Why Matt Duss Matters

Christian hostility to Jews draws more attention than Jewish hostility to Christians. And for good reason. Christian hostility has produced millennia of persecution. Jewish hostility, for the most part, hasn’t produced much more than the occasional nasty line in a prayerbook (sometimes accompanied by spitting).

Still, Jewish misgivings about Christians go way back. When Christianity was still in its infancy, the rabbis of the Talmud taught that if Jews saw Christian religious texts burning on Shabbat, they should let them burn (Shabbat 116a). And as Christian anti-Semitism grew, Jewish animosity intensified. To grasp the intense anger toward Christianity carried by even highly enlightened Eastern European Jews, listen to this curious vignette by Professor Moshe Halbertal about the great Israeli intellectual and social critic Yeshayahu Leibowitz (It starts around minute nine and ends around minute twelve). Growing up, I encountered the residue of this hostility myself. I remember being reprimanded for calling Mary a pretty name and for proposing Christmas colors for a school costume. (Call me self-hating: I still like red and green).

I mention all this because my friend Matt Duss, who currently serves as Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, is reportedly being considered for a job in Joe Biden’s State Department. As in the case of Rob Malley, hawks are calling Matt anti-Israel. As in the case of Rob Malley, they’re attacking Matt’s father. But Matt has a vulnerability that Rob didn’t: He’s a Christian, and his faith is central to his views on foreign policy, including Israel-Palestine. That’s a good thing—because Matt is a Christian in the tradition of Reverend William Sloane Coffin and Reverend William Barber. His Christianity makes him care about the powerless and the abused, whatever their race, religion or nationality. And yet, in Washington today, it’s more perilous for Matt to talk about how his Christian faith compels him to care about human rights in Israel-Palestine than it is for Mike Pompeo to talk about how his Christian faith compels him not to. The ancient Jewish anxiety about Christians has become morally warped. In the hands of the Israeli government and its American Jewish allies, it has become an anxiety directed solely toward those Christians who care about justice.

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On his father’s side, Matt’s family comes from Ukraine. Under Josef Stalin, his great-grandfather was sent to the gulag, presumably because he owned land. He escaped and made it out of the USSR with most of his family, but was forced to leave two of his children behind. Matt’s father, Serge, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.

Serge Duss took from this experience an obligation to help others dispossessed by oppression or war. In 1983 he moved his family from New York State to the Philippines, where he worked for World Relief, a Christian organization that helped Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese refugees. Later, he helped World Relief ferry persecuted Christians and Jews out of the Soviet Union. During the second intifada, Serge Duss worked with NGOs that brought aid to people in the West Bank, an experience that awakened him to the brutality of Israel’s occupation.

Matt has applied this humanitarian impulse to American foreign policy. Like his father, he hasn’t focused exclusively on Israel-Palestine. As my Jewish Currents colleague David Klion has noted, Matt’s greatest influence has probably come on Yemen. In 2018, he helped Sanders introduce a bill to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific war there, thus laying the groundwork for the Biden administration’s decision last week to do just that. But Matt hasn’t ignored Israel-Palestine either. He’s helped Sanders—a man shaped by his own family’s story of persecution—become the boldest voice for Palestinian rights in the Senate.

From a career-perspective, Matt’s commitment to Palestinian rights has been utterly irrational. Had he simply kept his head down—like most other aspiring Democratic foreign policy wonks—he’d be entering the Biden administration without opposition. But I suspect that Matt’s faith makes such moral evasion impossible. So, instead, he must now endure the Simon Wiesenthal Center declaring that his rhetoric about Israel—which would be standard fare at a J St event or in the pages of Haaretz—is “infected with Jew-hatred.”

It’s a good example of how warped establishment Jewish discourse about Christians has become. Because you know whose rhetoric the Simon Wiesenthal Center doesn’t think is “infected with Jew-hatred?” Donald Trump’s. The organization’s CEO and President, Rabbi Marvin Hier, delivered an invocation at Trump’s inaugural. He did so even though Trump had closed his 2016 campaign with an ad that featured three Jews—George Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellen—alongside language about “global special interests” and people “who control the levers of power in Washington.” And even though Trump’s campaign slogan, “America First,” echoed the slogan, frequently used by anti-Semites, to oppose US entry into World War II.

