguments. Due to space limitations I will examine only three of the numerous theological topics that need critical reflection by clergy and theologians.
Topic I: The Concept of “Exceptionalism” or Chosen People
“ Kairos-Palestine: A Moment of Truth” is a theological appeal by Palestinian Christians in December, 2009, asking the global church to respond to their suffering under the Israeli occupation. It presents the following critique of theological exceptionalism as no less than sinful: “We declare that any use of the Bible to legitimize or support political options and positions that are based on injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, transform religion into human ideology and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality, and truth.” (http://www.kairospalestine.ps/content/kairos-document)
In essence, an uncritical embrace of “chosen people” as having the right to annihilate another people and seize their land, as is the case with many aspects of Christian and Jewish Zionism, is “an illegitimate use of the Bible.” To put it more succinctly, this is a false theology and a form of idolatry, as it elevates a select people above God and God’s law, even the Torah. It constitutes a sin against God and humanity.
Topic II: Ancient Israel and the Modern Zionist State of Israel
The failure of many liberal theologians, church leaders, and Jewish leaders to distinguish between the modern political state of Israel and Israel in the bible is a serious theological problem. With Israeli political leaders and their spokespersons in the pro-Israel lobby making increased use of religious claims, including the supposed continuity between Israel of the bible and the modern Zionist state, the challenge before us is an explicit decoupling of ancient Israel from the modern political state.
One of the preeminent biblical scholars of our time, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, has recently recognized the urgent nature of this problem and has become passionate about the need for a different theological analysis. He writes in his recent volume “Chosen?”: “Current Israeli leaders (seconded by the settlers) easily and readily appeal to the land tradition as though it were a justification for contemporary political ends. Nothing could be further from reality. Any and every appeal to ancient tradition must allow for immense interpretive slippage between ancient claim and contemporary appeal. To try to deny or collapse that space is illusionary.” The major schools of biblical scholarship and such journals as The Christian Century have yet to come to terms with this issue and as such, they continue to perpetuate the false claims that Professor Brueggemann is challenging.
Topic III:Justice and the “White Moderates”
The “white moderate” leadership in Birmingham’s churches and synagogues failed to grasp the demands of justice that Martin Luther King and his colleagues were pursuing in the 1960s, as did Presidents Wilson, Truman, and Obama along with theologians Niebuhr and Stendahl. The same challenge is placed at the doorstep of the white political and religious moderates today. The central theological and political issue is justice, and injustice is the great sin that continues in the so-called Holy Land and in the racially divided United States. Again, the ”Kairos-Palestine” document clearly states: “We also declare that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God. It distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier just as it distorts this image in the Palestinian living under occupation. We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.”
The clear message of Jesus, the Hebrew Prophets, Muhammad, and the succession of our faith traditions is justice for the poor and the oppressed as the test of the nation’s or religion’s faithfulness to its creator. When asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus responded with what is the core of the Abrahamic religions: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Brant Rosen of Jewish Voice for Peace calls us to seek “a new interfaith covenant” that will be based on equality, justice, and move us beyond all forms of tribalism and exclusivity. It will not be based on controlling interfaith dialogue as in the old “ecumenical deal,” but “finds common cause on issues of human rights in a land that holds deep religious significance” for Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions.
Topic IV: Embracing Our Interconnectedness
According to Human Rights Watch, during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, more than 2,100 Palestinians were left dead, of whom over 1,500 were civilians, including over 538 children. Another conflict was raging over 6,000 miles away in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. While a vigorous debate has ensued over the similarities and differences between the two struggles, one unmistakable reality is not debatable: young African-Americans in Ferguson began communicating with young Palestinians in Gaza, offering each other encouragement and advice.
After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, protests erupted between mostly black protesters and the police. Within days, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were in touch with the Ferguson protesters via Facebook and Twitter. On August 14, Miriam Barghouti, a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, tweeted some advice: “Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when teargassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!” One minute later she followed up with: “Always make sure to run against the wind /to keep calm when teargassed, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes! #Ferguson Solidarity.”
Ferguson protestor #Ferguson, Joe wrote: “Thank you, man.” Anastasia Churkina, also from Ferguson sent a photo of a teargas canister with this tweet: “Central street in #Ferguson now scattered with tear gas canisters after riot police clash with protesters yet again.” Rajai Abukhalil responded from Jerusalem adding: “Dear #Ferguson. The Tear Gas used against you was probably tested on us first by Israel. No worries, Stay Strong. Love. #Palestine.” And so it was: most of the teargas used on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is manufactured in the United States, just as the teargas used in Ferguson is. Thousands of Facebook and Twitter exchanges went on for days, linking these two struggles for justice so distant yet not so terribly different from each other.
The above exchange is a clear case of “intersectionality,” the new buzz-word among community organizers. It was present in Dr. King’s mind when he wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963,: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Anna Baltzer, National Organizer for the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, recalled how Palestinian and Jewish activists in St. Louis began attending organizing meetings with activists from Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders for nearly six months before they raised the issue of Palestine. The trust built over time paid off with solidarity efforts going in both directions. In January, 2015, a group of Black street organizers, activists, musicians and journalists traveled to Palestine to see the situation first hand and engage in discussions with Palestinian and Israeli activists. Journalist Mark Lamont Hill commented: “We came here to Palestine to stand in love and revolutionary struggle with our brothers and sisters. . . we stand next to people who continue to courageously struggle and resist the occupation, people who continue to dream and fight for freedom. From Ferguson to Palestine the struggle for freedom continues.”
