Open Letter to Sabeel on Israel, Palestine, & American Jewry

February 19, 2008
From Claire E. Gorfinkel

Dear Rev. Ateek and Friends of Sabeel,
[ED. NOTE: Sabeel is a Palestinian Christian organization that advocates the use of nonviolent resistance to oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Its supporters have held a number of conferences in American cities, often to the consternation of and strong opposition from some Jewish organlzations.]

I write as a Jew who is committed to the practice of my religion, and a social change activist [who focuses on the war against Iraq and the Israel-Palestine conflict] in Los Angeles. Like Rev. Naim Ateek and my many teachers, both Christian and Jewish, I believe that my faith requires me to act for justice and peace, and the inherent preciousness of every human being informs my activism. I am ‘on record’ as supporting the prerogative of All Saints Church to host the Sabeel Conference this past weekend, even knowing that their decision evoked great anxiety, anger and fear among my fellow congregants.

After much soul-searching, I elected to attend the conference, which (since its timing coincided precisely with the Jewish Sabbath) entailed forfeiting my religious practice, because I felt it was important to listen. Now I would like to offer some reflections on my experience.

I want to commend Rev. Ateek and the majority of the speakers whom I heard for their clear and explicit commitment to nonviolence, not simply as a tactic but as a way of life, not as a strategy of the weak but as a moral force that exemplifies the world in which we hope to live. I appreciate the conference’s explicit commitment to a two-State solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, both because I believe that is the preference of most Palestinians and most Israelis, and because I believe that – in a world composed of nation-states – both peoples are entitled to fulfill their destinies in sovereign and secure States.

Regarding the conference, I have two principal concerns, one of which is about what was not said. Some people were worried that the entire conference would be “all Israel-bashing all the time.” To them I can report that it was not, however I would say that it was all Israel-bashing 80% of the time. I am familiar with the history that was reiterated at the conference. I am opposed to the occupation. I believe that the settlements are an impediment to peace. I am opposed to the checkpoints, home-demolitions, the route of the wall, cutting Palestinians off from their land and one-another – in other words, I am opposed to the policies of the Israeli government [some of which even Israeli peace activists believe are contributing to their security] – but I think the conference did its audience a disservice by failing to acknowledge that actions and in-actions by others (including the United States and the Palestinian leadership) have also contributed to the conflict.

I think the conference did its audience a further disservice by deliberately failing to put the actions of the State of Israel in historical context. There can be no doubt that the average American – and the average person in the audience last weekend – knows far more about the Holocaust and the historic persecution of the Jewish people than they do about the destruction of the Palestinian community in 1947-48 or their abominable treatment in refugee camps, or their suffering under Israeli occupation. However, if they don’t understand that the historic experience of persecution and fear is what drives contemporary Jews to defend the policies of the State of Israel; if they don’t understand the depth of that visceral memory of anti-Semitism which culminated in the deaths of six million in the past century; if they can’t acknowledge that fear – whether of missiles hitting Sderot or past threats to “drive them into the sea” or continuing threats from Hamas – often motivates people to act badly, then all our claims to see the face of God in our fellow humans, whether we agree with them or not, aren’t worth the breath we used to utter them. The Palestinians are not responsible for the actions of Nazi Germany, but Christians must take care that they not seek to absolve themselves of complicity in the persecution of one people by taking up the cause of another.

I wish the conference participants could have learned more about the positive accomplishments of the Palestinian community instead of only hearing about their suffering and oppression.

Finally, I want to say something to and about the Jewish voices in the program. I listened with care to Anna Balzer, Gabriel Piterberg and Marcy Winograd. I agreed with much of what they had to say, and I commend their courage in speaking difficult truths for which they experience great hostility from fellow Jews. But I question your purpose in featuring them. Neither Piterberg nor Winograd actively promotes nonviolence or a two-State solution, and more importantly, none of them represents a significant constituency. Were they there just so you could say you had Jews on your program? Let us imagine a conference called by ecumenical Christians to discuss “Divisive Issues Facing Us Today,” – focusing on the ordination of Gays and Lesbians, and homosexuals’ rights to marriage and basic civil liberties. If the only Episcopalians on the program were representatives of the break-away churches, one could still say, with justification, “We had Episcopalians on the program.” But they would not have represented mainstream, predominant, much less progressive Episcopalians. Polling data consistently shows that approximately 85% of American Jews support a two-State resolution of the conflict. There are Jewish (and interfaith) organizations with tens of thousands of members – both in Israel and in the US* – that do support nonviolence and a two-State solution, that are actively working to mobilize Jewish opinion and to re-direct US foreign policy to bring an end to the occupation. Sabeel’s audience deserves to hear from them as well.

When Christians, Muslims and Jews seek to understand both the Jewish experience and the Palestinian experience, and strive to work together for a just resolution of the conflict, we might have a chance of making a positive difference.


Claire E. Gorfinkel

* Among those in the US that I am aware of are: Churches for Middle Peace, Americans for Peace Now, American Task Force on Palestine, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Israel Policy Forum, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: