Dancing in the Earthquake

Every religious community in the world is now living through a profound crisis, an eruption of God, a world-wide earthquake brought on by modernity in every life-dimension: political, economic, sexual, ecological, military, cultural, biological. In traditional communities, new religious outlooks are being born. Believers are coming to new understandings of what the world came from and is moving toward, what aspects of the world are holy and what are either ordinary or demonic, what symbols and metaphors and practices are sacred.

Under the crust of old assumptions and behaviors toward the Middle East, new visions are stirring. They are beginning to affect policy. These new responses can be roughly categorized as either “restoration” or “renewal,” and both responses emerge within the boundaries of the traditional communities Restoration is an attempt to find some anchoring point in the past. It often involves the rejection and attempted suppression of such aspects of modernity as the equality of women. And the efforts in each traditional community to restore a remembered past often lead to bitter attacks on other traditions that modernity has so rudely interjected into its life. In the maelstrom of the Middle East, this often means the sanctification of outright violence by several communities.

Renewal is an attempt to draw some new wisdom from modernity and integrate it into the wisdom from the past. It often includes efforts to affirm points of friendly connection with other traditions, even affirming that they have truth value. It often promotes cooperative policy alliances between the renewalist energies of different communities.

The internal struggles in each community between these contradictory responses – bitter attack on or connective alliance with the other communities –have important effects on the Middle East policies of the religious communities, and therefore on the Middle East policies of the U.S. government.

Inside American Judaism

There are five religious groups in American society that have, or could have, an impact on U.S. policy toward the Middle East. All five – institutional Jewish, mainstream Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Moslem – have a strong sense of their ultimate roots in the Middle East, and some have what might be called “ethnic” connections with various communities that live in the Middle East.

The five are like extended families with branches that have different yet overlapping memories of the family history. They share some crucial sacred stories and symbols, but they differ in very important ways on the meaning of these stories, texts, symbols, metaphors, and events.

Within the Jewish community, the large Jewish institutions operate in a strong basic framework of urging U.S. deference to the wishes of the Israeli government, which since early 2001 has had a strong commitment to continuing or expanding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.

Among smaller Jewish groupings, there are four that are relatively willing to oppose U.S. policies that support Israeli government policy.

  • Americans for Peace Now (APN), founded in the mid-1980s in support of Shalom Achshav in Israel, won considerable respectability in the Jewish community during the Oslo detente period in the 1990s, and holds membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. APN focuses its critique on the danger Israeli settlements on the West Bank pose to any peace settlement.
  • Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) was founded in 2002 in response to the intense Israeli-Palestinian violence of the second Palestinian intifada and the Israeli efforts to control it. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom urges the U.S. government to encourage negotiations between Israel and various Arab states and entities.
  • Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR)/ North America supports RHR in Israel in its defense of specific human rights of Palestinians (especially by opposing demolition of Palestinian homes and orchards) but defers to RHR in Israel as to whether to publicly criticize U.S. policy that ignores such violations.
  • Jewish Voice for Peace JVP) strongly criticizes all aspects of the Israeli occupation and such Israeli actions as the invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

All of these groups condemn Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians as well as the inherent and explicit violence of the Israeli occupation, though with different emphases and nuances. All but one of these groups clearly calls for a two-state peace settlement in which a viable Palestine would co-exist with Israel. All but one affirms the special Jewish character of the state of Israel, while also urging full equality for its citizens of non-Jewish (that is, Palestinian) culture.

Jewish Voice for Peace holds open whether the best peace settlement would recognize two states or only one between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, and says this must depend on decisions by the peoples themselves. JVP also expresses unease about the special Jewish character of Israel. As a result, while the first three organizations have considerable resonance among some members of some organizations in the organized Jewish community, JVP has almost none.

In the vast majority of official Jewish organizations, there is some variation in attitudes toward U.S. Middle East policy but within a relatively narrow range. The only large organization that has expressed some degree of uneasiness with the military proclivities of recent Israeli governments or with U.S. governmental support of those proclivities has been Reform Judaism. And in crises like the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Reform Judaism has not been critical of Israeli actions or of U.S. support for them.

Among the other large American Jewish organizations, support for Israeli government actions and for U.S. backing has been strong. During the period in the mid-1990s when there seemed to be a chance of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, some of these organizations – notably the Zionist Organization of America and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — seemed unhappy with the Rabin government’s efforts to achieve peace.

