Will pro-Israel rabbi heading top theology center change its direction?

Will pro-Israel rabbi heading top theology center change its direction?
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, with a history of advocating for Israel despite its many human rights abuses, is about to be inaugurated president of the ‘most comprehensive center for the graduate study of religion in North America’ – a ‘mostly-Christian’ center with a focus on peace and justice. Lehmann has already opposed a prominent Muslim professor and aired misgivings about America’s first Muslim college, located right across the street. Lehmann is known for his fundraising ability.

By Alison Weir

On October 24th, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann will officially be inaugurated as the President of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), reportedly “the most comprehensive center for the graduate study of religion in North America.” The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), reports GTU is a “mostly Christian theology center,” stating that it is “a consortium of more than 20 mostly Christian institutions.” 

Located in Berkeley, California, GTU is known for its focus on world peace and social justice.

Its website emphasizes that it is “more than a school of theology” and “more than a graduate school.” It works to educate “innovative leaders for the academy, religious organizations, and the nonprofit sector” in ways that will equip them to build “a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.”

In the 2018 announcement naming  Rabbi Daniel Lehmann as the new president, GTU board chair Susan Cook said: “Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is unquestionably the right person to lead the Graduate Theological Union in its interreligious engagement of the critical issues of our time.”

Lehmann supports Israel despite its human rights violations

Regarding one of those critical issues – Israel/Palestine – Rabbi Lehmann’s past history and current statements suggest that he brings a perspective opposed, at least on this issue, to GTU’s avowed goal of justice and peace.

Rabbi Lehmann has a long history of advocating for Israel in spite of its violations of international law and human rights (he calls himself a “Zionist”), and publicly opposes the international nonviolent protest movement to boycott Israel over those violations, known as “BDS” –  Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. According to its website, “BDS is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” (Lehmann’s statements are quoted extensively below.)

Gaza City, July 26, 2014, after Israeli attacks. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Numerous highly respected humanitarian organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, the Red Cross, Unicef, the National Lawyers Guild and many others have documented Israel’s long record of human rights violations and systemic discrimination. 

Israel was established in 1948 through a war of ethnic cleansing, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé and many others have documented.

It then instituted a discriminatory system in which most of the previous inhabitants, largely Muslim and Christian, were either forced out of the new state or treated as second-class citizens. 

In 1967 Israel launched a war against its neighbors, resulting in the military occupation of the rest of Mandatory Palestine. Ever since, it has oppressed the inhabitants of what are now called the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli forces invade Palestinian towns and villages, demolish homes, abduct people, raze farmland, and more on a weekly and often a daily basis. 

Israel has also steadily confiscated more and more Palestinian land to create Jewish-only settlements, which are illegal under international law, and perpetrated major military invasions of Gaza that have killed and injured thousands of civilians, including numerous children.

Antipathy toward Muslim college & professor

Furthermore, some of Rabbi Daniel Lehmann’s statements seem unbecoming to a leader of interfaith programs. 

While Rabbi Lehmann is the past president of a Jewish college, he appears ill-disposed towardMuslim college across the street from GTU and verbally attacked one of its professors: a respected, decades-long member of Berkeley’s peace and social justice community – a faculty member at UC Berkeley who is also a leader in the Muslim community.

In a 2018 interview with Rabbi Lehmann after he had been named GTU head, Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) asked him: “What do you expect will be the biggest challenges in your new position?”

Lehmann replied:

“UC Berkeley, from a BDS perspective, is a challenging place. GTU is only a block off the Berkeley campus, and I suspect there will be times in which what happens there will impact me and others at GTU.”

Lehmann was referring to the fact that Berkeley’s student senate has twice passed pro-BDS resolutions. (After the first resolution, an AIPAC official said: “ We’re going to make certain that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”) GTU has long had a collaborative arrangement with Berkeley.

Muslim college across the street “a challenge”

Lehmann continued:

“Another challenge is that across the street is the first and currently only Muslim undergraduate college, Zaytuna. The relationships so far between them and GTU have been good, but depending on the culture there and what kind of political engagement is taking place on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, there could be challenges.”

In the past year, Israeli forces have killed over 300 unarmed demonstrators and injured about 30,000 (6,000 of them children) in Gaza. In response, Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza killed 8 Israelis and injured around 280. Most of those listed in Israel’s official count of “injuries” were never hospitalized; many of them were described as “suffering from shock.” 

