Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Israel and us

The Rev. Bruce M. Shipman was the Episcopal chaplain at Yale University until the board of the Episcopal Church at Yale asked him to resign. The board requested his resignation after a letter he wrote about to the Gaza situation was published in The New York Times

His letter was a response to an op-ed column by Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University that expressed concern about the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. Lipstadt is famous for winning a British libel trial, against Holocaust denier David Irving, that hinged on whether the Holocaust actually occurred.

Shipman’s letter was brief and, in some ways, unexceptional. It doesn’t take a mountain of research to see a connection between Israel’s actions against Gaza and increasing anti-Semitism, and he criticizes Lipstadt for discounting the role of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in it.

I disagreed with Shipman’s implication that the anti-Semitic response is justified. I disagreed even more than with last paragraph of his letter: 

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

This is also something one of us might write, but it’s objectionable when it comes from a Christian leader.

To a Jewish ear, it sounds as if Shipman is saying, “If you [Jews] don’t get Israel under control, we [Christians] will take it out on you.”

That brings to mind the comments that flew around when African Americans first ran for mayor in large cities. I remember people in Ohio saying that they supported Carl Stokes because “he’ll keep his people in line.” We still hear this comment when an African American is appointed chief of police in almost any city.

It’s just not the job of American Jews to keep Israel in line. To suggest that we should is itself anti-Semitic.

Shipman arguably holds a special brief for the Palestinians. He grew up in Cairo, where his father was a public-health engineer for the World Health Organization, and he has spent time in Israel and the West Bank. Thus, his sensibility is probably very much like that of Protestant missionaries who have worked among the Palestinians.

It seems difficult for liberal Christians in America to understand Zionism. Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing editor of the online magazine Tablet, conducted a long interview with Shipman. Oppenheimer suggests that Christians who hold generally favorable attitudes about Jews also expect us to be just like them:  

[and] what I sometimes think is, about the philo-Semitic liberal Protestant experience, is that they don’t understand the why the contemporary liberal Jew might be a Zionist. That in their mind the last good Zionist went out sometime around the late 1960s, was a socialist on a kibbutz somewhere, was totally secular, and that they don’t actually get the lived experience of being, say, a religious Jew in Brussels today.

About two years ago, a local church asked me to speak about Zionism. I began by reading the traditional prayer from the weekday services for rebuilding Jerusalem. For Jews who recited this prayer three times a day, six days a week, for almost two thousand years, Zionism is a religious imperative. 

There are few, if any, other religions that pray for return to a specific place. Catholics do not, in general, feel about Rome the way that we feel about Jerusalem. Irish Americans may hold a special feeling for Ireland, but it’s not primarily a religious one. The idea that sane people could feel a religious tie to another country is largely incomprehensible.

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