Jewish World Review / May 14, 1998 / 18 Iyar, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin The ‘dream palace' of the anti-Zionists: Hartford Seminary controversy has historic roots

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO ROAM far from home to solve a puzzle in your own backyard. That's why those seeking to make sense of a local controversy that is rocking the interfaith community in Connecticut might do well to ponder the role of a university in Beirut as much as happenings at a seminary in Hartford.

The controversy in question is the storm brewing over an article published in the Hartford Courant's Israel at 50 supplement. In it, the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, the president of the Hartford Seminary, a Protestant theological college, blasted Zionism and Jewish loyalty to Israel.

In stark terms that bore no alternative interpretation, Zikmund said in an article entitled "The Future Requires Repentance," that "the very existence" of Israel "has violated the lives of Arab peoples, both Christians and Muslims." She called on Israel and the Jewish people to repent of Zionism and its crimes even as she posited a moral equivalence between the Arabs who have suffered in the course of the Arab world's war to exterminate the Jewish state and Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. She even went so far as to say that "Jew need to let go of the idea that a Jewish state located in a physical place is crucial to Jewish identity."

For those who have followed the history of the Hartford Seminary, such expressions of contempt for Jewish values, Jewish history and the right of the Jewish people to a state in their historic homeland, should come as no surprise. For the past century, the Seminary had been a bastion of Protestant outreach to the Arab world and consequently a citadel of anti-Zionism. Yet local Jews were still shocked and outraged by Zikmund's tirade because it had been under her leadership that the Seminary had publicly changed course and reached out to the Jewish community. It became a center of interfaith efforts and even co-sponsored an ongoing scholarly forum for study of the "Abrahamic religions" to bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together. The Seminary now has many Jews among its contributors and 2 leading local Jewish figures on its Board of Directors.

Why then, would the leader of the Seminary endanger the financial well-being of her institution in a moment of candor?

In part, the answer can be found in a recent volume published by one of the most astute observers of the Arab world, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University. Ajami, who grew up in a Shiite village in Lebanon, is the rare sort of scholar who can write readable books about politics and literature, appear on television to comment on events and yet retain his standing in the academic community.

Understanding Arab and Seminary culture

In his latest book, The Dream Palace Of The Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (Pantheon, 1998), Ajami traces the last half century of Arab intellectual thought through the work of its writers and poets. A dazzling tour-de-force of literary criticism and history, The Dream Palace is must reading for anyone who wishes to truly understand the culture of Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinians as well as the impact of figures such as Nasser and Saddam Hussein. He details how Arab thinkers have struggled with the crisis of their world's encounter with modernity and how it has led to exile and despair for many of their greatest writers.

But, as Ajami explains, a center of Arab thought in the 20th century has been an American Protestant institution: the American University of Beirut. It has been there (and its counterpart in Cairo), that Arab intellectual elites have come to imbibe the spirit of Arab nationalism. In its al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, "the Close Bond," a group Ajami describes as "a gathering of students and teachers drawn from the full range of Arab countries at the American University of Beirut," Nasserism and hatred for Israel was nurtured.

The irony was that the Protestant missionaries who came to AUB from places like the Hartford Seminary were as much influenced by their students as their students were by them. Thus, it is no surprise that institutions like the Hartford Seminary would become, in its own way, as anti-Zionist as any college in the Arab world.

The point that Ajami makes over and over again as he examines the various ideological trends which have swept over the Arab world since 1948 — from Nasserism which led to the defeat of 1967 to the rise of Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein — is that they have all led to disaster. They have diverted the energy and the intellectual gifts of the Arab world into the sterile pursuit of the destruction of Israel. The result has been a region wracked by poverty, economic stagnation and political tyranny. These "dream palaces," the Arab and American Protestant intellectuals of Beirut helped construct have become prisons from which the Arab peoples struggle in vain to escape.

That's why the virus of anti-Zionism, which has now reappeared in the writing of Barbara Brown Zikmund, is so dangerous.

Without Zionism, Jews are defenseless

Those who decry the existence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel are calling for a return to the pre-1948 era when Jews were powerless and thus vulnerable to the persecutions of any tyrant or mad ideologue who saw them as a convenient scapegoat. The history of the two millennia of Jewish exile was written in blood and sorrow. To say that the Jewish people have no right to their own state is to invite a repetition of that history. Zikmund's position leads inevitably to the idea that the Jews are a pariah people, undeserving of the same rights as every other nation.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the very idea of Jews gaining power in the land of the Bible was widely seen as an offense against the very premise of Christianity. But in recent years, the cause of interfaith understanding has done much to cut away these theological underpinnings of Jew-hatred. Fortunately, men and women of good faith such as Pope John Paul II have ended this "teaching of contempt" and we know live in a time when Jewish and Christian believers can engage in dialogue in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

But in certain precincts of the theological academic world, the teaching of contempt is obviously not quite dead. It may be, that under the weight of the general public outcry and the understandable dismay of her own Board of Directors (who stand to lose considerable financial support if they do not nip this crisis in the bud), Zikmund will eat crow and back away from her essay. But whatever she is forced to say now to cover her vulnerable backside, the Seminary president has shown her true colors for all to see.

Rev. Zikmund and her ideological brethren in such virulently anti-Israel groups like the National Council of Churches (who routinely attack Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem), are still living in the intellectual "dream palaces" of their own construction where Israel is an intolerable offense against Christianity and the Arab people.

Future of outreach is at stake

Just like the generations of students at the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo, who were taught the true faith of Arab nationalism, people like Zikmund have condemned themselves to irrelevancy. Despite logic and political realities, in their hearts, they still nurture the fantasy of an end to the Jewish state itself and not just the Israel of the Netanyahu government and Likud.

That's why Zikmund's statement provoked so much justified outrage among local doves to whom interfaith outreach is second nature. They know that as long as people like Zikmund are in positions of influence in Christian educational institutions, interfaith outreach is imperiled.

Fouad Ajami teaches that those who embrace these ideologies which trade on contempt for Israel, ultimately lead their followers to destruction. Just as the American University of Beirut was tragically ravaged by a Lebanese Civil War that its own graduates helped foment, Rev. Zikmund is now being laid low by her own words. That and not Zikmund's dream of a de-Zionized Middle East, is the inexorable logic of history.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin