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Crucified by His Own Bishop

The Yale Episcopal chaplain, forced out over accusations of anti-Semitism, talks about his downfall

Mark Oppenheimer
October 08, 2014
(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Yale campus photo: Klaus Wagensonner)
(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; Yale campus photo: Klaus Wagensonner)

On Aug. 25, 2014, Fr. Bruce Shipman, the chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale University, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, wrote that “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.” Many readers believed that Shipman had implied that Jews were responsible for anti-Semitism. (I wrote about his letter in Tablet here.) Two weeks later, Shipman resigned. Some anti-Zionists concluded that Zionists had, by pressuring Yale administrators, forced Shipman out. On Sep. 29, I drove to Shipman’s apartment, overlooking the water in coastal Groton, Conn., to talk with Shipman myself. “I have in many ways a Jewish soul,” Shipman told me, over the course of a long, candid interview, delicious for its frank talk about those who actually, according to him, were responsible for his departure. —Mark Oppenheimer

I have an open-ended question. What happened?

Bruce Shipman: The response astonished me. I mean, it dismayed me. And, I think the first shock, on top of the personal letters that came to me in email and of course, the website of ECY [Episcopal Church at Yale] was easily accessible, and my phone number and email address were both right there for all to use. But to find in the Yale Daily News, on the 28th, just two days after my letter was published in the Times, this very inflammatory guest editorial, which I think is really out of proportion, and that’s an understatement, you know. I don’t think my letter was hateful, I think people read things into it that I did not intend. And I can understand why it did offend some. But the fact that there is such a disconnect between a great many who found nothing offensive in the letter and those who did—that’s an issue that needs to be addressed, I think.

Because most people that I’m similar to say, “What’s the fuss? What’s the fuss? You know, we see this illustrated in the news and we see what’s happening, and it’s pretty obvious that the escalation in anti-Semitic violence had some connection to what’s going on in Israel and Gaza.” That’s pretty obvious. That’s no explanation to the deeper problem of anti-Semitism—that’s another subject. But what I was saying was not plumbing the depths of Semitism in its own right. But rather that there is a correlation between what’s happening in Israel and, um, some resentment against the Jews is manifested in violence. That’s happening. I mean that is happening …

And this guest editorial in the Yale Daily News, two days after mine was published, was so out of proportion. You know, I’m not sure he wrote it alone. Seems to me, I wrote, I asked him, I sent him an email the other day asking him. You know, now listen, a little cooling off time now, would you mind letting me know what the time frame was between reading my letter in the Times and sending your editorial to the Yale Daily News? Did you write it alone? And he has not replied. But it was very damaging. And to appear on the campus, you know, at the start of the school year.

This was Joshua Isackson?


I don’t know him.

Start of the school year. We’d had just one service for freshmen. Things hadn’t really even taken shape for the new year. And this [was] really very harmful and libelous, I think: my “hate.” Mine is not a hateful letter. And I’m not a hateful person. And anyone who knows me would not recognize me in this description.

Who do you think helped him write it?

I don’t know. But I just had a feeling that there was something orchestrated, and I don’t mean to make a thing of this, but it just didn’t seem totally spontaneous to me, and it was so intense and so sudden and for a couple of days it continued, and then abated. But this editorial, and then, was the most damaging.

I mean just, before we move on, I mean was there any reason you thought he had help writing it?

Well, reading through it, and again, it’s just a hunch. I really have the feeling, since a meeting in April when I talked at a plenary session of the [Yale] chaplain’s staff—you know, there are many chaplains working under Sharon Kugler, who’s the official University Chaplain—and when she asked how we’d spent out spring break, I said that I’d gone to Israel and the West Bank with a group at the Divinity School … and some others. And as we were deeply troubled by what we observed in the West Bank, and not just the—the highway system that really favors the settlers over the indigenous inhabitants, the water policies, all of this, was very deeply troubling. It is almost too late for a two-state solution.

I made these remarks at the table with about 30 others, and afterward she very sternly, you know, rebuked me and said this is not a topic to come up at a meeting of the chaplains. This is simply off-limits, it’s not a topic.

