Blog: The Politics of Hope

No Blue Sky Between Republicans and Democrats on Israel

As we prepare watch the Democrats roll out their plan for America this week, it’s instructive to consider how the issue of Israel and the Palestinians plays out on the domestic policy stage.

In a July 19th New York Daily News opinion piece “The GOP is playing a dangerous game with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Jewish movement, wades into the controversy as a mainstream American Jewish leader concerned about our country’s support for Israel.  He was not happy about what he saw coming out of Cleveland:

“The Republican Party’s platform excludes language for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, a serious divergence from a quarter century of U.S. foreign policy.  This could be a dangerous foreboding of where the Republicans are headed.”

Rabbi Jacobs goes on to warn that abandoning the two state solution “would subject Israel and the Palestinians to an endless cycle of violence.” Turning away from two states, he writes, is “a dangerous turning point,” citing with approval the fact that the Democratic platform is sticking to its story about supporting “two states for two peoples.”

But ironically, the Republicans have actually got it right:  their current platform, rather than departing from U.S. policy on Israel, is actually a more accurate reflection of four decades of U.S. support for Israel’s expansionism at the expense of Palestinian rights. Every negotiation brokered by the United States has effectively ignored Palestinian rights with respect to territorial sovereignty, refugee rights, treatment of prisoners, access to natural resources, and freedom of movement. Since the 1970s, when the Likud government under Menachem Begin took power, every successive U.S. administration has acted not as a neutral party but as “Israel’s lawyer,” acceding to terms set out by Begin and every successive Israeli government—terms that have all but eliminated the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.  The dirty secret is that, despite its language on the international stage, Israel has never been interested in or willing to accept a sovereign, independent Palestinian state on its borders. Israel’s goal in every negotiation, as well as in its actions on the ground, have been aimed at achieving control over, if not outright annexation of, the entire territory from the Mediter­ranean to the Jordan. Except for one instance (interestingly under the administration of Bush senior), no U.S. administration has ever taken effective steps to stop this program.  In fact, we have supported Israel at every turn, diplomatically and with massive financial assistance. The Democrats will continue to chant the “two states” mantra, but it has become a dangerously fruitless process, as Israel’s policies of annexation, settlement and control continue in violation of multilateral agreements and international law.

Rabbi Jacobs wants us to accept more of the same.  He claims to support Israel, but the policies he advocates will serve only to guarantee continued conflict and insecurity for the Jewish state.  When will Rabbi Jacobs wake up to the reality that only nonviolent direct action will bring the politicians – both in Israel and the U.S. and Europe – around?  Why is he so afraid of BDS, a nonviolent effort by Palestinians to secure their rights to live in peace and equality with the Jews of Israel?  What word in “Montgomery bus boycott” does Jacobs not understand?  Why is he not eager to have the world do for Israel what it did for South Africa two generations ago, rescuing South Africans – white and black – from the evil of Apartheid that was poisoning their country?

Rabbi Jacobs is doing what he accuses the other side of doing, by seeking to delegitimize BDS, casting it as radical and anti-Israel. He links the Republicans to right wing evangelicals: “The extreme right supporters of one state sadly mirror the extreme left supporters of BDS, who are also one state supporters who aim to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” It’s a classic straw man tactic, allowing him to position mainstream Judaism as the moderate left, pursuing — you guessed it — the two state solution.

Rabbi Jacobs uses words implying compassion for the “Palestinian souls” suffering under the current situation, but in pursuing the real object of his piece – stopping BDS — he is denying the Palestinians the right to legal, nonviolent action. And he wants to discourage Americans, including increasing numbers of Jews, as well as Christians across the theological spectrum, from supporting the Palestinians in this effort.  In fact, BDS is gaining support on a global basis, which is the reason for the increasingly strident and desperate cries from Rabbi Jacobs and others that it is “anti-Semitic” and has as its object the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.  Jews and Christians alike are coming to the realization that a state that truly expresses Jewish values would not look like the Israel of today.  Something has to change, for Palestinians and Jews alike, and BDS is the best tool we have for bringing that change about.

In a bid to outdo the Democrats in the “I love Israel” department, the Republicans have staked out their “pro-Israel” position — a now familiar practice in every Presidential election. We’ll hear more of the same this week in Philadelphia, if the Democrats allow the issue to surface at all (we’re talking kryptonite for Party unity). But the political impact of BDS is gaining steam: the growing global campaign is causing more and more people to question our no-strings-attached support for Israel.  That’s why Rabbi Jacobs and others like him are up in arms about it. That’s good news for the BDS movement.  At historical moments like this we recall Gandhi’s words:

“First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you – and then you win.

Mark Braverman serves on the Advisory Board of Friends of Sabeel North America and is National Program Director for Kairos USA. He is the author of A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine, Jericho Books, 2013.

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Peace for Israelis, Liberation for Palestinians: Bringing the New Jerusalem

I was in Santa Cruz, CA to speak at a conference organized by Friends of Sabeel North America, an ecumenical organization devoted to bringing the voice of Palestinian Christians to the United States, and to mobilizing the church to work for the liberation of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis both from the evil of apartheid in our time.  The conference stirred up controversy in the community, with a local rabbi lodging a protest in the local media, charging the conference organizers with fomenting anti-Semitism.  See this article for more details about the controversy. This is not an uncommon story — over the years it has been repeated in many communities in the U.S., as well as in Europe, where the growing awareness of the historic injustice to Palestinians accompanying the establishment of the Jewish state has created what I consider a healthy and urgently needed conversation about Zionism from both political and theological perspectives.  It’s a conversation that I, as a Jew, have been honored to be part of.

I was asked to stay on an extra day to preach at a local Presbyterian church.  Yes, I’m Jewish, but so far the invitations to speak at synagogues, much less preach from the pulpit, have not been forthcoming.  But since my return from Israel and the West Bank in 2006 and what has become, apparently, my ministry to help Christians take a faithful stand for human rights on this issue, and despite the very real risk (really the inevitability) of being charged with committing or supporting anti-Semitism, the invitations to preach on Sundays have continued to come.  See my website for a selection of my sermons. Of all my work, I think these opportunities have given me the most pleasure.  I may have been exiled from the synagogue, but not from my love of scripture and my penchant for homiletics.

In this case, even though the pastor was very willing for me to preach, several people in the Session blocked this, saying that my voice would be too “political” and the topic too “controversial.”  As a compromise I was invited to present a “Moment for Mission.”

So I preached.

Moment for Mission

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Trinity Presbyterian Church

  Santa Cruz, CA

May 1, 2016

Thank you, Pastor Evie and to all of you for welcoming me into your midst and asking me to present this Moment for Mission.  I’m looking forward to our discussion group after worship.

Today’s reading is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible.

In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

I have a powerful connection to Jerusalem, not the New Jerusalem of Revelation, but the earthly Jerusalem of today, where my grandfather was born, in the Old City within the ancient city walls, growing up steeped in the Jewish tradition, praying in a synagogue in the shadow of the remains of Solomon’s Temple, playing in the streets with Christian and Muslim children with whom the Jewish community shared the city and the land.  My grandfather emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and so it was that I was born a second generation American, growing up in the freedom of mid-twentieth century America, heir to the rich Jewish tradition, which included an attachment to and love for the land where my grandfather was born, a land to which, according to the Jewish liturgy which I recited daily, my people longed to return – and to even rebuild the Temple!

