I have not yet gone to Israel/Palestine, but the conflict in that land and how it affects both the Jewish and the liberal Protestant communities intersect in my life in a particular way. My paternal great-grandfather was the founder of the American Zionist movement and one of the century's most famous Jews, Louis D. Brandeis. My other paternal great-grandfather was one of the famous progressive Protestants of the last century, Walter Rauschenbusch.
I grew up with the presence of both of these men and their socially progressive agendas, which have been carried out in subsequent generations within my family. My own vocation as an American Baptist minister, as well as my attending Union Theological Seminary, has been formed by Brandeis as much as Rauschenbusch.
So I was greatly surprised when I started to hear Israel vilified in progressive circles. At least in my "Brandeisian" (I didn't make that up) eyes, Israel was a land founded on cooperative and socialist principles (there is a kibbutz named after Brandeis), based on a working democracy, women's rights, even gay rights. To my knowledge, these principles are less firmly embraced by Israel's immediate Arab neighbors in the Middle East.
In the last 50 years or so, progressive Americans have largely empathized with the Jewish struggle for equality and rights in the United States, and the progressive social movement involved Jewish leaders as well as non-Jewish. Progressive Christians and progressive Jews have made gains in interfaith dialogue on a local level, in striking contrast to conservative Christians, who remain determined to convert Jews. For Jews, it is hard to understand how progressives, and specifically progressive Christians, take such a clearly anti-Jewish and pro-Arab approach, while conservative Christians are largely pro-Israel.
When I read the Ecumenical Delegation's initial document, and the response to Elliot Abram's critique, I found it striking how little the delegation, and the well-meaning church leaders who have signed these documents and letters, seems to care about how Jewish people will react to the irony of Christians preaching to them about oppression. Christian participation in the Holocaust is too fresh for Christian documents about justice to be offered with no reassurance of basic support for Jewish causes--support that this document leaves ominously unstated.
For example, the delegation condemns the "new apartheid" of Israel. The Israeli/Palestinian situation has a different history than the South African apartheid that this comment evokes. To start with, Jews are endemic to the Middle East, while the Dutch had no historical presence in Africa. By provocatively framing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a form of apartheid, the delegation seems to imply that the next step is a boycott of Israel, and ultimately the destruction of Israel. Given the tone of the declaration, it would have been appropriate for this group to declare whether it still supports the right of Israel to exist, as that is left unclear to the Jewish reader.
While I disapprove of the way the declaration was drafted and the insensitivities it exhibited, I basically agree with its recommendations. The abuses of power by the Israeli army against the Palestinian people are real. The disparity of power and the list of casualties are documented. The Israel envisioned by my great-grandfather was one in which Jews and Arabs shared equally and co-existed peacefully. Israel has fallen short of this dream. Progressive Jews, Christians, and Arabs are continuing to talk together and will, I pray, not be deterred by insensitive rhetoric from any side.
I hope to visit Israel/Palestine this summer. I know I will experience a full range of emotions in visiting the kibbutz named after my grandfather, seeing the holy Christian sites, and learning from Palestinian, Christian, and Jewish voices about life in that place in this time. I refuse to despair of my hope for Israel and Palestine co-existing. Christians, Jews, and Arabs must labor on, with a deeper understanding of and respect for each other's opinions.