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Issue Date:  November 4, 2005

No easy travels

Israeli-Palestinian issues at core of dialogue, friendship


In the first note I ever received from Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko, there was a hint that the terrain I was being invited into would present no easy travels, no quick way between start and finish, if, indeed, there might ever be anything approximating a finish. The Israeli-Palestinian problem has consumed far more determined attempts to arrive at understanding. They always come up short of a finish line.

So what could a Catholic editor and an Orthodox rabbi accomplish where so much blood has been shed, where hatred spans decades and where the only point of agreement seems to be that the competing claims are now and forever irreconcilable? I still don’t know, but I also cannot turn my back on an invitation to talk.

I should have suspected that in the months after I received that first note I would be lugging, in addition to my normal brief case, a canvas bag or two of papers, letters, and books to and from work.

The first note came on stationery of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. I have since learned that Rabbi Poupko, aside from being a Judaic scholar and inveterate teacher, is, as part of his professional responsibilities, a monitor of the religious, particularly Christian, press on matters involving the Jewish community, especially Israel. I am not the only editor who has felt the gentle sting of his critiques or who has faced an occasional torrent of scholarship that pours out in support of one of his arguments.

In his note of March 2003 seeking a meeting, he said he was “concerned by articles in the National Catholic Reporter on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We seek this meeting not just because we both share the same public space here in the United States, which requires that we do as much as possible to strengthen the social contract amongst us. After all we share the belief that all human beings are created in tselem elokim, the image of God. We want to meet with you because of all the major Christian churches, especially under the leadership of John Paul II, no other church has done as much as the Catholic church to seek meaningful relationship with the Jewish people and Judaism. It is our experience that we enjoy something special with Catholics. It is in that spirit, and for that purpose, that we would like to visit with you in Kansas City in order to begin a dialogue.”

I should have suspected his was an invitation to the long haul when he ended with the phrase “to begin a dialogue.”

He didn’t say “to talk” or “to dialogue” or “to discuss” certain issues. He said, “to begin a dialogue,” which left it all open-ended. Rabbi Poupko is nothing if not patient. The Jewish world, after all, has just begun the year 5766. If the Catholic church can get a bit smug about its longevity, the good rabbi can go the church a few millennia better.

In short, and there is little else short about this tale, I agreed to begin a dialogue and somewhere along the way I said I wanted to write about it, “it” being mostly an extended discussion about Jews and Catholics, Israel and the Palestinian people. One might embark on emptying the Mississippi with a teaspoon.

* * *

On my way to Israel in June of last year, I stopped off in Rome for two days and conducted a few interviews around the Israeli-Palestinian problem. One of them was with a priest close to the negotiations between the Vatican and Israel. The Vatican is like the U.S. State Department: Everyone is willing to talk, but not on the record. Sitting across from me in a dim little coffee bar, he gave perhaps the most economical and precise assessment of the deepest root of the current controversy. He said the Zionist enterprise -- to fashion a homeland for Jews -- was a noble and worthy undertaking. The only problem, he said, was that the Jews decided to stake their claims -- or re-stake their claims, depending on how one looks at it -- on land that was already occupied.

It was not, however, just a priest in Rome who could come up with such an austere assessment. That kind of stark honesty, I was somewhat surprised to discover, was close to the surface of most of the conversations I have had with Jews both in the United States and during a brief week I spent in Israel.

I would realize in hindsight that the sum of those discussions, the most striking and condensed description of what the early Zionist project meant to Palestinians and, in turn, to Jews, I actually began reading on the flight from Rome to Israel in Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948.

Benvenisti was deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978. As a youngster, before the 1948 war that established the modern Israel, he often accompanied his father, a geographer and cartographer, on excursions to devise a new map of the ancient land and to rename Arab locations with Hebrew names. His father believed, writes Benvenisti, that there was room for everyone and that he was peacefully reclaiming -- by renaming -- the land:

The map [my father] drew and the textbook he wrote were meant to transform symbolic possession of the land into actual possession by inculcating his children and countless other young Israelis with the Zionist ethos of moledet (homeland): knowledge of its glorious Jewish past, intimate communion withits nature, and personal commitment to pioneering in collective agricultural settlements.

