Repairing the breach: Zionism is not the problem, despite what a Presbyterian study guide says

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A torrent of controversy has surrounded the recent publication of a curriculum on Israel and the Palestinians entitled “Zionism Unsettled” by the “Israel/​Palestine Mission Network,” a study group appointed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Some Presbyterians believe it presents a fair claim and opens a new path to justice for Palestinians. Others are alarmed at the prospect of burning bridges with the Jewish community that have taken decades to build and are anchored in our shared ancient faith traditions.

Some Jews believe that this is simply another chapter in a long history of anti-Semitic publications from the far left. Many other Jews long to reach a just two-state solution to the conflict, respecting both the rights and needs of both parties.

Israelis and Palestinians alike have suffered violence. Palestinians have been hurt and killed in confrontations with Israeli soldiers. Life under occupation is very difficult. Israeli civilians have been hurt and killed by Palestinian terror attacks. Yet a majority on both sides, according to most polls, want a just resolution of claims and a peaceful end to the conflict.

We believe this study guide heightens strife more than it promotes peace. It one-sidedly blames the Jewish state in particular and Zionism in general for the conflict. Claiming to balance the current dialogue, it threatens to upend it.

We would hope that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has long sought a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict, would seek to promote light instead of heat, hope instead of despair. This study does neither.

Rabbi Gibson writes here out of a deep belief in the need for two states for two peoples, a belief held since 1982. Simply put, this entails: Israel for the Israelis and Palestine for the Palestinians. National borders and rights to be negotiated by the parties with the help of mediators. Past injustices to be reckoned on both sides, with payments to compensate claims. Limitation and removal of some settlements in the West Bank. Access to water, electricity and roads to both sides as a matter of right.

Rev. Sorge writes here out of an ongoing commitment to Presbyterian positions on a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Presbyterians are deeply distressed over the adversities endured by the Palestinian community, which includes Christian churches with whom they have deep historic ties. Yet the PCUSA has always affirmed Israel’s right to exist and has long owned gratefully the faith heritage it shares with the Jewish community. It has decried attempts to achieve justice through force or terror from either side and has consistently advocated an equitable two-state solution as the best pathway to a just peace.

The study guide “Zionism Unsettled” questions the legitimacy of Zionism itself. Over the last 2,500 years, Jews never left the land of Israel of their own accord. They were forced out by successive conquering armies from Babylon, Greece and Rome. That is why Jews pray facing Jerusalem. That is why Jews pray three times a day for the welfare of Jerusalem. It never left the hearts or minds of the Jewish people.

Political and spiritual Zionism represent nothing less than the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The Holocaust was not the reason for the establishment of Israel, as “Zionism Unsettled” suggests, but rather the last straw. Jews could no longer depend on any government to guarantee their physical security.

And so, on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jewish Agency, led by David Ben-Gurion, accepted the offer, though with reservations. The Arabs rejected it. The day after Israel declared its independence, it was invaded by Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian armies determined that the Jewish state of Israel be stillborn.

Yet the study guide claims, “Zionism is the problem.”

No, the problem is that the legitimate aspirations of both sides are seen as a zero-sum game, as though a Palestinian win means the end of the Jewish state or an Israeli win will permanently suffocate Palestinian nationalism.

But we don’t live in an “either-or” world. Both of our faiths demand that we search, with every possible effort, for “both-and.” Both Palestine and Israel, secure and free. Both Israel and Palestine, nurturing their national visions. Both Palestinians and Israelis, conceding precious principles for the greater goal of the most peace for the most people.

“Zionism Unsettled” claims that Jewish identity has nothing inherently to do with the land at the heart of its biblical history, dismissing as misguided biblical literalism the notion that the Bible could constitute a foundation, map or compass for life today. By disconnecting the identity of the Jewish community from its historical and geographical roots, the study guide delegitimizes the way many Presbyterians, as well as Jews, understand their relationship to the Bible. Indeed, it is notable for how little it refers to the Bible even in passing. It makes no attempt to engage any biblical texts in depth.

Rev. Katherine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary and a Presbyterian minister, contends, “This document purports to be about love, but it actually expresses demonization, distortion and imbalance. Sadly, its sweeping allegations, blanket condemnations and troubling omissions are not likely to foster productive conversations, but rather to prevent them. It creates walls, not just between Presbyterians and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, but also within the Presbyterian body itself. The Presbyterian Church has in the past wisely recognized our prophetic role in repairing breaches, not exacerbating them.”

We both look to the Bible for daily guidance, teaching and hope, even concerning problems that seem intractable. When we hold fast to justice for ALL God’s people, Isaiah teaches, we will “… restore foundations laid long ago, and … be called ‘Repairers of the breach.’ ”

We seek to repair the breach through dialogue, understanding and advocating together for justice for all, Israelis and Palestinians, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. We hope many will join us in this work. We may disagree, but we will not demonize. Repairing this breach is our sacred task. We will not shrink from it.


Rev. Sheldon Sorge is general minister of Pittsburgh Presbytery and Rabbi James A. Gibson is senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

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