Religious or Ethnic?

There are two profound ways in which the Jewish responses have been religious as opposed to ethnic. One has been in terms of classical Judaism and its relationship to the Land of Israel in story and prayer. The other has been in the responses to the Holocaust that have gone beyond ethnic defense (though that was certainly included) toward an existential groping with the question of Jewish existence, the nature of God, and the role of human action in healing the world from extraordinary eruptions of evil.

In biblical Judaism, the use of military force was seen as necessary and legitimate, even holy, not only in defense of the people Israel and its relationship with God but in aggressive efforts to cleanse the land of Israel of other religious/ ethnic cultures.

Rabbinic Judaism abandoned the use of military force as minimally self-destructive and perhaps not ethically warranted. Rabbinic Judaism, like biblical Judaism, accepted that the Jewish people stood alone, usually without allies in the world. Rabbinic Judaism accepted that nonviolent perseverance in the face of pressure to conform by the much more powerful Romans, Zoroastrians, Christians, Muslims, and others exacted a steep but acceptable price in terms of victimization, pogroms, and expulsions. Perhaps an even higher price was a basic decision to forego trying to transform the larger world — to overturn corrupt or oppressive powers — in favor of self-preservation for the Jewish people in the nooks and crannies of the great powers. Transformation would depend on prayer and the invocation of God’s readiness to redeem history.

But more and more intense modern pressures on Jewish peoplehood and culture, including greater levels of anti-Jewish violence, made this rabbinic choice harder and harder to live with. The Holocaust made it seem impossible. There were two responses. One was recourse to military power in self-defense, in the form of establishing Israel as a well-armed Jewish state. As often happens, this self-defense became more and more aggressive. The other response was embodied in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, a reassertion of nonviolence in a far more assertive form, deliberately aimed at transforming the world and invoking alliances with other communities on the basis of shared values. This attempt at alliance with other religious communities was almost new in Jewish history – perhaps attempted only, and successfully, for a few centuries under Muslim suzerainty in Andalusia.

American Jewry and its major institutions supported both Israel’s recourse to military force and the Soviet Jewry movement’s use of (tactical) nonviolence. American Jewry also entered into a number of alliances with various movements for social justice — labor unions, civil rights for the Black community, organizing with and on behalf of the poor, women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism. It became adept at gathering and using political clout in the usual forms of a liberal democratic society. As the Jewish community simultaneously became prosperous and even in many cases wealthy – in a few cases, super-rich – it also became adept at the strategic deployment of money to win political power.

Viewing the protection of Israel as a religious duty for both biblical and post-Holocaust reasons, American Jewry brought to bear all these forms of political power. It argued the moral and ethical need for the defense of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” It also often labeled anti-Semitism what were critiques of Israeli behavior or the activities of what some called “the Israel Lobby” in America, insisting that anti-Semitism violated not only Jewish norms but universal ethical principles.

Meanwhile, dissident Jewish organizations like APN, Brit Tzedek, RHR, and JVP invoked religious as well as secular reasons for criticizing Israeli governmental policy. “Zion can only be redeemed through justice,” some said. RHR invoked Torah as the protector of the image of God in every human being, elevated the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to quasi-sacred status, and therefore denounced Israeli denial of Palestinian human rights. While they took a universalist stance, such groups made clear that their “ethnic” tie to Israel impelled them to speak out on its behavior more than they would have toward other nations. The slogan of one JVP group – “Not In My Name” – bespoke exactly this two-level oppositional identification with Israel.

Influence in High Places

This organizing certainly had an effect on Congress. Although the organizations more likely to disagree with Israeli policy and to urge a different U.S. approach were too small to matter on Capitol Hill, despite their lobbying efforts, the larger groups urging support for Israeli governmental policy did make a difference. Rare was the member who publicly criticized, let alone opposed, levels of military aid to Israel or refused to support sense-of–Congress resolutions praising Israeli behavior and condemning the behavior of its enemies. Of those few who did, some lost elections under a wave of denunciation and support for their opponents. Criticism became astoundingly subtle as Congress deliberated to what degree even humanitarian aid to Palestinians should be cut off after Hamas won elections, totally or with escape clauses?