But I also grew up in the shadow of the disaster that had befallen my people in the very decade in which I was born – the near destruction of the totality of European Jewry by the Nazi Regime.  The horror – and, I was taught – the lesson of that catastrophe, that Shoah, that the Jews would never be safe without a land of their own, was in contrast with the life of freedom that I lived — freedom from fear, freedom from anti-Semitism, a life in which all the opportunities and advantages of the world lay open to me.  A life I could share with peoples of all faiths and nationalities.  But the shadow of the Nazi genocide, and, I was taught, of 2000 years of persecution and slaughter, darkened that other vision, teaching me that although I could move freely in this world, I could never feel safe, and I could, and should, never trust.  Outwardly, I could act like a citizen of the world and an accepted member of society, even talk to Christians (we didn’t know much about Muslims in those days), but always remember that the world was not safe for Jews, that below the surface of an open, friendly society, there was a foundation of anti-Semitism that could turn on me, even murderously.

I was born in 1948, the year of the establishment of the State of Israel.  I was taught that I was blessed to have been born in a time in which redemption had finally come to my people. We had our haven, had been granted our ancient homeland, the millennia of suffering and insecurity were over.  As a young man I visited Israel, met my extended family, lived there for a time, and fell in love with the people and the land.

I was proud of the miracle of modern Israel – of what my people had done, creating this vibrant country out of the ashes of Auschwitz.  My Israeli family – religious Jews — warmly embraced me.  But even as I embraced them in return, I realized that they talked about “the Arabs” in the same way that whites talked about black people in the pre-Civil Rights Philadelphia of my birth.  I realized then as a young man that something was fundamentally wrong with the Zionist project.  Still, I held to the Jewish narrative:  the Occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, was the price of security.

Traveling in Israel and the Occupied Territories the summer of my 56th year, my defenses against the reality of Israel’s crimes crumbled.  Witnessing the Separation Wall, the checkpoints, the network of restricted roads, the extrajudicial assassinations, the collective punishment including midnight raids on families and the imprisonment of children, the the massive, continuing construction of illegal Jewish settlements and towns, and the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers, words like apartheid and ethnic cleansing sprang to my mind, unbidden and undeniable. And I met the Palestinians, saw that they were not my enemies but my victims, paying with their land and their human rights for my people’s quest for security. I saw all that, and my relationship to Israel changed forever.  My eyes were opened.

I went to Palestine, indeed to Jerusalem itself, intentionally to meet the Palestinians, because I was looking for a way back to the Judaism, the Jewishness, that was at my core but that had been obscured — I will say it — poisoned, by the ethnic nationalist project of building a state for Jews on the ruins of a living culture, on the ethnic cleansing of another people. And when I saw it, I was in agony.  I was healed and made whole through the work and writings of a Palestinian Anglican priest, Naim Ateek, himself a dispossessed Galilean, who introduced me to a Jew of 2000 years ago, a Jew who sought to liberate his people from tyranny, a Jew who stood firmly in the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power, a Jew who called the leadership of his own people back to Torah, back to equality, back to compassion for the most vulnerable and oppressed. A Jew who stood in front of the Temple itself and said this must fall, to be replaced with the Temple of my body — one humanity joined in love, compassion and equality. That summer changed my life, and I began my work for the liberation of both Palestinian and Jew from the evil of apartheid in our time.  I hasten to assure you, I have not “become a Christian.”  I have become a better Jew.

I believe that if there is to be a future of dignity and peace, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Jews of Israel, who are home and deserve better, that Israel must become, as its Declaration of Independence states, a state for all its citizens, no longer privileging one group over others, no longer pursuing its relentless taking of the entire land.

I believe, along with an increasing number of Jews, young and old, many of them Israelis, that our deepest values and the priceless heritage that we gave the world demand that we forgive ourselves for what we have done in pursuit of safety and freedom, and that we open Israel to the wonderful people with whom we share the land, that we make it truly a democracy.  That only then will we be safe, only then we will obtain the security we desire, a safety grounded in fairness and faithfulness to our deepest held values.  I believe that as U.S. citizens, of all faiths, we have a responsibility to demand that our government pursue this goal in its policies toward Israel, instead of what it has been doing, which has been to help Israel sink deeper into the hole it has been digging for itself.  I believe we have to do for Israel what the world did for South Africa 30 years ago.  It was an act of love, for black and white alike.

I believe in the vision of the New Jerusalem that we read today, that this fulfilment of the trajectory of the entire Bible, beginning with God’s revelation to Abraham and his command to settle in the land, that this is the ultimate vision of what that land was to become – not a grant to one family or one people, but a place of universal love and healing.  I believe that the future, not only for Jews and Palestinians, but for all of humanity and our planet depends on it.

And so we return to our text for today, the vision in Revelation of the New Jerusalem:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 

God Bless you.

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The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Yom Kippur

Rabbi Brant Rosen leads a newly-formed Jewish congregation, Tzedek Chicago, a congregation that pursues a “Judaism beyond nationalism…non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.”

Read Rosen’s first Yom Kippur sermon, and get to know him thorough his blog.  Here he is, once again stunningly on target.  Check out the quote from James Baldwin near the end.

The Uprooted and Unwanted: A Sermon for Tzedek Chicago’s First Yom Kippur Service

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The German church and the Palestinian call: A church challenged, Part 1

Four years ago I was in Stuttgart, Germany for my first speaking tour in that country. My book had been published in German with the title Fatal Shame: Israel’s Politics and the Silence of the Christians. Several church groups eager to bring a message supportive of the Palestinian cause to German audiences had organized my visit. But this was Germany, and they were a bit nervous. On the evening of my first lecture, the local organizer took me aside and made a request: “Don’t mention boycotts,” he said to me. “You must understand that this is a very sensitive topic for Germans.” I agreed to take his request seriously. After all, I was his guest, and I needed to honor his wisdom about what his audience was ready to absorb. I wanted this gutsy thing he was doing to be successful, and I didn’t want to throw any bombs.

It didn’t go that way. I don’t recall the moment that I made the decision, but I realized quickly that this audience was hungry to hear truths about this issue that no one had been allowed to voice. Five minutes into my talk I asked the following question: “How many of you here tonight,” I said, “actually confuse the anti-Jewish laws enacted by the Third Reich in the 1930s with the Palestinian call to sanction Israel for its human rights violations?” The jaws dropped and then the nonverbal response was clear: it was relief. What I felt from the audience was – I have no other word for it – gratitude. I realized that Germans, now 65 years after the war, still needed to be liberated from the feelings of guilt and shame that had so profoundly affected their ability to speak and act about the urgent situation of the Palestinians. But it was also my own liberation that I was also seeking. “I will make a deal with you,” I continued. “If you as Germans will stop seeing yourselves as the worst criminals the world has ever known, I as a Jew will give up regarding myself the world’s worst victim. It’s time for all of us to move on.”

In my time in Germany for the remainder of that tour, I began to understand the depth and the nature of the German preoccupation with the support for Israel. A Protestant Bishop serving on the Middle East Committee of the German Protestant Church explained to me that the German church had a “special responsibility” to support the State of Israel because of the Nazi genocide, a responsibility that had to put limits on the church’s ability to respond to Palestinian suffering. It was therefore the de facto official policy of the church to oppose any word on action on the part of church bodies or church members that could be perceived as unfriendly to Israel. This mirrored official German state policy, which had been famously expressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, that the welfare and security of the State of Israel is the “Staatsräson” or “reason for being” of the German state itself!