Sharon Kugler said that?

Yeah. I said, “Sharon, you asked us what we did, what we saw. And if we cannot …”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It has taken years to get everyone at the same table, and we’re not disrupting the harmony with controversial topics.”

So, I really do feel that I was on a kind of watch list since them. My voice has been unwelcome. In some ways this has been the last straw. And the tipping point …

Do you think that ADL [the Anti-Defamation League] wrote the letter for him?

I don’t know! I don’t know. It’s just, carefully crafted—an undergraduate at the start of his senior year would sit down and write—I don’t know, and that the letter would set off such a strong, strong message, that he really doesn’t belong on our campus, his message of hate, anti-Semitic, that he really doesn’t belong on our campus.

So, then what happened? Give me the narrative up until your leaving.

Well, there was the emergency meeting called of the [Episcopal] Church of Yale board, and as has come out, as the bishop himself pointed out, there were board issues to deal with as well, and the old guard, the Executive Committee, who held the offices, were not in compliance with the bylaws of ECY. And as a two-year transitional chaplain, I followed a chaplain who had been there for 10 years, it was very much a personal style he exercised, and following him involved building up the board to assume leadership and prepare the foundations for a new permanent chaplain. And so with the bishop’s encouragement, and his strong encouragement, I did challenge the Executive Committee on the bylaws and said that we simply have to move the board into compliance, in preparation for the search process for a new permanent chaplain. And they resisted this, and they really did not go along with me on that. So, that when this letter was published, and they too had been approached by the chaplain’s office, they saw that, and it’s the last straw, and saw it as a chance for me to go.

How big is the Executive Committee?

There were five.

In what way were they out of compliance?

Well, two of the officers have been serving far in excess of term limits. The bylaws clearly states six one-year terms.

And how do you know they had been approached by Sharon Kugler?

Emails from [executive committee member] John Seibold indicate that they’d all been talking to her.

He told you that?

Yes, I have their emails and documents. They had all been in touch with the chaplain’s office, and she with them, and that, they were upset that my letter had damaged relations [between the Episcopal church and the university]. That was an increasingly fraught situation. And the emergency meeting was called for the second of September, the day after Labor Day, and took place in Dwight Hall that afternoon.

And at that meeting, Peter Van Ness, reporting for the Executive Committee, said that this is our decision, that I offer my resignation. And [if I didn’t,] he said that I’d be fired. There were others, other board members present who did not concur with that …

The following morning, I offered my resignation to [Connecticut Episcopal Bishop] Douglas, and he said he was disappointed but asked if we could meet that afternoon to work out details. So, I met with him and his assistant, [Bishop suffragan] Laura Ahrens, and um, he said, that having heard what the board had to say, how could I possibly go back? I did offer to, I personally advised that it would be better for everyone if there was cooling-off period of a month until the Oct. 4 meeting, which had been scheduled for a long time, and that was a major board meeting to discuss the issues of term limits, the bylaws, etc.

I said let’s, “You know, I’ll tough it out. We can do some damage control. It will cool down. Saner heads will prevail, and that will be better for everyone. In October let’s see what the situation is and whether or not I should even stay.” I said, “I’d like to work with the board members who support me during this period.” And he said that really wouldn’t be possible.

Bishop Douglas said that?

Yes … he accepted my resignation.

Who had the authority to fire you? The board or the bishop?

The bishop, finally. He didn’t fire me. I offered my resignation. And he reluctantly accepted it.

He reluctantly accepted it.

That’s what he said. But I did offer to stay, at least during this four weeks … You know, it would have looked better, it would have been better, and the entire board could have been involved in a way that they were not at that first emergency meeting. So, that’s you know, the rather sleazy background to that.

‘I said let’s, “You know, I’ll tough it out. We can do some damage control. It will cool down.” ’

But you know there was no way I could possibly go back. Without a strong sense the bishops were working with me and backing me to bring something out of this, I didn’t have a future. So, the resignation was accepted. And then, you know, they sort of go to press [saying it had] nothing to do with the letter at all. And just, and that’s what he said.

That’s what Douglas said.

