1 1 Prophecy or Wizardry? Blessing or Curse? A Response to the Vote of the United Church of Christ General Synod in Support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Against Israel Rabbi Ronne Friedman Temple Israel, Boston July 3, Tammuz 5775 On Tuesday of this week, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted overwhelmingly, 508 to 124 with 38 abstentions to divest from and to boycott companies in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories that are complicit in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The announcement of this vote on the UCC website spoke of the expansion of previous UCC sanctions to include any direct or substantive indirect holdings in companies profiting from or complicit in, human rights violations arising from the occupation. Before I continue, I want to share with you that I intend to send my words which will follow to representatives of the UCC Church, with the request that they circulate them to General Synod members and to members of their churches. This week s parasha [the weekly reading from the Torah scheduled to be read this week throughout the Jewish world], Balak, relates the story of Balaam, an Aramean, whose services are sought by Balak, the King of Moab, for the purpose of cursing the Israelites as they travel through his
2 2 territory. In the Bible, Balaam s bona fides are somewhat ambiguous. Is he a prophet, one who hears the word of God and acts accordingly, or a wizard, a mere soothsayer, a hired gun for sale to the highest bidder? The rabbinic literature also offers an inconsistent assessment of Balaam s character. Certain texts extol his prophetic gifts, but the majority of rabbinic opinion adds the epithet, HaRasha, ( the Wicked One, ) to his name. In Talmud Sanhedrin 106a, when one rabbi objects to the derogation of Balaam as a second-rate conjurer, insisting that he was a prophet, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai settles the argument by saying, Bat chalah Navi, u l vasof, koseim! At first he was a prophet, but then he became a mere wizard. At first glance, it may seem that the great sage, ben Zakkai, widely acknowledged as the leader who saved Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the 2 nd Temple at the hands of the Romans, was merely trying to appease those on either side of the argument, but a more thoughtful appraisal would recognize that ben Zakkai understood that one who displays moral vision at a certain moment or in a certain circumstance, can also become blinded by the light of his own presumed moral certainty. When that occurs, he is no longer a moral exemplar, but a koseim, a moral manipulator.
3 3 The Jewish historian and scholar, Raphael Jospe, once provided an analysis of the famous Letter to (the Jews of) Yemen written by Moses Maimonides. He identified in that letter, three types of Judeophobia, that is, fear of and antipathy towards the Jews and Judaism. He wrote that Maimonides characterized three different types of attempts to eliminate the Jewish people, contradict the Torah, and to abolish the Jewish religion: 1) Physical eradication. Enemies of the Jews, such as the Biblical Amalek, Sisera, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, and the Roman Titus and Hadrian, attempted to eradicate the Jewish people by force, conquest and the sword. 2) Ideological polemic. The ancient Syrians, Persians and Greeks attempted to undermine Judaism by proofs and polemics of their intelligentsia and scholars. 3) Religious supersession. Christianity and Islam have attempted to supplant Judaism by claiming a new prophetic revelation superseding the Torah. (i.e., Judaism). Jospe goes on to argue that although physical and religious threats persist into the 21 st century, that the primary threat to Jews and Judaism is ideological in nature.
4 4 His assessment of 20 th century history is that the ideological threat to Jews and Judaism was most often perceived as right-wing, fascist and xenophobic. But, Jospe continues, what we now witness in the Western world is a revival of the ideological threat from an unanticipated source-- the liberal or left-wing intelligentsia, in the name of universalism. In many respects, this liberal or leftist universalism is the most dangerous ideological threat today. Since it claims to speak in the name of progressive morality, it is intellectually seductive, and even Jews themselves are susceptible to it. The threat, therefore, sometimes comes from within, and not just from without. 1 I do not wish to suggest that criticism of the political behaviors of the State of Israel, of Israel s occupation of the West Bank or its difficult conflict with Hamas and thereby, the population of Gaza, necessarily marks the critic as Anti-Zionist or anti-jewish. I am not quick to accuse another of anti- Semitism (as it pertains specifically to Jews), but I do want to articulate what I believe to be the moral failures of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement directed against Israel in general terms and specifically in relation to the depressingly painful vote of the UCC General Synod: 1 Raphael Jospe, Midstream, May/June 2006
5 5 First and foremost, any entity that critiques and condemns the State of Israel in a singular fashion that it does not apply to any other state in the world, is in fact, both anti-zionist and anti-semitic. My question to the General Synod of the UCC would be, are there any other countries in the world against which you have enacted similar legislation? Have you called for sanctions against the Chinese in relation to Tibet, against Turkey for its aggression against the Kurds or its failure to acknowledge the truth of its genocide against the Armenians? Have you called for the boycott of Saudi oil and divestment from those American companies that profit from their relationship with a government and culture that is repressive and discriminatory in relation to women, gays and lesbians? Have you divested from India over the treatment of Muslims, Spain because of its activity against the Basques? I m certain that you have spoken of these and many other instances of oppression, repression, aggression and discrimination in other parts of the world, but have you enacted actual ecclesiastical BDS against any of these countries or others, or is Israel the only one? If the answer is, as I fear, that Israel has been treated differently than every other country in the world, then your critique is both anti-zionist and anti-semitic.