Despite the horrific history of Germany and its Jews in recent history, this phenomenon is by no means limited to Germany. U.S. Presidential candidates try to outdo one another declaring their friendship with the State of Israel and their commitment to its security. The few voices in our Houses of Congress who dare to defy the party line are drowned out by the huge bipartisan consensus of those who either have managed to keep themselves blind to the overwhelming reality of Israel’s human rights abuses or who are too intimidated politically to show any political courage. The “thirteenth commandment” of U.S. politics continues very much to be in force: “Thou shalt unconditionally support the State of Israel.”

A church challenged

Four years later, I am back in Stuttgart, where I was privileged to speak before a special gathering entitled “Justice brings peace: Breaking the Silence on Palestine and Israel.” The setting was the bienniel Kirchentag, or Church Assembly,one of the largest church gatherings of its kind in the world. The four-day event brings together between 120,000 and 150,000 German Protestants and Catholics for four days of lectures, arts, bible study and celebration of the church’s mission in the world. Organized in 1949 by clergy and lay members of the Protestant church in Germany, the Kirchentag is devoted to bringing together Christians devoted to the engagement of the church with the broader society. This year, however, frustrated and unhappy with the Kirchentag’s rejection of their program submissions, a coalition of lay, clergy, and church-based human rights groups devoted to the struggle for Palestinian human rights organized an “alternative” Kirchentag conference, to be held simultaneously in Stuttgart. At the event speakers addressed a standing-room only audience of Kirchentag attendees hungry to hear the truth about Israeli human rights violations and the Palestinian call for justice, and eager to join the movement to liberate Israelis and Palestinians alike from the evil of apartheid in our time.

It is not a small thing for German Christians to promote such a program. In fact, the growing movement within Germany to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom and equality has created a problem for the German church, which has officially declared itself, along with the German government itself, as having a special responsibility to the Jewish people and for the welfare of the State of Israel. Indeed, the German Protestant church is on a collision course with the growing movement at the church grassroots in solidarity with the Palestinian human rights struggle.

Perhaps no other document has lent as much momentum to this growing movement as the 2009 Palestine Kairos Document: “A Moment of Truth: a cry of hope, faith and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” “A Moment of Truth” is powerful theological document from the churches of Palestine. It describes the worsening situation of land annexation and denial of rights in the occupied territories and the inequalities for Palestinian citizens of Israel, articulates a powerful theology of nonviolent resistance, and appeals to the churches as well as the governments of the world to “help us get our freedom back!”

Institutions resist being jolted out of their comfort zone. The Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD) is a federation of twenty Lutheran, Reformed and United regional and denominational churches in Germany. With a membership of over 23 million church-goers, or 29 per cent of the German population, it constitutes one of the largest national Protestant bodies in the world. To its credit, the EKD, through its official “Protestant Middle East Committee,” composed a statement in response to the Palestinian “Moment of Truth” within a year of the emergence of the Palestinian document. The church declaration, adopted by the EKD’s Church Parliament in 2011, is a careful, measured document that in its opening affirms the Palestinian document as “an expression of the Christian faith that this situation can change and must change.” It goes on, however, to present “comments and reservations” about the Palestinian statement that amount nothing less than a betrayal of fundamental Christian principles. Rather than respond actively and clearly to the cry of the oppressed, as would befit the church of Jesus Christ, the document calls for further discussion. Rather than responding with outrage and sadness to the cry of suffering, the authors question why only Palestinian suffering and not Israeli security concerns were cited in the Palestinian document, calling into question how the “terrorism” of some Palestinian groups could be the result of the structural and overt violence visited upon the Palestinian people by the State of Israel. Finally, in response to the Palestinian call for nonviolent resistance through economic boycott, the authors of the church response declare categorically that “we cannot accept such a boycott” because it “reminds the churches in Germany of the Nazi-appeal of 1933 “Do not buy from Jews!”

The EKD’s objection to boycott on the basis of the Nazi genocide is a central feature of the church body’s attempt to push back on the grassroots demand for a response to Palestinian suffering. The logic and power of this objection depends on a single move: the equation of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and between Judaism and Zionism. This equation has been successfully promoted in German society, as it has throughout the Western world. It continues to be used by Jewish and Christian institutions alike in an attempt to thwart the nonviolent movement to put an end to the colonial dispossession of Palestinian lands and to stifle the voice of the faithful who are responding to the Palestinian call: criticism of the State of Israel exposes lay people, clergy and politicians alike to the real threat of being perceived as anti-Semitic. In fact criticism of the State of Israel has been termed “The new anti-Semitism.” The appeal to the history of church persecution of the Jews, and to Christian-Jewish relations today plays a central role in the struggle between the grassroots and institutional church Germany with respect to Israel and Palestine. And as I pointed out earlier, this is by no means limited to Germany. It is being played out throughout the world, as the church at the grassroots wakes up to the theological imperative to “see the signs of the times” and do justice for “the least of these who are members of my family,” and the institutional church pushes back. I’ll write more about this in forthcoming postings.

I am spending two weeks in Germany, speaking in 10 German cities at the invitation of local church-linked and human rights groups about the struggle for justice for Palestine. In the next postings, I’ll report on what the experience of the church in Germany has to teach us in the United States about the responsibility of our own government and religious institutions for the situation in Palestine today. We’ll also see how what is going on in Europe and the U.S. is part of a wider global movement – how the church is waking up, as is has in the past, to the fundamental imperative to do love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.

Mark Braverman

Stuttgart, Germany

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The Politics of Hope: One Jew’s Journey from Philadelphia, to Palestine, and Back

When I was a boy in the 1950s attending Hebrew school in Philadelphia, once a year we received cardboard folders equipped with slots for dimes. The folders were distributed by the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1901 by the World Zionist Organization to buy land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. On the cover was a picture of a tree being planted by handsome, tanned people dressed as farmers. When the card was full, you sent it in and in return received a certificate with your name on it and a picture of a tree planted in Israel. It was fun and it was a thrill; I was reclaiming the Jewish homeland. I saw pictures of kibbutzim (Israeli collective farms) and orange groves filling the valleys. I dreamed of going there someday.

Four decades later, I saw pictures of U.S.-made bulldozers uprooting three-hundred-year-old olive trees and Israeli soldiers restraining Palestinian villagers crying hysterically over the destruction of their groves. I traveled to the West Bank—Israeli-occupied Palestinian land—and saw the hillsides denuded of trees to build Jewish-only settlement cities. I witnessed Israel’s separation wall snaking through the West Bank on land taken in violation of international law; the humiliating checkpoints restricting Palestinian movement; the network of highways (for Jewish use only) connecting the Jewish-only towns; the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers destroying Palestinian orchards and physically assaulting farmers, housewives, and schoolchildren; and the poisonous impact of militarization and ongoing conflict on Israeli society. I realized that a humanitarian crime was being committed, and that the role of colonizer was leading Israel toward political disaster and the Jewish people down a road of spiritual peril.