The Arabs, Benvenisti writes, took his father seriously only when it was too late. His father’s map “triumphed,” he writes, “and I, his dutiful son, was left with the heavy burden of the fruits of victory. The victory was so overwhelming that it utterly destroyed my childhood landscape, and my sense of loss was mixed with pride in my people’s triumph.”

The 1948 War made the new maps a reality. For Israel, it was an overwhelming military victory over Palestinians that left little trace of “the physical landscape of Eretz Israel/Palestine,” as Benvenisti refers to it. Eretz means land of.

If Benvenisti begins to sound a bit overwrought in his lamentation for the Palestinians’ plight, there is, of course, a balancing sentiment, a reading of history that tilts it toward Zionist logic.

Some, he said, would depict the Palestinians as “defenseless and peace-loving people who fell victim to evil forces,” the Zionists, who destroyed their villages, their way of life, their existence as a nation. At the same time, he writes: “There is no need to prove here that the 1948 War started because the Palestinians refused to accept the United Nations Partition Plan.” And so it has gone on, seesawing, since the beginning.

That said, Benvenisti embarks on a long and detailed, often village-by-village reconstruction of the rout of Palestinians by Zionist fighters. In describing the Deir Yasin Massacre, he employs especially inflammatory language: “There is no doubt that the Yasin [a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem] Massacre deserves to be characterized as ethnic cleansing of the cruelest and most brutal sort.”

He characterizes Jewish reaction to the Palestinian uprooting and subsequent “exodus” as impersonal and rote, a reaction that presupposes “that Arabs are incapable of feeling a sense of metaphysical belonging to the landscape and of calling it the ‘homeland.’ ”

I found Benvenisti’s perspective fascinating. It provided a manner of template for me when discussing the current situation with Rabbi Poupko and in discussions I had with an array of Israelis during my visit. It is a merging of a moral concern, of an unblinkingly honest, ethics-laced assessment of history with a clinical, self-interested pragmatism. And that pragmatism concludes, in every instance, from the most ardent advocates of Palestinian rights and nonviolence to those significantly right of such views: regardless of what’s gone on, regardless of what mistakes we may have made, we belong here. And since we belong here, our security is paramount.

Evidence is ample that there is no small dose of guilt woven in. Writes Benvenisti:

This much I can do for my brothers-enemies: erect signposts of memory. Not that they need me to do this, and some of them might claim that I have robbed them not only of their land but also of their memories. But I claim a share in their vanished landscape, for it is part of me. More important, it is an ineradicable epoch in the history of our shared land, and its destruction is a wound that cannot be healed by ignoring it. Perhaps my genuine affinity and shared nostalgia, my willingness to assume responsibility by openly expressing a sense of guilt for wrongdoings and compassion for suffering will help rekindle hope for a better, more equitable coexistence in our common homeland.

Yet, such confession notwithstanding, Benvenisti concludes almost defiantly:

I refuse to take more than my share of this responsibility and certainly cannot accept the contention that my birth in this land was an imperialist sin. No attempt to manipulate my sense of guilt will succeed in shaking my belief in my birthright to this land.

I reference Benvenisti to such an extent because I am inexperienced at exploring this landscape, and he seems to represent as fully as an individual might the tensions and the seeming incongruities with which so many Jewish souls appear to wrestle. Benvenisti speaks of being “haunted” and of allowing “the tragedy of the Palestinians” to “penetrate my Zionist shield.” And if he, a convinced Israeli Jew, can be haunted, why can’t others?

So which is it? Triumph or tragedy? Can it be both? Benvenisti writes of the Arabs:

They were indeed my brothers, but also my mortal enemies: I knew that had they won they would have destroyed our landscape. That was the nature of our “shepherd’s war,” and all our self-serving beliefs that there was enough room for everybody were false.

