Boycott or Dialogue? Speaking Out to Christian Ears when Israel is an Issue

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

On Tuesday, October 23, I was called by Old South Church of Boston: where the Boston Tea Party was planned. Now it is a strong, big, wealthy, and widely respected congregation with a young, vigorous head pastor. (More about her and the church later.)

The church called me because a Jewish speaker they had invited and had accepted to speak on the coming Sunday, October 28, had just canceled -- because the official Jewish institutions of Boston were unhappy with the church's decision to host a conference to be held by Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian organization that was bringing Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, Nobel peace laureate, as keynote speaker. The church was inviting me to replace the drop-out speaker. But they explained to me that if I accepted I would probably meet a cauldron of anger and criticism from the Jewish institutional officialdom of Boston.

I understood, and I accepted.

So that's the bottom line. What had happened before? Why the anger, why the criticism? Here is the history:

First, a little "pre-history" of Rev. Nancy Taylor, head pastor of Old South. She was last in Boise, Idaho, and was one of the people instrumental there in creating the Anne Frank Memorial - an amazing place that Phyllis and I saw when we spoke in Boise.
Passages from Anne's diary act like a central text and in a circle around them are many passages of world literature and history affirming human rights, including the Universal Declaration. Similarly, in physical space the memorial on the ground holds exactly the cramped square footage of Anne's attic, but opens up to the universe.

The creators of the Memorial, including Rev. Taylor, began it because a
huge cross had been erected by right-wing Christians over Boise that felt
triumphalist and intimidating to Jews and other non-Christians and to many
Christians as well. In contrast, the Anne Frank Memorial was intended to be
both a direct rebuke to anti-Semitism and a holy place that was open to all
and affirming of all faith traditions.

Idaho is not such a welcoming place for such views; it took courage and
persistence to create this space. I tell you all this to give you a sense
of Rev. Taylor, including her outlook on Judaism and anti-Semitism.

Now the more recent past:

1) The church had long ago arranged that on Friday and Saturday of last
week, a Palestinian Christian organization called Sabeel could hold a
conference at the church. Sabeel's politics are: "The Holy Land is God's
gift to Palestinians and Israelis," affirmation of nonviolence, condemnation
of terrorism, support for two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, on the
1967 boundaries (with a long-term hope that the two states might freely
choose to federate), Jerusalem as capital city of both states, and
affirmation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Sabeel uses as
part of its rhetoric a version of Christian liberation theology that sees
the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as a model for the oppression and
ultimate liberation of the Palestinians. For Sabeel's full statement, see

2) Sabeel invited Nobel Peace Laureate and former Archbishop Tutu of South
Africa to be its keynote speaker. He has spoken of the situation of
Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel as akin to that of Black South Africans during

3) The church, which had had warm relationships with the official Jewish
structures of Boston, realized that Sabeel's and Tutu's presence might be a
problem for those Jewish organizational structures. So it planned a series
of speakers under its own sponsorship, separate from the Sabeel conference,
representing a range of religious views, and asked advice from the official
Jewish structures about speakers for a series of their own, including one
who might speak right after the Sabeel conference to "balance' the Sabeel

Two Jews acceptable to these Jewish officials were suggested,
were invited, and agreed to speak. (The church had raised the possibility
with the Jewish organizational officials that Elie Wiesel, a person of world
stature similar to that of Tutu's, speak under the church's auspices. That
suggestion never received a direct response.)

4) The person whom the Jewish officials did recommend for the day after the
Sabeel conference was Dennis Ross, one of President Clinton's aides at the
Camp David conference that sought to achieve a peace treaty between Israel
and a nascent Palestine. Ross has laid practically all responsibility for
Camp David's failure on Arafat and the Palestinians. He was invited, and

5) But then something went awry. The Jewish officialdom decided to demand
that the church cancel its hosting of the Sabeel conference, on the ground that Sabeel was as far beyond the pale as, say, the KKK would be.

6) The church reexamined Sabeel's statements and positions, and concluded that although some they might well feel unpleasing, they were not beyond the pale of decent discourse. The church refused to cancel the conference.

