Book Review: Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide January 20, 2015 03:30

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By Carole Monica Burnett

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has generated a tsunami of controversy with the recent publication of Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide (available from the AET Bookstore), a lavishly illustrated 74-page book accompanied by a DVD, which provides a wealth of information and provocative questions for discussion in book clubs and church and synagogue groups. Among the savage condemnations of this book is the review by Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein on the Fox News website which bears the title “Why is U.S. church sending Jews to the trash-heap of history?” It accuses the authors of “poisoning attitudes among its members toward their Jewish neighbors,” and exhorts members of PCUSA to abandon their church.

By contrast, Jewish-American psychologist Mark Braverman, in a post on the Mondoweiss blog, applauds the book as a “jewel” and “an urgently needed tool for a church that is poised to fulfill its social justice calling,” and the acclaimed Protestant Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has endorsed it as “an effective vehicle for helping to mobilize public opinion so that both attitudes and policies can be transformed in the face of an imperious and exploitative ideology.” Others have joined the fray, including a staff columnist of The Economist magazine.

An intriguing exchange of conflicting views has erupted between the Rev. Chris Leighton, a Presbyterian opponent of the book, and Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of Wrestling in the Daylight(also available from the AET Bookstore), who is featured in the book and DVD. In the reverend’s open letter rebuking Zionism Unsettled on the website of Baltimore’s Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies, where he serves as executive director, he undertakes to instruct his readers on the indispensable centrality of a homeland in the Jewish faith. Rabbi Rosen responds on his blog by distinguishing clearly between Judaism and Zionism, pointing out the broad diversity in the Jewish community. Reverend Leighton’s response, hosted on Rabbi Rosen’s website, promotes political sovereignty for Jews in the Holy Land and accuses the authors of Zionism Unsettled of “dishonesty” and “an unwillingness to come clean” about their agenda. Rabbi Rosen’s lengthy rejoinder offers a point-by-point refutation, among which is the rabbi’s unequivocal rejection of the use of the Bible to undergird claims to political power. Rosen’s coup de grâce in this piece is a moving quotation about God’s omnipresence from the rabbinical literature of his own Jewish tradition.

What is the agenda of Zionism Unsettled? The authors present it forthrightly—and, yes, honestly—in the first chapter: it is a clarion call to repudiate exceptionalism of all sorts and to understand Zionist exceptionalism as the cause of the present tragedy in the Holy Land. The authors state explicitly that adherents of all three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have indulged in the exceptionalist belief that their own community enjoys God’s special favor, and they proceed throughout the book to reject exceptionalism, citing as deplorable examples the ideology of white supremacy and the Christian theology of supersessionism (the belief that the Church has replaced Israel as the Chosen People). Thus the book’s criticism is obviously not confined to Zionists. Nevertheless, it is the exceptionalism of Zionism that is under the microscope here.

The second and third chapters, together with a detailed timeline, trace the development of Zionist thought and leadership until 2013. This lively history describes the varieties of Zionism: political, cultural, Revisionist, Labor and religious. It identifies the root of Zionism as the necessity to escape from anti-Semitic persecution in the historically Christian countries of Europe.

This shameful culpability of Christendom is probed in Chapter 4 and in one of the DVD’s segments, which features James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword. The Catholic Church’s initial disapproval of Zionism was based on its distrust of non-Christians, but the insights of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) on interfaith relations have encouraged religious tolerance and refocused the Church’s attention to address the sufferings of Palestinians. This chapter concludes with the ruminations of Walt Davis (one of the book’s authors) on the dilemma faced by all religious believers: how to embrace one’s own faith as divine truth while at the same time sincerely extending equal respect to other traditions.

Protestant readers will be looking for a discussion of their own tradition vis-à-vis Zionism, andZionism Unsettled does not disappoint, with one chapter devoted to evangelical Protestants, and another to the mainline.

Christian Zionism arose among evangelicals and has attained a powerful position in the American landscape under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and John Hagee. Its theological basis is a dispensationalist view of history that advocates the mass relocation of Jews to the Holy Land as a precondition for the return of Christ and the end of time. Another feature of this theology is the belief that two concurrent covenants are fully operative in today’s world: for Jews, the Old Testament covenant with its divine promise of land; and for non-Jews, the New Testament promise of salvation. On this issue we are given an enlightening glimpse into the thinking of evangelical theologian Gary Burge, a firm opponent of Christian Zionism, who has pondered the question of covenants and the problem of how to uphold the cosmic significance of Christ without slipping into supersessionism.

The Holocaust jolted mainline Protestant leaders, driving them to pour strenuous efforts into Jewish-Christian relations, but consuming their attention at the expense of Western-Arab relations. The 20th-century theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Krister Stendhal boldly condemned the genocidal policies of the Third Reich, yet they enthusiastically supported Zionism, turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing inflicted on Palestinians. This paradox is ironic in light of the fact that Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” urged vigilance toward the ubiquitous nature of societal sin.

Another chapter presents Rabbi Brant Rosen’s journey from an unquestioning embrace of Zionism to his current activism on behalf of justice in the Holy Land—a fascinating story. Rosen’s “Jewish theology of liberation” rejects “Constantinian Judaism,” the alliance of Jewish religion with the politics of power (as occurred in fourth-century Christianity). He wrestles with the biblical texts that sequentially follow the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt; these comprise the story of the Eisodus, the violent entry into Canaan and extermination of its indigenous people, which has been heartlessly applied to the Palestinians.

The book would not be complete without the voices of those who have experienced Zionism first-hand. In two chapters we hear respectively the voices of a Palestinian Muslim and a Palestinian Christian. Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor at Al Quds University, laments the exclusivist nature of Zionism, which is responsible for the “hard ethnic cleansing” that occurred in 1947-1948, the “soft ethnic cleansing” that underlies the ongoing revocation of Palestinian residency permits, and the “ethnic cleansing by stealth” that attempts to erase Palestinian cultural identity. A Palestinian Anglican priest, Naim Ateek, points to the 2009 Kairos Palestine document as an exposé of the theological heterodoxy of Zionism and of its life-negating implications.

A segment of the DVD spotlights a group of West Bank settlers, converts to Judaism, who believe that one cannot live as a Jew outside the Holy Land and that the Palestinians have no right whatsoever to their ancestral lands. The rigidity and zeal of their beliefs are eye-opening. Settler violence is also a focus of this segment.

Interspersed among the book’s chapters are mustard-colored “Focus” pages that investigate in depth various aspects of Israeli and Palestinian life, such as Jewish attitudes toward the Diaspora and Israel’s cultivation of its public image, or hasbara. Throughout the entire book, the plentiful photographs, maps and charts, in combination with the DVD, produce a visual feast. The entire package is an unforgettable voyage of discovery. Order it from <>.

Carole Monica Burnett serves on the Leadership Council of Sabeel DC Metro. She is the editor of, and a contributor to, the book Zionism through Christian Lenses.