Can one, if Benvenisti represents a common strain of thinking (something I deduce from limited experience and without any science to back it up), avoid the question of how Jews, so deeply a people of memory, square the banishment and elimination of Palestinians with the unrelenting memory of their own worst hour, the Holocaust?

* * *

Before we met at NCR in May 2003, the rabbi and I agreed that we would both read brief statements, summing up the sense of our phone conversations to that point and then opening the day to general discussion.

I told those gathered -- the NCR editorial staff and some of Poupko’s colleagues -- that “implicit” in the rationale for the founding of NCR 40 years ago was an “impulse central to lay people who were newly realizing that they were the church, the people of God … and that impulse was to give voice to people who had no voice, who were shut out, on the margins, under the big guns of those who wield power.

So we plead editorially for those who can’t ask for themselves, I said, not just to be contrarian, but because it is part of our mission. More than that I said, “It is an instinct, a conviction deep within our religious bones. Our sacred texts say some powerful if confounding things about the downtrodden and those not in the mainstream,” that the downtrodden “are to be placed at the center of the community’s life and concern.”

On covering Jewish issues, I said, I perceived two different, if parallel, tracks. In general, where the issues involved the historic relations between Jews and Christians, “specifically Jews and Catholics,” I said, “NCR might even appear at times as a champion of Jewish identity, religion and values and a rather severe critic of the conduct of our own community.

“When the case is the conflict in Israel, we clearly are not a champion of Israel’s tactics in dealing with the Palestinian question.”

In the latter case, I said, “old instincts take over.” What we see when we look at the conflict is “the guy with the biggest guns, with tanks, with attack helicopters, fighter jets, the ability to deliver bombs and bulldoze houses, to lock down territories, with the biggest and strongest friend anyone could have, saying to the rock throwers and suicide bombers: ‘First, you have to put down your weapons, and then we’ll talk.’ ”

Poupko, in his turn, said, “What we would like to do is to tell you our story, and for you to understand how we read what you write about us. What would we like to have emerge from this meeting? … Our goal for today’s meeting is for you to come to know our greatest joys and our deepest fears, and if you know our joys and our fears, then you can talk with us, and dialogue will prevail.”

On the matter of Israel, Poupko spoke of its government as one “like all other such governments. It is made up of human beings … Sometimes it does wonderful things, and sometimes it does things that are wrong or ill informed. It pursues nobility, and it sometimes falls short. We know that criticism, per se, of the practices or policies of any given government of Israel does not constitute anti-Semitism. Surely, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but these days most anti-Semitic statements contain anti-Israel statements. The criteria that we use to assess bias toward us are as follows. First, criticism of Israel that partakes of New Testament motifs and ideas that became part of the advursus Judaeos tradition, or those that partake of medieval, Christian, anti-Semitic stereotypes; second, if we are criticized for the very same thing for which others are not criticized, this is a double standard; third, if we, the Jewish people and Israel, become the arena and the issue for the discussion and debate of internal Christian differences, such as the current debate between the evangelical versus mainline Protestants about theological meaning of the state of Israel; fourth, the use of anti-Semitic motifs unique to the secular modern period of the past two centuries such as those found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which sets forth images of Jewish involvement in international dominating conspiracies, of the right and the left.”

What he found in NCR, he said, were the extremes of opinion and political expression from the peripheries of the Jewish community -- “the far, far right” and “the far, far left, and the American Jewish community and the Jewish community in Israel then looks at your paper and the way you report and wonders, what sense does this paper have of us?”

Further, he said, “When I read your coverage of Israel and the Palestinians, I do not recognize myself there, nor do I recognize or find in your pages the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people I know, with whom I live and work, with whom I fight, argue and pray on a daily basis about these issues. I find that your coverage and comment is about our fringes and our exceptions. This is not how one gets to know us. This cannot be a basis for dialogue.”

