The Truth Between Us #5 – In the last decade, the apparent stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations has led some Christian denominations and inter-church organizations to undertake organized lobbying efforts, using political and economic pressure, to force the State of Israel to change its policy toward the Palestinians, and to take more seriously the “two states for two peoples” solution.
Some groups go even further, demanding that Israel allow refugees who fled during the 1948 and 1967 wars- and their descendants – to move to Israel. This would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and many Jews see these demands as a thinly-veiled desire to destroy the Israeli state.
These measures are often referred to by the initials BDS (boycott—divestment—sanctions), and they have been gaining popularity in recent years in some influential Christian circles. In September of this year, the (American) National Council of Churches of Christ issued a statement supporting “democratic, non-violent actions for justice and peace” and “the use of non-violent economic measures to influence policy in Israel”.
A 2005 Palestinian call for Christian churches to engage in BDS actions has led to limited sanctions by the US Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ, as well as the United Church of Canada. The Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) has also endorsed sanctions of various types, and many inter-church coalitions are actively pushing for similar measures, in order to change the status quo. The movement seems to be growing by the year, and in many places it threatens to erode, reverse or end longstanding interfaith cooperation.
To discuss Christian BDS, and its effect on Jewish-Christian dialogue, Murray spoke with Dr. Faydra Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew with a lifelong interest in Christianity.
Faydra holds a PhD in Religious Studies and is the founding director of the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations at Yezreel Valley College, located just outside of Nazareth. Her most recent book tackled the subject of Christian Zionism and was published in 2015.
Murray Watson: Many of the Christian groups voting for BDS distinguish between legitimate efforts to critique or influence Israeli government policies, and positions that are essentially anti-Semitic, because they seek to delegitimize or undermine the State of Israel. In your view, when does that line get crossed—and does it seem to you that some of these BDS campaigns may actually be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish at their core, although cloaked in more sympathetic language?
Faydra Shapiro: I don’t think that BDS campaigns usually come from a consciously anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish source. I believe that many good people around the world are simply appalled at what they see on the news. They believe they understand its cause, and they are desperate for a simple and strong solution. People are eager for the ongoing violence to be the result of a problem (“the Occupation”) that we can fix (with a negotiated two state solution) and then it will go away and everyone will get to live in peace in security. I’m not so optimistic.
Despite my belief that this impulse to find a solution isn’t consciously anti-Semitic, it’s important to understand that Christian BDS campaigns take place in a historical context of Jewish-Christian relations. When some Christians communicate to Jews who have their first crack at independent, sovereign rule in 2000 years that – in essence – they Christians know better than Jews do, that Jews are basically being stubborn and too worried about their (our) own survival, that we should be more willing to risk and to trust and on top of that, that if we don’t “behave” properly, well, they will have nothing to do with us, frankly, it all rings a little hollow.
It’s very reminiscent of older Christian tropes about Jewish ethnocentrism (versus Christian universalism) and error (rather than Christian enlightenment). And the idea of our taking more risks and being less intensely focused on our own survival is a little rich coming from the Christian world that served as the single greatest threat to Jewish survival for 2000 years.
Watson: Many of these churches and church groups have been involved in Jewish-Christian relations for many years—even many decades, and have published significant documents emphasizing the importance of strong, healthy Jewish-Christian relations.
Do you see church-sponsored BDS campaigns as effectively contradicting or neutering those documents? Do those statements still have credibility for you when a denomination or inter-church group espouses BDS as their corporate policy?
Shapiro: This issue troubles me deeply, as someone committed personally and professionally to building better Jewish-Christian relations. One of the basic requirements of interfaith dialogue is to try to understand the Other from within their own system of beliefs, priorities and culture. That can be a real challenge – to commit to understanding and trying to maintain the plausibility of beliefs and practices you don’t share.
And at its base it requires three fundamental skills or investments: education, engagement and empathy. Obviously “agreement” is not one of the requirements. Jewish-Christian relations presumes a degree of disagreement, otherwise, well, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.
Disagreement is fine. But the BDS movement, by putting a blanket ban on Israel, effectively violates each of the criteria I’ve proposed above for interfaith understanding. And when it does so about Israel, which is one of the very few things that, arguably, almost all contemporary Jews agree on, that creates a real problem for Jewish-Christian relations.
One of the most serious consequences of Christian BDS campaigns is that they confirm some basic Jewish anxieties about Christians vis a vis Jews, and thereby threaten a great deal of good, hard work that has been done in Jewish-Christian relations since the Second Vatican Council.
Watson: In my homeland of Canada, approval of a BDS resolution by a major Canadian Protestant church led to the suspension of Canada’s national Jewish-Christian dialogue, which has now been unable to meet for more than 3 years. Of course, the most important work of dialogue occurs precisely when there are this type of serious disagreements or disputes between the parties. How is it possible to maintain a meaningful dialogue when the positions of the Christian and Jewish partners often seem so far apart? How do you manage to keep the lines of communication open in the face of radically opposed visions? What contributions can interreligious dialogue make to resolving such an apparent impasse?
Shapiro: It’s really quite remarkable. You would think that people engaged in Jewish-Christian relations should be well-versed in the art of two things: respecting red lines, and dialoguing despite disagreement. We should be able to talk about Israel and our different commitments, visions, fears and hopes in the same way that we manage to engage the other basic topics about which we often passionately disagree.
Goodness, if we can manage to disagree about Jesus and still talk, you’d think we’d be able to disagree about Israel and still talk.
But we also need to come to Jewish-Christian relations with an ability to understand the issue of red lines. That is, with respect for the commitments that are constitutive of who we are. Like Jesus, for Christians. Like Israel, for Jews.
So to better answer your question, our experience of interreligious dialogue should be itself the argument against BDS, and against the kind of thinking that shuts down engagement in the face of disagreement. Interreligious dialogue, and its successes, is precisely the contradiction to BDS.
Watson: As an Israeli interfaith activist, what part of the “equation” do you think Christian BDS advocates are missing in their analysis? If you could speak directly to them, what one point would you want them to hear and understand accurately?
Shapiro: I think Christian BDS activists miss how absolutely central Israel is for contemporary Jewish identity. And I don’t mean a particular political party or orientation. But simply the fact that Israel is considered a non-negotiable, critical element in the survival of the Jewish people and culture. It’s not optional, it’s not right-wing or left-wing. It’s our past and it’s our future.
Christian BDS activists, in condemning and outright banning any engagement with Israel, are effectively condemning and banning engagement with the Jewish world. That’s not good for Jewish-Christian relations. That’s not good for the Israel that needs to reckon with critical voices both internal and external. It’s not good for Jews, Christians, Muslims and others in Israel who are all harmed by BDS. It’s not good for Christians around the world who vitally need to know far more deeply and in a more nuanced way about the political, social, ethnic and religious aspects of contemporary Israel and the Middle East.
The Christian world needs more engagement and more education when it comes to Israel and the Jews. Not less. The BDS movement sadly, enshrines ignorance and isolation.
In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.