By contrast, the UK Guardian reports about Gaza: “Thousands have bullet wounds through their legs. The streets of Gaza are filled with people limping or in wheelchairs. Children, journalists and medics have been killed, even when they were standing far back from the fence. The UN has said Israel’s military may have committed war crimes, deliberately targeting civilians.”

(More information on deaths among both populations is here.)

Zaytuna College, Berkeley, California
Zaytuna College says it hopes to be a “vehicle for interfaith dialogue.” (Photo from “My Experience at Zaytuna College”)

While the U.S. has long had Christian and Jewish colleges, Zaytuna College is the first accredited Muslim undergraduate college in the United States. It was founded in 2009 by individuals considered to be  “among the best-known and most-respected Muslim scholars in America.”

Religious News Service reports that Zaytuna, which means ‘olive tree’ in Arabic, hopes to be a vehicle for interfaith dialogue and help promote cross-cultural understanding.

A college official says: “These kinds of institutions in the long term are absolutely necessary for bridging the divide that currently exists and the misunderstanding that many have about Islam and Muslims.”

In his interview with JNS, Lehmann went on to say: “I know they have a prominent member of their community who is a vociferous and vitriolic pro-Palestinian voice from Nablus; he is a concern for me, as I’m interested in making sure the culture is not toxic in any way or has tension as a result of that. I’m pretty out there as a Zionist…”

Dr. Hatem Bazian
Dr. Hatem Bazian

The individual he is referring to is Dr. Hatem Bazian. Dr. Bazian, a longtime member of the UC Berkeley faculty, has been active in anti-racist, pro-peace activities for decades. He is widely respected in the community, including by members of GTU’s consortium.

In fact, two GTU member institutions, Pacific School of Religion and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, sponsored a talk in which he was a panelist. It is unknown whether these institutions are aware that  Rabbi Lehmann called Dr. Bazian “vitriolic” and potentially “toxic.” Both institutions are founding members of GTU.

As a leader in the BDS movement and founder of American Muslims for Palestine, Dr. Bazian has been attacked by Israel partisans for many years. The New Yorker reports that internal documents from a private Israeli intelligence firm called Psy-Group show that it was “targeting Bazian because of his leadership role in promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S.”

In former position, Lehmann worked to strengthen Hebrew College’s connections to Israel

Lehmann moved to Berkeley from Massachusetts, where he was president of Hebrew College, a Jewish graduate school in Newton Centre, outside of Boston. While there, Lehmann “emphasized and nurtured Hebrew College’s relationship with Israel, expanding partnerships and collaborations with institutions there, and spearheading the formulation of the College’s Israel Statement,” according to Hebrew’s chairman.

In Lehman’s farewell letter to Hebrew, he wrote that the “the strong connections we have made with Israel” were among the actions that “brought new life to our sacred mission.”

In an article for Jewish Boston, Lehmann wrote: “Hebrew College from its inception has been and continues to be a Zionist institution with strong bonds to Israel and the Hebrew language. Our rabbinical school shares our commitment to foster a deep attachment to the land, people and state of Israel.”

In the article he discussed how to “foster a love for Israel among our rabbinical students.” 

Lehmann stated: “We need to help [students] understand what is necessary to protect the Jewish people and the State of Israel from nefarious and hateful groups and governments, especially those that David Brooks has recently described as ‘depraved regimes.’ [Editor’s note: Brooks’ son served in the Israeli military.] We must do a better job in bringing this awareness of our precarious condition to those students who bask in the light of the universal, but we ought not to ignore the powerful messages of strength and independence that the State of Israel sends about its place in the world.”

Israel’s “messages of strength” have been excruciating for multitudes of Palestinians and others. Its forces have launched several major invasions of Gaza in which multitudes of children have been killed and injured alongside adults and the elderly, equally ruthless invasions of Lebanon, and also frequent invasions of the West Bank, where they regularly abduct Palestinians, demolish homes, and oppress villagers, as mentioned above.

Lehmann is also a cofounder of the Hevruta gap-year program in Israel. The program’s website states: “After completing the program, Hevruta alumni will be well-positioned to use their influential voices to shape the Jewish people’s most important conversations and communal decisions.”