He referred to a phrase I used, “dip into history,” in our conversations and in print. “It is a good and useful phrase,” he said. “As Tom notes, dipping into history can be quite arbitrary. Yet, when I read the NCR, I have a sense of a dip into history in which the only history is a Palestinian people occupied by a white, Western, American-sponsored colonial power, supported by evangelical Christians, in a war whose 1967 origins are not explained, that took place in a part of the world whose neighborhood is not described, and who are suffering without reference to the political-historic circumstances of their choices, and the choices of the rest of the Arab world, nor to the day-to-day behavior of their leadership.”

* * *

And that’s how the discussion got started. I jokingly now refer to Poupko as my rabbi, but, and I ask him here to forgive a bit of ecumenical presumption, it’s only partly a joke. For while some of my disagreements with him are probably intractable, my respect for him is deep. He is a holy man, a man of prayer and strong convictions, a man who, for all of his devotion (I would say rigid adherence) to tradition, is in profound ways a modernist. He is, as I have heard him say about others, an ish tov, a holy man. And when his life and his thinking sometimes reside in seemingly irreconcilable spheres, he doesn’t try to find a way to smooth things over. That’s simply the way things are for the moment. He is a person of integrity.

Poupko, born in Pittsburgh, is a roundish man with a quick smile who disdains anything that might even hint of exercise. He loves to tell stories, he has a line of Torah for even the smallest event of an average day, and he loves to laugh.

He is fond of saying to me, and here is a point to which I had not given much thought before we met, that the two of us could only have this conversation because we live in the 21st century in America in the post-Vatican II era. It is a conversation essentially dependent on particulars of time and place. “Beyond the subject that brought us to Kansas City,” he writes in a letter, “the fact is our meeting was an historic one. Meetings such as this were unthinkable as recently as 20 or 30 years ago; we should all keep this in mind. We must now continue to be in touch with each other.”

The conversation, and I use that term in a very broad sense, I depict here is drawn from phone calls, conversations while in Israel and no fewer than a half-dozen letters, some long and detailed explications of theology, history and a kind of Israeli apologetics.

* * *

I think anyone going to Israel expecting to find a key to resolving things will be disappointed. In my brief time there I came only to understand more deeply why the conflict eludes resolution.

Israel is small, and the fact that its neighbors are not neatly behind lines, as they might appear on a map, but just beyond that hill or this bit of desert and that those neighbors are able to inflict damage easily is dramatically apparent.

People who live near East Jerusalem can point to the bus stop just blocks from their homes where suicide bombers blew up buses; others can show you the pedestrian mall and shops, jammed with young Israelis the nights we visited, where suicide bombers wreaked mayhem. Ah, but the wall -- “we prefer to call it a fence,” Poupko and others would say -- has kept the murdering terrorists at bay and has kept hundreds of young Palestinians from committing the sin of murder and from destroying their own families. And it was true, by the summer of 2004 the terrorism had largely ceased on the Israeli side of the barrier.

So it is settled, one might say, the wall is a good thing.

But the same morning that the rabbi and I and NCR columnist Neve Gordon, who at the time taught at Ben Gurion University in Jerusalem, drove along a portion of the 120-mile-long wall that can run as high as 25 feet, the rabbi and I had first visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust center. Some might convincingly argue that the Holocaust itself at times suffers from overuse, that the constant recollection of that horror can actually begin to blunt its effect. Yet the Rabbi reminds me that “many Christians want us to forget 6 million Jews who were murdered just 60 years ago, but won’t let us forget the death of one man, a Jew, who died almost 2,000 years ago.”

In the dark starkness of the Yad Vashem museum one encounters a memorial born of those who suffered; there is a very thin degree of separation here. This recollection constructs, in a way one imagines no other culture could, the record. And it is the record that begins to wear down this non-Jew, it is the record that leaps from the walls and climbs on the back and shoulders, an incalculable weight. For what is irreducible is the meticulously kept record, on ledger paper, the lists and lists of Jews, lists blown up many times beyond life-size in this exhibit. Names and addresses, photos of the Jews behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto and in the death camps and the grinding, unavoidable fact that they convey: Christian Germany systematically attempted to eliminate all Jews.