Yes, to the press.

And that’s not correct.

No, it’s not correct. Of course it has to do with the letter. This letter had to do with the emergency meeting in the first place. How to deal with the crisis.

So, you think he lied?

Well, “lied” is a strong word, you know. But at the same time, I mean yes, there were board issues, as I’ve explained to you. I’m not accusing him of lying, but to minimize the importance of the letter is also a disservice, and also to ignore the issues completely is a disservice.


The letter, did the Times edit it?

Essentially not. There were perhaps two or three words that were changed. I tried to find the original, and I couldn’t.

But it’s your letter.

It’s my letter, yes.

So, whom do you hold, for lack of a better word, culpable? I mean, do we know what outside pressure was brought?

I don’t know. We do know that the [Yale] president’s office was involved on some level.

How do we know?

That is what Sharon Kugler said in her email to me, that the president’s office, inundated with angry mail, was calling for my dismissal. [A Yale spokesman wrote to clarify that it was the mail writers, not the president’s office, that was calling for dismissal, as described in an email from Kugler that was quoted in The Day.] Both the president’s office, [Peter] Salovey, and then Sharon Kugler’s office, had received many, many angry letters and phone calls objecting to my letter and objecting to the use of “Yale,” which was my title, you know. How do I write a letter [without giving my title]?

It’s your job.

That was my title. And I did not present it as being the consensus or the mind of ECY. But all my ministry I’ve written letters, if I was the curate in Westport, which I was, or the rector at Roxbury, Conn., which I was, people knew my name and that was my title. [I] always sent letters. For those who shake their heads, “He’s out of it again,” you know, they know me, and they also know that I’ve had a passion for the Middle East since I grew up there as a child.

Oh, you grew up there?

In Cairo.

In Cairo?

Egypt was a very happy time. And we were there during the Suez War in ’56, and Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula … I remember that. School was disrupted, part of the year was spent elsewhere. But, you know, since growing up among Palestinians who left Jaffa in ’48 and never were able to go back, I’ve heard their stories. I heard their stories first. And their stories are powerful stories.

As are the Jewish stories. And that’s why I say it’s a profound tragedy here, in which two people have the same attachment to the land … But people in this country don’t know much about the Nakba, about 1948, about the numbers of Palestinians who were displaced. But the refugees go into South Lebanon and into Gaza and into Syria and Jordan, and Jordan is half Palestinian, and people don’t know that story.

If nothing else, I would like something to be established at Yale, some kind of endowment or chair, that would enable the Nakba and the war of ’48 and the Palestinian diaspora to be taken seriously. To be acknowledged. I think acknowledgement is something that is profoundly lacking, and that in itself would be a huge move toward some kind of accommodation. To acknowledge that Palestinians too have claims to the land, that they’re not just, that they too are sons of God, are sons of Abraham. It’s the other branch of the family.

And they need to be heard and not demonized or dismissed as the Other or as terrorists, or you know. There are 4 million of them there, not to mention the population in Israel. And 25 percent of Israel is Arab. But 4 million or so in the West Bank and Gaza. And they’re there, just as the settlements are facts on the ground in the West Bank, they are there, and so are the people there, and what is going to be done about it? Apart from slow attrition and wars every five years, every three years—I mean, they’re getting more frequent. There has to be a change. There has to be some imagination and some hope. And some good will. I mean, trust is broken down completely between both parties.

I’ve never, in my own time as a religious journalist, I’ve never seen any reason to deny the immense tragedy that befell the Palestinian people and the extraordinary displacement that they suffered, and the ongoing humiliation of them in the occupation, including many discriminatory laws in Israel proper … But when I read your letter, just over my morning cup of coffee, before there was any outcry, I said to myself, “Oh my gosh, I wonder if he has any idea what he’s in for.” I knew.

I didn’t. But I understand what you read, and I understand it could be read that way.

I guess I’m curious …

I do understand.

Because you weren’t responding to some article about civilian deaths in Gaza.

That’s correct.

You were responding to an article about the murdering of innocent Jews in Europe.

That’s correct.

