Was a liberal Orthodox rabbi too ‘pro-Israel’ to head a Berkeley seminary?
Updated Aug. 14 at 10:00 a.m.
Last fall, Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union made history by inaugurating its first non-Christian president — an Orthodox-trained rabbi — to lead the esteemed consortium for the advanced study of religion.
The ceremony took place on Oct. 24 at UC Berkeley’s International House, where Rabbi Daniel Lehmann delivered his inaugural address. The convocation, though conducted with pageantry, was largely symbolic — Lehmann, who led Boston’s pluralistic Hebrew College for close to a decade, was hired by the GTU board in mid-2018 and began work that August, so he was well over a year into his term.
Lehmann wore full academic regalia: a vibrant red doctoral gown and tasseled cap, along with glasses and a gray beard. It was a “leap of faith,” he told the audience — which included the Berkeley mayor and other distinguished guests — to enter into his new role, both for the GTU leadership, and for him.
“I am here because nearly 30 years ago my passion was ignited for interreligious learning,” he said, describing efforts at Hebrew College to broaden the Boston Theological Institute into an interfaith body. “One of my top priorities as president is to continue to build a GTU culture in which every voice is valued and respected — an environment where trust and open inquiry allows us to introduce differing points of view.”
The city of Berkeley issued a proclamation celebrating the occasion. A school newsletter called it “a night to remember” and said that Lehmann’s address “captured the spirit of the evening.” It formally marked “a new era” for the GTU.
But only four months later, and just a year and a half after his hire, Lehmann would quietly resign amid sharp public attacks for his pro-Israel views.
Opposition surfaced publicly last September, a month before the inauguration, via an article on a controversial anti-Israel news website, Israel-Palestine News. The site is run by Alison Weir, a Richmond-based blogger and public speaker who has drawn criticism from Jewish groups for alleged anti-Israel animosity and the use of antisemitic tropes. Twenty years ago, she was briefly an editor at the now-defunct Marin Scope community paper in Sausalito, one of several jobs in journalism, and is the author of the book “Against Our Better Judgment: The hidden history of how the U.S. was used to create Israel.”
Weir takes issue with the claim that her blog is “anti-Israel,” telling J. in an email that it is in fact “dedicated to disseminating evidence-based information about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. connection to it.”
At the inauguration, Weir and two others, described as “70-year-old peace advocates,” were asked to leave the event after handing out “fact sheets” critical of Lehmann. They read: “Will pro-Israel Rabbi Lehmann change GTU’s focus on justice and human rights?”
“Lehmann publicly emphasizes that he is ‘a Zionist,” the handouts said. “Apparently in disregard for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.”
Those criticisms would eventually find purchase with more than 100 GTU alumni and a host of Bay Area clergy, who signed an open letter to the board of trustees expressing “concern” about Lehmann’s appointment. The letter, written by three Bay Area ministers who are alumni of GTU, described Lehmann’s views as “Islamophobic,” “racist” and at odds “with the professed mission of GTU.”
Lehmann is a “self-described Zionist,” the letter read, even though the term is one he has embraced. To some, a badge of honor, to others, a scarlet letter.
GTU is a progressive institution; its “About” section on Facebook says the consortium in Berkeley is located on “the traditional territory of the Chochenyo Ohlone people.” This month, large Black Lives Matter banners hung from seminary windows in solidarity with national protests against police brutality. The school has hosted pro-Palestinian events in the past, including a talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the anti-Zionist, Jewish author Judith Butler.
The relatively brief tenure of Rabbi Lehmann, which was greeted with fanfare at its start but given little public explanation at its end, raises questions about whether having Zionist views — supporting a Jewish state in Israel — has become a liability for those seeking high office at progressive institutions like the GTU. Or whether, given the public scrutiny that attends such appointments, it has even become disqualifying.
The GTU was established in 1962 as a consortium of five Protestant seminaries with an idealistic vision for interfaith synergy; it was the first “successful cooperative graduate study program” leading to a doctorate in theology in the country.
The union is made up of eight member schools (seven Christian seminaries and one Unitarian Universalist school) plus academic centers (similar to university departments) for the study of other world religions, including Judaism, Islam and Hindusim. The GTU confers doctoral and master’s degrees in more than 30 concentrations, including the New Testament, comparative ethics, rabbinic literature, even yoga studies.