“Never again,” I would hear more than once in discussions with Israelis, “will we be dependent on someone else for our security.”

(I can understand the sentiment, but that claim, in the least, overstates the case. Israel is dependent on the United States to the tune of about $2.5 billion per year, an amount that, considered with the $1.8 billion that annually goes to Egypt, means that the Middle East takes about a third of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of the money is for military purchases. At the same time, the United States has provided about $85 million a year in foreign aid to the Palestinians since 1993 according to a recent analysis by Churches for Middle East Peace.)

At the wall (‘fence’ is, I think to myself, standing on the Palestinian side of it, a perfectly inadequate descriptive), I sense that my friend the rabbi is not enjoying this part of the day. He is unusually silent, and the set of his jaw says to me that this part would be tough for any Jew, particularly after a trip to the museum.

We drive past a point where components of the wall are lying on the ground, mid-construction, and it is clear that Palestinian neighborhoods will be split, that anyone who works on the other side would soon face the annoyance and, not infrequently, humiliation of another checkpoint. We see newly dead businesses, dried up because the traffic that once provided customers has been choked off by the wall.

There is an unavoidable sense that, even in this mildest portion behind the wall, we are, nonetheless, behind the wall. The good life and opportunities are definitely somewhere else on the other side of the wall.

Where we are is a Palestinian ghetto.

Sometime later that day we are inside the Israeli Defense Ministry, talking to retired Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, who is in charge of the wall. He pulls out maps of the area where we recently were and aerial photographs clearly showing the area of construction we had passed. These are detailed photos. I ask him how small an image whatever took the photos for these maps could capture. He said 30 centimeters. I asked him how they were taken. He smiled.

Again, as we get talking about the “barrier” I am fascinated at how quickly a kind of moral content surfaces. Spiegel is not uneasy with ambiguities, with the possibilities that the Israelis have made mistakes, or that the “fence” may have to be moved, or that if there is political stability that it might come down. He is not unwilling to say that it is a difficult situation for Palestinians. But, as always, security trumps all other considerations.

The points the retired general made echoed conversations I would have throughout the visit. And yet several people I spoke with didn’t hesitate to say they thought it wouldn’t be long before the violence that previously passed through the checkpoints and around barricades would begin coming over them.

That was one of the arguments Khaled Abu Toameh made. He’s an Israeli Arab and a reporter for The Jerusalem Post. He is valuable to the rabbi’s point of view because he was willing to say loudly at the time that he wished the Western world would recognize that Yassir Arafat was terribly corrupt. He knew that, he said, because he was daily in the villages and the refugee camps. He knew, he said, that little international aid goes to relief of Palestinians.

He was disgusted with the lack of accountability and the rampant corruption of Palestinian leadership.

I don’t know how he feels post-Arafat, but at the time there was, fitting for this part of the world, another, almost diametrically opposed part of the story. Abu Toameh told it in a second meeting, later in the day. He wanted me to know that the growth of the wall would merely inspire another wave of violence and discontent. And he wanted me to know that he felt the pain of prejudice as an Arab Israeli. Arabs, he said, have to send their children to inferior schools, are treated as second-class citizens and draw the suspicions of Israeli authorities. When he goes to the airport with colleagues, he is the one pulled out of line for special scrutiny.

He said he believed that if conditions did not improve another intifada might be brewing, this time on the Israeli side of the wall.

After several days of conversations that bounced relentlessly between poles with almost no hint of synthesis or the possibility of moving beyond the struggle that defines so much of life and the landscape here, I anticipated a diversion the morning we met Fr. Michael McGarry of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for a tour of some Christian sites in the Old City portion of Jerusalem. And there was a bit of a respite, without going into details. But it is also worth mentioning that one of the first sites we visited was a small sanctuary where two liturgies, of different branches of Christianity, were going on simultaneously, one to the left and one to the right as we entered the door of a small space. Each celebrant was saying the prayers at the top of his lungs. One would not be outdone by the other.

