Saturday, June 21, 2014

Korach, Demagogues, and Presbyterian (USA) Divestment

Dear Friends,
I write this post on Shabbat Morning from Beautiful Telluride Colorado where I am attending the 41st annual Telluride Bluegrass festival with family and dear friends.  Last night I led a Shabbat Service with the gracious and welcoming Telluride Jewish Community.  Today I will spend the rest of Shabbat relaxing in the pure mountain air listening to many of my musical heroes.
I love this festival.  It is the perfect mixture of virtuoso musicianship, relaxation, family bonding and almost Utopian community-building.  For four days every summer, this far-flung mountain village with breathtaking views of the western San Juan Mountains becomes a community of "Festivarians" who share a love of acoustic music and a desire for peace and tranquility.
Unfortunately, as much as one would like to shut out the outside world while on vacation, the news does not go on holiday.  In the State of Israel, the search for three kidnapped boys - Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach  - continues while the entire country joins with others around the world praying for their safe return.
And in the midst of our prayers for these boys, we learn of how the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church -USA (or PCUSA) has voted to divest itself from three companies that do business in the West Bank - thereby giving another boost to the Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (or BDS).
It's ironic to me that this week's Torah portion, Korach, coincides with the  PCUSA's vote.  One of the lessons of Korach is the danger and power of demagoguery.  The text reads:
1. Korach the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. 2. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.
3. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"
4. Moses heard and fell on his face.
Korach is portrayed by the rabbis as the ultimate manipulator.  His diabolical brilliance is seen in the way that he utilizes half-truths and preys on the fears of those who will listen to him.  He tries to position himself as a savior of the people by speaking "truth to power" on behalf of their "legitimate" rights of leadership and status by claiming that it is arrogance and self-aggrandizement that gives Moses his power when, in actuality, it is Korach's desire for power that ultimately does him in.
Unlike others who have commented on this issue, I do not believe that most of the PCUSA delegates were motivated by blatant anti-Israel or anti-Semitic feelings.  I do, feel, however, that they were manipulated by  a well-organized campaign from a group within the church that calls itself the Israel-Palestine Mission.  This group has a long history of attempting to de-legitimize Israel and Zionism in general.   The anti-Israel activists within the church have been very methodical in their systematic deconstruction and mis-representation of the history of the Jewish State.  The study guide, "Zionism Unsettled," that squarely places the blame of the entire conflict on the shoulders of Israel is on the church's website. (Here is the link:  Yes, the church has distanced itself from this insidious text, but, as of this writing, it is still available for sale to its member churches.
Last week, I, along with representatives of the JCRC and ADL, met with a few local delegates from the PCUSA who were going to be attending the convention and voting on this and many other issues that would be coming before the General Assembly.  We talked about how important this issue was to the Jewish community and we wanted to share our concerns and listen to theirs as well.  It was a powerful meeting.  For me, the biggest take-away was that most of the people in the meeting truly felt that they loved and supported Israel.  They also did not make the connection between divestment and the global BDS movement.  My colleagues in the ministry shared with us their pain at the divisions that this issue was causing-both within the church and the potential for harm in relationships between the Jewish Community and the Mainline Protestant denominations.   We talked about how we shared so much in common:  our mutual support for GLBT rights, concerns about gun violence, poverty, homelessness, women's rights and so many other issues that should bring us together - not force us apart.  And yet, as much as I feel connected to my clergy colleagues over these issues, when it comes to Israel, the fact that their movement could be so eager to visualize a peaceful solution in the Middle East that they are willing to blindfold themselves and sacrifice the truth by buying into a one-sided, blatantly anti-Zionist and (yes - I will say it) anti-Jewish narrative that ignores our historical, spiritual and cultural connection to the land of Israel is very upsetting.
Moses, when confronted with Korach's distortions of the truth, "fell on his face."  The leadership of the Jewish community  cannot and will not follow his example.  While I am deeply disappointed and feel a sense of betrayal from my Christian colleagues, I will not allow this to poison what needs to be a strong relationship.  Now is a time for renewed dialogue and outreach.  While damage has been done to  Jewish-Presbyterian (USA) relationships, we cannot allow the demagogues to win.

Shabbat Shalom from Telluride.
Rabbi Joe Black.
PS - I want to encourage everyone to attend the solidarity rally for the three kidnapped teens that will take place this Tuesday night at 6:00 pm at the JCC.


  1. I disagree, Joe. This is not the time for talk. Moses was right to fall on his face. He would not be suckered into a prolonged and protracted argument getting nowhere and which would give Korach the legitimacy he sought. The Presbyterians have been Korachized. Let them bring their incense in the morning. It may smell nice (i.e., their consciences) thinking they have actually done something but, in reality, they have only created a stink. Stay away from them for now. They have to prove to us they are worthy, not the other way around.

  2. I think the response to the BDS movement from the Jewish community has been too reactive. I'd pose the following questions to groups not blatantly anti-Semitic:

    1. Why are there Palestine Refugees? Ans: Arab neighbors chose war and acquisition of land instead of partition and the creation of yet another Arab state along side the new state of Israel. War begets refugees.

    2. Why are there Palestinian Refugee camps? Ans: Occupiers and neighbors showed little interest in welcoming fellow Arabs. Better to use them politically and as breeding grounds for attacking Israel.

    3. Why was there no Palestinian state created after the 6-day war? Ans: Three No’s. As a consequence of "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it” there would be no Palestinian State, no way out of the refugee camps and no hope for future Palestinian generations.

    4. How might a future Palestinian state treat the refugees? Ans: The “Right of Return” suggests that the refugees are an undesirable segment of the population. Foist them on Israel; keep them out of a new Palestinian state.

    For those idealists who are not hard core Anti-Semites, those who are sympathetic to the Palestinians, those who are looking to take some social action, I suggest the following:
    Pressure the Palestinian leadership and the countries and organizations that perpetuate the refugee camps to:
    • Welcome the refugees as citizens of the countries already housing them.
    • Prepare to integrate the refugees into a future Palestinian state, not deport them nor use them as a demographic poison pill to destroy Israel.
    • Eliminate incitement to blame, hate and attack Jews.

    • Prepare to integrate the refugees into a future Palestinian state, not deport them nor use them as a demographic poison pill to destroy Israel.
    • Eliminate incitement to blame, hate and attack Jews.

  3. Michael. If only people would listen.