And so it struck me as curious as why would someone respond to the murder of innocent Jews in Europe by talking about Gaza, except to say that in some way …

I had Gaza on my mind.

… Israel brings this upon …

Gaza was on my mind when I wrote it. But clearly it was not dealing with the larger subjects. And I can understand, and your point is well taken. I do understand.

For a people for whom anti-Semitism is an extraordinary historical constant, and goes back to thousands of years before there was a state, it’s not at all obvious that you can map blips of anti-Semitism onto this war or that one, because the anti-Semitism never goes away. There could be one state tomorrow, and there would still be theories out there about the world banking system and the secret powers and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And of course, the other thing I would say is that, the mind of someone who shoots innocent people is not the mind of someone who responds in rational ways to current events.

It’s not a rational response.

Don’t we think of bigots and madmen as mad? Do we think that the people who flew planes into the World Trade Center were really reacting to a recent political event? Maybe so. Maybe so. Or, do we think the people who murdered Sikhs, thinking they were Arabs, afterwards—I mean, is that the way to think about bigotry?

But the climate, mounting humiliation is the key also. Some of the terrorism and some of the acts that we deplore, the humiliation, sense of powerlessness, from ’67 onwards, and the loss of hope in the West Bank and Gaza. It seems to me that Gaza is scarcely habitable now … It’s not a rational thing. Obviously many use this as a cover for deeper hatred in Europe. That’s the difference in Europe between the Arab population, which has its own grievances, and Arab anti-Semitism is something fairly recent, mostly since 1948, mostly.

Well, yeah, there’s a strong body of research that shows that it was brought to them by Christians.


If I can just press it a little bit further: Was I wrong in thinking that your letter, in seeing an analogy to someone who read, say, of some anti-Arab violence after 9/11, in some red-state American town, and wrote a letter to the Times saying, “You know, if people are serious about ending that kind of violence, they have to take it up with Iran and Syria and other state sponsors of terrorism.” Is that a bad analogy?

Well, not entirely, but certainly the Arab population here, the Muslim population, is suffering for things being done by ISIS.

By ISIS, by Iran sponsorship of Hezbollah. By Syrian sponsorship of…

In the name of Islam. And they are suffering unjustly, many, most, most. Israel is a Jewish state, and it’s not completely disconnected from anti-Jewish violence, I think. That’s just how I see it.

So, what would happen if they achieved some sort of stable peace?

I believe it would be a better climate, to see hope restored, to see something hopeful in the future, that gives the possibility of a future for people in Gaza … Just to restore hope and a measure of trust would do a lot to create a climate in which I think there would be a downturn. And anti-American violence for that matter, too.

I mean, you’re speaking about a people who almost never see a full cessation—to some Jews is, here’s somebody from an elite WASP background, and of course I don’t know how you grew up, but you’re an Episcopalian …

A Presbyterian from Minnesota. The heartland.

But of course you speak for the Church of the Queen, and English imperialism, and all of these things, right? And he’s going to talk to people about how to end anti-Semitism. And talk to a people who live constantly with anti-Semitism, constantly. When there’s peace in the Middle East they live with it, when there’s invasions in Gaza they live with it. I think that was hard. I knew exactly why, and again I’m not someone who, I’m no AIPAC Jew. I’m the person who in many situations is the one saying, you know, there are Palestinians who were thrown out of their homes. And I read your letter and I thought to myself, “That’s not what you want to say.”

Because it’s like saying—it just doesn’t strike me as different from saying to an African-American civil rights activist complaining about stop-and-frisk or profiling, “Look, when black crime goes down, these measures won’t be necessary.” I just don’t see how you say that to people, how you say that. It just strikes me as a line of reasoning that gives force to all kinds of deeply reactionary moves.

No, I understand what you’re saying. I do accept that, I do accept your point.

And I don’t think you would have said it about anyone except Jews in Israel. I don’t think when you’ve read about Muslim violence your heart goes to the place of, “I’m angry at Arab governments.” I don’t think you read about the several acts of Muslims being murdered after 9/11 and that your anger was toward Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Iran. I think your anger probably went toward the bigots who killed them. But when it’s Jews being killed your anger goes toward Israel.