At the level of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, it is not so clear how much Jewish organizational political activity weighs in the scales, as distinct from concerns of global strategic policy: easy access to oil, constant flows of cash to U.S. arms manufacturers, the “war against terror.” During presidential campaigns, institutional Jewish clout in major states like New York, California, and Florida have influenced presidential candidates and constricted their discussion of Middle East policy. After the election is over, a new president likely finds ultimate strategic considerations much more important.

The degree to which the views and actions of major Jewish organizations dovetail with the views of the grassroots of American Jewry is open to question. Since 2005, some evidence has emerged that younger, non-Orthodox Jews are less and less approving of the policies of the Israeli government and even of the state of Israel itself. In 2007, for example, a survey sponsored by a strongly pro-Israel foundation reported that:

  • only 48% of non-orthodox U.S. Jews under 35 believe that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy for them, compared to 77% of those 65 or older.
  • only 54% of those under 35 are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State” as opposed to 81% of those 65 or older.

Some of this response may be rooted in a principled and focused religious or ethical distaste for Israeli policy, but many in this generation are responding on a different spectrum altogether. They are attuned to a more generic spirituality in which some aspects of Jewish practice seem appealing and others not. If God is erupting in our lives again, S/He may or may not find adequate the formal structures of Judaism as they were. The disquiet of Generation Why may be a symptom of a deep desire for reframing what is holy. To many of them, the state of Israel will simply not be at the center of this reframing. Neither supporting its policies nor condemning them is what moves them.

Responding to the Sea Change

Established Jewish institutional structures can respond in two different ways to this sea change. They can seek to understand it, respond to these people, and search out aspects of Judaism that could be renewed to meet their so-far inchoate urges. They could accept that Israel is legitimate as a nation-state in international law, is entitled to its protections, and is one place Jewish culture can be enriched — and that is all. They could treat Israel as one useful instrument for Jewish exploration, but not an idol, not as a god.

Or the structures of institutional Judaism can break the bones of the outliers. They can fling at such explorers of the Jewish spiritual unknown as Tony Kushner and Adrienne Rich the hand grenade of “anti-Semitism.” They can inflame Jewish sentiments among that half of Generation Why that would experience Israel’s destruction as a deep personal tragedy by describing all Islam as an enemy crouching at the door and all liberal Christians as suspect as well.

This latter response may in the long run be self-destructive, but that does not mean it will not be pursued. The danger is that power tends to addict its possessor and absolute power addicts absolutely. No part of the American Jewish community will ever hold absolute power in America. But in the short run some might come to believe the fantasy that their strange alliance with Big Oil and Big Army and Big Empire will serve as virtual power for itself.

As the pressures grow and the world-wide earthquake intensifies, the gulf may widen between restorationist Jews who will feel driven to use more and more coercion to reassert past certainties and control troublesome new ideas and people – as if one could force the djinnis back in the bottle — and renewalist Jews who will seek new allies in new hybrid forms of spirituality and ethics.

Other Faiths and the Middle East

For mainstream Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic communities in the United States, the presence of very ancient communities of their faiths in the Middle East (especially in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq) is a constant concern. Those communities increasingly come under pressure as conflict and violence between Muslims and Jews intensifies. Their people leave and their numbers dwindle, and since these communities echo the earliest Christianities rooted in the region, their diminishment feels deeply hurtful not only at the ethnic identity level but also at the religious level. There is a kind of odd parallel between their disappearance and the religious conundrums posed 2,000 years ago by the disappearance of Jews from the Land of Israel.

At the same time, the American churches feel a religious obligation to work for peace in the Holy Land, in the hope of celebrating God and benefiting all its peoples. Yet these American churches have felt hemmed in about what to do. They are especially concerned that if protecting these Arab-speaking Christians includes a critique of Israeli policy, the American Jewish institutional leadership will condemn their positions as anti-Semitic.

Moving past these internal doubts, some of the mainstream Protestant churches with large American constituencies – the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, for example – have pursued various avenues for influencing U.S. policy. Some have banded together in Churches for Middle East Peace. Others, through their leaders, have joined with Muslim and Jewish leaders in the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, which includes individuals from Reform and Conservative Judaism and from the umbrella Muslim group, Islamic Society of North America.

All these churches and church leaders have supported an ultimate two-state peace settlement in which a viable Palestine (that is, not a truncated patchwork of mini-cantons) lives in peace with Israel. Toward that end, they have promoted internal education in the churches, public ads in visible media, and small-group lobbying of administration and congressional officials. The interim steps they have proposed, chosen to appeal to cautious officials and mainstream Muslims, Jews, and Christians despite other disagreements, include the sending of a high-level U.S. mediator/ negotiator to the Middle East on the model of the Northern Ireland mission by former Senator George J. Mitchell.

