Point Counterpoint


 I write as a Jew. I also write as a rabbi and senior academic whose field is theology, and as a hetereosexual and upper middle class, married, male with a family. Two of our sons, a daughter in law, and some students are living in Jerusalem. I write, too, as a long time supporter of peace in the Middle East. As a college student in the late 1950s at the Hebrew University, I visited a classmate in an Israeli Arab village and I witnessed their humiliation. I regretted this, for them as well as for the Jewish state, though I also saw their enthusiasm as they listened to Nasser's speeches urging that the Jews be pushed into the sea. Later, I supported peace movements in Israel and America, speaking up clearly in favor of a Palestinian state long before Oslo. I also write as a scholar of Judaism under Islam where I have worked with Judaeo-Arabic texts pointing out the deep interrelationship between these two cultures.

I write, too, as an American, born and raised in this country; accustomed to the freedom of movement and speech that characterize this great democracy. I have studied and taught abroad and always been proud to bear my American passport and to see Old Glory flying. I also deeply appreciate the openness of American society, the freedom to construct one's economic and social life, and the lack of suspicion, indeed one might say naive openness, of Americans as a people.

What you are about to read may contain historical errors in this or that detail but it is, nonetheless, true in the broad strokes it sketches. It is how I, one American Jew, feel; and I feel it deeply. I know from discussions with others that it is also how many Jews and Americans feel. What I am about to say will not be popular in academic and Christian religious circles; many Jews will disagree with it too. But it needs to be said.

Finally, this is written on October 28, 2001. It may be woefully out of date by the time you read it. History may have proven me wrong, or right; I, of course, cannot know. But we, Americans and Jews, stand at an ethical and political crossroad. As we choose our way, we must examine where we have come from, know who we are, and turn toward our God with the clearest vision we can muster.


Psalm 120

1A song of the steps.
To the Lord I called when I was in trouble
and God answered me.
2Lord, save my very being from lips which lie,
from tongues which deceive.
3What will it do for you? What will it add to you? --
a tongue which deceives.
4The sharp arrows of the fighter
and the burning coals of the juniper tree.
5Woe unto me, for I have lived among the peoples of Asia Minor
and dwelled in the tents of the Arabs.
6For too long have I let myself dwell
with those who hate peace.
7I am for peace.
But when I speak, they are for war.


This is the first of the fifteen songs that were sung on the steps of the temple in Jerusalem. In verse 1, the psalmist begins his soliloquy, for which we are the audience, by telling us that it is to the Lord that he has called and that God has answered him in the past. This enables us, as we pray this psalm, to follow the path of the psalmist and to turn to God in prayer in times of trouble.

In verse 2, the psalmist gives us the text of his prayer: a pleading that God save him from liars. In verses 3 and 4, in an aside within his soliloquy, the psalmist turns to his enemies to ask what good lying will do them. He also answers his own rhetorical question: lying will surely bring them punishment.

In verses 5-7, the psalmist returns to his soliloquy, conveying to us the full sense of his anguish at his failed mission of peace.

Three linguistic notes: In verse 2, "my very being" renders the Hebrew nefesh; so does "myself" in verse 6 . This term came to mean "soul" but only in later Hebrew. In the Tanakh, it means "me" or "my very being." In verse 5, "peoples of Asia Minor" renders the Hebrew meshekh. According to the genealogy of Genesis 10:2 and elsewhere (Ezek. 27:13, etc.), this refers to the people of Asia Minor. Similarly, "the Arabs" renders the Hebrew Kedar which, according to Genesis 28:13 and elsewhere (Song 1:5, etc.), refers to the Arabs.


Could any text express the anguish of the current situation better? Our enemies speak with "lips that lie and tongues which deceive."

They call out the purity of their cause, but calmly kill 6000 innocent people. They proclaim the holiness of their faith, but deliberately assassinate two opposition leaders. They declare their righteousness, but commit acts of terror and support terrorists on a global basis. They announce their rectitude, but they appropriate the cause of other terrorists. They don't even make political demands; they just label us "Satan" and promise death and destruction. They proclaim their dedication to justice, but protect terrorists when they are their own and resist any attempt on our part to fight terrorism as an "attack on their religion." They proclaim the sanctity of their holy places and their love of their people, but they place their arms caches and headquarters in mosques, schools, and hospitals, using those sanctuaries as places from which to fire on us. They assert the rights of civilians, but coopt young men into forced military service. They claim we conspire against them, but it is they who maintain a subtle world-wide network of terror.

