An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Graduate Theological Union
An Open Letter to the Leadership of the GTU
We write to you this open letter as alumni of the GTU and members of the greater faith community out of our care for and concern about the current culture that may be advanced at the GTU, and for its overall wellbeing. We have heard concerns from students, faculty and the larger community that conflict with our understanding of what the GTU needs to be: a safe, welcoming and interfaith environment promoting faith–based expressions of justice, equality and peace.
In 2019 we hosted two GTU-wide Kairos Palestine events. Attendees were invited to hear and understand Palestinian voices in the Kairos Palestine document. In planning the December event we learned of considerable concern over the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Lehmann as president, a self-described Zionist who openly expressed Islamophobic and racist anti-Palestinian views1, and who publicly attacked a highly respected academic, Dr. Hatem Bazian, as a “vociferous and vitriolic pro-Palestinian voice from Nablus.” The President’s targeting of Hatem Bazian created an environment of insecurity for Muslim and other students of color. These views contradict the freedom struggles of people of color and Palestinians, GTU’s tradition of solidarity with people suffering violations of systemic harm and the International Declaration of Human Rights. It is hard to reconcile the professed mission of GTU with a President who openly defends what Israel does, and in addition, co-founded a program (Hevruta) to train young students to advocate for that state.
Although Zionism was founded as a movement to provide Jews a much needed security and national identity, once it focused on Palestine it deteriorated into a settler colonial movement that dispossessed the indigenous Palestinians, has committed unspeakable crimes against them and has created an apartheid regime that privileges Jews at the expense of native non-Jews.
The Christian Palestinian movement, articulated in the Kairos document, advocates for ending the Israeli occupation and achieving a just solution to the conflict, and is the word of Christian Palestinians to the world about what is happening in Palestine.
“Our word is a cry of hope, with love, prayers and faith in God, addressed first of all to themselves and then to all the churches and Christians in the world, asking them to stand against injustice and apartheid, urging them to work for a just peace…Love is the commandment of Christ to us and it includes both friends and enemies. However, seeing the face of God in everyone does not mean accepting evil or aggression on their part. Rather, this love seeks to correct the evil and stop the aggression. Christ has left us an example we must imitate; to resist evil, but not resist evil with evil…. Therefore, we call for… the beginning of a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel. . . . a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace that will put an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories and will guarantee security and peace for all.”
The ten-year anniversary convocation of the Kairos document held in Bethlehem in November calls on Christians to reclaim Biblical theology as “good news” – especially in the US context where Christian Zionism is the dominant driver of increased aggression and racism.
The theological, political and spiritual focus on Israel Palestine is central to our understanding of colonialism and indigenous human rights. Cross-sectional discussion on rights for all people leads us to an inspection of the disparity of power between Israel and Palestine. We are concerned about how the Zionist enterprise is largely embraced and supported by fundamentalist Christians. Christian Zionism is based upon racism and anti-Semitism, preferring a path to the celebration of the return of Christ as Messiah without regard for the route to justice and a peaceful resolution in Israel Palestine.
In an era of increased anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim violence, it is important to ensure that interfaith communities promote safety, inclusion and fairness. As Zionism perpetuates settler colonialism and dispossession of the Palestinians, it invokes exclusive ethnic nationalism and supremacy. Further, it is crucial to be clear about how anti-Zionism is often falsely conflated with anti-Semitism, in order to silence activism for justice in Palestine. This is evidenced in President Trump’s recent Executive Order, which includes Jewish people among those protected under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The obvious aim of this order is to target Palestinian human rights advocates and especially the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, falsely asserting that the time honored non-violent tactic of BDS is “hateful” and “unlawful.”
In President Lehmann’s words, “It takes work to build a pluralistic community that encourages respectful dialogue and creates opportunities both to celebrate commonalities and to engage in serious conversations about difference. True pluralism requires intentional exchange with others, and that’s what we foster at the GTU. It demands a commitment to particularity and an openness to listening, a willingness to share our own truth and a desire to learn from the perspectives of those with whom we may disagree.” True pluralism, however, is inconsistent with racism and exclusion.
We would strongly urge you, as the GTU board, to take these four actions:
- Issue of public and specific apology to the Muslim community at large and to Prof. Hatem Bazian over the Islamophobic sentiments and the ad hominem personal attack by the President of the GTU.
- Clearly articulate support to the students, faculty and community members who are committed to BDS as a long-standing tradition in countering oppression by non-violence.
- Declare commitment to social justice within a transnational scope, and that it is violated when challenged by the racist, apartheid nature of Israel and political Zionism.
- Develop a faith-based response against the rising tide of White Supremacy and Christian Zionism, and their impact on marginalized communities, and how to counter racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Palestinian voices both Muslim and Christian must be heard. We are concerned for the intellectual spiritual and moral freedom and safety of all students, faculty and the overall community. We hope, along with you, to imagine a new community at the GTU, one where all voices and perspectives will be honored and celebrated. In the words of Dr King “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Rev. Dr. John S. Anderson2 The Rev. Dr. Allison J. Tanner3 The Rev. Michael Yoshii4
2. SFTS 2005, Presbyterian Church (USA) retired, San Francisco
3. GTU 1998, 2011; ABSW 2000, Pastor at Lakeshore Ave Baptist Church in Oakland.
4. PSR 1986, Pastor at Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda.
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