In the past month, I’ve spent nearly two full weeks observing the General Assemblies of the two denominations to which we have the closest personal link: The Presbyterian Church in Canada, where Mark grew up, was ordained, and still calls home, and the Church of Scotland, where he has worshipped and worked for the last five-plus years (yes, even this past year in Jerusalem). Being who I am, of course, I listened largely with an ear towards Jewish-Christian issues, which this year meant the debate over the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships in the C of S, the Committee on Church Doctrine report on supersessionism in the PCC, and discussion on the Kairos Palestine Document in both, and I’ve already probably written well more about all that than anyone saving my ever-patient spouse wants to read.
But all those hours of listening left me with one firm conviction about Jewish-Christian relations: Judaism is, and must be seen to be, more than just Israel.
That it is not seen to be such is clear, when the former Communications Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, who both presumably and demonstrably has considerable skill and experience in crafting his words to communicate effectively, can speak in support of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to “prick the conscience” and “for the sake of” the souls of, not the citizens or residents of Israel, but of “the Jews of Israel” (emphasis added). It is clearer when nobody on the floor of the Assembly rises to query the speaker, and clearer still when a highly respected think-tank reprints the speech without comment or correction. Because everyone knows that Israelis are Jews.
Never mind the 19% of Israeli citizens who are Christians, Muslims, or Druze of Arab descent. Never mind the less easy to establish number of Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who are practising Christians (I would include in this number messianic believers, such as the members of the two congregations that the Church of Scotland in Tiberias provides worship space for; others, especially the congregations themselves, may differ on this point). Israelis are clearly Jews… especially when one is talking about barriers to the Church’s mission.
This is clear when the Kairos Palestine Document is discussed at the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and speaker after speaker rises to protest the document’s “lies” and “one-sidedness”, its silence on the State of Israel’s “right to exist”. It is clearer when, at that same Assembly, a Statement on that Canadian church’s Relationship with the Jewish People comes to the floor with not a single acknowledgement of the existence of any Jewish people actually living in Canada (except for a paragraph commemorating the existence of early 20th century missions such as the “Christian Synagogue” in Toronto) and nobody rises to object to this erasure, but rise instead to ensure that it is amended to make clear that the mission of conversion to those invisible Canadian Jews remains ongoing. It is even more clear when a major portion of the discussion is spent on questions about Israel: is it just for the Church to attempt any relationship with the Jewish People in light of the Israel/Palestine conflict? Precisely what language should be used to make clear The PCC’s unwavering support of the State of Israel “as a place the Jewish people can call home”? (The attempt to amend this paragraph did not succeed.) And it is blisteringly clear when a motion to refer the statement to the consideration of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee–the committee actually charged with attending to dialogue efforts with the very Canadian Jews whose existence the statement all but erases, the committee whose work is likely to be most immediately effected by the statement–is defeated. Because what could they possibly have to add to the conversation? Everyone knows that Jews are Israelis.
Never mind that the majority of Jews don’t live in Israel. Never mind that Canada itself has the highest number of Jews per 1000 people in the world (excluding the USA and Israel). Never mind that the communities that The PCC “sought to serve in the name of our Lord through specific missions in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg” are, in spite of rather than because of those missions, still there, still Jewish. Because everyone knows that Jews belong to, belong in, Israel… and nowhere else.
In a way, we have brought this on ourselves. Jewish organisations have placed an emphasis on politics in general, and defense of Israel in particular, often seeming to neglect religious (and inter-religious) issues; the exceptions to this tend to be smaller, either Orthodox or single-issue groups (and often both), campaigning against intermarriage or standing on the streetcorner teaching young men how to wrap tefillin. In a way, this is understandable: two Jews, as the saying goes, three opinions–it’s much easier for big-tent Jewish groups to focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us. That drive towards solidarity (alongside historical circumstances, such as the contemporaneity of Jewish emancipation and the rise of secular nationalism) has led to a tendency to emphasize Jewishness as a racial/ethnic identity which, in theory, we all share (even though in reality, Jews are as diverse in this respect as we are in any other), instead of a religious identity, the details of which none of us can agree upon. So less infighting about the limits of Rabbinic authority, and more solidarity against the creeping forces of anti-Semitism. And the State of Israel is a powerful symbol of that ethnic solidarity, enhanced by its resonance with our written record of religious memory, enhanced further by the far more recent memory of what can be done to a people who are denied the right to citizenship in the land where they reside, who lack a homeland. We are, understandably, loath to turn our backs on it.
But to many of us–50% is the figure I see cited most often, though I haven’t been able to find an actual, reliable source for that number–for whom Jewish descent is not the sole, or even the dominant, component of our heritage, talking about Judaism as an ethnicity, or a national belonging, makes little to no sense. I am not Jewish because one (or both, the family record is fuzzy on this point) of my mother’s grandparents came from the Pale of Settlement, spoke Litvak, and cooked a lot of cabbage, any more than I am Catholic because one of my mother’s other grandparents came from Italy, or, for that matter, Presbyterian because one set of my father’s grandparents came from Glasgow (and also cooked a lot of cabbage). To me, and to many other Jews, especially in the Diaspora, Jewishness is, if not so much a choice, then a conviction: I am Jewish because, as the Hasidim might say, my soul is Jewish: because out of all the ways of being in the world, being in relationship to the world, and understanding what there is beyond the world that are available to me, whether by ancestral inheritance or some other means, a Jewish way is the way that resonates with me, that gives me a firm foundation on which to stand and pushes me to reach out beyond myself, to seek God’s plan and work for God’s kingdom on earth. I am Jewish–completely Jewish–because that is my religion, just as I am Canadian–completely Canadian–because that is my nationality, where I was born and grew up and had a civil union (because those are legal there, yo) and where, no matter where else in the world I wander, I always come back to in the end. And my being Jewish makes me not one bit less Canadian than any other citizen of Canada, and not one bit more Israeli than anyone else in the world who, like me, does not hold (and does not intend to hold) Israeli citizenship.
When organisations such as The Canadian Jewish Congress are perceived as prioritizing support for Israel over respect for the legitimacy of Judaism as a religion, whether that is an accurate perception or not; when Jewish voters are asked to support candidates who blatantly do not share our values or our goals for our country, but whose foreign policy is perceived as pro-Israel, whether that is an accurate perception or not; when anti-Semitism is condemned as racism but theological anti-Judaism is ignored as unimportant or, worse, inevitable–then what happens is not actually a defense of the Jewish community, but a surrender to exactly the twisted thinking that turned European Jews into permanent, untrusted, outsiders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, sojourners in foreign lands, whose loyalties must always be presumed to lie elsewhere. The cohesiveness, and value, of national identity is diminished. The value of religion (and not just Judaism) is diminished. Humanity is diminished.
Judaism is far, far more than just Israel. And it’s well past time that everyone remembered that.