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Jewish Journal

The Presbyterian speech we needed to hear

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

June 22, 2014 | 12:00 pm

Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Even disgust.

Those are the emotions that have accompanied the recent resolution of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest from the three companies – Motorola, Caterpillar, and HP – that the church deems to be complicit in the occupation of the West Bank. With this close vote, PCUSA essentially, though perhaps unwittingly, threw its lot in with the global BDS movement, thus chipping away at its relationship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

Even more disturbing was the “soft” anti-Semitism that accompanied the discussions: the call of one pastor, Reverend Larry Grimm of Colorado, to the Jews of Israel to leave Israel and migrate to “the real promised land, America.” In the middle of a morning devotional, Virginia Sheets, vice moderator of the Middle East issues committee, suggested that Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as theological anti-Semitism…) (And, let the record note, that this was reported by a dismayed Presbyterian blogger).

And, of course, there is the specter of “Zionism Unsettled,” a study document on Israel and Palestine that is scandalous in its inaccuracies and blatant anti-Israel and anti-Zionist bigotry. Read this rejoinder by one of the greatest Presbyterian menschen I know, Chris Leighton, and be inspired.

I feel particularly wounded. For several summers, I was a “part-time Presbyterian” as I studied for my Doctor of Ministry degree at the flagship seminary of the Presbyterian church, Princeton Theological Seminary. I not only got my degree; I made some life long friends there, especially Tom Long, who advised me on my dissertation about bar and bat mitzvah.

That said, there was at least one speech at the PCUSA convention that I would have wanted to hear.

Here it is.

“Brothers and sisters in Christ: I stand before you today as a loyal member of this church. I note our Presbyterian love affair with the notion of “grace.” So, too, I venerate the Ten Commandments – especially “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

“And yet, our conversations about Israel and the hoped-for state of Palestine are lacking in grace, So, too, we have violated he words of Sinai; not to follow the multitude to do evil; not to spread gossip and calumny (which we, in our connection to “Zionism Unsettled” have done to the Jewish state); and yes, not to bear false witness. For, in fact, we stand guilty of bearing false witness against the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

“So, too, we are not walking in faith with our Jewish friends and partners across the world who, like us, are vexed over the situation in Israel and the future Palestine. Like us – even more than us – many of them long for a two state solution to what they call ha-matzav – the situation. They see a two state solution as the only way that Zionism itself might be redeemed, the only way that, in the words of Hatikvah, the national anthem of the Jewish people, they might be a free people in their land.

“And, as we should be, they are utterly lacking in any illusions about the security risks that are intendant upon such a two state solution. In that spirit, might we allot for ourselves a moment of humility and uplift, and offer a prayer for the safe return of the three boys who were recently kidnapped?

“In short, we have forgotten the Hasidic story – of the rabbi who asks his good friend, “Do you love me?” and the friend responds by saying: “Of course I love you.” To which the rabbi responds: “Do you know what gives me pain?” To which the friend replies: “How can I know what gives you pain?” To which the rabbi replies: “If you don’t know what gives me pain, how can you say that you love me?”

“We have born witness, to all that which gives the Palestinians pain: the frustration of statelessness; home demolitions; check points; the daily indignities of the occupation. I am not saying that we should back off from that.

“And yet, if we don’t know what gives our Jewish brothers and sisters pain, how can we say that we love them? Or do we only love them when we partner with them in building homes for the urban poor? When we work with them on GLBT rights and the right to marry? Or is our love exhausted by the pious, polite nod to each other on the eve of Thanksgiving, when so many of our communities gather together for shared worship?

“In short, we have been blind and deaf to this: that the State of Israel is the greatest Jewish project of modernity. That the State of Israel is the greatest flowering of the religious spirit in the past century.

"That the Shoah was the Good Friday of Jewish history, and the re-birth of the Jewish people in its land was, if you will, Easter.

“No, their Easter has not returned them to Eden. Far from it. How we wish that Israel did things better, more elegantly, in a more sainted manner! And we have excelled in telling them that.

“But: can we not say the same thing about the Palestinians? Or any nation, created of human hands? Or our own deeply flawed and ever striving nation, in whose history we as a church are bound up?

“More than this, my brothers and sisters: in putting forth this resolution, we are now faced with something far worse.

“David Duke has endorsed our proposal. David Duke!

“This, and this alone, should give us pause! How will we, on Monday morning, be able to turn to our Jewish friends, partners and neighbors, and look them in the eyes, and say: yes, our imagined moral purity on the question of Palestine forced us to at least temporarily join forces with one of America’s greatest bigots? How will we turn to our African-American friends and members and say: yes, we held common cause, for at least a few moments, with one of the most infamous leaders of the Ku Klux Klan?

"Is this what we would want of our church? Is this what the Nazarean would have wanted of his church? To walk the same path as David Duke?”

“I will end with a tale that I heard from Elie Wiesel. A righteous man came to Sodom and pleaded with the people to change their ways. No one listened. Finally, he sat in the middle of the city and simply screamed. Someone asked him, ‘Do you think that will change anyone?

“‘No,’ said the righteous man. ‘But at least, they will not change me.’”

“’For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent.’ For the sake of my love and friendship with the Jewish people, I will not be silent.”

But we did not hear that speech.

It is not too late.

We are waiting.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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