Last week I wrote an impassioned post about the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard) that this Church believes are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In this post, I addressed separate messages to Jews (let’s try to hear the Presbyterian action as a call for peace and an offer to help) and to Christians (divestment is a sure avenue for Jewish-Christian misunderstanding). I received mostly polite praise from my readers. Elsewhere, my effort to state my point of view did not go as well. I should know better. Israel is a difficult topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember my Aunt telling us about how her some of her Christian friends had visited Israel, and came back with glowing descriptions of their visit to the “Holy Land.” “You mean, you visited Israel,” my Aunt would reply testily. “Yes,” her Christian friends would gush, “the Holy Land!” The talk of “Holy Land” was like fingernails down a blackboard for my Aunt. “Why can’t they call it ‘Israel’?” she’d ask. Even today, when I hear someone use the expression “Holy Land,” I assume either that they are Christians, or that they’re Jews who think they’re talking to Christians, and I’m never sure that they’re talking about the same place I call “Israel.”
Israel is territory, both actual and figurative, that Jews and Christians share with each other (and with Islam), but we don’t see it in close to the same way. One reason for this is that there is something unique about the Jewish relationship to Israel. Judaism can be said to begin there: before there was an altar to G-d, or a promise to make Abram’s descendants as numerous as the stars, or a covenant, or a circumcision, or Torah from Sinai, there was the land. The relationship between Judaism and the land is multi-faceted and complex. Outside the land, we Jews live in galut, meaning “exile,” and Israel becomes something of an ideal, the direction we face when we pray, and the object of many of our prayers. Inside the land, it is more than an ideal. Israel is where we live – 43% of us, by best estimates, a larger percentage than in any other country in the world (the United States is a close second). If we look at percentages of overall population, it’s not even close: we are 74% of Israel’s population, and less than two percent of the population of any other country you can name. The percentage disparity remains the same even if we look at smaller areas outside of Israel that are thought to be Jewish enclaves. For example, there is a significantly higher percentage of Christians in the overall Egyptian population (15-20%) than Jews in the population of metropolitan New York City (9.6%).
There is simply no way that Israel can be as important to Christian participants in dialogue as it is to most Jews. This is where we are, and to a large extent, this is who we are. I hear some Christians say that they can be opposed to Israel without being opposed to Judaism, without being anti-Semitic, but for many Jews this can be true only in a limited technical sense. Of course it is possible to oppose Israeli policy without being anti-Semitic — after all, I oppose Israeli policy all the time, and so do many other Jews. But I find myself at times arguing against positions taken by Christians on Israel that are essentially the same as my own. This is not (just) because I’m naturally contrary. Israel is something like family, figuratively and literally (like many American Jews, I have family living in Israel). There are certain unflattering things you’re willing to say about your family within the family that sound objectionable when said by someone outside the family. And I think nearly all Jews see Christians (even those Christians who express the greatest love for Israel, even those who express unwavering support for hard-line Israeli policies that make me blanch) as people outside of this particular family.
It would be easier if support of or opposition to Israel was merely a question of Jewish pride. It is more than that. It is impossible for most Jews to separate Israel from the question of Jewish survival. The thousands-year old Jewish struggle to survive has left us feeling vulnerable; if we are safe now (the most famous of famous Jewish last words), we have spent too much historical time worrying about survival to give up this feeling any time soon. It would be one thing if the Palestinians had pursued self-determination with a Gandhi-like devotion to nonviolence and a Mandela-like devotion to reconciliation. They did not. Israel has agreed to grant political independence to a neighbor that has historically vowed to destroy us, and has worked to carry out that threat. I do not know of a historical precedent for this – except in those cases where the neighbor won its independence politically, or else convincingly renounced the threat. The fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza and has granted the Palestinian Authority limited autonomy in portions of the West Bank, deserves more positive comment than it has received.
But I’m drifting off-point.
Israel is difficult for Jews to discuss with Christians, because we have more at stake in this discussion than Christians do. Yes, there are a host of other reasons why the discussion is difficult: the long history of Jewish-Christian mistrust, the initial Christian opposition to Zionism, and a Jewish attitude of support for Israel “right or wrong” (an attitude I know well, as it can be directed with considerable vehemence against Jews who oppose Israeli policy) that has been adopted by many on the American Christian right wing. Also, the discussion would be difficult under any circumstances: the question of peace is tied to that of security, the question of self-determination tied to that of self-defense. Everyone has rights, and everyone has been wronged. No one can take anyone else’s word at face value. It is easy to conclude that because the discussion feels impossible, it should not happen. It is easy to conclude that because Israel is a Jewish State, its state should be left to the Jews. It is easy to conclude that good intentions don’t matter, that it’s impossible to strike the right note.
I think the right note is this: people of good will everywhere want peace, left-wing or right, Jew or Christian. If peace is difficult, all the more reason to work together at it. Of all the things Jews might say about peace, one thing is easy to say: help us find peace, and achieve it. We need not argue whether the help is necessary; we can simply ask for it. Then, the Christian response can be, what can we do? We can move from there.
No blame games. No unilateral action. No hand washing. No flag-waving. No recounting of the sins of the fathers. No games of ping-pong, with Bible verses used in place of the ball. Of course, the conversation won’t be easy, but it stands a chance if we repeat the mantra: peace … help. Peace … help. Yes, this may leave on the sidelines those Jews who want peace but aren’t willing to ask for help. Yes, this may leave on the sidelines those Christians who want peace and are determined to do whatever they are going to do (divestment, or something else), regardless of what the rest of us (Jews and Christians) think will be helpful.
I hate talking about Israel, because the required conversation is that easy to get started, and yet we cannot manage to get it started.