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CRITICAL SOLIDARITY VERSUS SLAVISH IDOLATRY

by Ted Schmidt

ted schmidt

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed…
Isaiah 5: 7

Religion as an institution, the Temple as an ultimate end, or, in other words, religion for religion’s sake, is idolatry.
The fact is that evil is integral to religion, not only to secularism.
Parochial saintliness may be an evasion of duty, an accommodation to selfishness.
Religion is for God’s sake.
The human side of religion, its creeds, rituals and instructions is a way rather than a goal. The goal is "to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with thy God." When the human side of religion becomes the goal, injustice becomes a way

Abraham Heschel

There are things which happen on a daily basis that make me very uncomfortable as a Jew. You cannot ignore a command that is repeated 36 times in the Mosaic books. You were exiled in order to know what it feels like to be an exile. I regard that as one of the core projects of a state that is true to Judaic principle.
Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, September 2002.

Listening to the readings at mass on October 5, I was transported back to an unforgettable conversation which I had about a dozen years ago on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I was interviewing the engaging Anglican canon of St. George’s Cathedral, Fr. Naim Ateek. In the cool confines of the cathedral I was stunned by one of his statements. Simply stated, Fr. Ateek informed me that Palestinian Christians and Arab Christians in general never use the psalms in their liturgies. When I enquired why, he said it was just too painful. The reading in the Catholic world on October 5 gave me ample proof of Ateek’s declaration.

     The sung psalm that day (which really does not appear in Psalm 80) is taken from the Isaianic reference which begins this article. "The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel." Now, Naim Ateek is a sophisticated scripture scholar. He well knows that the vineyard is a traditional Middle Eastern reference in the Hebrew Bible. Modern Christians similarly are aware of the prevalence of such rural references in both testaments. We recall, too, that the image of Israel as God’s vine occurs often as in the Isaiah reading above and in the 27th chapter of the prophet as well as in the 10th chapter of Hosea. Jesus as well is imaged as "the true vine" who tells us that "my father is the vine grower"(John 15). For sophisticated city dwellers like ourselves, the metaphor well expresses God’s divine purpose, God’s choice and care, and Israel’s destiny to expand and bear fruit for God.

     The pain, of course, for Palestinians is that when people hear the ancient reference today, that "the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel" there is a radical disconnect with the state policies of modern Israel. The 40-year Occupation and humiliation of Palestinians has been a source of massive suffering and injustice. What the Palestinian Arabs have experienced is what Isaiah refers to in our first reading. The biblical God expected justice –but received bloodshed– much like those suffering under Israel’s repressive policies.

     During the so-called Second Intifadah, the world has been subjected as well to the sickening response of desperate elements within Palestinian society –the nihilistic exploits of the so-called "suicide" bombers who have savagely murdered civilians. While unreservedly condemning these murders, I have always asked the question: why do so-called rational people resort to such barbarism? And the answer is quite simple. Some simply no longer care; they have given up after 40 years of weary humiliation, of consistent flouting of U.N. resolutions, of blind American support ($100 billion in aid, mostly military) since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. A pathetic Third World entity submerged in impotence against the fourth most powerful army apparently is even willing to immolate its own children in response. This is not the activity of rational people. This is pure and simple madness, bordering on the demonic. The answer, of course, as any psychotherapist will tell you, is to get to the source of the pain. As one commentator aptly put it, drain the swamp don’t murder every mosquito.

     Earlier in the week I had watched a fascinating CBC film clip narrated by the intrepid flack jacket-wearing reporter Neil McDonald. We saw McDonald report an amazing act of solidarity in modern Israel. Palestinian Arabs were shown harvesting an olive crop (another biblical image), something these people have been doing for hundreds of years on the same land. Now we saw the ugly face of Israeli settlers (mostly New York Jews) encroaching on Palestinian land shouting abuse. But the target now was mainly fellow Jews who had placed themselves as a buffer between the two camps. Then I saw the familiar face of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights. I had heard the rabbi lecture earlier last year in Toronto. His message was the same: these are not ethical Jewish values being lived out here. Of course, Ascherman was cursed as an Arab lover –and worse. Having interviewed many like Ascherman in Israel I never stop hoping in the incarnation of those Torah-like values which Rabbis Ascherman and Sachs (see above) reflect.

     For many years now I have been singing this song. I have always tried to practice a critical solidarity toward Israel, the kind that the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber embodied. For me that solidarity works in two ways: first, a solidarity towards my older brothers and sisters in faith, the Jewish people, their right to live in security and safe borders and secondly, a solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people.

     Readers of this column and my work for Catholic New Times may be aware of my own particular history in this regard. It has been detailed in a memoir I wrote entitled Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood. In this memoir of the 1940s and 1950’s I describe my deep immersion in the Jewish community, my love of it and an incident which triggered my resolution to bring Jewish suffering in the Holocaust to a wider audience. This I did as the first educator in the Canadian public system to systematically "teach" the Holocaust in high schools (1968-1996). It was the highlight of my teaching life.

     Since the release of my book, the love affair with the Jewish community has continued. The book has become a best seller in the Jewish community, reviewed favourably in the Jewish press and I have been a guest in synagogues, Hadassah circles, B’Nai B’rith venues and private homes, both reading and dialoguing with old and new friends. It has been a moving experience. While never looking for any thanks, I have been deeply touched by many expressions for my work in this area.

     Unfortunately and possibly inevitably, a widely publicized lecture I was to give at the Jewish Public Library was cancelled on October 1. I was told that by agreeing with Bishop Tutu on the question of the Palestinian minority I was persona non grata. My detractors, of course, were anonymous. My host told me that much pressure had been brought to bear on him and he had to cancel me. Several Jewish friends arrived at the library and were told nothing. A huge crowd, I was told, was very disappointed. Many e-mailed me for an explanation. I told them what I knew.

     My conclusion as a struggling Christian is quite simple. Like Fr. Ateek I know that Israel is both a metaphor for the Beloved Community of God’s Justice as well as a modern state. In its historical configuration it often defends interests and forgets values. In this way it is not unique. Many Jews, however, refuse to be submerged in naked power and realpolitik. They continue to believe that the Jewish people exist for a higher purpose. With these, I make common cause. If I am cancelled for agreeing with rabbis Ascherman and Sachs and Christians like Desmond Tutu, it is indeed a small price to pay.

     My friendship with the Jewish community is absolutely non-negotiable. But like all friends I will certainly reserve the right to disagree when the occasion warrants it. Lamentable cancellations like that of October 1 will neither deter me nor jeopardize friendships which can only thrive based on critical solidarity and not slavish idolatry. As well, I am equally confident that the blinkered thought police who managed to silence a real friend that October night will not be the final word in the Jewish community.

Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times.

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