In 1968, the Center for Jewish Studies, today named for the philanthropist Richard S. Dinner, became the first non-Christian academic center to join the consortium. Described as a “premier center for the advanced study of Jewish history, culture, theology and religious life,” it confers master’s degrees in Jewish studies and a Ph.D. in Jewish history, offering courses on Jewish texts, culture and history, from the writings of Maimonides to the “Jewish Counterculture of the Sixties.”
Its director is Deena Aranoff, a GTU faculty member since 2006 and professor of medieval Jewish history, rabbinic literature and Jewish culture. Aranoff declined to be interviewed for this article and directed questions to a consortium spokesperson, though at the time of Lehmann’s appointment, she called it an encouraging step: “It means we’re in a new era of interreligious scholarship and it no longer needs to be facilitated by the Christian majority,” she told J. in 2018.
Many of the Christian seminaries that make up the GTU’s member schools are within walking distance of each other, in a leafy neighborhood on the north side of UC Berkeley. The Pacific School of Religion, a multidenominational Christian seminary, is housed in an early-20th-century stone and brick campus, with carefully manicured lawns and a stately library with cathedral windows. Less than a block away is Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a seminary of the Episcopal Church.
All share a main library, the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library, which is considered the “heart of the GTU campus both physically and intellectually,” according to the website. Its skylight, whose design is repeated in the GTU logo, symbolizes “intersecting paths and converging ideas … expressing the illuminating, collaborative spirit of the GTU.”
The Flora Lamson Hewlett Library is considered the “heart of the GTU campus both physically and intellectually,” according to the Graduate Theological Union website. (Photo/Gabe Stutman) Lehmann’s appointment in spring 2018 followed a plodding, eight-month search. Riess Potterveld, an ordained minister who had filled the role for five years, announced his retirement during the 2017 academic school year.
The search committee consisted of more than a dozen GTU leaders, including the director of the school’s Center for Islamic Studies, seminary presidents, doctoral students and professors. Retired Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El, a former trustee and past visiting professor, joined the committee as well. Described by the school as “robust and widely diverse,” the group was tasked with vetting candidates for the board’s final approval.
A press release announcing Lehmann’s hire cited the rabbi’s “passion for interreligious education” and “extensive experience in program development, student recruitment, fundraising, and organizational management.” Ordained at Yeshiva University in New York City, Lehmann has had a long career in Jewish education dating back to the 1980s.
Susan Cook Hoganson, the chair of GTU’s board of trustees, said at the time that Lehmann was “unquestionably the right person to lead” the GTU, and that his appointment would “enable the GTU to live even more fully into its identity as an innovative center of multidisciplinary, multireligious scholarship.”
“Baruch ha-ba, welcome to the GTU, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann!” the GTU release said.
It was a historic development at the school, and a flurry of news stories in local papers followed, as well as profiles in the national Jewish press, in Israel’s national newspapers and on news websites.
In those interviews, Lehmann said he saw an opportunity to open doors for members of minority faiths. “Most people think of GTU as being a place where Christian institutions engage each other,” he told J. in June 2018. “But if you have a rabbi as president, I think that means that the kind of Christian dominance and hegemony, which is so much a part of American history, is being transformed.” He said he hoped to build the GTU’s first sukkah.
Lehmann also spoke openly about some of the challenges he expected. “I’m pretty out there as a Zionist, and politically centrist,” he told an interviewer for the Jewish News Syndicate, “while most GTU leadership has been on the progressive Christian side.
“I’m going in with an optimistic and positive attitude knowing good groundwork has been laid,” he said. “That could present some opportunities and potentially some interesting challenges.”
During his brief tenure, Lehmann embraced his new role. He sought to strengthen ties with secular universities like UC Berkeley, meeting this past winter with the dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy after another destructive wildfire season in Northern California; he wanted to bring “religious-ethical perspectives to public policy issues,” such as the environment, he wrote in an op-ed. He visited India with leaders of the Center for Dharma Studies and traveled to South Korea to tour Christian seminaries. He addressed the community at vigils after attacks on religious worshippers in Poway, Sri Lanka and Christchurch, New Zealand.
Jonathan Homrighausen, a recent alumnus, saw Lehmann’s appointment as “a very positive development” for the school, and thought there was considerable optimism about it on campus.
“Everyone I knew felt the same way,” he told J. in a recent phone call.