They tell the West that they will control terrorists, but they don't. They promise security, but don't deliver it. They commit themselves to cease fire agreements in their public pronouncements, but their taped telephone conversations show them giving orders to continue the drive-by shootings of ordinary citizens traveling home. They pronouce loudly their regret at suicide bombings that kill religious children in a pizza shop, but they put up a public museum dedicated to exactly that attack which makes a hero of the suicide bomber. They condemn the killing of innocent and secular teenagers in a seaside café, but they refuse to arrest the known perpetrators of such atrocities and even call them heroes. They give interviews to the western press about the need for peace, but the second in command is recorded giving the order to assassinate a cabinet minister. They make known their political demands, but their actions show that their true goal is not an agreement but our elimination. They say to the West that they want a state, but in their mosques, schools, marketplaces, and media, they see statehood as only a step toward our annihilation. They vaunt their love of children, yet send them to the front lines of conflict. What father would urge his child to be killed? What mother would wish martyrdom for her child? All this, while proclaiming children sacrosanct. "You shall not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech" (Lev. 18:21). They, too, proclaim the sanctity of their holy places and their love of their people, but they, too, place their arms caches and headquarters in mosques, schools, and hospitals, using those sanctuaries as places from which to fire on us.

We, Americans, are just too naive. We are too open, too honest, to believe that there are people who really hate us. We want to trust the world; indeed, we do trust it. We leave our society open and terrorists come in. We do not -- or did not -- have guards at our public places. We do not check the identity of strangers; we welcome them and do not permit ourselves to discriminate against them, much less to persecute and kill them. We open our airwaves, our malls, our press, and our means of transportation to all. We believe in the Constitution, in the right of every person, even non-citizens, to a life of physical security, economic opportunity, and political freedom.

But, hate knows no boundaries. Hate comes from the depths, from the dark places of the human soul. It consumes. Hate makes one speak with "lips which lie and tongues which deceive." It is very hard for us to realize that our enemies consciously lie and deceive. We, in our openness, instinctively trust their assurances of goodnesss and we close our ears and minds to the hatred that emanates from them.

This is very dangerous, for hate, when combined with power, can only lead to extermination. Hate strives for power and, when it achieves power, hate annihilates. Lying is a means to achieve power; it is a means to an end. Lying is a prelude to destruction. If these liars ever get power over us, they will try to convert us and, if we refuse, they will exterminate us.

And yet, how long have we tried to make peace with them? How long have we cow-towed to Saudi Arabia, even when they did not allow the Christian and Jewish American soldiers who were defending them to pray on American bases in Saudi Arabia? How long have we accepted the legitimacy of the bin Laden family, while they gave him money and provided channels for moving his funds and businesses to cover his activities? How often have we received Yasir Arafat at the White House, even though we knew that it was he, personally, who gave the orders to shoot down civil airplanes in the 1970s and even though we have recorded tapes of his instructions to increase the violence of the intifada even as he lyingly assured us that he was trying to reduce the violence? How often have we closed our eyes to Iraqi and Syrian terrorism, accepting at face value their protestations of innocence and their corrupt expression of Islamic solidarity? And, how often have we been too tolerant of anti-Zionist polemic in international forums, accepting it as something less than what it really ia: an expressions of Jew-hatred spewed into the realm of public discourse?

I do not claim for a moment that the policies of the American or Israeli governments are without blame. I am a student of the biblical prophets and have been active in a number of protest movements against those policies that I consider unjust. It is my duty as an heir to the prophets, as a citizen of the United States, and as a member of the Jewish people to protest when the authorities do wrong; and I have. Yes, our country has supported dictatorial regimes that have oppressed the Arab masses. Yes, the military-industrial complex has kept us dependent on Arab oil and made a great deal of money for the already-rich at the expense of the common person in much of the world. Yes, American culture with all its openness has its faults, its vulgarity, its violence, its racism, and its exploitation of the poor. And I understand that others do not even want to swallow the whole pill of freedom. Much of what we have done is wrong and must be fought, but America is not "Satan."