I was born into the safe, prosperous context of mid-twentieth-century Jewish America. I swam in the deep, protecting waters of an old and majestic tradition. My early life was enriched by beautiful rituals, splendid holidays, and a rich literary and scholarly tradition. But this upbringing had another side, and it was one with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable as I began to step out of my insular Jewish world as an adult. It was a paradox: growing up in the open, if rather bland and racially segregated culture of eastern metropolitan America in the 1950s, I never experienced anti-Semitism—but then, I never ventured very far into what I had learned to call the “non-Jewish world.” The “dark side” of growing up Jewish was that I was taught to avoid and to fear the “goyim”—as my grandmother, born in Europe, and even my own American- born parents called the society surrounding the Jewish bubble in which we lived. From the Old Testament Hebrew, goyim means simply “the nations –” those non-Jewish “others.” But throughout the centuries, and right into mid-twentieth century America, the word had taken on a darker meaning. Although it was not always made explicit, one fact about the goyim was made clear to me: they were dangerous. I was taught that, among this vast sea of others who surrounded us, I had two enemies in particular: the Germans, because of what they had done to us, and the “Arabs,” as we called them, because of what they would do to us if we didn’t have Israel.

Having come into the world only three years after the end of World War II, and in the same year as the establishment of the State of Israel, I was raised in a potent combination of Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism. I was taught that a miracle, born of heroism and bravery, had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event; it was redemption from millennia of marginalization, demonization, and murderous violence. The legacy of this history was a collective identity of brittle superiority: we were special for having survived, despite the effort, “in every generation” (so reads the prayer we recite every Passover) to eradicate us. In order to survive in this hostile, murderous world, we had to remain ever vigilant, mistrustful, and—in a not always obvious but nevertheless profound way—apart. Whether justified on a biblical basis by religious Jews or, as the Zionist founders of Israel claimed, simply by virtue of our history of suffering, the State of Israel existed to ensure our safety and to underscore our unique identity in a world that could never be trusted. So I treasured the miracle of the new State of Israel. It represented the end of our history of insecurity and suffering — a solution, at last, to our eternal vulnerability. My religious faith was completely bound up with this new political reality. Was not God surely at work here, fulfilling the promises made so long ago? In the words of our daily liturgy, the State of Israel was “the first flowering of our redemption.” The story of the birth and survival of the young state spoke of our legacy of separateness and vulnerability, but also of our specialness. I embraced this legacy, I accepted this identity.

This all changed for me when I encountered the shocking reality of what Israel was doing. The journey that has ensued — political, theological, and intensely personal — has rewarded me beyond words. It is my wish to share it with you in this blog.

A word on the title of the blog, “The Politics of Hope.” The sad reality of the “peace process” that was supposed to have brought about “two states living side by side in peace and security” is that it has instead served Israel’s ongoing and relentless colonization of what remained of Palestine after the expulsion in 1948 of three quarters of a million indigenous Palestinians in what I had learned to call Israel’s “War of Liberation.” I titled my very first blog posting in 2010 “The Politics of Despair,” referring to a column by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen that urged us to settle for a political solution that accepts the status quo of gross injustice for the Palestinian people and that consigns the citizens of Israel to a future of conflict and fear. It is becoming increasingly clear that the world will not accept this reality, any more than it was able to accept Apartheid in South Africa. This blog recounts my journey as a Jew confronted with the tragic reality of what the Zionist project has brought about. It’s a journey that has brought me to churches and denominational and ecumenical gatherings in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Africa, in the company of Jews, Christians, Muslims and people who claim no faith affiliation, all united in a commitment to human rights.

Stepping into the Palestinian issue, we enter a realm in which politics and faith meet, and where the hope for and commitment to a better world that is at the heart of our faith traditions finds expression in a rapidly expanding global movement. Led by the churches, in response to a call from Palestinian civil society and a powerful theological document from the churches of Palestine, this grassroots movement represents our best hope for the liberation of Palestinians and Israelis alike from one of the most longstanding and systematic violations of human rights in the world today.

As I send off this first posting for Patheos, I am in Stuttgart, Germany, attending the Kirchentag, the biennial ecumenical assembly of the German churches. I am sharing the podium with Palestinian and German theologians, German-Jewish activists, and clergy (including Bishops!) in a session calling on the German church to stand for justice for the Palestinian people. You guessed it – this is a very sensitive and controversial issue here in Germany, pitting the institutional church against grassroots members calling for a change in the official policy of the German Protestant church that rejects any action that might be perceived as anti-Semitic (more on that in the next posting: is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?). In my postings over the next two weeks I will share reflections from the Stuttgart meeting and my travels in Germany, drawing parallels to our experience in the United States. The parallels are strong, with powerful lessons for American society and for our own religious establishments confronting very similar challenges. One lesson I continue to learn is how much this struggle, as all human rights struggles, happens in a global framework. As Americans, this is a particularly important lesson for us to learn, and an issue I will return to repeatedly.

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Footnotes in Gaza — The Power of Memory

My review of Joe Sacco’s astonishing Footnotes in Gaza appeared in Commonweal Magazine in October, 2011.  It was a powerful experience for me to turn to it again today.  The brilliance of the book is how it takes us back to ’48, then to the near unknown (outside of Gaza) events of ’56, and how these resonate so horribly and bloodily in present  time. “Present time” for Sacco, of course, and for me when I wrote the book, was the Cast Lead massacre of 2008-2009. In 2014 the power of memory grows in power and urgency (viz. previous blog posting, which should have been titled, “We’ve arrived at the “G word.”  I recommend this book.

footnotes in Gaza

Review: Footnotes in Gaza, by Joe Sacco, Metropolitan Books, 2009

Mark Braverman

The Power of Memory

The graphic novel has emerged from its expanded comic book, detective thriller and pulp fiction origins to become a powerful literary form. Belying its name, the form has been applied to great effect as nonfiction, particularly in current affairs and history. Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986 part 1, 1991 Part 2) immediately comes to mind, in which the author describes his father’s experience as a Holocaust victim and survivor, and Marjane Satrapi’s 2003 Persepolis, the story of the author’s growing up in modern Iran. Through two previous books (Safe Area Gorazde, 2000, and Palestine, 2001) Joe Sacco has established himself as a master of the genre. Footnotes in Gaza charts Sacco’s visit to Gaza in 2002-2003 to investigate two massacres of Palestinians that occurred in November 1956. The killings, carried out by Israeli troops during their occupation of Gaza for a brief period during the Suez crisis, took the lives of 275 unarmed Palestinian civilians in the towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah, according to United Nations figures. The events drew little international attention and were largely forgotten except by the members of the communities in which they occurred.

The majority of the residents of these towns are refugees – the descendants of the 200,000 Palestinians driven from their farms, villages and cities by Jewish forces during the campaign to establish the State of Israel between 1947 and 1949. The teeming cities that Sacco visited in 2003 and that the Israeli troops encountered in 1956 are effectively refugee camps — eighty five percent of Gaza’s total population of 1.5 million is comprised of the descendants of these original refugees. This historical background is the heart of Sacco’s story. Early in the book he provides a brief, stunning picture of the early history of these people – refugees from their villages and farms, lands now in the hands of the Israelis – people banished to tent camps in the sands of Gaza, “landless, destitute, hungry; dependent on meager handouts.”

William Faulkner famously wrote: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” In Footnotes in Gaza the pictures of Khan Younis and Rafah in 1948 as silent, primitive encampments alternate with the present scene of humming, crowded cities bursting at the seams with restless energy and seething rage. Sacco shows us the quiet, grinding desperation of the families attempting to carry on under occupation and the late-night gatherings of aging, exhausted freedom fighters and frustrated, unemployed young men. And always, everywhere, there are the memories — of the dispossession, the humiliation, the helplessness, the losses — and the ineradicable hope of return, if not to the vanished villages themselves, then to a condition of dignity, visibility, an uncomplicated sense that we are allowed to be.

