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We Can't Go It Alone: A Conversation with Mark Pelavin
"The idea that we can live on some tranquil island in the midst of a turbulent sea is short-sighted at best. History has taught us that such thinking is dangerous."

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), oversees the RAC's day-to-day work and serves as one of the Movement's primary spokespeople. In addition, as director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism, he is the Movement's point person in developing and maintaining relationships with other faith communities. He is also the 2005 recipient of the Alfred E. and Genevieve Weil Medallion Award for building a greater understanding of Judaism among non-Jews. He was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

What would you say made you into a social activist?

I don't remember a time in which Judaism and political action weren't part of my life. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, just like my father and my grandfather, who'd arrived in Flint from Russia at the age of 18. Flint was a General Motors town; the labor union movement was part of the chemistry of the city and the union leaders were heroes to my progressive Jewish family. My activist mother was involved with Planned Parenthood and served as president of Temple Beth El. My father, a lawyer who volunteered his time to help the ACLU protest racial discrimination in our community, served one term as president of the Flint Jewish Federation. My grandfather had also held the position, and my mom held it later. I remember too how in the late 1960s my father took on one of the first fair-housing lawsuits in Flint; we had many discussions around the dinner table about the difficulties African Americans encountered in finding housing. These conversations, intermixed with discussions about the challenges of being a federation president and running a temple, were all of a piece to me. So from a young age I knew that the real passions of my life were politics and working for social justice—especially where the political world intersected with the Jewish community.

So you decided to follow in your family's footsteps.

Yes, at least at first. Like both my father and grandfather, I went to law school. After graduation, though, I chose not to join Pelavin & Pelavin, the family law firm in Flint. Instead, I continued to work for the American Jewish Congress (I'd been working there by day, and going to law school at night). Later I ran its Washington office.

I learned a great deal during those years. Perhaps more than anything, I came to see that on every issue, we were most effective when we worked in coalition, as opposed to striking off on our own. Whenever we had a campaign idea, the first step was always to bring others along with us. For example, in 1980, we wanted to campaign against the then-proposed Constitutional Amendment that would allow prayer in public schools, so we reached out to the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the U.S. Catholic Conference. Now one might have expected them to support the proposed amendment, which was presented as being "pro-prayer." But when we sat down with them and helped them understand how school prayer felt to us as a minority and what we perceived was the real danger--the heavy hand of government mixing in the sacred precinct of religion--they joined with us in a broad-based coalition which successfully beat back the Amendment. This was also one of the first times I saw the RAC and its director, Rabbi David Saperstein, in action, playing a key role in these efforts.

I want to emphasize that the Christian community's support of our position didn't happen in a vacuum. Because of a variety of formal and informal coalitions which led to personal relationships, we knew who to call and how to focus our message so it would be heard.

At the RAC, too, we try to support other organizations when they need us. As Rabbi Saperstein says, "If you want to make a friend, you have to be a friend." Because of this, we can create ad hoc coalitions on a moment's notice. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to pick up the phone and call someone you've worked with on issue after issue, as opposed to having to cold-call someone you don't know.

What issues have mainline Protestant groups asked you to support?

On many issues--economic justice, protecting the environment, civil rights--we come together very naturally. But sometimes we are asked to add something to our agenda. One example is joining the fight to change the names of certain American sports teams--the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins, and the Cleveland Indians—which offend Native Americans. If most Jews gave the issue a moment's thought, they'd say, "the Native Americans have a point," and then move on. It's not an issue of particular concern to us as a community, but it's very important to the United Church of Christ, which is headquartered in Cleveland and has taken this on as a major issue. As part of their campaign to rename the Cleveland team, they asked us to sign letters to team owners and to join in some quiet meetings with team officials, and we were glad to do so.

Before the Six-Day War, the Jewish community could call on mainline Protestant groups to support Israel. What's changed?