6 6 My next question is how is it possible to take an issue with incredibly complex moral, political, cultural, historical and religious dimensions, an issue that could most appropriately be described as a conflict of rights in which wrong may be ascribed to all parties, and reduce it to a black and white equation wherein there is only one perpetrator (Israel) and one victim (the Palestinians)? Let me ask, before I go further, how familiar are the members of the General Synod and the members of UCC Churches with the State of Israel and with Palestine? What percentage has spent time in Israel? In Gaza or the West Bank? For those who have traveled to Israel, have they engaged in an active way with Israelis, or have they simply been Pilgrims on a Journey to the Holy Land? Permit me to raise an uncomfortable issue with you. Your denomination has been identified, largely, as politically left of center. Certainly I have no problem with that, but I wonder very often whether the tilt of so many rightof-center Christian churches and Christians toward uncritical support of Israel is a sub-conscious motivating factor for your decision to engage in moral reductionism. To what degree is your most recent decision the product of internecine conflict within Christendom?
7 7 My next question to the General Synod would be with which Jewish groups did you consult? As a Reform rabbi, I am proud of the justice work that I have shared, that Reform Jews throughout North America have shared with ministers and members of UCC Churches. The Interfaith coalition that we have built around so many common causes would lead me and my fellow Reform rabbis and liberal Jews to have expected the courtesy of a head s up and an opportunity to directly address these issues with you. It didn t happen. At least, not to the knowledge of any Jewish representative with whom I ve spoken. The failure of the UCC General Synod as a nationwide body to have engaged with us is a painful, grievous injury. The fact that you also justify this failure by citing the support of Jewish Voices for Peace, a Jewish group that is neither representative of established mainstream Jewish communal organizations nor of the American Jewish population as a whole, adds insult to the injury. Do not be surprised to discover that your action feels, even to those of us who perceive ourselves as center and center-left within the American Jewish community, as a betrayal. Finally, permit me a personal reaction. I speak for myself, but I believe that these feelings belong to a very significant number of Jews, both clergy and laity. The tale is told of a Hasidic master who is surrounded by his disciples, each of them professing their love for him. The rabbi turns to
8 8 them and asks, Do you know what causes me pain? One by one, they acknowledge that they do not. The master turns back to them with a sad smile, and says, If you do not know what causes me pain, you cannot love me. Those members of the UCC General Synod who voted against the resolution, even those who abstained, must have a sense of what causes pain to individual Jews and the Jewish community. Those UCC Ministers and Churches with whom we share profound relationship, also seek to understand our pain. They all have some awareness of the weight of our history and of our aspirations. When they connect with us to build a better world as we share the obligation to seek peace and pursue it, we trust them as partners. We find common bond in the Scriptures that we share and seek to educate one another in our respective Christian and Rabbinic text traditions. We will not assume that this verdict is shared by all members of the UCC; we know that there are many within your midst who disagree with your decision. We hope that your people will raise serious questions about motive, objective and efficacy. We hope that the efforts of UCC as a body will, in the future, align more comfortably with those within the Jewish community, both here and in Israel, who are genuinely devoted to peace, justice and dignity for two peoples and for the three Abrahamic religions that claim a stake in the region.
9 9 We are grateful for yesterday s decision by the Episcopal Church of America s House of Bishops which overwhelmingly defeated a motion supporting divestment and for the actions of the Mennonite Church, USA, which voted yesterday to table a similar motion until Was Balaam navi, prophet or koseim, sorcerer? I do not know. Will the UCC General Synod offer a compelling and inclusive moral vision, or will it be blinded by the light of its own presumed moral certitude? I cannot answer that question either.