The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

God Loves a Bully

Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide.  The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.

To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out.  It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy.  Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.

Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and  the disinvitation to a party.  It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy.   Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.

But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons.  A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”

The teased are offered advice:  walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes.   But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.”    The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has.    One person bullies and the others follow.

And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky.  It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless.   That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.

Christians have themselves been bullies.   Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty.  And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross.   The cross signifies this:  we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way.  Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.

There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross.   To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless.     This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion.  Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human.  What kind of God is this?  A bullied one.  And nobody wants to be on that side.

His response, of course, was remarkable.   It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.”   The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him.  We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them.  Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.