Lehmann did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, and a colleague said he had likely moved back to Boston with his wife, a physician and Harvard Medical School professor.
Weir’s article critical of Lehmann appeared on Sept. 16, 2019 under the headline: “Will pro-Israel rabbi heading top theology center change its direction?” Lehmann has a “long history” of supporting Israel, the article said, “in spite of its violations of international law and human rights.”
Weir runs two linked websites, If Americans Knew and Israel-Palestine News. With eye-catching headlines, garish photos and infographics, they attempt to expose what Weir believes to be Israel’s systemic mistreatment of Palestinians and a “cover-up of appalling proportions” in the American news media. The mailing address for If Americans Knew is a town in Riverside County in Southern California.
Though Lehmann had assumed his role the previous August, with his formal inauguration coming up in a month Weir’s article suggestively considered whether the appointment would change the direction of the GTU, a consortium “known for its focus on world peace and social justice.”
The article pointed to Lehmann’s opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, described as a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality”; it claimed he was “ill-disposed toward a Muslim college across the street” and “verbally attacked one of its professors”; said he “worked to strengthen Hebrew College’s connections to Israel” while he was there, and said he “calls himself a ‘Zionist,’” with the word in quotation marks. The story also claimed, without providing evidence, that in a prior role Lehmann had used his board seat at the interfaith Boston Theological Institute to steer away from pro-Palestinian speakers and programs.
Though influential in anti-Israel circles, Weir has been accused of animosity toward the Jewish state and antisemitism, including by the Anti-Defamation League. In a 10-page report, the ADL describes Weir as someone who “employs anti-Semitic imagery” and portrays “Israel and its agents as ruthless forces that control American policy.” The report cites instances of failing to condemn acts of terrorism by Palestinians, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, and trafficking in a blood-libel conspiracy related to Israeli organ harvesting.
Weir has had troubling associations. Her message has appeared in “The Final Call,” a publication of the Nation of Islam, according to the ADL; she was photographed with Ashahed Muhammad of the NOI at an American Muslims for Palestine event. Muhammed is the author of the book “The Synagogue of Satan.”
In 2010, Weir was a guest on the talk radio show of Clay Douglas, a conspiracy theorist from New Mexico associated with the antisemitic “Christian Identity Theology” movement, which considers Jews to be satanic, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Douglas has published antisemitic screeds, according to the SPLC, questioning, for example, whether Jews are “behind the destruction of America.”
Weir likened associating her with these figures to “McCarthyism,” and told J. she “in no way endorsed any of those views” expressed by Douglas, “if indeed they are an accurate representation.”
But Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization accustomed to working with some of Israel’s sharpest critics, criticized and ultimately disavowed Weir, calling her behavior on Douglas’ radio show “repugnant.”
In her article Weir pointed to Lehmann’s support for Israel throughout his career, citing efforts to strengthen Israel programs for rabbinical students at Hebrew College, and his co-founding of Hevruta, a gap-year program in Israel funded by the Shalom Hartman Institute for graduating high school seniors.
She also referenced comments he made to the Jewish News Syndicate about UC Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian lecturer and author. Bazian is a professor of Islamic law at Zaytuna College, which he co-founded in 2009 and which sits across the street from the GTU.
Bazian is a sharp Israel critic and author of a number of books including “Palestine: …it is something colonial.” He lectures in Near Eastern and Asian American studies at UC Berkeley and in 2001 founded Students for Justice in Palestine, an on-campus driver of pro-BDS protests throughout North America.
Bazian has drawn criticism from Jewish and pro-Israel groups for inflammatory statements. In 2017 he spurred controversy with a social media post, retweeting an antisemitic meme on Twitter that said Jews “kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians,” according to the Daily Californian. Bazian later apologized, called the meme “extremely offensive” and said he did not mean to share it. The incident led Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín to oppose Bazian’s appointment to the city’s Peace and Justice Commission.
In her article, Weir described Bazian as a longtime Berkeley faculty member “active in anti-racist, pro-peace activities for decades,” who is “widely respected in the community, including by members of GTU’s consortium.”
She wrote that despite GTU’s past support for pro-Palestinian causes, Lehmann’s appointment meant “that one side will now be at the helm — and a side that is particularly hardcore.”
“Lehmann is known for his fundraising ability,” she writes.