And yes, the Israeli government has oppressed Palestinians, punishing the innocent together with the wicked. Yes, they have set up settlements on Arab land and deprived many of their basic civil rights. Yes, they have not treated even Israeli Palestinians with equality. Yes, they have their own form of racism and sexism. And, yes, the occupation is wrong and innocent people have been killed. All of this is wrong and must be fought, but Israel is not the evil empire, vermin to be eradicated.

On the matter of religion, things are not much different. They proclaim their religion as one of equality, but they practice extreme forms of sexism. They declare their religion is humanitarian, but in some places, they actually run the slave trade and, in others, they control the opium trade, funneling opium to us with the conscious intention of corrupting us. They say their religion teaches tolerance, but their basic doctrine preaches uncompromising proselytization. They say their religion encourages coexistence, but their basic doctrine teaches that any territory once conquered by them is forever sacred and can never again be yielded to an unbeliever. They see the Crusades as a temporary distortion in their dominance which they gloriously rectified by force; this serves as an example for the present and the future. No one can have sovereignty over land that once belonged to them, though they talk peaceful global politics when they are in the West. They say their religion values education, but their schools fill their students with hatred and exclusivist intolerance. They claim their religion respects Judaism and Jews, but they use every international forum to denigrate the Jewish religion and the Jewish people and its national aspirations? And, they proclaim the high value of charity, but use those charities to support murder.

To be sure, Islam has its moments of sublime vision as well as its moments of terror. So do Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and other world religions. To be sure, Muslims, too, are varied. Not all Muslims are fundamentalists, nationalists, or terrorists just as not all Jews are nationalist fanatics and not all Christians are exploitative imperialists. But the extremist elements have gained the upper hand in the world of Islam and, perhaps worse, the voice of self-criticism has been all but silenced by the rhetoric of solidarity and the threat of reprisal. A few critical voices exist in western Islam; almost none in the heartland because ethnic and religious solidarity trumps universal ethics and morality, and because death awaits the dissenter.

And we, in our naivete, don't believe them. We, in our desire for openness and peace, trust what they tell us when they talk to us. We do not even hear the religious roots of their hatred for us. We engage them in interreligious dialogue, but that is part of the "lips which lie and tongues which deceive." We, in our naivete, want to believe that there are "moderates" and "dialogue partners," so we hear selectively and they continue to lie because it serves to cover their true intentions. We, in our political correctness, hesitate to criticize our "allies" and their religion, so they continue to talk peace to us while practicing hatred against us and teaching hatred of us to their own.

"I am for peace. But, when I speak, they are for war."

The time has come to turn to God and ask for God's help in defeating our enemies.

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 Psalm 83

1A psalm of Asaf
2God, do not You be silent.
Do not be still.
Do not be quiet, God.
3For, indeed, Your enemies roar.
Those who hate You have lifted up their heads.
4They connive in secret against Your people.
They take counsel against Your treasure.
5They say, "Let us go and wipe them out from being a nation
so that the name of Israel never be mentioned again."
6Indeed they have put their hearts together.
They have cut a covenant even against You. --
7The tents of Syrians and the Saudis,
Yemenis and Iranians,
8Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Tanzim,
the Palestinian Authority and the dwellers of Lebanon.
9The Iraqis too have joined them;
they are the arm of the sons of Lot. Selah.
10Do to them as You did to Midian,
to Sisera and Yavin at the stream of Kishon.
11They were destroyed at Ein Dor.
They were dung for the land.
12Make their leaders as ´Orev and Ze'ev.
all their chiefs as Zevah and Tsalmuna´.
13For they have said,
"We shall inherit for ourselves the gardens of God."
14Oh, God
make them as tumbleweed!
as straw blown before the wind!
15As fire burns a forest,
as flames cause a mountainside to blaze,
16so should You pursue them in Your windstorm
and confound them in Your tempest!
17Fill their faces with humiliation
so that they seek Your Name, Lord!
18Let them be ashamed and confounded forever!
And let them be disgraced and destroyed!
19So that they know that You, Your Name, Lord, are alone,
far above all creation.


This psalm is divided into two parts, separated by the word "Selah.": the first describes the situation of enemies that surround the people and plot openly their total annihilation; the second is the psalmist's prayer that God thoroughly defeat them, politically and morally.

Note the perfectly clear rhetoric of the enemy in verses 5 and 13; an à propos summary of what is said against us today in the Arab media, even if we don't want to hear it.