It’s not so much anger as despair. It’s getting worse. And it’s kind of like seeing a train crash. I feel as if it’s family that’s involved. You have to understand, I have a very deep identification with Israel. And I have in many ways a Jewish soul, if I can say that.

I believe it. You can say it.

In truth, and in terms of my faith, and my history, it’s, you know, family. It is family. And so I’ve taken liberties and not said things that maybe I should have said about making clear that I abhor anti-Semitism, the violence, it’s disgusting. And I do believe me, know, the history. I do. I spent a great deal of time reading the works of Bonhoeffer and many others, and I would have hoped that I would have courage to do the right thing. I feel that it’s a kind of despair about the Mid-East and how this is. Israel just isn’t good for the Jews, I really feel that. Israel at the present time is not good for the Jews.

If nothing else, if Iran ever wanted to wipe Israel off the map, we’ve gathered several million Jews for them.

‘It seems to me that Gaza is scarcely habitable now.’

I had a friend of Paul Tillich’s, a German Jew, who came here in the ’30s, lived on the West Side [of Manhattan], and her friend kept saying, “It is a mousetrap. It is a mousetrap.” That’s a terrible thing to say. That’s how she perceived it.

That’s it’s going to ingather them all for the slaughter? There’s a strong argument that diaspora is better for the Jews, or for any people.

Religiously, one could say diaspora spiritualized Judaism, and that the nationalism in Israel does not. That there is a distortion of Jewish spirituality. And the very values it was meant to enshrine are somehow at risk with the present rightward move and the militarization of society.


I’ll say something very frank, because I appreciate your frankness. I once asked a friend of mine who is a Jew very much on the Left, substantially to the Left of me. You know, someone who favors boycott and divestment [from Israel], someone who favors a one-state solution without question, somebody who is, you know, deeply enmeshed in proudly anti-Israel politics.

Is he for one-state solution?

I don’t know, I’m not entirely clear, but he could be. He runs with plenty of people who are. And he’s Jewish. And I said to him, “You spend so much time among anti-Zionists. How can you tell which ones, which minority, are anti-Semites?” And he said, “Well, that’s easy.” He said, “It’s the liberal Protestants. The Jews aren’t anti-Semitic, even if they’re called self-loathing. And the Muslims aren’t anti-Semitic, because they get us.” He said they understand everything about us, as we understand everything about them. He said it’s the well-meaning leftie Protestants. They profess a deep spiritual kinship with Jews, they’ve often lived in the Middle East, they’ve led tours there.

He’s talking about me! [laughs]

He said, “But they fundamentally see Jews as, their image of the contemporary Jew is of a rich, crass, Zionist who distorts American politics and is bad for the idealized Jew whom they love. Whom they may or may not know any of anymore.”

And, I knew exactly what he was talking about. And I’m not saying that’s you. At all. I don’t know you. But I know people like that … And what I sometimes think is, about the philo-Semitic liberal Protestant experience, is that they don’t understand the why the contemporary liberal Jew might be a Zionist. That in their mind the last good Zionist went out sometime around the late 1960s, was a socialist on a kibbutz somewhere, was totally secular, and that they don’t actually get the lived experience of being, say, a religious Jew in Brussels today.

I think there’s a truth that one can deeply love Jews and have loved Jews, but feel that there are no good Jews left. Except the ones that are entirely secular and anti-Zionist. That there are no good Jews left like there once were.

That’s not my experience.


[After his letter appeared in the Times, Shipman sent an email to Yale Rabbi Leah Cohen, asking if they could sit down and talk. He says that she never replied. But he heard from Chabad Rabbi Shmully Hecht, who runs Eliezer, an off-campus Jewish society with Jewish and non-Jewish members.]

Hecht invites me to dinner, a Sabbath meal. And we have real differences about Israel, but let’s sit down at the table and join us, and I have a feeling we’re going to be friends. And that’s such a wonderful thing to say, in the midst of all of this. It was a very very difficult email saying how unworthy, and of course I’m unworthy but, you know, there are different kinds, you know. And um, but wonderful, just wonderful evening in which we were allowed, not just allowed to talk, but there were about 30 people at the table. It went on for hours.

