Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide

Mark Johnson

Zionism Unsettled

**The latest resource developed by The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is apparently stirring up some resistance, as one might expect was expected and perhaps even intended from the double entendre of the title. Intended to be used with a new collection of essays, Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land due out later this year, the guide can also be treated as a free-standing resource and is further supported by almost three hours of DVD talks.

Zionism is treated historically, philosophically, theologically, and politically and examined through the lenses of Judaism and the Jewish State, Christianity, and Islam. Intended initially for Christian audiences the faith perspectives range from Catholic, to Mainline Protestant, to Evangelical  and Christian Zionist points of view, as well as a chapter by Rabbi Brant Rosen. The nine chapters are each about three pages long, are summaries of longer chapters in the full text, and have a 20+ minute video episode related to each chapter. The design for congregational study includes suggestions for a one week overview and four and eight week versions. Each chapter includes a set of three or four questions as discussion starters and the text is richly footnoted so anyone wishing to seek out sources or do more reading is well served.

Produced in cooperation with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Center, a postscript by Palestinian Liberation Theologian, The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, summarizes the conclusion this way: “…Zionism is the problem. Zionism is a doctrine that provides the state of Israel with a firm – even dogmatic – religio-national identity justified by an appeal to God’s will, to historical memory, and to mythical racial ancestry.” As a co-author of another challenging document in the field of interfaith dialogue, Kairos Palestine, zeroes in on one of the core points of controversy:

The casual reader [of the Kairos Palestine statement, but of this study guide as well] may miss the severity of the(se) charges. It is the equivalent of declaring Zionism heretical, a doctrine that fosters both political and theological injustice. This is the strongest condemnation that a Christian confession can make against any doctrine that promotes death rather than life.

With reference to both founding doctrine and literature, and contributions or references to current Jewish scholarship and activism from people such as Rabbi Brant Rosen and Jewish Theologian Marc Ellis, the Guide makes clear that much of the criticism of Zionism as a political ideology has been present from its inception. The ambiguities of a secular rationale that leverages religious texts and arguments is also familiar and clear throughout.

Given the likelihood that the largest audience will be American, it would have been helpful if there were a chapter that worked out some of the parallels between Black liberation theology and Palestinian liberation theology especially at a time when the issues of discrimination and separation and the calls for boycotts, sanctions and divestment give the current concerns for Palestinian rights clear references to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the anti-Apartheid struggles of South Africa.

Having just returned from leading a delegation in the area myself, I also think there is room for a closer examination of what underpins the expansion of settlements, theological and politically. But it is hard and even unfair to fault a provocative, useful, comprehensive resource with occasional personal preferences. The Zionist program as it manifests itself in deepening occupation and oppression is a quandary, even a deep moral morass, which we (Israelis and U.S. citizens) must face urgently. As Rabbi Rosen warns, “…when we  put our faith in the power of empire, we may well be sowing the seeds of our own destruction.”

As a side note, the video segments, while helpful and appropriate for learners who respond more directly to audio-visual resources, the quality is varied and the sources quite mixed. Some of the segments are of a documentary nature, others are from lectures at conferences. It is an ambitious undertaking with the full claim to a study guide being well served by the effort.

Those interested in watching the debate unfold will be easily lead to the exchanges on various social media sites including those of CLBSJ, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog and various Presbyterian sites. The materials themselves can be ordered through the Presbyterian Mission Network’s website: www.theIPMN.org.