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Listening in while a PC(USA) pastor and a rabbi hold a respectful conversation on antisemitism, Islamophobia and the church

Two old friends, the Rev. Denise Anderson and Rabbi Alana Suskin, invite us along as they hold what can be a difficult discussion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Rabbi Alana Suskin (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Denise Anderson, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, had an hour-long conversation with an old friend last week and invited the rest of us to listen in.

Anderson’s old friend is Rabbi Alana Suskin, an educator, activist and writer and the co-founder and co-director of The Pomegranate Initiative, a nonprofit organization fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia through education and relationship-building. The two friends, who met about six years ago working on issues as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, labeled the event “Antisemitism, Israel Palestine and the Church: A Conversation.”

“This is billed as a conversation because that’s how it began,” Anderson said near the opening of their time together. “The best way to achieve lasting and just peace is to have these dialogues.”

It’s not necessarily a bad thing for Christians to call themselves Zionists — “it really just means Jewish people have a homeland in Israel in which we want to return,” Suskin said. “But I don’t think it’s helpful.” It’s more helpful, she said, “to talk about the issues in general.”

That suited Anderson. “These are things we wrestle with and don’t really know about in Christian circles,” she said, calling the conversation they were about to have “a fishbowl of sorts. Two faith leaders are leveraging our relationship to have honest, respectful and inquisitive conversations.”

Suskin noted she spoke in some depth on antisemitism during a “Just Talk Live” conversation held last month. “Antisemitism has a long history. It has religious and racial implications,” she said. “The historic one is more racial,” tracing its origin to 15th-century Spain and making its way through Enlightenment efforts to classify things scientifically. “You can still hear that in modern white supremacist and nationalist rhetoric,” Suskin said. It’s best to avoid lumping “the political issues we are talking about with issues of racism and religion.”

Judaism, as Suskin pointed out, is not a race. “There are Jews of many races,” she said, adding that “I get white privilege because I look white in certain places.” She said she first understood antisemitism as a racial trope when she visited Ukraine. “There’s a lot of uniformity in appearance there,” Suskin said. “I noticed people could really pinpoint who was not of Ukrainian descent.”

“Looking Jewish is not really a thing,” Suskin said. “Lots of people who look like me aren’t Jewish.”

“It recalls fluid and malleable constructions of race we have created in the U.S.,” Anderson said just before the two steered their conversation toward, as Anderson put it, “our engagement with Israel Palestine and our objection with the occupation.”

“This is not a religious or theological issue. It is a political issue,” Suskin said. “It is not a conflict between Muslims and Jews, or Christians and Jews. It is about land.”

“It is not impossible to get to a solution, and it’s not a conflict about religions,” Suskin said. “It’s about land.”

It’s also “not antisemitic to criticize Israel. Jews and Israelis do it all the time,” Suskin said. “Notice I talked about ‘Jews and Israelis.’ They are not the same thing.”

Allowing antisemitic rhetoric into the conversation only expands the conflict, according to Suskin. “When you say, ‘Jews are x,’ it’s not a sensible way to talk about people.” She recommends documents found here and here as good places to learn more about antisemitism.

“Don’t ask Jews to defend Israel just because they are Jews,” Suskin said. “Israel is a political body. The American government also does things we don’t like. We have a responsibility to criticize government, and many Israelis do.”

The Rev. Denise Anderson

Presbyterians come from the Reformed tradition. “John Calvin was a lawyer. Our engagement with the state is part of our duty,” Anderson said. “That shows up in a lot of ways,” including “speaking truth to power.” It’s also “important for us to remember as Christians the Reformers had teaching that was very hostile to Jews. They made strange distinctions between biblical Jews and the Jews in their time and context. That makes its way into the ways we talk about Jewish neighbors and Israel Palestine.”

“I think most Jews would agree we have that responsibility” to engage the state, Suskin said. “We don’t know what the solution will be, but it will involve Palestinians governing themselves. There are a lot of Jewish organizations working on the issue.”

“Better to focus on what comes next than what happened last,” Suskin said.

The two friends then fielded questions from those listening in. Asked about the 225th General Assembly’s vote last year on “recognizing that Israel’s laws, policies and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people,” Suskin said she thinks it’s “unhelpful to use the term … I don’t think it moves the discussion forward. I don’t think it maps one-to-one with what happened in South Africa.”

“Let’s look at what’s happened in Israel. Let’s look at policies that have allowed Palestinians in some places and not in others,” Suskin said. “Pull up the data … Avoid the term and talk about the data.”

One publication people many people have found helpful, Suskin said, is Daniel Sokatch’s “Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused and Conflicted.” “It’s not hard to understand” and “it gives an accurate history,” Suskin said of the book.

Suskin recalled that about two years ago, the social media app Clubhouse became very popular. She found herself moderating a conversation between Palestinians and Israelis that included about 500,000 people over the course of a few weeks. One day an Israeli woman came on to discuss her fears and the killing of her children. A Palestinian woman then came on and talked about her fears as well. “They were able to talk to each other and have empathy for one another. Each of them told a personal story, and that was enormously important for a lot of people,” Suskin said. “When people can talk about their personal stories, that’s what allows us to move forward.”

“Individual relationships are essential in understanding each other. If you don’t know someone who’s Jewish or Israeli or Palestinian, go out and find somebody — not an extremist. We are lucky,” she said to Anderson, “to live in a place where we can interact with a lot of people.”

“As a Jew,” Suskin said, “it’s my duty to understand the safety of my people. All people, including Palestinians, are bound up in solving this conflict. The status quo is untenable and unacceptable.”

The PC(USA)’s advocacy director weighs in during a White House conference

During the same week Anderson and Suskin were holding their online conversation, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the PC(USA)’s advocacy director, was attending an online panel on antisemitism convened by the White House.

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins

Hawkins noted there were faith leaders from a number of traditions, including Judaism. In his breakout group, Hawkins discussed the impact celebrities and national leaders are having by spreading hate. “Those with significant national profiles do a lot of damage when they speak because it is spread across the national stage,” Hawkins told the group.

Hawkins said he asked White House conveners to “network local communities by creating a communication network connecting [communities] to one another” in order to “share stories and strategies of what is occurring locally.” He offered this example as a way students can address antisemitism.

Asked to identify best practices in combating hate that would apply to countering antisemitism, Hawkins identified “public displays of unity between religions, races, government leaders and celebrities.”

“The fight against antisemitism is intrinsically connected to the fight against anti-Black racism, against anti-Asian hatred and against all other forms of bigotry,” Hawkins said. He advocated strengthening federal hate crimes laws and policies and rallying “against antisemitism quickly and urgently.”

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