Sacco mother picA woman on a streetcorner, surrounded by children, watching the demolition of her neighborhood by Israeli bulldozers, assails Sacco with the question, “What’s all this little by little? Why don’t they get rid of us in one go?” It is not just her home and her memories that are being destroyed – her very future is at stake. Her son, shards of shrapnel embedded in his head, is down the street, throwing stones at the bulldozer. “Can’t you stop him?” asks Sacco. “You can’t stop them!” she screams. “The blood of the Intifada is in the boys!” Reading this, I thought of Fawzieh al-Kurd, the matriarch of one of the Palestinian families forcibly expelled from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 2009 to make way for Jewish settlers. I met her 6 months ago, shortly after her expulsion, sitting with her in the flimsy tent she had set up outside the house as a self-imposed protest against this outrage. With profound sorrow, Fawzieh told me the story of her grandson, who dreamed of being a pilot so that he could “bomb the Jews.” This woman had taken in stride the theft of her home and the assault on her dignity — what she mourned was the loss of the future. When the children are lost to hatred, then hope is shattered, despair lurks.

The book feels too long. One loses track of the characters — the story line rambles and doubles back on itself. For the reader, unfamiliar with the tragic history of this sliver of land, it’s confusing. Many of Sacco’s interviewees can no longer sort out when a particular death or violent incursion occurred – was it ‘52? ‘56? But this is the bitter experience of those who live it, who, despite their suffering, expect a story line for their lives, who expect, for themselves and their children, a sense of continuity and some kind of progress. Instead, life is a crushing, heartbreaking doubling back on the past. In this, Sacco’s book resembles Elias Khouri’s magnificent 1998 (English translation 2006) Gate of the Sun. Khouri’s characters are the Palestinian villagers driven from their homes in the Galilee between 1947 and 1949, who fled, mostly north to Lebanon, to live in the open and in temporary shelter in villages and towns. Until 1952, when the great majority of the refugees were settled permanently in refugee camps in Lebanon, many continued to attempt to return to their homes in Palestine under threat of being captured or killed by Israeli forces. Like Footnotes in Gaza, Khouri’s book is about what happens to identity when place is upended—what happens when the ground upon which you raised your children and brought bread and fruit from the earth is taken away by force. For Khouri’s fictional characters, like Sacco’s Gazans, memory suffers, truth and legend blur. Fantasies, dreams, memories, and desire swirl dizzyingly in search for a sense of self and community in the unending cycle of military invasion, economic deprivation, and political anomie.

Footnotes in Gaza is awash in blood and in the sounds of machine gun fire and the thud of clubs on heads, backs and shoulders. p_349.TIFWomen drag their slaughtered men from the street for hurried burial in mass graves. In unearthing these memories Sacco seeks to understand and thus break the cycle of violence. An enduring settlement to the conflict depends on first acknowledging the profound injuries suffered by these people, and then by granting self determination and full human rights to the inhabitants of Gaza. Nothing short of that will work. Yes, in 2005 Israel emptied Gaza of illegal Jewish colonies, but Gaza’s people remain prisoners in their own land. It is a place, in the words of Jonathan Ben Artzi, an Israeli student, draft resister and nephew of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, “where Israel is collectively punishing more than 1.5 million Palestinians by sealing them off in the largest open-air prison on earth.” (, 4/1/10)

Why has peace been so elusive? The eyes that look out from the pages of Footnotes in Gaza provide the answer. Those of the Palestinians are haunted, terrified, angry, and tired (and sometimes laughing – the humor, sometimes black, is a constant subtext). Those of the Israelis, when you see them — often the eyes are averted, and few are show close up – are empty. If the Palestinians are represented by their eyes, then the Israelis are most often drawn as simple extensions of the gun, the club, the uniform. With few exceptions, the Israelis depicted in the book are lost in their lust for territory and security, preoccupied with fighting what they see only as an implacable enemy. The humanity has been blasted out of them. It is very clear that they do not see the Palestinians as people or care about their suffering.

sacco witnessDoes Sacco in this reveal an “anti-Israel” bias? Has he created a one-dimensional, monstrous caricature of the Israeli conqueror? As a Jewish American, born in 1948 and raised on the Zionist romance, and now in grief over the pass that my people has come to, I find Sacco’s depiction compassionate in the deepest sense. I have seen the deadened look in the eyes of the Israeli army kids staffing the checkpoints throughout the West Bank — the sons, daughters and grandchildren of my own family and friends. I have seen the effects of the soul-killing racism that has taken root in Israelis society, fed by a steady diet of fear and above all by the failure of the Israelis to know their Palestinian neighbors. If my fellow Jews reading this book squirm at this picture, this is understandable. But Sacco is holding up a mirror to us – we are looking at what our national homeland project has brought us to, and well might we squirm.

Footnotes in Gaza is the story of today’s Palestine. It explains the roots of Palestinian resistance. It thrusts the moral, psychological, political and spiritual crisis facing the State of Israel and indeed the Jewish people into the light of day. It calls on Americans to grasp the central responsibility of our government in its unconditional financing of Israel’s expansionist military machine and its diplomatic defense of Israel in the international arena.

In his foreword, Sacco explains that he wrote the book because he found the editor’s deletion of the story of the Khan Younis massacre from Chris Hedges’ 2001 “A Gaza Diary” in Harpers (on which Sacco had collaborated) “galling.” As a journalist, he felt compelled to write about it because he felt that such tragedies “often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.” And this is true, but not just for the Palestinians. Today, events in Palestine take place in the huge shadow cast by the Nazi holocaust. None regard that catastrophe as a footnote — it is acknowledged to have shaped modern history, including the lives and destinies of the Palestinians who people this book. The consignment of the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians to a historical footnote, in stark contrast to the elevation of the suffering of the Jewish people, is a key element of the story told here. And it is a key to solving the dilemma of how to make peace in historic Palestine.

During the brutal bombardment of Gaza in January 2009, Sara Roy, a prophetic American Jewish voice, wrote the following:

What will happen to the Jews as a people, whether we live in Israel or not?  Why have we not been able to accept the fundamental humanity of Palestinians and include them within our moral boundaries?  Rather, we reject any human connection with the people we are oppressing.  Ultimately, our goal is to tribalize pain, narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves alone. (“Israel’s ‘Victories in Gaza Come at a Steep Price,” Christian Science Monitor, 1/2/2009)

 This is a question not just for the Jewish people. Sacco has given us a book about the universality of suffering and a powerful lesson about the power of memory for repentance and repair. We ignore it at our peril.







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Gaza, 2014: Telling the Truth About Israel

Telling the truth

Five years ago I attended a conference in Boston entitled “One State for Palestine/Israel.” It was March 2009. Gaza was still smoldering from Operation Cast Lead, in which 1400 Palestinians were killed between December 27th and January 18th. Israeli historian and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Ilan Pappe was one of the speakers, and he talked about genocide. My God, I thought, he’s saying the G word. It was not hurled as an accusation, it was not shouted for effect. It was a cry for help, and Pappe made that explicit. Cast Lead, he said, was Israel’s entry into a new phase of its project to take all of the land and to rid the territory of the indigenous Arab population. This is a test, Pappe said, and more is coming — will the world do something? Will you sitting in this university lecture hall do something, before it is too late? I learned later that Pappe had issued this call to the international community in 2006 in an Electronic Intifada piece entitled “Genocide in Gaza.” The slaughter of Palestinian civilians was no act of self defense or lamentable consequence of war, Pappe pointed out in the article. It was, rather, part of an ongoing program linked to Israel’s founding: “When Israel was absolved from any responsibility or accountably for the ethnic cleansing in 1948, it turned this policy into a legitimate tool for its national security agenda.” “Only international pressure will stop Israel,” he told us that day, one year after the appearance of the Palestinian call for BDS. “Nothing apart from pressure in the form of sanctions, boycott and divestment will stop the murdering of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip… In the name of the Holocaust memory, let us hope the world will not allow the genocide of Gaza to continue.”