Some of these churches raised a major storm and stress in Protestant-Jewish relationships by exploring the possibility of withdrawing investments they had made in specific companies like Caterpillar Tractor, which supplies bulldozers to the Israeli Army that are sometimes used to demolish Palestinian homes. Many Jewish organizations quickly described these proposals as “divesting from Israel” as a society and furiously denounced them as anti-Semitic. Even some vigorous critics of U.S. and Israeli policies and strong supporters of a two-state peace have felt that this laser-beam focus on divesting from specific companies was a waste of church energy. It expressed a certain kind of Christian religiosity more concerned with personal purity – “Not with my money you don’t!” – than with nitty-gritty efforts to change U.S. government policy. Would the impact on policy have been far greater and the Jewish backlash far less if the churches had bent every effort to insure that all the member churches of their denomination brought teams of one Israeli and one Palestinian to lay out in every church the draft peace settlement called the “Geneva Initiative”?

Though the previous and present Popes have made vigorous statements deploring the Palestinian-Israeli violence and the Roman Catholic Church seems favorable to a true two-state peace, the American bishops have been consumed during the last several years by the internal sexual-abuse scandal on the one hand and the questions of public policy on abortion and same-sex marriage on the other. As a result, they have put little energy into changing U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Indeed, their religious commitments on the issues of public policy about sexuality have drawn them in the direction of supporting an administration with which they tend to disagree on the Middle East, the Iraq war, and domestic social justice issues.

In the last decade, a branch of Christianity has risen to political power with an utterly different outlook on the Middle East. Large parts, though not all, of the evangelical churches have adopted Christian Zionism and even more intense versions of support for Israeli policy and hostility to Palestinian nationhood. These stances are predicated on a reading of what they call the “Old Testament” in which God calls for Israelite dominion over large parts of “the Promised Land” –including parts of present-day Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon as well as Israel, all of Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. In light of this understanding of God’s intentions, therefore, Palestinian nationhood would block the fulfillment of God’s intentions.

In the radical version of this theology, some Christians draw on the Book of Revelations to insist that the End of Days is close upon us. Its coming will entail the bloodiest of wars – Armaggedon (Har Megiddo in Hebrew, “Mount of Story-telling”) — in which Israel must utterly triumph over satanic foes. (Since many of these same Christians view Islam as satanic in origin or intention, their theological perspective fits the present reality.) Then, in a cosmic convulsion, some of the Jews will affirm Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Those who refuse will be annihilated.

The immediate policy implications of this theology are strong support for the Israeli occupation of what are now Palestinian regions, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and perhaps the expulsion of Palestinians from any part of the biblical “promised land.” And this wing of Christianity demands strong support from the U.S. government for all policies that strengthen Israel’s power and dominance of the region. Some Jews have balked at working with Christians whose ultimate theology is so hostile to Judaism. Others, however, do not expect this version of cosmic history to happen and therefore see no reason not to work with the various strands of Christian Zionism to strengthen Israel’s hand and U.S. support for its occupation.

In the political configurations of the U.S. government from 2000 to at least 2008, this religious outlook has had considerable power, not only at the congressional level but also in the White House. In spring 2003, for example, it looked as if the president were about to speak seriously about steps the Israelis — and not only the Palestinians — needed to take to make a two-state peace possible. A blizzard of faxes fell upon the White House from Christian Zionists demanding that for religious reasons the United States put no limits on Israeli dominance and expansion. When the president spoke, the speech asked little or nothing of the Israelis and a great deal from the Palestinians. The peace effort was stymied.

Since 2004, Christian evangelical activists who focus not on the eschatological future but on walking in the footsteps of Jesus have become more prominent. On issues of peace, poverty, and ecological awareness, they are a good deal like mainstream Protestantism. And they seek reconciliation among Jews, Christian Arabs, and Muslim Arabs in the Middle East, rather than Jewish dominance followed by Christian eschatological triumph. Whether this strand of evangelical Christianity will influence U.S. policy in the Middle East remains to be seen.

