Monday, December 22, 2008

Neibuhr is Right

In 1832, Reinhold Neibuhr wrote:

“Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation… Mr. Gandhi never tires of making a distinction between individual Englishmen and the system of imperialism which they maintained.”[1]

My parents were good people, kind and generous. Had anyone accused them of being evil, they would have objected and screamed “unfair.” Those who knew them best, including me, would have defended them as being good people. But they participated in, supported and benefited from an evil system. It was called segregation. Now what does that have to do with anything?

I detest Zionism and will declare in every way I know how that it is an evil system. But let me be clear. Neibuhr is right. We cannot blame nor assume that individual Jews support brutality, even though many are caught up in an evil system. Jews are good people. In fact, when I started ministry in Mississippi during the height of the Civil Rights movement, the most outspoken defenders of black people in my county were Jews as were two of the three Civil Rights worker murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I repeat, Jews are good people and we cloud the issue if we think or act otherwise.

My friend Marc Ellis, conservative Jewish scholar, walked out on the porch with me at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference Center in New Mexico, after giving a lecture on the Israeli/Palestinian situation. His eyes filled with tears. I felt a little insensitive invading his thoughts but I asked him what in particular had brought such emotion. He responded, “Judaism, my faith, the faith that I love, is right now at the same point you Christians were in the fourth century. You had to choose between the integrity of your faith and the power of Constantine. Jews today are being forced to choose between the integrity of our faith and the power of the State of Israel. You made the wrong choice and you have never recovered. It looks like we are making the same mistake.”

Michael Lerner, editor of the very popular Jewish magazine Tikkun, wrote during the first intifada, “Israel’s attempt to regain control by denying food to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, by raiding homes and dragging out their occupants in the middle of the night to stand for hours in the cold, by savagely beating a civilian population and breaking its bones — these activities are deplorable in any civilized human being.” He goes on to plead, “Stop the beatings, stop the breaking of bones, the late night raids on people’s homes, stop using food as a weapon of war, stop pretending that you can respond to an entire people’s agony with guns and blows and power. Publicly acknowledge that the Palestinians have the same right to national self-determination that we Jews have...”[2]

Alexander Schinder, President of America Hebrew Congregations back in 1988 sent a telegram to the president of Israel saying, “The indiscriminate beatings of Arabs, enunciated and implemented as Israel’s new policy to quell the riots in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, is an offence to the Jewish spirit. It violates every principal of human decence, and it betrays the Zionist dream”[3]

This year, Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for Atlantic magazine, writing of the softening of Ehud Olmert explains that his shift to the left did not occur in a vacuum. “His wife, Aliza, has been a sympathizer of Peace Now, and his children have been left-wing activists. One daughter, Diana, is a prominent gay-rights advocate in Tel Aviv, and has associated herself with groups opposed to her father’s politics. During the 2006 Israeli incursions into Gaza, she took part in a demonstration that denounced the army chief of staff as a “child-killer.” One of Olmert’s sons has refused to serve his army-reserve duty in the occupied territories, and another son managed to avoid the draft altogether. Olmert’s family is not entirely unusual…”[4]

These Jewish leaders and hundreds of thousands more like them, are doing every thing they can to challenge Israel’s occupation policies and brutal treatment of the Palestinians. They deserve our respect and need our support.

At the same time, I must say that suicide bombers and Kassam rockets do not help. There is no way that terrorism is going to bring down the Israeli defense forces. The most that such bombings can do is to cause the average Israeli to feel insecure. There are many, many Israelis willing to reach across the border with a hand of peace, but they, like any one else, can only do so when feeling secure. Palestinian terror does not help.

But neither does state terrorism, such as firing a 500 pound bomb from an F-16 into an apartment building in the middle of the night, killing 15 Palestinians, mostly children.

We cannot cease to be a compassionate voice for the victims of Zionism even when running the risk of offending some Jewish friends who may not know or do not care what is happening every day in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Nor can we delay investing the energy required to be informed. This issue is far too serious for silence and our own sense of justice requires that we challenge an evil system.

Thomas Are
December 22, 2008
[1] Reinhold Neibuhr, Moral man and Immoral Society. (Continuum Press, New York, 1932) p.163.
[2].Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marc Ellis, Beyond Occupation, (Beacon Press, Boston., 1990) p. 99-100.
[3].Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marc Ellis, Beyond Occupation, (Beacon Press, Boston., 1990) p. 17.
[4] Jeffrey Goldberg, Unforgiven, (The Atlantic, May 2008,) p.51

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