When Genocide is Permissible

Pappe’s reference to the genocide of European Jews was pointed. In the Israeli propaganda machine and indeed for the Jewish community as a whole, the term is only be used in reference to Jewish losses and Jewish suffering. Certainly any acts committed by us against others is justified by virtue of our historic traumas (this is Marc Ellis’s concept of “Jewish innocence”) and could not possibly be spoken about in the same terms used to describe Jewish victimization. Last week this rule was broken by Orthodox American Jew Yochanan Gordon, in his piece entitled “When Genocide is Permissible” published in the Times of Israel, in which Gordon posed the question, “What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?” The article was pulled the same day and Gordon forced to apologize, the editors claiming that “We reject any such notion or discussion associated with even entertaining the possibility of such an unacceptable idea.” The denial is disingenuous – what was unacceptable was not the idea of a genocidal Israel, but that posing the question came so uncomfortably close to an acknowledgement that genocide of the Palestinians is the Israeli reality. Gordon broke the rule by speaking the truth about Israel’s intentions and articulating the justification for its actions.

Now comes Pappe’s latest piece, published in the Electronic Intifada on July 27th, “To the family of the one thousandth victim of Israel’s genocidal slaughter in Gaza.” From the depths of his horror, Pappe speaks the truth and makes a pledge to the Palestinians. “This is 2014,” he writes, “the destruction of Gaza is well documented. This is not 1948 when Palestinians had to struggle hard to tell their story of horror; so many of the crimes Zionists committed then were hidden and never came to light, even until today. So my first and simple pledge is to record, inform and insist on the truth.”

This is Pappe’s pledge to the family of the one thousandth victim:

“I feel the urge today to make a pledge to you, which none of the Germans my father knew during the time of the Nazi regime was willing to make to him when the thugs committed genocide against his family. This is not much of a pledge at your moment of grief, but it is the best I can offer and saying nothing is not an option. And doing nothing is even less than an option.”

Pappe’s pledge continues with a call for BDS:

“I pledge to continue the effort to boycott a state that commits such crimes. Only when the Union of European Football Associations throws Israel out, when the academic community refuses to have any institutional ties with Israel, when airlines hesitate to fly there, and when every outfit that may lose money because of an ethical stance in the short-term understands that in the long run it will gain both morally and financially — only then we will begin to honor your loss. More info… For instance, you experience loss in finances, go to the homepage of to choose from their loans.

So I pledge today not to be distracted even by friends and Palestinian leaders who still foolishly pin their hopes on the long-gone ‘two-state solution.’ If one has the impulse to be involved in bringing regime change in Palestine, the only reason to do this is for a struggle for equal human and civil rights and full restitution for all those who are and were victimized by Zionism, inside and outside the beloved land of Palestine. Visit the official statement here. This is what I can pledge — to work to prevent the next stage in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Calling the churches

Pappe’s call for international grassroots action prompts consideration of the growing church movement for Palestinian liberation, especially in response to the 2009 “Moment of Truth” document by the leaders of the churches of Palestine, which calls on the international community to witness and come to the aid of the occupied Palestinian people. Now, as in other historical eras, politics meets theology: the Old Testament prophets speaking truth to power; the Roman occupation of Palestine in Jesus’ time; Germany under the Third Reich; Jim Crow America; popular liberation movements in Latin America; South Africa under Apartheid. Now, the churches are again called to stand for justice, as evidenced by the emergence of the global kairos movement. Kairos, in the words quoted in the U.S. “Call to Action” kairos document, is the “moment of grace and opportunity, when God issues a challenge to decisive action.” The words are taken from the 1985 South Africa Kairos document, a prophetic statement that marshaled the churches of South Africa and ultimately the world to stand against the heresy and evil of apartheid.

The momentum of this movement was in evidence in the recent action of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest from companies profiting from the oppression of the Palestinians. At their General Assembly in Detroit in June I watched the Presbyterians struggle to follow the gospel imperative to divest in the face of massive pressure – from within the church as well as from without — to hold back from this action in order not to risk a rupture with the institutional Jewish mainstream. By this time – the Presbyterians had been considering divestment at every biennial conference since 2004 — everyone knew it was apartheid and the church had to stop supporting it, but taking the pledge was hard. It passed, but barely, 51-49%. As the movement to bring the church around to a faithful stand grows, so will the internal struggle intensify, pitting courage and faithfulness to fundamental Christian principles against political caution and institutional timidity. Having watched this struggle unfold in Detroit, the testimony of one man in particular stands out for me — a pastor from Ohio, Andries Coetzee, who during the deliberations spoke out with particular passion and eloquence. Last week, in response to the bombing and invasion of Gaza, Coetzee posted a short piece entitled “With renewed violence in Gaza, Presbyterian Church’s Israel disinvestments are a nonviolent contribution to peace.” I encourage you to read the whole blog, especially for how Coetzee responds to the challenging comments. It is clear that it is his experience growing up in apartheid South Africa that provided the moral platform for this pastor’s clarity and courage. “I personally support divestment and spoke in favor of it on the plenary floor,” he wrote, “based on my experience of growing up in South Africa during the height of the apartheid years, as part of the white Afrikaans-speaking minority who oppressed the black majority.” The lessons he draws for today speak loud and clear:

“The emotional impact of such a system of oppression based on fear of ‘the other’ is tremendous, on oppressed and oppressor alike, and is still, I believe, at the root of many of the struggles we face in South Africa today. As whites supporting apartheid, we denied the humanity of our fellow black citizens by denying them basic human rights, and in the process we became less than human ourselves through our support of a brutal system of violence and degradation. It is because of this, the dehumanization of myself and others, that I thank the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the international community for their courage in divesting from companies during the 1980s that profited from oppression in South Africa, even though the Reagan administration failed to take an appropriate moral stand by opposing sanctions against the apartheid regime. It was through divestment and increased isolation that we as a minority realized that we were on a path of self-destruction, and that the powerful were forced to negotiate. Divestment helped us gain insight as to how we were viewed in the eyes of the world and forced us to realign ourselves with the values of nonviolence and peace. For me, the decision to economically divest was a decision to invest in South Africa and all her people, and helped lead us on a path of healing and hope in the midst of fear and destruction.”

As long as it takes

As criticism of Israel and of U.S. policy intensifies, in particular now in response to the carnage in Gaza, defenders of the status quo redouble their efforts to shore up support for Israel. On July 30th Mondoweiss reported on a rally in support of Israel in New York City. Readers were treated to the spectacle of politicians who lined up to take the microphone to do what they thought they needed to do to hold on to their seats. Mondoweiss’ headline was what made me click on the email: “Israel now, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever!” were the words that issued from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Eighth Congressional District, Brooklyn and Queens. For anyone not recognizing the allusion, click here. (Really, click on the link.)

