Jewish World Review / May 26, 1998 / 30 Iyar, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Hartford Seminary tangle points to bigger issues

OVER A YEAR AGO, a black man from Ghana who is a faithful Muslim sat down in my office and told me that interfaith dialogue was only possible on the basis of mutual respect.

"Respecting the authenticity of others," he told me means, "We must learn to appreciate the mental furniture of each other."

It was a wise lesson.

That gentleman, Prof. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, spent part of a year here in Connecticut working to build bridges between faiths and teaching about the value of interfaith dialogue. The irony is that the Hartford Seminary, one of the two institutions which combined forces to create the forum for Nyang (the other was the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies of the University of Hartford), has now come under fire for the damage it has done to interfaith relations.

The non-apology apology

The controversy over the appalling anti-Zionist essay by Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, the Seminary's president, published in the Hartford Courant on the occasion of Israel's jubilee, is still being hashed out by that school and the Jewish community.

Zikmund's apology for her article, which was subsequently published in the Courant, did little to end the dispute. She did back away from her belief that Jews should "let go of the idea that a Jewish state located in a physical place is crucial to Jewish identity" which was one of the gravest of her offenses. That's certainly a step forward, but Zikmund's letter was less than contrite.

It was a classic non-apology apology in which she also claimed she had been misinterpreted and repented for the pain her article caused and not for the body of thought it represented.

She also sought to deflect criticism with double talk such as "I also have discovered that what one intends to write is not always what is written or read." Whatever that is supposed to mean, I guess she's very sorry that she is in this pickle. And even though she's the perpetrator here, the Rev. Zikmund has come to view herself as something of a victim. Missing from her apology is any retraction of her analogy between the victims of the Nazis and the Palestinians or of her general tone in which Israelis and their supporters are hard-hearted victimizers of the Arabs.

Barbara Zikmund is not the issue

But though we could spend the next year discussing Rev. Zikmund's difficulty in backing away from her hateful article, there are more important issues at stake here. Nor am I the least bit interested in whether she continues as President of the Seminary, her personal path to repentence or anything else that concerns her. As the line in "Fiddler on the Roof" goes, let her live and be well, "far away from us."

For all of the havoc that her arrogant pose as sage observer of the Middle East has caused, Barbara Brown Zikmund is not the issue here, and local Jews should not let themselves get caught up in what happens to her. Nor am I particular exercised over the issue of whether Jews stay on the Seminary's Board or not. Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, a Seminary Board member and spiritual leader of West Hartford's Congregation Beth Israel, intends to stay engaged with Zikmund. He is a fine man and a gentle soul whom I deeply respect. His outreach efforts perform a useful purpose, and if he has the patience of Job, then I suppose there are worse ways for him to expend it than on interaction with Rev. Zikmund.

The real issue is how Jews and non-Jews will go forward to create meaningful dialogue in the future. And even more to the point for the Jewish community is the question of what have we been saying that could have given one of our partners in dialogue the idea that she could get away with trampling on our most cherished values.

Mutual respect not capitulation

The key to real dialogue is the mutual respect that Prof. Nyang believes in so deeply. Dialogue that is predicated on one side disarming itself unilaterally of its beliefs so as to accommodate the other is not dialog.ue. It is capitulation.

A case in point would be the controversial magazine put out recently by the Bennetton clothing company on behalf of the Neve Shalom peace village in which Palestinian Arabs and Israelis live together. The magazine entitled "Enemies," garnered a lot of attention due to its cover which depicted a Jew and an Arab in a passionate French kiss. Though devoted to the joys of peaceful coexistence, a major theme of the piece is that the Israelis who live there believe Israel is in the wrong. The Arabs agree. Some dialogue. Some peace process. Is that the sort of dialogue that Rev. Zikmund or the Seminary (which has disassociated itself from her article) wants? What we do need is more dialogue on non-Israel related issues where interfaith discussions would be meaningful and productive. That's what Prof. Nyang accomplished in his short tenure here.

Have Jews sent out the wrong signals?

Yet what really worries me is that all of the tumult over the importance of Israel within the Jewish world and the controversies over religious pluralism, the peace process and a host of other related issues, have caused so many Jews to distance themselves from Israel. In this age of "post-Zionism," it would appear that many liberal Jews and even some others from the middle of the spectrum, have started to assume the pose of non-Zionists or even anti- Zionists.

There was a time before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel when such beliefs were held by the majority of American Jews. Only the bitter lessons of history which showed just how right the Zionists had been about the need for a Jewish homeland, convinced most American Jews to see the justice and necessity of Zionism. Yet it would appear Rev. Zikmund was under the impression that non-Zionism was about to stage a comeback. Can it be that anger about how Reform and Conservative rabbis are treated in Israel or our support of the peace process or opposition to it, has spilled over into a perceived abandonment of Israel? Can the decline in interest in Israel on the part of many American Jews, religious and secular, have given the Zikmunds of the world the idea that Zionism was no longer integral to Judaism and Jewish life? I think it is more than likely.

Why have Jewish liberals failed to challenge Christian left anti-Zionism with the same fervor that they go to war against the Christian right on other issues? And does anyone really think we would be talking about further dialogue with someone who had said what Rev. Zikmund said, if they were a Christian Fundamentalist or Black or Muslim instead of a culturally acceptable white liberal? I don't think so. But beyond that thorny issue, it is also up to us to remember that there is a terrible price to be paid for the sort of Jewish disunity that has become commonplace lately. It is sad that this only becomes clear to us when, as in the Zikmund incident, we are attacked from the outside.

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

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3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
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1/25/98: Jews are news, and a fair shake for Israel is hard to find

©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin