A Third Rail in Interfaith Peacemaking?

07/25/2006 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I read Tom Hayden's eloquent post yesterday ("Things Come 'Round in the Mideast") while trying to deal with a bit of a backlash created by my organization's daring to criticize Israel's actions in Lebanon. In these circumstances Tom's up-from-cowardice narrative struck home to me with double force.

It turns out that Tom is indirectly implicated in my present woes, inasmuch as the LA Times reported Sunday that the protest petition issued last week by Progressive Christians Uniting--the organization I lead--was drafted by him. In fact, I had simply stumbled across some pretty good language that Tom was offering to all and sundry and modified it with his permission. Also, not being a total idiot, I softened Tom's language here and there and also inserted a section on the need for Hezbollah to be disarmed before putting PCU's statement out to our e-mail listserv on Thursday.

But in this hyper-charged environment, it's apparently not good enough to say that Hezbollah provoked the crisis and should be disarmed. Unless you also intone the magic words, "Israel's right to defend itself from terrorists," your statement will not past muster and you will run up against a kind of third rail in interfaith relations.

Within an hour of PCU's statement going out, an LA Times reporter was asking us how many people had signed the statement and asking to see the names of the signers. Odd, I thought, because to my knowledge the reporter who called isn't on our distribution list.

Then on Saturday afternoon I was startled by another call from the same reporter, this time asking me to respond to the comment of a liberal rabbi friend of mine that he was "offended" by PCU's petition and that he felt he and other liberal Jewish leaders should have been consulted beforehand about the language of the petition. Sensing danger, I answered as circumspectly as possible that I don't think integrity is served in the interfaith context by waiting for all partners to come to perfect agreement before anyone can act or speak in conscience. I added my belief that one can criticize the actions of Israel without being anti-Israel, just as one can criticize the actions of the United States without being anti-American.

I did not add what I think is the real heart of the matter, which is whether the morality of "making sure everyone is on board" among interfaith clergy leaders (and yes, there is a kind of morality in this) ought to outweigh the moral imperative to speak truthfully when hundreds of thousands of civilians are being uprooted and a whole country thrown into chaos in the name of Israel's self-defense.

Progressive Christians like me have trained ourselves over the years never to speak out against any actions undertaken by the State of Israel. The reasons are obvious. We feel the weight of two millennia of Christian anti-Judaism. We understand clearly how American Jews must feel about the survival of Israel and about the truly loathesome and murderous views of those who would gleefully wipe that country (and all Jews) off the face of the earth.

Because we are so fastidious, we rarely even challenge the powerful cohort of Christian Zionists in this country who, looking forward with relish to Armageddon, manage to combine a reflexive pro-Israel position with profound theological anti-Judaism.

When many liberal Jewish clergy leaders held back from criticizing the Iraq invasion, many of us progressive Christian leaders said "that's OK--we understand your situation." Should we have? Is it not now apparent that Bush's Iraq folly has made things demonstrably worse for Israel, as (for example) we witness Iraq and Iran drawing closer and see the democratically elected speaker of Iraq's parliament mouthing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slurs equal to those once voiced by Saddam Hussein?

So shall we now keep our silence simply because (as the LA Times piece correctly reported) American Jews are nearly unanimous in their support for what Israel is doing in Lebanon? Apart from the humanitarian toll of the current "operation," isn't it plain to see how Israel's lavish application of U.S.-provided weapons in Lebanon will boomerang on American security concerns?

I love my rabbi friend, and I am confident that our friendship is strong enough to survive an episode like this. I'm not offended that he's offended. But neither will I stifle myself until what I say and write meets with his prior approval.

If people like me were to start judging Israel by a higher standard than we apply to other world actors, that would be worth getting offended over. But if we are not allowed to hold Israel to the same standards of conduct that we expect from any other nation--including our own--then something will have gone badly wrong with our moral compass. We will be letting our guilt over 2000 years of Christian wrongdoing get in the way of doing the right thing now--a peculiar kind of morality, indeed, and one that this blood-soaked world can ill afford.