Last weekend, I was in Fredericksburg, Va., giving talks at an Episcopal parish. On Sunday afternoon, I was part of a six-person Interfaith Panel, including a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim Shiekh, an African-American Baptist pastor, an Episcopal priest and a Catholic laywoman who works with children. We discussed the growth of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, affirmed that interfaith dialogue is more important than ever today, and offered suggestions for what can be done to give it more steam.
At one point in the conversation, I pointed out that most of the people involved in interfaith dialogue are religious progressives — of whatever tradition. What we need, I suggested, are more religious conservatives in such conversations.
At that point, the rabbi on the panel said he had reservations about the progressives because so many were not favorable to Israel. I did a momentary double-take, because I regard views of Israeli policies as separate from anti-Semitism, which I understand as prejudice against Judaism or Jewish people per se. Israel is a nation state, it seems to me ... to be judged according to the same norms by which we judge the United States or France or Argentina or wherever. (I decided not to pursue the topic on the spot, lest we be distracted from the larger issues. But later, in an e-mail, I invited the rabbi to further dialogue on the subject, but he declined.)
But, with the Netanyahu speech this week, I realize the importance of this distinction and the need to reiterate it at times. There are, of course, a good many Jewish people, both here and in Israel, who are critical of Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank, and of the recent war in Gaza. Likewise, there are many Israelis, as well as Americans, who are critical of the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the United States this week to speak to the U.S. Congress.
Now, granted, some people can harbor a deep anti-Semitism which gets carried away in rhetoric that conflates the Jewish people (or even the religion of Judaism) with the policies of Israel.
But most people I’ve met separate the two. These are legitimately separate realities. One time, I asked Rabbi David Saperstein — now President Obama’s International Ambassador for Religious Freedom — for his opinion on this, and he agreed that these two are separate issues.
So it is entirely possible to be opposed to the Netanyahu speech, or the Gaza War or the West Bank settlements, without being an anti-Semite.
Personally — to name just one of these issues — I oppose the Netanyahu speech because it was Speaker John Boehner, not President Obama, who invited him and threw protocol to the winds in doing so. Since Netanyahu faces an election in about two weeks, there is good reason to see political overtones in this event.
That said, the Israeli people have a perfect right, in two weeks, to re-elect him as prime minister, or to choose his opponent. Israel may have its faults, but it is an electoral democracy.