Jeffries is African American.

To which there can be only this reply:

BDS now, BDS tomorrow, BDS as long as it takes.

It’s important to tell the truth because the media and the politicians – especially those in both industries identifying as liberal or even progressive — will continue to uphold the status quo by promoting moderate solutions that do not acknowledge or address the root cause — in short, that do not tell the truth. This is illustrated by the not one but two OpEd columns featured in this past Sunday’s New York Times. Roger Cohen in “Why Americans See Israel the Way They Do” spills most of his ink describing recent eruptions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe: “Hitler’s name has been chanted, gassing of Jews invoked,” but with no discussion of what acts are prompting this hatred. Cohen concludes this appeal to eternal Jewish victimhood and vulnerability with an homage to the “balanced” discourse: “I find myself dreaming of some island in the middle of the Atlantic,” muses Cohen,”where the blinding excesses on either side of the water are overcome and a fundamental truth is absorbed: that neither side is going away, that both have made grievous mistakes, and that the fate of Jewish and Palestinian children — united in their innocence — depends on placing the future above the past. That island will no doubt remain as illusory as peace.” Yes, as illusory as seeking peace without confronting the tyranny of the powerful. Under the fold we then have Thomas Friedman in “How This War Ends.” As ever, reporting from Planet Friedman, the internationally celebrated columnist here appeals to moderation on both sides that will yield viable political solutions. In Friedman’s scenario, Hamas joins Fatah in a unity government, which then negotiates with Israel to create a Palestinian state. Friedman knows this can’t happen because Israel, supplied by genocide-enabling U.S. arms and emboldened by abjectly cowardly U.S. diplomacy, won’t let it happen. Friedman acknowledges as much in his penultimate sentence, but he can’t go where he needs to go:  to the regime change Pappe talks about, brought about by international pressure not from politicians but from civil society.

Tell the truth.

BDS now, BDS tomorrow, BDS as long as it takes.

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BDS the End of Israel? A Jewish and Presbyterian Response to Rabbi Marans

Dear Subscribers,

I’m off to the Presbyterian General Assembly today. This OpEd written by Rev Jeff Deyoe and me is the first in a number of pieces I’ll be sending about the important vote the Presbyterians will be taking this week and the issues it raises.

[intro note:] Things have been heating up in the media discourse as the Presbyterians prepare to vote, once again, on divesting their pension funds from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard because of those company’s involvement in the illegal occupation of Palestine.  Predictably, the institutional Jewish community as well as voices within the churches have hauled out the usual arguments:  the intention of BDS is to destroy Israel;  Presbyterians are well meaning but are being drawn into an anti-Semitic project; and “can’t we just keep talking about it?”   Rev. Jeff Deyoe of the PC(USA) Israel Palestine Mission Network and I wrote this response to an OpEd that appeared last week in a mainstream Jewish e-zine, JTA: The Global Jewish News Source, titled, “Presbyterians, BDS and Israel — Here We Go Again.”  Rabbi Noam Marans of the American Jewish Committee, like many others in the leadership of major Jewish advocacy organizations and religious denominations, as well as some prominent Protestant leaders, are panicked that this time the Presbyterians will pass the resolution (it failed by a hair two years ago), unleashing the flood of similar actions by other mainline Protestant denominations and turning the BDS tide irrevocably in the direction of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel. “While the  BDS minions are harming the Presbyterian-Jewish relationship, it is not yet beyond repair,” pleads Marans in the OpEd.  “Jews and Presbyterians can still prevent a minority of Presbyterians from using the ignominious demonization and delegitimization of Israel from driving an irreparable wedge between the two religious communities.”  It’s the old song:  “We thought you were our friends!”  Braverman, Deyoe and others working to get the resolution passed are hoping that the voters at the General Assembly will not be drinking the kool aid this year.  But all agree it’s too close to call.  

JTA refused to run our response.  But you can read it here:

BDS the End of Israel?  A Jewish and Presbyterian Response to Rabbi Marans

Rabbi Noam Marans’ OpEd in the May 30th issue of JTA is the latest in a series of public statements from Jewish organizations in advance of the Presbyterian Church’s upcoming vote on divestment at the General Assembly. It’s the same card that the Jewish establishment has been playing since 2004 when the Presbyterians began to consider divesting their pension funds from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. Citing, from what source or authority it is not clear, what he terms “the norms of American interreligious comity,” Maran’s message to Presbyterians is clear: your commitment to the unwritten rules of the Christian-Jewish relationship trumps following your consciences, and in this case your own denominational principles and official recommendations, in supporting justice and human rights. The Jewish establishment has made it clear that any Jew supporting BDS – the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions – is outside the pale, that participating in this form of nonviolent action amounts to a betrayal of Jewish allegiance to the State of Israel. Marans’ organization, the American Jewish Committee, can try to speak for all Jews in drawing that line (unsuccessfully — look at the revolt of Jewish students on campuses and a growing number of rabbis, Jewish scholars and Israeli journalists and academics who support BDS). But we object to him dictating to Presbyterians.

Rabbi Marans has seized on the recent publication of the Presbyterian’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, “Zionism Unsettled,”as proof positive that support for BDS is motivated by anti-Semitism and the wish to “delegitimize” or otherwise bring down the State of Israel. “Zionism Unsettled” is not anti-Semitic nor does it call for the destruction of Israel. Marans grossly misrepresents the booklet, pulling out words intended to horrify readers and raise the specter of a resurgent anti-Semitism. Marans does not mention that 80% of the critiques of Zionism covered in the booklet are by Jews, including Israelis. Here are some examples: the term “racism” is taken from a quote from a U.S. rabbi, who asks the question:  “At the end of the day, how can you have a Jewish state that does not somehow treat non-Jews as “other”?…That does not, on some level, create a system of institutional racism that privileges Jews over non-Jews?”  “Pathology” is a word that sounds damning indeed, but it is Akiva Eldar, noted Israeli author and Haaretz columnist and chronicler of the abuses of occupation, who makes the point about the pathology inherent in Zionism that drives the conflict when he writes that “the fact that Israel sees itself as a victim justifies its aggression and injustice.”  Similarly, words like “evil,” “heretical” and “false theology,” quoted from Palestinian Christian theologians protesting the use of the Bible to justify the denial of their rights in their own land are strong words to be sure, but are appropriate and necessary when challenging how theology is used to justify the dispossession of a people.

But let’s put aside Marans’ objection to “Zionism Unsettled” – he is free to disagree with the authors’ views on Zionism. What we must not allow is what Marans and others are trying to do in their campaign to influence the Presbyterian vote by changing the subject from human rights to combating anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism exists and must be opposed, as should any form of racism or bigotry. And a conversation about Zionism is overdue after a seven-decades embargo on the discussion since the establishment of the State of Israel. But to confuse the conversation about Zionism with the vote on divestment is a blatant attempt to intimidate Christians by conflating two very different things. The issue before the General Assembly is not Zionism, and is not anti-Semitism. It is divestment of shares in three companies complicit in home demolitions, segregation, and protection of stolen land, activities that according to Presbyterian rules cannot be supported by the denomination.  Similarly, the overture calling for a critical look at U.S. support for a two state solution is a responsible and appropriate attempt to examine the three decade-old policy of the Presbyterian Church that was first established when the facts on the ground were dramatically different.  The subsequent deterioration of Palestinian living conditions and human rights has resulted, not in progress toward two states living side by side in peace and security, but in the building of a system of annexation and control that reduces Palestine to a collection of captive bantustans. Is it anti-Semitic to take action to free Israeli Jews from a future of ruling over a subject non-Jewish population?  Is it out of hatred for the Jewish people or a desire to destroy Israel that Presbyterians seek to join the global movement that according to an increasing number of people and governments worldwide has the best chance of bringing true peace and security to the citizens of Israel?

