Jewish Liberation Theology

Ed Asner, 6/17/2005

The topic for this evening is "Personal Reflections on Being a Progressive Jew." I used to think that was a redundant term.

A month ago I was out-of-town and I got a phone call informing me that a neo-Nazi group had just painted a swastika and the words 'Kill Jews' on the front door of my home. I understand the group claiming responsibility said they would increase their violence if I continued to speak out for international communist and international zionist causes. The moment I heard of this neo-Nazism against me, I felt I might as well have been wearing a yellow star on my jacket as some of my relatives had done forty years earlier.

I have been lucky, overall, that I haven't felt that much anti-Semitism in my life- I was raised in Kansas City. There were a handful of Jews there. I remember one incident in high school when I wanted to join a certain club. My name was brought up for consideration and I was blackballed. I was devastated because I thought it was my personality. I asked a friend who was in the club, was it - hope, hope, hope - because I was Jewish? On being told 'yes' I was so relieved that my Hebrew God could take the blame. I was okay, it was my God that was wrong. But the stinger stayed in my skin and whenever I get a letter calling me names or whenever my house is spray-painted, it all wells up again.

There are fewer than 6 million Jews in the United States. But as a people, despite our minority status, we have made our presence known. As the chosen people we were given a certain destiny by God. As I think about what is expected of me, I think we should be looking back, examining what our marching orders were in the beginning and trying to adhere more closely to them.

A term I've heard a lot lately, mostly in reference to Central America, is 'liberation theology.' It is the theology of going back to the biblical teachings that the true God liberates, not enslaves. Liberation theology focuses on the first commandment that we should have no strange idols. Idols enslave, whether it is idolizing a nation or an organized religion. We should get back to the essence of knowing God, doing justice. And we should focus on the empowerment of people rather than reducing our beliefs to a formula. Liberation theology engages our spirituality in relation to our willingness to liberate people worldwide and in identifying a new privileged class: children, the sick, hungry, oppressed, the starving and the imprisoned. The meat of this convention is Hillel's second question: If I am only for myself, what am I?

On the surface we are in agreement, we cannot be only for ourselves. But I've found our tolerance can depend on who it is we are being asked to be for. I recently gave a speech to a Jewish group in Los Angeles, supposedly a liberal group. And I quoted something a friend of mine wrote. The friend is John Gerarri:

''I feel Jewish when I hear an anti-Semitic remark or when in Germany, Poland, or another country which has been viciously anti-Semitic in the past, I look at, or am looked over, by someone 57 or older. I feel Jewish, as well as black, brown, red and yellow, whenever I hear Reagan speak. But when Israel lets 3000 Palestinians be massacred by U.S. supported Lebanese fascists, I feel Palestinian and I will continue to feel Other as long as U.S. Marines pretend to be peacemakers in Lebanon, as long as the U.S. supports Somocista torturers and Honduran guerrillas, as long as it finances the raping, murdering, death squads while pretending to condemn them. So many people are being murdered, tortured by the will and greed of the U.S., that other countries' discrimination against Jews, as real and outrageous as it is, has become secondary to my loss of identity as a proud American..."

I know what John means. That discrimination against Jews will only end when discrimination against all people ends. That our call of "Let My People Go" will find an ear only when all people can be liberated even if it means that we have to take Israel to task if we disagree with her human rights or arms sales policies.

Isaiah commissioned of us:

"He shall teach the true way of the nations. He shall not break even a bruised reed or snuff out even a dim wick. He shall bring forth the true way. He shall not grow dim or be bruised until he has established a true way on Earth, a covenant people, a light of nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, the dungeon, those who sit in darkness."

There are many bruised reeds today and many dim wicks. Our commission since the days of Isaiah has been to help all people not just one nation, be it America or Israel. Even Isaiah knew about liberation theology and so does the New Jewish Agenda. I am grateful for its commitment to sanctuary for Central American refugees, to justice in the Middle East. I'm glad to see their emphasis on reforging important links with the black community and their urging to find ways to extend to other minorities.

I haven't lost jobs because I am Jewish. If anything, my problems come from the progressive part of being a progressive Jew. My acting career has given me many advantages but if I count any advantage more precious than the others, it is the influence I can have over people, my chance to espouse progressive Judaism. And I'll continue to use whatever influence I have, when and where I can, to push toward our justice and fights for Jews and for all people.

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