Eliezer Finkelman
Eliezer Finkelman

Cheap Grace: A Progressive Doctrine of Vicarious Atonement

Living as a White person in the United States of America means repressing a heavy load of guilt and shame.  The country grew out of rebellious colonies of the King of England. The founders, subjects of the King, rebelled against his rule. Rather than returning to England, they took over the colonies along with the more or less explicitly genocidal plan to rule the continent. The people already living here, laughably called “Indians,” amounted to an impediment.

Conservatives in America use a strategy for looking away from the guilt and shame.  They emphasize, correctly, that the founders of the United States of America articulated a vision that theoretically and eventually would extend human rights to Indians and even to Blacks.  The strategy ignores how long “eventually” will take.

Progressives in America – I among them – recognize that we live on land taken from Native Americans, and that slave labor built much of our wealth.  But what can we do about that? The Native Americans are not strong enough to force us to relinquish the land, and we do not want to give up much of the wealth.  It is not practical to ask most of us to just go back to Europe.  So we live with guilt and shame.

When we think about Israel and the Palestinians, however, many Progressives (not including me) have a way of expunging some of our guilt and shame.  If we decide that the Palestinians are just like the Native Americans, and the Jews are just like the White colonists, we can advocate for doing the right thing somewhere.  We are not willing to undo the founding of the United States of America, but we can advocate undoing the founding of Israel.  If Israel would go out of existence, then Palestinians could enjoy human rights, and Jews could stay under Palestinian rule, or go back to wherever they came from.

Besides, the documents of American independence theoretically give equal rights to all, though in practice they took for granted a bit of genocide.  The Israeli Declaration of Independence, though it calls for equal rights for all, does give special rights to Jewish immigrants.

The beauty part of this Progressive strategy of atonement comes when we Americans do not have to pay for it: It does not cost American Progressives anything.  We can still live on land stolen from Indians, without giving up our wealth, while feeling righteous about demanding that Israelis give up their privileges.

In practice, whether dismantling the state of Israel would actually advance the cause of human rights for Palestinians in the Territories, Arab citizens of Israel, or Jewish citizens of Israel, does not matter at all.  This matters: Calling for the destruction of Israel makes American Progressives feel good.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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