Lehmann has been open about his support for Israel, and his Zionism, in press interviews and in published writings. In a 2011 op-ed, he described himself as someone “nourished by a Zionist ethos,” informed in part by his parents’ generation that “narrowly escaped European or Arab antisemitism.” He says he tried to foster a “love for Israel” among his rabbinical students at Hebrew College, even as some “were not raised in homes or communities in which an instinctual commitment” to the Jewish state was fostered.
He knew his pro-Israel views would present challenges at the GTU, as he told JNS in the interview published June 4, 2018. Asked to anticipate the difficulties that might arise as the union’s first Jewish president, he said: “GTU has a culture that’s very tolerant and open, but UC Berkeley, from a BDS perspective, is a challenging place. [It] 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.”
Also, “across the street is the first and currently only Muslim undergraduate college, Zaytuna,” he said. “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.
“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,” Lehmann said, referencing Bazian. “I’m interested in making sure the culture is not toxic in any way or has tension as a result of that.
“I’m going in with an optimistic and positive attitude knowing good groundwork has been laid,” he said.
Pro-Palestinian activism is common in progressive Christian circles, and in past years GTU has hosted a number of pro-Palestinian speakers. Last year, during Lehmann’s tenure, members of the consortium held two events with the Palestinian Christian group Kairos Palestine, a Bethlehem-based organization known for its 2009 “Kairos Palestine document,” which calls for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, a “sin against God and humanity.”
One of the organizers of the events was the Rev. John S. Anderson, a 2005 graduate of the San Francisco Theological Seminary (a GTU member school) and a retired Presbyterian minister.
Anderson has taken multiple trips to Israel since 1985, he told an interviewer in a 2014 video, “Why I Support Divestment.” He said he saw a dramatic increase in discrimination targeting Palestinians in 2006 and “went home not believing what I saw — that a so-called democratic country, as Israel, would do what they seem to be doing.” It was even worse when he returned in 2009, Anderson said.
Anderson helped organize the Kairos Palestine events at the GTU. While planning the second, he and other organizers said they began to learn “of considerable concern over the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Lehmann as president,” they wrote. Anderson and two other Christian clergy, all GTU alumni, penned the open letter to the GTU board and began gathering signatures.
“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,” began the letter, penned by Anderson, the Rev. Allison J. Tanner of Oakland and the Rev. Michael Yoshii of Alameda.
“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.”
Lehmann is “a self-described Zionist who openly expressed Islamophobic and racist anti-Palestinian views,” the letter said. He “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,” the letter continues. “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.”
The writers criticize Lehmann for founding Hevruta, whose purpose they say is “to train young students to advocate for the state.”
“It is hard to reconcile the professed mission of GTU with a President who openly defends what Israel does,” the letter says.
Built as a Google site, which can accept digital signatures, the open letter earned marks of approval from more than 100 “GTU affiliates,” mostly pastors, priests and professors who are or were associated with the center.
The letter was signed by dozens of other clergy, from Chicago to Snohomish, Washington, including a handful of unaffiliated rabbis, as well as close to 80 “Concerned Bay Area community members,” including members of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The authors and signatories demanded that the GTU board apologize to the Muslim community and to Bazian, voice support for those committed to BDS and “declare a commitment to social justice within a transnational scope,” which is “violated when challenged by the racist, apartheid nature of Israel and political Zionism.”
An email to the Buena Vista Methodist Church in Alameda, where Yoshii serves, went unanswered, as did a request for an interview to St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, Anderson’s former pulpit. The letter’s second-listed author, Tanner, a pastor at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, responded to an email from J. but declined to answer specific questions:
“Please use quotes from our original letter as the best representation of our views,” she wrote.
Lehmann’s resignation came about a month after the letter’s publication.
The board notified the GTU community of Lehmann’s resignation in an email on Feb. 24, and the next day Lehmann followed up with an email of his own.
“As you are now aware, I have decided to resign from the presidency of GTU,” he wrote. “This was a difficult decision, and I felt it was important to reach out personally to convey that it has been an honor and privilege to serve this special community of learning.”
“It is with deep gratitude for the opportunity to advance the sacred work of the GTU that I wish you well as you embark upon the next chapter,” he went on. “May the GTU go from strength to strength.”
Though Lehmann’s appointment was covered widely in the media, his departure was not, coming as news of an impending global pandemic was dominating the headlines. The resignation “seemed to come out of nowhere,” Pearce, the rabbi who led Congregation Emanu-El for two decades, told J. in an email. Though he was on the selection committee that helped choose Lehmann, he heard little about the resignation.