Now the difficult challenge will be to unite these struggles until justice comes to Palestine and black America. It will be important to forge these relationships at deeper and more profound levels as time goes on. Opportunities are surfacing every week, such as the Chicago protests against police brutality and unwarranted assassinations by police. One significant issue in the “intersectionality” between Chicago and Palestine lies in the fact that many Chicago police have been trained by Israel and use Israeli “counter-terrorism” methods, employing the same brutal military combat methods the Israeli Defense Forces use on Palestinians. Other major urban areas from Boston and New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco use Israeli trainers as well. Here is an immediate opportunity for long-term organizing and solidarity in the streets, in churches, synagogues, and in the peace and justice movement.
Topic V: The Equalizer: BDS
The power imbalance in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle set the tone for Palestinian losses since the Zionist-British alliance granted Zionism its first international legitimacy. Today Israel has the full diplomatic, economic, and political support of the United States, which has helped build it into the only nuclear power in the Middle East with the strongest army, navy, and air force in the region. Since the late 1960s the United States has assured Israel that it will ensure its capacity to defeat any and all combinations of Middle East armies.
With this power imbalance in mind, the impact of the global BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is utterly remarkable. When several visionary Palestinians established the Boycott National Committee in June, 2005, with 170 Palestinian civic organizations endorsing the original “BDS Call,” they had no idea it would grow at the present rate. Today it is the largest coalition of organizations in Palestinian civil society, representing nearly 200 organizations inside historic Palestine and in exile. With BDS movements emerging on university campuses across Europe, in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and in North and South America, today it is a global phenomenon.
After years of dismissing BDS as a “minor irritant”, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Cabinet now recognize BDS as equal to Iran, an “existential threat” to Israel’s existence. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott National Committee and spokesperson, commented on Israel’s failure to stop BDS: “Despair is not always easy to detect, let alone smell. But recent Israeli efforts to fight BDS smell of deep despair, which is giving rise to hopeless aggression, even worse bullying and patently irrational measures that can only help BDS to grow in the coming few years. Particularly noteworthy are reports on the Knesset’s anti-BDS caucus meeting, which convey the universal sense in Israel of failure to stem the BDS movement’s growth and the admission that the impact of BDS may be growing beyond control.”
Barghouti adds that, as Israel becomes more desperate and imposes more repressive strategies in Europe and North America, it will be perceived as undermining the basic democratic principles that the west holds dear. The next phase of Israel’s opposition to BDS will be severe, including attempts to pass legislation at the state and national levels in the United States to criminalize the movement. But Barghouti writes: “The only problem for Israel in this approach is that, in order for its attempt to legally delegitimize a nonviolent, human rights movement like BDS to succeed, it and its Zionist lobby networks need to create a new McCarthyism that defies human rights, undermines civil rights, and tries to undo decades of mainstream liberal support for boycotts as protected speech, especially in the US, where it matters the most.”
As BDS has grown in the United States, it has seen remarkable popularity on university campuses. It has also had steady growth in academic associations, and is slowly emerging in the mainline Protestant churches and some labor unions. The Presbyterian Church USA was the first to adopt divestment at its June, 2014, General Assembly, followed by the United Church of Christ in June, 2015, and the United Methodist Board of Pensions in January, 2016. The United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations, will consider similar resolutions in May, 2016, as will other denominations.
Toward a Global Intifada
It may be fitting to conclude this essay with the challenge Bassem Tamimi of the Palestinian village Nabi Saleh put before our recent delegation in Palestine on January 22, 2016. As we sat in his living room with several Palestinian and Israeli activists after the Friday demonstration, Bassem cited the remarkable growth and power of the BDS movement and added: “What we need now is a global intifada.” He reflected on how he had been part of the violent Second Intifada, but now is passionately committed to a nonviolent struggle to end Israel’s occupation. He believes that the struggle Palestinians are carrying out inside Israel will grow, and nonviolent resistance is what Israel cannot control, particularly if it is global. “What we need now is for you in the international community to elevate your pressure through BDS and other grass roots campaigns, while we do the same on the inside.”
As I witnessed courageous farmers, villagers, Palestinians in refugee camps, students and others, I observed a remarkable resilience and commitment to popular resistance (mostly nonviolent, perhaps with the exception of youths throwing stones). Yes, it is still too early to call this a global intifada, but the present task now is to “grow” the vanguard of the global movement, BDS, into a well organized series of campaigns in churches, on university campuses, among young Jews and Muslims, to gradually empower a grassroots movement for political and religious change that cannot be ignored by the gate-keepers in Congress, the church hierarchy who resist BDS, and the business community.
While there are many signs of change in all of these venues, the next phase will be difficult as Zionist control mechanisms have considerable power at the upper levels of political and economic institutions. But they are extremely vulnerable at the grassroots levels.
This is precisely where we must intensify our efforts.
Don Wagner may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.