In verses 7-9, I have substituted modern names for the traditional text which, written in biblical times, reads as follows: "The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagarites. Geval, Amon, and Amalek; Philistia and the residents of Tyre. Assyria, too, has joined them; they are the arm of the sons of Lot. Selah." Hagarites is a synonym for Ishmaelites. The nations of Geval, Amon, and Amalek occupied what is now Jordan. Philistia was located in what is now the Gaza Strip though it covered more territory to the north. Tyre is still in Lebanon. Assyria was northwest of what is now Iraq. The modern names give the sense of contemporary reality rather than that of ancient history.

By contrast, I have left the biblical names of the defeated foes in verses 10-12 precisely in order to invoke history and the covenant with God which governs history. Midian is soundly defeated by Gideon (Judges 7-8). Yavin, king of Hazor, and his general, Sisera, are soundly defeated by Deborah, Barak, and Yael (Judges 5-6). The battle of Ein Dor is not directly recorded in connection with the war against Yavin and Sisera but Ein Dor is close to Ta´anakh (Joshua 17:11) which is the location of the crucial battle in Deborah's war. ´Orev and Ze'ev are Midianite commanders killed in the battle (Judges 7:25). Zevah and Tsalmuna´ are Midianite kings killed in battle (Judges 8:12-21). The sons of Lot, by incestuous relationship with his daughters, were Moab and Amon (Gen. 19: 29-38). The historical references, thus, were quite real and serve as a powerful precedent for invoking God's protection. Note, too, the clear statement of intent by these enemies in verse 13: they intend to displace and disinherit the people.

Verses 14-19 are part of the psalmist's prayer but I have set them apart because they can apply to any enemy in any time. The metaphors are very powerful: tumbleweed, straw in the wind, and a raging forest fire. The proper punishment is also strong: humiliation, shame, confounding, and disgrace, followed by destruction. The ultimate purpose, however, is not revenge but the acknowledgement of God's sovereignty over all God's creation. (The "they" in the last verse may refer to the destroyed enemies, or to the surviving enemies and bystanders.)

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"There is a time to plant, and a time to uproot that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up ... a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace" (Eccl. 3:2-8).

As Americans, who are optimistic and agreeable in our national character, we like to think that it is always a time to plant, to heal, and to build up. As westerners, perhaps under the influence of the motif of Christian love, we like to think that it is always a time of love and peace. But it is not so. There truly is a time to uproot that which is planted, to kill, and to break down. There really is a time to hate and to make war. This is because there truly are people who hate us; we really do have enemies.

As Jews, universally hated and persecuted over centuries, we like to think that peace and coexistence is possible. We yearn for the time when we will not have to fight to justify our simple existence, when the nations of the world will say, "Here are the Jews. They, too, deserve a homeland. They, too, deserve physical security, peace, and freedom; a place among us." But this has not come yet. The Arab and Muslim nations resent our very existence in their midst, wish and work hard for our destruction, and would annihilate us if they could. And the West, while sometimes affirming us, sees us more as a thorn in the side of international peace. This is an illusion for the West, but it is so. Jew hatred really is a permanent fixture of human civilization, even among nations who do not know Jews or Jewish history. Jew hatred truly is an existential fact.

Of course, we (myself included) will try to keep the door of dialogue open with those who also desire to build and to make peace. We will continue to talk to those who talk to us in truth and sincerity, and there are people like that. In the end, there is no other way but dialogue. Of course, we will continue to work toward coexistence, tolerance, and interhuman understanding, linking hands and effort with men and women of good will everywhere. However, we will do this with a certain degree of reserve, even of suspicion. When trust is shaken, one cannot abandon trust, but one must be careful in offering it yet again. Still, we (I) will try.

But I will also, insofar as I can, work toward the defeat of my enemies and support those who share that goal. And I will pray that God utterly defeat my enemies; thoroughly and completely. In so doing, I will keep alive not only the integrity of my own personal and national existence, but also the hope of all people for a world in which coexistence, tolerance, and interhuman understanding are basic values of all men and women everywhere. "You who would love the Lord, hate evil" (Ps. 97:10).

* Appeared in Strike Terror No More: Theological Ethics and the New War: Theology, Ethics, and the New War, ed. J. Berquist (St. Louis, MO, Chalice Press: 2002) 130-37.

[1] For a further mediation on this theme, see my "Liturgies of Anger," Cross Currents (forthcoming).

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