It’s a simple bargain: If you’re a Christian who disregards Palestinian rights, establishment Jewish organizations will often disregard your flirtations with anti-Semitism. AIPAC has sponsored speeches by Pastor John Hagee who—in addition to being blatantly Islamophobic—has suggested that the Rothschilds control the US economy. The Zionist Organization of America has given a platform to Steve Bannon, who called his website Breitbart, “the platform for the alt-right.” In 2005, Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “we have no greater friend in the whole world than Pat Robertson,” the evangelical leader who wrote an entire book about globalist economic conspiracies, much of it lifted from anti-Semitic sources.

If, only the other hand, you’re a Christian like Matt, who believes Palestinians deserve freedom, you will be tarred as anti-Semitic even if you work for a Jewish Senator and have gained the deep admiration of many Jewish activists and writers. Not only that, but your father will be tarred as anti-Semitic even though he devoted years of his life to rescuing Jews from the USSR.

Most American Jews disapprove of this perverse double standard. In their views on Israel, they are closer to Black Christians—who tend to support Palestinian rights—than they are to the white Christian evangelicals who leading Jewish organizations embrace. On domestic issues as well, from abortion to same-sex marriage to climate change, Jews and conservative white evangelicals are on opposite sides. All of which may help explain why, in a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, Jews were the only religious group that felt less favorably towards evangelicals than they felt toward atheists.

I’m not celebrating Jewish hostility to conservative evangelicals, some of which likely stems from the same ancient reside of mistrust I experienced as a kid. Every Christian, progressive, conservative or somewhere in between, should be considered innocent of anti-Semitism until proven guilty. But there’s a big difference between the distrust many rank-and-file Jews feel toward conservative Christians and the distrust that Jewish leaders feel toward progressive Christians. The difference has to do with power. The distrust many ordinary Jews feel toward Mike Pompeo didn’t bar him from the State Department. The distrust that America’s establishment Jewish organizations feel toward Matt Duss just might.

I look forward to the day when Christians like Matt Duss can say, without fear of imperiling their careers, that in defending people whose lands are stolen and whose villages are bulldozed and whose freedom is denied, they are living the teachings of Jesus Christ. And I look forward to the day when America’s most powerful Jewish leaders will respond not with smears but with admiration. Because if Christians—as a result of their history—owe Jews anything, it is not to defend Benjamin Netanyahu. It is to live up to the highest teachings of their faith, which in the Book of Luke calls on Christians “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Like his father, Matt Duss has dedicated himself to that principle, sometimes at considerable cost. I hope he has the chance to do so at the State Department.

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Time Change:

Our weekly Friday call for paid subscribers, which is usually held at Noon EST, will be held this Friday, February 12, at 1:30 PM EST. That’s so we can accommodate a guest, B’Tselem director general Hagai El-Ad, who will talk about the International Criminal Court’s ruling that it has jurisdiction over the occupied territories, and about the upcoming Israeli elections and B’Tselem’s recent report calling Israeli policies “apartheid.” We’ll send a reminder with the Zoom link on Wednesday. Become a paid subscriber and join us.

Other thoughts:

Speaking of Christianity, I found this rebuke of Senator Josh Hawley, from a Christian former colleague at the University of Missouri, quite remarkable.

Speaking of fathers and sons, Jewish Currents (please subscribe) last week published a fascinating lecture that Rob Malley gave about his father in 1998. I wrote a short introduction.

I also hosted a conversation last week for the Foundation for Middle East Peace with Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, about his recent article in The Nation proposing a Middle East strategy for the Biden administration.

How crazy have some prominent Trump supporters gotten? It’s rare to see a guest leave in the middle of a television interview. Even rarer to see the host do so.

Newly elected Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville—the guy who said his father fought in World War II to defeat socialism—keeps up his bid for the title of most ridiculous Republican Senator. The competition is stiff but he’s giving it his all. 

I’ll end on a more somber note. Twenty-five years ago, my college classmate and friend, Matthew Eisenfeld, was murdered along with his fiancé, Sara Duker, in a bus bombing in Israel. In these two podcasts, Rabbi Ed Bernstein remembers them in a conversation with columnist Mike Kelly, who wrote a book about that terrorist attack. Hard to believe Matt has been gone for so long. He would have done such beautiful things in the world.

See you on Friday,

Peter