Open Zion

05.10.13

The Church of Scotland’s Rookie Errors

Dear Church of Scotland,

I’ve read your Report on the ‘Promised Land,’ and, oh dear. I know that since its publication you’ve met with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and that as a result you’re planning a new introduction, “to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used.” But from my perspective, you’ll need a great deal more than a new introduction and “clarity.”

As it happens, I was in Scotland when the report came out. As it further happens, my mother is ethnically half Scottish, and indeed, my great-great-great-(take a breath)-great-great grandfather Alexander McQueen’s Regimental Colors are lain away in the High Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh. He joined King George III’s army, you see, in the course of the Clearances.

You remember the Clearances, right? They were the brutal removal of people from their lands on largely, but not exclusively religious grounds, after the final, pitiless squashing of the Jacobite Rebellions. My mother’s ancestors had family on both sides of that fight, loyalists and Jacobites both, at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. As I’m sure you recall, that was a deeply complicated conflict, one in which faith, land ownership, and generations-old grudges played out across bloody battlefields for over a century, shadows of which can still be seen in the arguments surrounding the upcoming Scottish independence referendum today.

These stories are in my blood, alongside the facts of my own life as an American-Israeli Jew. I’m a Zionist, but I’m the kind of Zionist who’s criticized the Israeli government so vehemently that I’ve gotten death threats, so please don’t misunderstand where I stand on the conflict: I’ve advocated for two-states since the first intifada, and have done so not just because I recognize the importance of peace for my own people, but because the essential dignity and human rights of the Palestinian people demand it.

And wow, this document is not helpful.

The entire report, start to finish, is grounded in two rookie errors of such enormity that its difficult to take anything in it seriously. Let’s begin with the basic misunderstanding of nationalism.

While it’s certainly true that the Hebrew Scriptures are just that for the Jewish community—Scripture—they are also heritage, something very akin to history. The modern mind knows that the history contained in the Tanakh is often not literal, but these are the stories that bound the Israelites together, the very heritage to which Jews turned, and were forced to turn, for centuries on end.

I say “were forced” because Jews were always a people apart, whether they wanted to be or not. You probably remember Edward I as the ruthless Hammer of the Scots; Jews remember him for the persecutions that culminated in the 1290 Edict of Expulsion, by which he stripped English Jews of their possessions and forced them from England entirely. This sort of behavior was and remains woefully familiar, going all the way back to the time when our people was brutally removed from our lands on largely, but not exclusively religious grounds after the final, pitiless squashing of the Great Revolt by the Romans.

Though I will admit that Jews’ relationship to our history is complicated, and that we sometimes complicate it ourselves, nationalism is a modern idea, conceived less than 200 years ago—thus, your description of the prophet Jonah as a “Jewish nationalist,” for instance, is at best an anachronism. From the mid-19th century onward, peoples that shared a history, a language, and a culture came to be understood by the global community as nations; Jews had shared all these for countless generations. The Tanakh played a central role, but if you think (as you seem to) that David Ben Gurion was looking at the Bible as a purely religious text, you need to read a biography or two.

Here we come to the report’s second rookie error, the assumption (shared by too many people, including too many Israelis) that if not the Bible then the Holocaust serves to justify Zionism. To view Zionism (aka: Jewish nationalism) in this light is to disregard the history of global thought, norms, and mores, as well as to ignore, say, the 1909 founding of Tel Aviv, or the 1918 establishment of Hebrew University.

A third error is scattered throughout Report on the ‘Promised Land’—but it’s so ancient that it can hardly be considered “rookie.” You, the Church of Scotland, attempt to tell the Jewish people how to read our holy texts—and just to sweeten the deal, you not only don’t bother to consult any Jewish theologians, you actually lean on the New Testament to correct our misunderstanding of our own faith. Again, it will take more than a new introduction to set this kind of thinking right.

Zionism is not (no matter how it may sometimes look, and I acknowledge and decry the confusion) a religious movement. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, rooted in a shared and ancient heritage—not unlike Palestinian nationalism, just better-known. Either we accept the paradigm of nationalism, or we don’t (and given the Church’s position on Scottish independence, I presume that you do).

And to the extent that Jews (Zionist or otherwise) are going to make religious decisions about our identity based on our Scriptures, we don’t need Christians to tell us how to do so.

As an interfaith activist and advocate for a two-state solution, I would never presume to tell Christians or Muslims, Palestinians or Scots how to read their history or holy books; neither would I suggest that Palestinian violence renders Palestinian nationalism inoperable or illegitimate.

if you want to call on Israel to end the patently illegal occupation and respect the political and human rights of the people we occupy, I urge you to do so in a manner that reflects both an understanding of world history, and genuine respect for the humanity of all involved. Including Zionists, whether you like us or not.