Part of the reason is a generational shift. People forty years and younger just don't have the same emotional memories of Israel as those who remember the Exodus ship, the founding of the state, the greening of the desert, the ingathering of the exiles, the Entebbe raid, and other heroic events. The images younger people associate with Israel are, sadly, the Lebanon War, Palestinian refugees, the intifada, the settler movement, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. So without the earlier context that many older people bring to the table, the conflict looks very different.

Adding to that is the influence of liberation theology, which lionizes the underdog. So over time, and especially after the Six-Day War, many of the churches began to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in power terms—with Israel cast as the mighty force victimizing the defenseless Palestinians. Viewed from the Palestinians' perspective, Israel may seem powerful, but when one regards Israel in the broader regional context--as a single small nation surrounded by Arab nations that has survived decades of terrorism and wars--it is clear that this is a false and at best simplistic dichotomy.

Are the mainline Protestant denominations uniformly pro-Palestinian?

No. There are still many Protestant clergy and laity who feel powerful connections to Israel, from personal experiences or a commitment to maintain friendly relations with their Jewish neighbors. In some ways I think that's the fruit of the seeds we planted in strengthening inter-group ties over the past generation. That is why the decision of the Presbyterian Church's national leadership to selectively withhold investments in companies that support Israel came as such a shock--and the decision was made without prior conversations with the Jewish community.

Was there a breakdown in communications?

Actually, there was a lot of conversation going on, on both the local and national levels, but there wasn't much conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel was such a flashpoint, such a source of disagreement, both sides made a tactical decision--sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit--to focus on the things we agreed on. And that tactic came back to haunt us.

Do you think the public disagreement around the divestment issue will have long-term consequences?

One of the ground rules of coalition work is that there are always going to be disagreements. I can't think of any group with whom we agree all the time. I can think of many organizations with whom we work quite closely in some areas and fundamentally disagree on others. Part of the challenge is working together where we can and disagreeing where we have to. Yes, there are sometimes ill feelings, but on the positive side, our ongoing discussions on the divestment issue have led to a renewed focus on the importance of strong inter-religious coalitions. One example is URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie's recent "Open Door, Open Minds" initiative, in which local Reform congregations and churches engage in joint study on critical issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We're already seeing more interfaith conversation on the local level than we did two years ago, before the divestment issue surfaced.

How do we build coalitions with the religious right when we're in disagreement on such fundamental issues as abortion and gay/lesbian rights?

We work together on the values we have in common. So, for example, starting in the late 1990s, we joined forces with the Southern Baptist Convention, Pat Robertson, and others to win passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (1998), which asserts that religious liberty is a fundamental value and the U.S. should advance that value both at home and abroad. We've also worked with the evangelical community in supporting legislation that would increase education in prisons and strengthen deterrents to prison rape. And since the president of the National Association of Evangelicals has begun talking about making global warming a priority, we've started to engage with them on ecological issues. This opens an exciting new front for coalition building.

Has the religious right's strong support of Israel strengthened Jewish/Christian relations?

I think we need to be careful with our language and understand what it means when we say, "they're supportive of Israel" or "they're good on Israel." When I first came to Washington, if you told me that a member of Congress was "good on Israel," I knew that meant he or she supported foreign aid and opposed arms sales to Arab countries. But if you tell me today that a member of Congress is "good on Israel," does that mean he or she supports or opposes aid to the Palestinian Authority? I would argue that a member of Congress who supports aid to the Palestinian Authority is a friend of Israel and a friend of peace, whereas those who stand furthest to the right on peace-process issues are not necessarily "good" for Israel. Many in the evangelical community fall into this category. They say warm and supportive things about Israel, and indeed many of them feel a very deep, personal connection to the Jewish state, but their hopes for Israel are not in the best interests of the state's long-term security. Evangelicals who have opposed dismantling West Bank settlements, for example, are making it harder to achieve a two-state solution. For many evangelicals, support for Israel is rooted in an apocalyptic theology that says that the Messiah will return only after all the Jews have returned to Israel, and those who are not "saved" will be eternally damned. Recently I was invited to speak at an AIPAC conference for college students. One of the preceding speakers, a "Christian Zionist for Israel," spoke passionately about this theology. When it was my turn, I compared his story to a five-act play in which all the Jews are killed in act four.