Chair of world’s largest theological consortium

Boston Theological Institute, Sturtevant Hall where Rabbi Lehmann will preside
Boston Theological Institute, Sturtevant Hall, Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick Road, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, USA. (Photo from Wikipedia)

While he was living in Massachusetts, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann was board chair of the Boston Theological Institute, a historically Christian institution that has been called “the largest theological consortium in the world.” 

The Complete Pilgrim, a blog that focuses on religious sites around the world, reports: “The Boston Theological Institute is possibly the largest religious education institution of its kind in the world. Not itself a school, it is a consortium of ten of the most prestigious and historic theology colleges and departments in the United States. Some of the oldest divinity schools in the nation are part of the BTI, including the oldest, Andover Newton Theological School.”

JNS reports that Lehmann had “successfully led Hebrew College to become the first non-Christian institution to join that theological consortium.”

In a 2016 article, New Boston Post described how this came about: “Five years ago, Lehmann approached the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of nine Christian theology schools. He thought Hebrew College should join other institutions that train clergy. The organization had been entirely Christian, but they modified their mission statement to welcome their new participant. Lehmann was recently elected board chair of the organization.”

In an article for Jewish Boston, Lehmann wrote: “Our request for membership was not without some controversy given the explicit Christian orientation of the consortium for more than 40 years, but after some intense conversations within the BTI board, the invitation to join was extended and in January of 2011 we officially became a member of the consortium of nine other schools.”

Lehmann states: “Subsequent to our joining the BTI, the mission statement of the BTI had to be revised to reflect the new interreligious nature of the consortium. I, together with a number of other board members, drafted a new mission statement that focused on our goals as theological institutions preparing religious leaders and scholars for a pluralistic world.”

In May 2018, the institution changed its name to “Boston Theological Interreligious Consortium.” 

Why is all this relevant? To understand, we need to look at BTI’s history on Israel-Palestine.

A few years before Lehmann approached BTI about joining, the institute had co-sponsored a pro-Palestinian conference by a Christian organization, Sabeel, that featured a keynote address by South African anti-apartheid leader, Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as talks by Noam Chomsky, UN Rapporteur John Dugard, and others. We can’t find any evidence that BTI has supported such events in recent years. 

Lehmann will bring ‘different set of perspectives’

While Berkeley’s GTU does not seem to have sponsored similar conferences, in past years it has promoted events that have included speakers such as Sabeel member Rosemary Radford Ruether, a longtime supporter of Justice and peace for Palestinians; Stanford Professor Khalil Barhoum, a Palestinian refugee and eloquent speaker on the issue; Judith Butler, a Jewish journalist who opposes Zionism; Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, an advocate for Palestinian human rights; and an event against Islamophobia at Zaytuna College.

Now that Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is in place, it is uncertain whether GTU will again announce these or similar speakers. While the past events it has endorsed have often featured voices from both sides of the issue, Rabbi Lehmann’s appointment means that one side will now be at the helm – and a side that is a particularly hardcore. An event featuring a prominent Palestinian theologian that took place after Rabbi Lehmann began acting as president does not seem to have been announced on the GTU Website, even though it was co-sponsored by members of the GTU consortium, and the event took place on the GTU campus.

Last year, Jewish News of Northern California interviewed Rabbi Lehman about his appointment to lead GTU.

In the interview Lehmann said: “I’m coming as an outsider to the dominant Christian culture that has nurtured GTU, and that’s inevitably going to bring a different set of perspectives.” 

Rabbi Lehmann told JNS: “I’m pretty out there as a Zionist and politically centrist, while most GTU leadership has been on the progressive Christian side.”

A diversity of perspectives could be a good thing. But only time will tell what Lehmann’s perspectives on the Middle East will mean for GTU’s actions regarding Israel-Palestine – and for its neighbors who are Palestinian and Muslim.

GTU statements:

GTU officials were asked to comment for this article, but a GTU spokesperson (recently hired by Rabbi Daniel Lehmann) said they were unable to be reached.

GTU’s original statement announcing Rabbi Lehmann as the new president noted:

“During his years as an academic and religious leader in Boston, Rabbi Lehmann raised tens of millions of dollars for operational and capital needs and worked closely with trustees to expand a philanthropic base of support. One of his signature accomplishments as president of Hebrew College was the establishment of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership, which was made possible by a generous seven-figure gift from a trustee.”


Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of the best selling book Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.


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