“I am not in the inner circle so I do not know a thing,” he wrote.
One of the only news outlets to cover Lehmann’s departure was Weir’s. Israel-Palestine News ran a story on March 21 under the headline: “Zionist head of major theological consortium has been pushed out.” The story was bylined “If Americans Knew staff.”
“Rabbi Daniel Lehmann has resigned as president of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) after concerns surfaced about his ‘Islamophobic statements and anti-Palestinian views,’” the story read.
“Lehmann’s record had been detailed in an article by Alison Weir last September, which had led to concern among GTU students and faculty. Handouts with information from Weir’s report were then distributed by activists at Lehmann’s inauguration.”
“The Interim president will convene a ‘healing task force’ and support Palestine programs,” the article said.
A host of GTU faculty members declined interviews about Lehmann’s departure and directed J. to GTU spokesperson Sephora Markson. Markson emailed a statement to J. on June 30 in response to a series of questions, writing that the GTU “unequivocally condemns hatred in all of its forms, including Islamophobia, as well as anti-Semitism,” and that “the views expressed in the [open] letter reflect those of its signatories.
“The GTU’s values, as stated previously, are focused on fostering a culture of pluralism in all of its forms, where any number of issues can be discussed in a spirit of mutual respect,” the statement read. “This includes a full range of positions on Israel and Palestine among those identifying as Jewish, any other faith tradition, or no faith tradition at all.”
Whether Jews who support Israel are welcome at GTU, the spokesperson replied “yes.”
“The GTU was pleased and encouraged to have the first Jew and non-Christian leading the institution,” the statement read. “A further testament to its commitment to serving as a home for interreligious life, learning, and leadership.”
In the Feb. 24 letter from the board, Hoganson, the chairperson, and vice-chair William Glenn wrote that the GTU leadership had “accepted [Lehmann’s] resignation, agreeing that this is the best way forward for the institution’s leadership at this time.”
“We recognize that this news may stir any number of varied feelings among our community’s members,” Hoganson and Glenn wrote. “Our hope is to move forward in a spirit of unity — one that models our institution’s core mission … towards creating a more peaceful, just, sustainable, and hopeful world.”
GTU alumnus Homrighausen, who earned his master’s in Biblical studies in 2018, spoke highly of the GTU — particularly its collaborative spirit among students of different faiths. He said there were “good vibes” between Jewish and Islamic studies students in particular, who sometimes celebrate Passover or Ramadan feasts together.
He said he was “disappointed” there wasn’t more transparency with alumni about the leadership change.
“It was frustrating to hear about this very quiet departure,” he said. “But I want to be open to the possibility that Covid hit, and everything else went on the back burner.”
Peggy Vernieu of Berkeley, who earned her Ph.D. in Biblical studies at the GTU in 2012, said she was bothered specifically by the board’s call for a “spirit of unity” considering the fog surrounding the leadership change.
“It seems to me to translate to a call for silence on the subject of President Lehmann’s abrupt departure and whatever was behind it,” she wrote to J. “A call for one voice is not healthy for academic freedom, genuine inter-religious dialogue, or the pursuits of truth, freedom, and justice.”
Homrighausen, who is now getting a Ph.D. at Duke, added that he did not think that “because of this, what GTU spent 50 years building is somehow washed away.”
He says that in interfaith spaces he’s found himself in throughout his career, there is often controversy “over the nation-state of Israel and Palestine,” and it usually remains unspoken.
“It can make it hard to talk about so many things, because it’s such a big, unresolved issue,” he said. “There’s always an elephant in the room.”
Two days after Lehmann’s note to the community, the GTU announced that Uriah Kim, the dean and vice president for academic affairs, would serve as interim president. Kim, a Ph.D. alumnus of GTU and a lecturer in Bible studies, was born into a Buddhist family in Korea and became a Christian in his teenage years, according to an author biography.
“As interim president, Dr. Kim will work closely with the Board of Trustees and Executive Team, and in collaboration with GTU faculty and staff, to ensure the continued smooth administration of the GTU,” the announcement read. “The board expressed great appreciation for Rabbi Lehmann’s service as president.”
This article originally appeared in Jweekly.com. Reposted with permission. Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.