No, there was a great variety of people. There were undergraduates, there were some freshmen there, there was an Afghan there, and there was a student who was originally from Venezuela. You know, it was not only Jews at the table. But of course the core is Jewish, and Hecht led the prayers and singing. But I found it very congenial, and we were each given a chance to introduce ourselves and then have our say … It’s the way people should meet who have differences.

How did a Presbyterian from Minnesota become an Episcopalian? You had a rich natal tradition of your own.

Well, growing up overseas, there are not a lot of Presbyterian churches in Cairo.

Were your parents missionaries?

No, World Health Organization.

Your father was a doctor?

He was not; he was an engineer in public health—water, pure water is a big subject right now. It was big then too. But, um, so we went to an American community church, and that was fine, but it was not a strong denominational sense in those years. I went to Carleton College, I was a philosophy major, and I spent my junior year at King’s College London in philosophy. And there’s a divinity school, Church of England, as part of King’s. So, a number of good friends that year were preparing for ministering the Church of England, and I went to church with them … I found that I was more Anglican than Calvinist. And, so that’s, I began going to Episcopal Church.

I think, and tell me if I’m wrong, it sounds to me like you’re saying that, and I don’t mean to misrepresent anything that you’re saying but I’m really trying to get clarity on the chain of events, it sounds to me that as if you’re saying that this was a decision of the Executive Committee, which may have had verbal pressure from Sharon Kugler …

I believe.

But I think they could have stuck by you, and you would have been fine.

And that’s a big disappointment. If they had stood, and they should have, they should have. And, the letter did not warrant dismissal in itself. They should have. That’s a big disappointment. But the bishops should have just told them, “You know, this letter does not deserve this treatment, and furthermore it will cause further harm and damage that we don’t want at this time.” But that’s not how it played out.

I mean, I don’t really think, in other words, that if they’d stuck by you, that Peter Salovey or Sharon Kugler would have been able to do much about it or tried to.

I don’t think so either, I agree with that.

There were some anti-Zionist websites that enjoyed using your case as, “The Jews drove you out.”

It wasn’t. It was my own board that failed to back me up, for their own reasons. And that was very disappointing.

Not that AIPAC can’t drive people out. I just didn’t see any evidence that they did that to you.

No, no. I wouldn’t, no. As I say there was, I believe within the first couple of days, the chaplain’s office and the president were involved in trying to get me out. I believe that. But you’re quite right that, had the board supported me, and the bishops, as they should have really … But the principle of free speech, and the principle of the integrity of the chaplain’s office—the chaplain needs at times to say things that are unpopular.

If what you’ve said is true, it sounds like they’re trying to controversy-proof the chaplaincy.

Yes. I believe that that is the policy of the administration. I believe that that is Sharon’s understanding of her role, to avoid controversy, and the chaplaincy is essentially pastoral. And to avoid the controversy.

How are you feeling now? Are you angry?

No. I’m really not. You know, I’m adjusting to a different life. I’ve reconnected with some old friends and made some new ones. I object to being labeled an anti-Semite, which I was in the local paper [the New London Day, in a letter to the editor]. But I really do want to see something come out of this, in the form of an endowment at Yale for the study of the Nakba and the Palestinian diaspora. Where refugees went, their stories, their present conditions.

I bet if you raised $5 million they would take it. How rich are you?

Well, it’s not just me, but I’m hoping to interest a sheik in the Gulf.

Have you been in touch with sheiks in the Gulf?

Well, I expect to be; I hope to be.

How does one do that?

This is new for me. I have a good friend who has done well, an English friend from my time in England, who has done well in life, and who has been given a seat in the House of Lords, and I think that he would have access to some of the sheiks in the Gulf and could make the case. This would be good public relations. Bring something good out of my experience, and also help to bring better understanding of the Palestinian situation. Some kind of acknowledgment. I think it’s worth pursuing. I think it’s doable.


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Mark Oppenheimer is Tablet’s editor at large. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.