The divisions in the Church of the Sepulcher are well-known, and the site, said to be that of Jesus’ tomb, has a structure above it that, we were told, is falling apart. It is braced by scaffolding on all sides and apparently will remain that way because the Christian denominations feuding over this space cannot agree on how to have it fixed.

It was easy to come away convinced that Christians have little to bring to the table in the way of counseling reconciliation.

* * *

Brothers and enemies simultaneously is a reality that traces back through our history to the earliest of our shared sacred texts. But I wonder, without an answer, if the different ways we perceive and understand those texts can explain anything about this endless struggle in the Middle East.

“In our tradition,” Poupko once wrote to me, “Adam is not the first sinner. Adam is the first one forgiven. … There is a difference in our traditions. In your tradition, people sin because they are sinners. In our tradition, people are sinners because they have sinned. But leaving that difference aside, our prayers focus us on this matter. Our refrain in the coming year is: ‘Who to peace and who to the sword; who to famine and who to nurturing; who for life and who for death.’ This is an awesome moment. I am nearly paralyzed by it.”

In our exchanges, it is not unusual for each of us to express gratitude for the ongoing conversation and a sense of uncertainty about where all of this goes.

At times, he becomes deeply reflective and personal: “And so I sit at home in my study, surrounded by ancient words given form and presence in books, reviewing the past year, reviewing my good deeds and my bad deeds, reviewing my sins and crimes and the few Mitzvot that I was able to fulfill. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder, for there are fewer years left. Each year brings me and all of us a year closer to that end.”

He is grateful for “the moment when we began to talk with each other.” At the same time, he writes, following a long cover story in which we reported on the wall being built, “you must know I still remain disappointed and concerned. I do understand you and the NCR better. I do understand that every group of people and every enterprise has a basic culture. I respect, indeed I revere, the tradition of NCR and its commitment to giving voice to the powerless and voiceless. And yet at the very same time that is only a part of the picture. One wonders what might happen if NCR could flesh out that picture.”

About an Editor’s Note column, he wrote, “For Tom Roberts is right to note at the end of a column that contains some good news in it [about Israel], that he then heard the news that an Israeli missile had gone into Gaza. But Tom Roberts should also have said at the very same time, that that missile targeted a murderer, and that Israel does not target civilians.” He recalls an incident in the recent past in which “seven people, civilians, unarmed, noncombatants, were targeted in Jerusalem.”

“Among them was my friend, David Appelbaum and his daughter Nava. He was to have walked her down the aisle to the wedding canopy that very next day. And instead the two of them were brought together to be buried beneath the canopy of God’s silent heaven. And this was a man who had saved the lives of so many Jewish and Palestinian children. And out of respect I will continue to raise issues like this with you, because you are someone, by virtue of commitment, ethics, morality, integrity and artistry, with whom I must reckon in the best sense of that term.”

* * *

My expectation is that I’ll continue to disappoint the rabbi. The devil may be in the details. If, indeed, he reveres NCR’s tradition then he knows that we will continue to report on history not merely as an account of those in power but also as the story of those acted upon. That means we will continue to listen to the soldiers, here and elsewhere, who are willing to speak out about the atrocities of targeting civilians, of leveling villages, of unnecessarily provoking conflict and causing humiliation.

It is not just an Israeli matter. It happens when forces are aligned against each other and when force is seen as the only way toward peace. We’ll continue to cover things in this manner because there are serious questions to be asked about how secure the peace can be and for how long when the peace depends on an occupation and an ever-expanding wall. Is it security or does it merely up the ante for another day?

I want him to know that there are other differences that mark our traditions that may be relevant to the case at hand. I love listening to him approach the question of the conflict and tot his way, bit by bit, to a vision of peace. He is meticulously pragmatic, working the calculus of this piece of land for that, this treaty against that, this concession for that bit of calm until he can see the glimmer of normality and an end to most violence.

At the same time, I know my tradition pushes me toward a peace that defies such logic, that of turning the other cheek and loving enemies. I have been told in my religious education to expect such notions to be dismissed as foolish.

