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A few days ago the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace sent a response to my September 4th post, “Open questions to Jewish Voice for Peace.”  I am heartened that JVP leadership took my questions seriously enough to take the time to reply.  I take their response seriously, and will set out to offer a critique of the response in the days ahead.  There is much for discussion here, and I wish to give their points the attention they deserve. 
Meanwhile, I publish below their response in its entirety, and invite civil and respectful comment.  Next week, you’ll see some of my own thoughts.
Shabbat shalom!

שבת שלום


Dear Mr. Santis:

This is in response to your “Open Questions to Jewish Voice for Peace” post.  You begin by asking “Why do you make common cause with (y)our enemies,”  and characterize that question as “an accusation.”  The enemies you speak of are two organizations with whom we partnered on the “Join With Us” transit ad campaign, namely American Muslims for Palestine and Friends of Sabeel North America. In your view,  “these groups are beyond the pale of what any organization that describes itself as ‘Jewish’ should be partnering with.”

The “Join With Us” transit ad campaign was co-sponsored by the Bay Area chapter of JVP, and was a local action.  We participated in the campaign because it is consistent with JVP’s goal of suspending U.S. military aid to Israel until the occupation ends;  its theme echoes JVP’s logo – “Two Peoples One Future”; and co-sponsorship of the ads by Jewish, Muslim and Christian organizations affirms the coexistence envisioned by a rising generation of Jews and Palestinians in Israel, such as those in the Sheikh Jarrah Movement and the Negev Coexistence Forum.

It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that we see the Israel-Palestine conflict through different frames.  We observe that your view is framed predominantly by fears about Israel’s safety and its very existence.  From this perspective, Israel’s policies are based on security concerns and the underlying problem is Arab violence and “annihalitionist politics,” as you put it.  Our frame includes the security of both Israelis and Palestinians, along with their right to sovereignty, and self-determination.  We believe the occupation and the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people, and the US policies that enable this, are the main obstacles to peace and indeed to Israel’s security.

You claim that American Muslims for Palestine “overtly seeks our [Israel’s and the Jewish people’s] destruction” and point to  a single statement in a press release marking the second anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, to the effect that Palestine will be free “from the river to the sea.”  This is not the language we would use, but we are not the voice of a besieged people who face actual, not symbolic, annihilation by Israel’s military.  Nor do we interpret a call for liberation by one people as requiring the destruction of another.   Moreover, if this one statement from a small American Muslim nonprofit strikes such fear in your heart, imagine the effect on the occupied Palestinians when they are confronted with official calls for “a Greater Israel”, and a relentless policy of land confiscation, home demolitions, settlement building, and “Judaeization” of the shared land.  Which people should be in greater fear that the other seeks to destroy them?

You also express alarm about one of AMP’s board members, Osama Abu Irshaid,.  You point out that he is a former supporter of  Hamas, but do not mention that he subsequently coauthored  Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility (2009), published as a Special Report by The United States Institute of Peace (USIP).  USIP was created by Congress as a non-partisan, federal institution that works to prevent or end violent conflict around the world.

Sabeel is characterized by you as promoting anti-Semitism of the most virulent kind, primarily based on the statements of its leader, Rev. Naim Ateek.  In doing so, you ignore Sabeel’s policies and practice, which call for non-violence, reconciliation and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. According to a resolution passed by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs this year:

“As an important contribution to an environment that promotes peace, the Jewish community should encourage a broad spectrum of religious and civic leadership, particularly from among Jewish and Arab Americans, to support those Israelis and Palestinians who seek a peaceful two state solution, and oppose all elements which use terror, violence or rejectionism to thwart that goal.”

Sabeel amply meets these criteria and therefore even according to the conditions set out by the JCPA deserves the support of U.S. Jews.

We acknowledge that theological understanding between modern-day Christians and Jews may at times be challenging, given the way the faiths diverge and the history of persecution of Jews in Christian Europe throughout the centuries. There is yet another painful complexity to navigate when the dialogue is between Jews and Palestinian Christians.  Here, in a reverse configuration, it is Christians who are subjected to persecution by a State that identifies itself as representing the Jewish people.

We reject the method you have chosen to approach these complexities, which is to scrutinize excerpts isolated from the larger context in which they were made, and then conclude that they are anti-Semitic. Rabbi Brant Rosen believes that Ateek has been unfairly attacked by the American Jewish establishment “largely because he does not shrink from illuminating the problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology.” In order to fairly comprehend Ateek’s words, and the experience that has given rise to them, we will, as Rabbi Rosen advises, enter in dialogue with the Sabeel community, rather than engage in decontexualized attacks and broadsides.

We also reject your comparisons of Rev. Ateek’s statements with medieval polemical texts reviling the Jews as Christ-killers and calling for their destruction. Rev. Ateek has never accused Jews of complicity in the death of Jesus. That mantle belongs to Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, who has explictly referred to Jews “piercing the side of Jesus Christ”, and made numerous other anti-Semitic statements, including that Jews control the U.S. economy. And yet Pastor Hagee is not condemned by you as the anti-Semite that he is, but rather is honored by U.S. Jewish organizations and by Israeli officials, all the way up to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu,

We are dismayed that you refer to Palestinian Liberation Theology in quotation marks, as if it were not a legitimate theology. Oppressed minorities throughout the world have used the theology of liberation, including images of Jesus on the Cross, as a source of inspiration and strength. The poor and the dispossessed in Latin-America have done so. So have African-Americans struggling for civil rights. We in fact draw from our own traditions, including the story of slavery and freedom that we retell at the Passover table and at other holidays. Why wouldn’t Palestinian Christians be allowed to draw from their own tradition in their quest for justice?

It is true that as Jews, we are sensitive to the image of Jews as crucifiers of Jesus.  But we are also sensitive to the conflation of Israel and Jews as if the two are one and the same.  Here’s how you quote Rev. Ateek:  “The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.  Palestine has become the place of the skull…”  Rev. Ateek is talking about the actions of a government, not about the Jewish collective.

It is part of our mission to challenge anti-Semitism when we encounter it.  At the same time, we recognize the great harm that is done to our faith when Israel, as a military occupier, claims that it acts in the name of Judaism, and when the Torah is wielded as a tribal deed of land and an edict of expulsion against an oppressed population. That is what the people in Rev. Ateek’s community see and hear every day.

It is against this injustice that JVP and Sabeel make common cause.

In closing, we direct your attention to the comments of Professor Dalit Baum, a leading Israeli human rights activist and a JVP member, who recently spoke on a BDS panel at a Brooklyn synagogue.  See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f23XhXICJQg  [Prof. Baum speaks 40 minutes in].  She talks about how easy it is to live in Israel and remain unconscious about what is happening in occupied Palestine.  For example, right now Palestinian children are being dragged from their homes by Israeli soldiers.  They are imprisoned, tortured and interrogated, and then taken in shackles and orange prisoner uniforms to “children’s” military court to make statements against the village elders who organize nonviolent protests against the wall.

  “People’s lives are being crushed every day,” she says.  “It’s unimaginable, the cruelty.”

Given this reality, we do not think our energies as Jewish activists for justice should be focused on parsing the language of the oppressed to see whether, in their anguish and resistance, they use words that make us uncomfortable.