7) So at that point Dennis Ross and a Boston rabbi who had agreed to speak
later in the church's series on religious life both withdrew. And at that
point, the Jewish officialdom organized a demonstration at the church. Though it focused on condemning Sabeel, one key Jewish official said the decision to hold it stemmed from being "tired of the constant criticism of Israel in the mainline protestant community without ANY attempt to hear the other side or provide 'equal time'." -- even though the whole point of Ross' speech had been precisely the church's effort to hear "the other side."

(The demonstration, held on the Friday when Archbishop Tutu spoke, was calm and respectful. Two hundred people took part in that rally on Friday -- far fewer than the number of Jews who took part in a demonstration of many thousands of people in Boston on Saturday, calling for an end to the Iraq war -- a call that no large Jewish organizations other than Reform Judaism have made, though 70% of American Jews call the war a profound ethical and practical disaster. Do you see why I insist on making a distinction between "Jewish officialdom" and "the Jewish community"?)

8) So when Dennis Ross withdrew, that was when the church called me, on the
recommendation of a different Massachusetts rabbi who was distressed by the
pressure from Jewish officialdom upon the church and thought I might be
willing to speak from a seriously Jewish and pro-Israel perspective, though
one quite different from that of the Boston Jewish officialdom.

9) I agreed to speak on Sunday, the day after the Sabeel conference ended.
I named my talk "The Tent of Abraham: Peacemaking among Jews, Christians,
and Muslims."

10) For the next two days I received a number of Email letters and phone
calls from various Boston Jewish officials urging me to withdraw my
acceptance. One of the reasons they gave was that the church had said that
itself and the national UCC church body viewed Sabeel as a partner, and
(presumably) I should not speak for such a church. Another was that my
presence would make publicly clear that some Jews hold views regarding
Israel other than the "official" ones. A third was that some people might
think I was speaking for "the Jewish community."

11. Of course I spoke. There were about 200 people, unfortunately but
expectably fewer than the 700 or so who had heard Archbishop Tutu. Most of
them were Christians, with a sprinkling of Jews and at least one Muslim.
What I said will have to wait for another day. There was a tape recording
made, and we will try to arrange to put that on our website.

But two things I said, I do want to note now:

(a) It is true that now some of the Boston public knows that there are
different views in the Jewish community - meaning real-life flesh-and-blood
Jews, not just Jewish officialdom -- about how to protect and revivify
Israel, many such views quite different from those espoused by many
"official" Jewish institutions. This is a GOOD thing, and I wish the
official Jewish world would celebrate and broadcast the fact, rather than
try to hush it up.

(b) Of course I don't speak for the whole Jewish community - and neither
does anyone else, including any appointed or elected official of any Jewish
organization. It would be good for everyone to make the distinction I have
been making in my choice of words here, between the Jewish "community" of
real live Jews and the officialdom of Jewish institutional structures.

Now here are some further thoughts of mine about this whole controversy and
the attempt to persuade Jewish speakers not to speak at the church:

Why was it not enough for the church to make an effort to present a speaker
the very day after Sabeel's own conference who would take a different view?
Why is public debate not enough? Why is not the cure for speech we think
wrong, more speech? Who is it we believe cannot listen and then make
sensible choices? Or is there a sheer desire, rising from stark fear that
grows from an oft-repeated bloody past and a recent bloody summer -- a
sheer desire to use every bit of political power to coerce criticism into

In the long run, it won't work, any more than forever depending on military
domination works. I understand the desire, out of fear, to coerce critics
into silence --- and even have compassion for that impulse as a response to
fear. But my compassion does not mean condoning or bowing to that impulse.

To make the point most direct, why did Dennis Ross -- who at first
thought it would make sense to speak the day after the
Sabeel conference -- then decide not to ? Why did the Boston Jewish officialdom urge me also to withdraw? What changed?

What follows is my own hypothesis, my own hunch, and no more than that: That
some right-wing elements of Boston Jewish life, like the David Project, put
the heat on the centrist institutions. The David Project, for example,
recently mobilized fear into an virulent campaign against allowing the
construction of a new mosque in the Boston area. They failed, baruch haSHEM,
hamdulillah, thank God, but they created deep tensions between some Jews and
some Muslims that didn't need to happen - but fit their hostile hopes.

My guess is that they want to stir just such hostility between centrist Jews
and liberal Protestants. From fear into rage. I understand the fear - we
are all coping with the world earthquake in which every old pillar of
reality is shaking, and one response to that is fear. But understanding
the fear does not justify or condone turning it into rage and coercion and

I also understand the overreaching of some who are oppressed, living under
occupation, as also a response to fear and oppression. That does not mean
condoning or bowing to that impulse to over-reach. When the over-reaching
includes the use of violence, it should be condemned. And Sabeel does that.
I don't agree with their call for a Palestinian right of return and I don't like the rhetoric of their version of Christian liberation theology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think that calls on us for debate and discussion, even for a protest, but not a boycott of the church for allowing them to meet.

The criticism of Israeli policy is rising. There are two basic responses:
listen to the criticisms, acknowledge the justice of SOME of them, and ACT
seriously, without dissembling, to correct the misdeeds. Or -- circle the
wagons and get out the machine guns. Some actual machine guns, some
rhetorical ones.

What would have happened if the Boston Jewish officialdom had said,

"We think Sabeel is partly but not entirely mistaken. -- We think its
opposition to terrorism is right, its call for two states is correct, its
call for refugee return wrong.

"And we think it important to point out that applying liberation theology
and all the vivid rhetoric about Jesus' crucifixion raises deep dangers in
the Israel-Palestine context, strikes a deep nerve of Jewish pain from
centuries when Christian charges that the Jews killed Christ, killed God,
led to rivers of shed Jewish blood. We need you to hear and deeply
understand how different that comes out from, say, Hugo Chavez invoking
Jesus vs. the Roman Empire when he is facing the American Empire." (I did
say that in my speech on Sunday, and urged Christians to say it to Sabeel.)

What would have happened if Boston Jewish officialdom had encouraged Ross or
Wiesel to speak at the church, to discuss what is WRONG as well as what is
RIGHT about Israeli policy? What if the Jewish officials had said proudly,
"We welcome debate. We trust Americans to make sense out of the debate!"

Do we think the United Church of Christ is MORE willing to take Jewish
criticism of them and Jewish defense of Israel more seriously after the tack
the JCRC did actually take than if they had taken the tack I'm describing?

Do we think that Jewish boycotts and denunciations can forever frighten Jews
and other Americans into silence?

When will Jewish centrists tell groups like the David Project and David
Horowitz' Front Page and "Islamofascism Awareness Week" and people like
Norman Podhoretz with his bloodthirsty calls to bomb Iran to get lost,
instead of letting them drive Jewish fear into rage and unnecessary

When will Jewish centrists take a deep breath and decide -- instead of
retreating to the past out of sheer fear in the world earthquake -- to move
forward, , to realize that the other communities are also suffering in the
earthquake and reach out to make new connections and create new

In Boston, the leadership of Old South Church will be meeting this week with
the Jewish officials. Thank God! (and I mean that.) May both take a deep
breath from the Breath of Life and rethink how to strengthen, not shred, the
threads of connection not only between Jews and Christians but also with
Muslims as well. (Buying Jewish-Christian amity at the price of war with
Islam would be the devil's bargain, and many deaths would seal the deal.)

I hope that a new effort at dialogue among ALL THREE of the Abrahamic traditions can come out of that meeting.

And more than dialogue. As I also said at the church, the human race is facing a supercrisis in the danger of global climate disaster. EVERY scrap of wisdom on the planet is going to be necessary to limit the damage and provide a decent earth to our grandchildren, not only for the sake of "earth" but for the sake of a decent human life.

No one of our traditions has yet bent anything like enough of our energy to deal with this profound concern. I urge, I plead, that when you meet this week, that be one of the concerns you address. It could be the grounding on which all three traditions can ACT together. And working together on that could open up new possibilities of hearing each other better in other areas.

Let us not only pray but act in accord with the way some of us nowadays
chant the last line of the Kaddish (as we all did at the end of my talk at
Old South):

Oseh Shalom bi'm'romav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael v'al kol
yishmael v'al kol yoshvei tevel -- v'imru: Amein.

You who make harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe,
teach us to make harmony within ourselves, among ourselves --
and peace for the children of Israel; for the children of Ishmael; and for
all who dwell upon this planet.

And let us say: Ahmein, Amen, Ahmin.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace - Arthur


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