The late Bishop Dom Helder Câmara of Recife, Brazil, for instance, a nonviolent force for enormous change and one of the more profound witnesses to the Christian Gospel in the 20th century, said that faced with the choice he would rather be killed than kill another. Perhaps I would like to think that also, and even though I cannot say it with conviction, I hold it as at least a guiding ideal. I know that the rabbi doesn’t share my admiration for that conviction. As he and I looked at the Old City and the Temple Mount from afar one morning in Jerusalem, I can remember thinking that perhaps this conversation that he and I decided to have was as good an example as one might find of such folly.

In fact, in a review of this piece before publication -- an agreement we had from the very start because I was using material from his letters that he had not originally intended for publication -- he acknowledges that the phrase “turn the other cheek” causes him to wince.

He sends a long note pointing out that in his view “the very use of the term ‘turn the other cheek’ carries “2,000 years of baggage” in which the God of the Hebrew Bible was “incorrectly and unjustly portrayed” as the “God of Vengeance and the God of the New Testament as the God of Love.

“When Gandhi wrote to Martin Buber that the reason the Jews of Europe died is because they did not practice nonviolent pacifism, Buber, hardly a centrist, largely but not entirely a pacifist, wrote back to Gandhi … telling him that the 6 million died because they had done exactly that. … It is, Tom, too soon for any Christian to turn to Israel and the Jewish people and say ‘turn the other cheek.’ ”

And so it is that we sometimes negotiate language, and sometimes, as in this case, we simply live with differences of opinion. He put it well in an earlier letter: “The fact is that we encounter each other in complicated ways. There is no such thing as a simple encounter between a Jew and a professing Christian. When a Christian meets a Jew, a Christian is meeting someone who, on the one hand, gave to the Christian, from his or her very own flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, and then rejected him. And when a Jew encounters a Christian, a Jew is encountering someone born out of her very own womb, who then turned upon her mother.”

He tells me in an informal interview, as I am writing this, that “the single most important thing I learned” from our conversations “is that when -- despite the fact that I have profound disagreements with NCR coverage and editorial line on Israel -- when Catholics criticize Israel it is political and not theological, as different from Protestants.” Catholics, he maintains, have a whole different way of looking at the world. “They no longer have a problem with a sovereign Jewish state. They no longer believe that the Jewish people have to wander the earth homeless, suffering and powerless for rejecting Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, Catholics don’t need a theological justification for accepting the Jewish return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland.”

I say I hardly represent all of Catholic thinking on the matter, and I know, too, that his observation is in no small way provoked by Protestant, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA), discussion of a campaign of sanctions against Israel for its policies and practices towards the Palestinians. And he says that some of the mainline Protestant leadership on the divestment campaign against Israel transfer the critical elements of the Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people to Zionism and the state of Israel.

So we move gingerly, he aware to the tip of every nerve in his body that a mere 60 years ago a Christian people attempted, with little outcry from the rest of the world, to eliminate Jews; that there are those, certainly in Israel’s neighborhood, who would like to see Israel disappear; and that there are still Christians who use the categories of earlier eras, the language of ancient hatred, to speak of Jews today in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Caution is alerted in me by the same elements, and complicates the critique of military actions and politics. For it is difficult to meet the rabbi’s criteria for avoiding anti-Semitism if, indeed, the object of the critique is a state where the religious and political realities are so intertwined as to seem to me inseparable.

Rabbi Poupko knows that he already has informed the reporting at NCR, that we now cast a wider net for sources when we do stories and that our opinion pages reflect a greater variety of views. We have begun to understand, if only a little more, the joys and fears of the Jewish people.

And that’s where we are. Talking. Exchanging phone calls and e-mails. Occasionally delving into particulars such as the Gaza withdrawal and the potential for peace. We agree often to disagree and we hear each other out.

And when politics and religion become too tedious, we talk about our children, and he, his grandchildren. And we know, then, that we’ll talk again.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 4, 2005

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