Another factor in assessing the religious right's stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is how it impacts our relationships with mainline Protestants. Rightly or wrongly, many mainline Protestant leaders view the Jewish community as having embraced evangelical churches because of their position on Israel. This tension is exacerbated, for example, when Israeli political officials aggressively seek out religious right leaders and trumpet their political support.

On the other hand, Israel doesn't have a lot of friends around the world, and when her security's at stake, she cannot afford to spurn allies. She's right to accept a helping hand when it's offered.

What is the status of our relationship with the Catholic Church?

The Jewish/Catholic relationship is solid, mature, and far-reaching. We have extensive relationships at every level, and work collaboratively on a wide array of issues. Our disagreements on issues such as abortion and gay/lesbian rights are deep, profound, religiously based, and not subject to ready resolution. At the same time, our areas of agreement are also deep, profound, and religiously based. We agree on fighting poverty, preserving the dignity of the individual, protecting the environment, and upholding international human rights. In many ways our relationship with the Catholic Church is a model of the coalitional relationship: we have extensive ties and communication, formal and informal, national and local. Rabbis across the country have outstanding relationships not only with local churches, but also with the cardinal and the bishops in their communities. And from the Holy Father on down, the Catholic Church is playing a supportive role with regard to Middle East politics.

Some Jews have expressed concern that Pope Benedict XVI may be less committed to strengthening Catholic-Jewish relations than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. You were part of a Jewish delegation which met with the new Pope this past June. What were your impressions?

It was clearly important to Pope Benedict XVI to meet as soon as possible with Jewish leaders. He told us that he intends to continue Pope John Paul II's outreach to the Jewish community. The symbolism of his choice to invite a Jewish delegation before meeting with leaders of other faiths gives me confidence that he is sincere about fostering close cooperation and that ongoing dialogue will continue.

Have we built coalitions with the American Muslim community?

We are just starting to do so. We face two major challenges in reaching out to the American Muslim community. First, our communities have very different approaches to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Just as many Jews feel a special connection to Israelis, many American Muslims feel a personal, familial, and historical connection to the Palestinian people, viewing them as brothers. The second impediment is a lack of communal structure. While there are quite a number of individual Muslim membership organizations in America, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, there isn't a Muslim assembly or union of congregations akin to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the National Council of Churches, or our own Union for Reform Judaism. Our challenge is to find national organizations which can translate the work they do to the local level. It is even more complicated since the Muslims who join individual organizations tend to be motivated by ideology and/or the desire to enjoy fellowship with others who share their heritage--they are not necessarily looking for dialogue with religious groups outside of Islam.

On the international front, are we as a community responding adequately to issues such as world hunger and the genocide in Darfur?

It is difficult to say what an adequate response is to such massive challenges. I believe we are doing better in getting the Jewish community to expand its activist horizon beyond our people's own significant communal concerns, largely as a result of the outstanding work of the American Jewish World Service, but we have much work to do in raising the profile of those issues, both in helping people understand their magnitude and identifying what specific actions can be taken.

It's vital that we Jews cast our eyes beyond our own community. We are not just for ourselves, and the world needs to know that. We are acting on our religious values. Every time I walk into a synagogue, I think about the teaching that a house of worship needs to have windows that look out onto the street--that even as we're engaged in prayer and introspection, we need to be mindful of the world around us. Also, what happens outside profoundly affects our well-being. The idea that we can live on some tranquil island in the midst of a turbulent sea is shortsighted at best. History has taught us that such thinking is dangerous. We need to be aware of the broader society in which we live. We can't pretend to tolerate lawlessness and denigration of human life on one side of town because our community lives on the other side of town. Almost every day I think of Rabbi Stephen Wise's teaching that only when the rights of all are secure will the rights of the Jews be secure. This is the duality of our concern.

If we keep Rabbi Wise's lesson in mind, I'm optimistic that we can, and will, make a better world for our children and grandchildren.


Union for Reform Judaism.