Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An exchange of e-mails between myself and the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

On July 27 I e-mailed Carol Hylkema the Moderator of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

This is my e-mail:

Dear Carol,

I am writing in regards to the booklet, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace. I am both reading and blogging on this booklet. I am bothered by the history of Israel as it is portrayed in the booklet, but I must admit that I have not seen such a blatant statement of anti-Semitism in a Christian Church publication as this quote:

“The founding narrative of the State of Israel links the modern-day Jews’ claim to the land of Israel/Palestine to their direct genealogical descent from the ancient Israelites. Recent anthropological scholarship shows that this widespread belief is very likely a myth, not historical fact. Shlomo Sand, an expert on European history at the university of Tel Aviv, and author of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? posits that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later. Thus, he argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the ancient land of Israel.”

I must ask the question, who wrote that and why are you allowing it in a Presbyterian publication? Does it not bother you that you have cut the Jewish people away from their own Biblical history? This is not unlike statements made by racist anti-Semitic groups, who also wish to cut the Jewish people away from their history.

I am sincere in asking for information about who wrote that and why? Can you give an explanation for this? Will you please tell me you have done this unintentionally? Will you apologize? I have written on this here:

Were Holocaust victims linked genealogically to biblical Israel?

In the grace of God,
Viola Larson

(In case anyone wonders I used Ms Hylkema first name because we know each other and it seemed a bit more friendly)

Here is the e-mail that came today. I will be answering it in my next posting.

Dear Ms. Larson,

Carol Hylkema has asked me to respond to your email of July 27 and I am happy to do so. In your letter you say that you are "reading and blogging on [Steadfast Hope]." Your description indicates that you are commenting publicly about a document that you yourself may have misunderstood.

Your specific point of concern is the challenge posed by Professor Shlomo Sand's research on Jewish genealogy and demography to some of the common understandings about the connection between the Jews as a people and the modern-day state of Israel. Sand's fundamental assertion that the Jewish people have, like all populations, experienced dynamic historical forces including migration, conversion, and intermarriage is, on the face of it, not controversial. The world is and has always been a "melting pot." (A related historical issue not mentioned in the resource is whether some present-day Palestinian Muslims are the descendants of Jews who converted to Islam during the era of Islam's expansion who have, themselves, subsequently intermarried with Muslims of non-Jewish ancestry.) Future scholars will continue the fascinating project of uncovering centuries of Jewish history; those historians will continue the time-honored service of those in their profession: making important discoveries, challenging common assumptions, and disagreeing with each other.

Even so, it would be a mistake to reduce the vitally important ongoing conversation about Israel/Palestine to an argument about genetic purity and we assume your inquiry to Ms. Hylkema is not an attempt to do so. Sand's claim that many Jews in the modern-day global diaspora are not direct genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites does not and cannot challenge the powerful collective identification among many Jews with Israel as the spiritual homeland referred to in their sacred scriptures and prayers.

Steadfast Hope makes the simple, factual observation that biblical/theological claims to the land are made by followers of all three of the Abrahamic religions. Such claims undermine peace because they pit Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions against each other and provide their followers with divine sanction for the harm they do to members of the other religions.

Historical examples include 1) the Christian use of biblical texts during the Crusades; 2) Christian use of New Testament texts to claim that in Christ God’s covenant with the children of Abraham has passed from Jews to Christians (the so-called supersessionist theology); 3) the use of the Quran to justify jihad against Christians and Jews; and 4) the Zionist claim to all the “Land of Israel” based on biblical texts in which God makes these promises to Abraham and his descendants. The book of Hebrews challenges this Zionist reading of the Old Testament by claiming that the “real” children of Israel are not genetic descendants but descendants by faith.

Steadfast Hope proposes that the use of these and other scriptural claims to land perpetuates the conflict and that a lasting, durable resolution to the conflict will be based on international law and respect for the humanity and aspirations of all who live in the Holy Land. This is the approach that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has taken in its statements about Israel/Palestine ever since 1948.

If you are interested in pursuing the issue of the role of the Bible in the Israel/Palestine conflict I would recommend to you the 2009-10 Horizons Bible study selection by Dr. Mary Mikhael, President of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, entitled Joshua: A Journey of Faith.

As you surely understand, practical size limitations pose an enormous challenge in any treatment of a complex topic. We have not attempted the impossible task of covering all aspects of the conflict, but have chosen instead to highlight perspectives that are less well known to many Americans, including our fellow Presbyterians. As we explain in the booklet, "Even now, however, Americans are broadly familiar with the dominant Jewish narrative about Israel, but relatively few fully comprehend the Palestinian historical narrative.... This widespread imbalance in understanding is, itself, a barrier to peace.... It does not diminish the importance of the Jewish narrative on Israel to advocate an equivalent awareness of the Palestinian experience both past and present." (p. 4) It is our sincere hope that Steadfast Hope will be the beginning of a journey of discovery for concerned readers, not an end in itself.

Given your interest in Jewish history, tradition, and genealogy, you may wish to read Sand's work in its entirety before dismissing its conclusions. Evidently a large number of Israelis do not regard his scholarship as anti-Semitic because his book was on the best seller list in Israel for nineteen weeks when it first came out in Hebrew.

Best wishes to you and your congregation as you engage in these and other important issues related to peacemaking in Israel/Palestine.


Walt Davis,
Chair, IPMN Education Working Group


Aric Clark said...

Seems like he answered all your concerns thoroughly and patiently. Always nice when misunderstandings get cleared up.

Viola Larson said...

They are answered but still from a very slanted view. I will not discuss that under this posting because I am working on the answer.

will spotts said...

Aric, that is too funny.

I would say, you've gotta be kidding, but I suspect you're not.

Pastor Bob said...

There is a simple answer to this and maybe someone has already done it. Get some DNA from Ashkenazi Jews and from Sephardic Jews, (and from Palestinians, wouldn't that be interesting?) and see what connections there are. People are trying this these days and finding curious connections all over the world.

Maybe I've missed something about Shlomo Sands work but I didn't get the impression that he has done DNA work. If I misunderstand this I am willing to be corrected.

Viola Larson said...

Rats, Bob I was saving this for my next posting, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/09/science/y-chromosome-bears-witness-to-story-of-the-jewish-diaspora.html

Viola Larson said...

By the way it not only proves that Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews are from the same line it proves that they are all cousins to the Palestinians.

will spotts said...

Pastor Bob - Sand's work was not of that kind at all. It was - as Sand claimed - historiography.

Aric - Sorry for the snarky response. I was just shocked. Because even on its face this letter / email is so extremely far removed from adressing the concerns Viola raises - or that others would have with the IPMN booklet's use of Sand - as to be ridiculous on its face. So when you opined that misunstandings were cleared up, it was very jarring.