The Real Islamic Challenges

At first glance it might seem that American Muslims would have an intensity and focus on U.S. policy toward the Middle East at least as great as that of the American Jewish community, and therefore would be mobilizing in the same ways to affect U.S. policy. But there are several obstacles to such a mobilization.

One obstacle is the extraordinary diversity and multiplicity within American Muslim life. The community is made up of Muslims who are Arab, South and Southeast Asian, and African-American. There is far greater ethnic diversity than in any other American religious community (even Roman Catholics, who came mostly from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and more recently from Latin America). Because the organizational structure of Islam is decentralized — not only compared to hierarchical Roman Catholic structures but compared to Protestant and Jewish life — the ethnic diversity has not been organized either from the top or from the bottom into broad denominations.

The great swell of Muslim immigration to America and of the conversion of sizeable numbers of African-Americans to Islam is so recent that Muslims have only just begun to form political-action organizations. There has been no analogue, for example, to the great Jewish garment-worker unions of the early 20th century. There now exists a Muslim umbrella group — ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America. Also recently formed are political action groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. But these efforts are only beginning to create the kind of political clout that Jewish organizations achieved long ago.

Finally, since 9/11, Muslim organizing in America has been hobbled by fear that any dissent from governmental policy, particularly in regard to the Middle East, would be labeled as unpatriotic, even pro-terrorist. The fear is hardly unfounded. Just as the 9/11 attacks were unprecedented for their religious justification, so the response has included unprecedented governmental and public interference in Muslim religious life. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. authorities detained hundreds if not thousands of Muslims, usually without access to counsel or the knowledge of their families, and deported many of them. The U.S. government targeted mosques for surveillance and forcibly dissolved charitable groups on charges that they were aiding terrorists in the Middle East.

As it has among some Jews and some Christians, the worldwide earthquake has stimulated some restorationist fervor among some Muslims as well. And as in the other Abrahamic communities, some of these fervent restorationists have turned to coercion and violence as tools to turn back the clock on women’s rights and for triumphing over other religious paths and over “impurities” in the practice of some Muslims.

Among American Muslims, the world earthquake has also moved some to wish to restore Islam as they imagine it once was. Saudi Arabia has often assisted this effort with financial support for clearly restorationist Wahabbist Islam. Yet in America Muslims have provided minimal support for or participation in the use of violence to “restore” Muslim supremacy in the Middle East or achieve it in the world.

Despite all the factors that have militated against conscious Muslim organizing to affect U.S. policy toward the Middle East – great internal diversity, decentralized organization, the recent nature of immigration or conversion, the fear of being treated as dangerously anti-patriotic — some efforts to do so have begun to emerge.

Multireligious Solidarity

In a broader sense, the future holds open the question of new kinds of multireligious alliances among Jews, Christians, and Muslims to bring about change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Precisely because the obvious counter-tugs of religious beliefs and ethnic loyalties make such alliances difficult, the fact that such actions have happened at all might offer some promise.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, not only was there unprecedented governmental interference in Muslim religious life, there were also myriad small acts of multireligious solidarity as Jews and Christians reached out to protect Muslims from attack. Multireligious statements began to appear criticizing U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shared observances of the sacred seasons of the three Abrahamic faith sprang up. Interfaith groups that had emerged after World War II and the Holocaust to bring Jews and Christians together began to open up to Muslims as well.

The possibility of such interfaith and multireligious action — especially on the heavily freighted symbolic, religious, and ethnic issues of the Middle East — is one aspect of the religious renewal. Can the three Abrahamic faiths transform their relationships with each other in ways none of them would have been willing to do before? Does that require reassessing and reinterpreting the teachings and practices each tradition inherits from the past?

There are two radically different ways of responding to the worldwide earthquake that moves the ground beneath our feet. One way is to grasp at some pillar of past certainty that we hope can help us live through the quake and subdue its energy, so as to make it possible once again to walk, to march, in the path that we remember.

The other is to learn to dance in an earthquake. In that dance, all our old versions of dancing will have to be reworked. No pattern of steps that we knew before will keep us upright and graceful as the ground shakes beneath us. Dancing in the earthquake — renewing rather than restoring our traditions and communities — may well be necessary if religious life in America is to shape a new official policy toward the land from which our three major religions emerged – the Middle East.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), and author of many books on Jewish thought and practice and on U.S. foreign and military policy. Most recently, he co-authored with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Sufi Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon, 2006). For more articles in the Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus, visit http://www.fpif.org/fpifinfo/4590