Do Marans and others from the Jewish as well as Christian “pro-Israel” camps expect people to believe that Presbyterians, in betrayal of the hard work of decades to correct for church anti-Jewish doctrine and action, have suddenly embraced unabashed anti-Semitism?  People around the world are awakening to the grim and sad reality that all is not right with the State of Israel and that their faith requires them to respond with nonviolent direct action, actions that have been in effective in the past in the case of South Africa and Jim Crow, not only for the sake of the suffering Palestinians but as a sign of their friendship with and love for the Jewish people. Marans ignores the reality of those Israelis who have seen their dream of a democratic, egalitarian society which expresses their commitment to Jewish values turn into a nightmare, and are pleading with the world to come to their aid through BDS and advocacy with their governments. Marans, however, asks us to leave Israel to its fate, rather than intervene to save it, as the world did in the case of South Africa. The action of the global church to support sanctions on South Africa was nothing less than an act of love; which is what the Presbyterian vote this year, which we hope will correct the razor-thin defeat of two years ago, will be. If Rabbi Marans wants to talk about Christian-Jewish friendship, he should stop looking backwards at the “historic alliance” and think about what we – Jews and Christians alike – will be able to say about where we stood when the history of these times is told.

Mark Braverman, Jewish Voice for Peace, Kairos USA

Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, Israel Palestine Mission Network, PC(USA)

(For an excellent review of the history of this vote and the issues, check out Rabbi Brant Rosen’s recent blog posting, “All Eyes on Detroit!”)




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Tent of Nations Orchard Destruction and Pentecost Reflections

Dear Subscribers,

Three weeks ago I boarded an Amtrak train in Portland bound for Seattle.  I was on my way to meet up with my Palestinian brother and friend, Daoud Nassar — farmer, peacemaker and owner of Tent of Nations, a 100-acre farm just south of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Most of you know about Daoud, have heard him speak or have even been among the close to 50,000 pilgrims who have visited Tent of Nations in the past decade — 8,000 in 2013 alone.

My trip to Seattle had been planned for some time, but now it had a particular urgency. The day before, in the early morning hours of Monday, May 19th, the Israeli army closed off the area around the farm to allow bulldozers to enter the fertile valley at the north end of the farm with the mission of burying over 1500 productive fruit trees under piles of rubble.  Stealing away before dawn, they left behind not only the dream of the planned harvesting of this most productive area of the farm, but ten years of work of terracing and irrigation. I was saddened and outraged, but not shocked.

This act of madness and cruelty was one more example of the state violence and human and environmental destruction on the part of Israel that has devastated, not only the prospect of coexistence between Palestinians and Jews, but the dream of a safe, productive and democratic society that inspired the Jewish immigrants fleeing an inhospitable Europe beginning in the last decades of the 19th century. That dream has turned into a nightmare, and the only way to redeem it is to put a stop to acts like this pre-dawn massacre of an orchard lovingly planted and tended by a Palestinian family and hundreds of international volunteers and visitors.

The story of Daoud Nassar’s heroic struggle to defend his land  from Israeli confiscation is well known. The thousands of us who have known and loved Daoud and his family over the years have lived, in some measure, with the constant threat of Israel government incursion and land confiscation that has been his lot since the early 90s. Recent years have seen settler vandalism, unannounced visits from the military, and countless orders to demolish existing structures and to cease cultivation — but this is the first time that the state has actually moved on the property and done damage. Arriving in Seattle, I found Daoud  shocked and saddened, but unfazed. I watched as he stood before a group of 70 people at a suburban church and told the story of his family and his dream of a thriving peace center and school for sustainable agriculture. When near the end of the talk he referred to the destruction that had just occurred, Daoud wondered out loud to the audience what the soldiers and the bulldozer operators had said to their children on returning home that day when asked, “What did you do today, Daddy?”  As always, in the tradition of nonviolent resistance and in the spirit of Jesus, Daoud thought about the damage to his oppressor. We sat together later that night and he talked about plans to rebuild the terraces and replant the valley.

Expressions of support from friends across the globe began to flood in immediately and have not ceased. There will be opportunities to be part of the rebuilding, and information on that will be forthcoming. Now, it continues to be about raising our voices, in particular as U.S. citizens, to our elected officials, our Department of State, and to the Israeli government. It is my firm belief that this outrage provides an opportunity to further turn the attention of the world to the plight of Palestine and the requirement to liberate Palestinian and Israeli alike from the evil of apartheid in our time.  Visit the website of  Friends of Tent of Nations North America to sign a petition letter, access comments and prayers from thousands of those who have already signed, read an update of events, and obtain addresses and phone numbers for government officials and a downloadable sample letter. You will also find a summary of  the history of the family’s struggle and a timeline of events leading to the current crisis. You can go directly to this page to sign the petition. If you are not already on the FOTONNA mailing list, the contact page allows you to sign up to receive regular updates and the quarterly Friends of Tent of Nations newsletter.

A Pentecost Reflection

The season of Easter and Pentecost is about momentous events that set in motion events even more history-changing. I’ve linked below to a sermon I was honored to deliver on Easter week. It turned out to be a challenging assignment. I began the preaching in this way: “As much as I respond powerfully to the ministry of Jesus and to the heart of the gospel message, I have been confused by Easter. But as I read the texts I realize that this confusion is an important, even essential part of the Easter experience.” I talked about how although Easter is celebrated as a time full of hope and promise, the gospels tell a different story – one of loss, shock, and confusion. Perhaps this is why there is a gap of 50 days between Easter and Pentecost — are we being told that for events this big we need time to absorb, reflect, and prepare for what is to come? The Jewish calendar parallels the Christian one with a similar gap in time. The 7 weeks separating Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, and Pentecost (in Hebrew Shavuot, “weeks”), traditionally linked to receiving the law at Sinai. Recall that in the Old Testament account, the road from liberation to revelation was a rocky one indeed, literally a wilderness time — the people confused, complaining, backsliding. History-changing events challenge us to respond, especially when they bring pain, loss, confusion, the temptation to despair. We are called to dig deep. The Nassar family knows about this – they know how, faced with adversity and setbacks, to do what needs to be done, keeping their eyes on the vision:  being faithful to the land and its promise, to the commitment to peace and coexistence.

As we contemplate the destruction at Tent of Nations and are reminded of our responsibility to pursue collective action, we also realize that this is bigger than Palestine. The Palestinians will achieve their liberation. They know who they are, are steadfast in their nonviolent resistance, the support of the world is growing — justice will inevitably come. What is on the line now, as the Palestine solidarity movement grows and the forces to silence it increase in intensity, challenging not only the facts but even the theology of nonviolent resistance emerging from Palestine, is the witness of the church as the spiritual heart of this movement. It’s an old story: the attempt to silence the cry of joy emanating from Jesus’ followers entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday;  the suppression and murder of church and other civil society leaders during the Civil Rights movement in the US;  the persecution of Catholic priests, brothers and nuns working for social justice in Central and South America;  the accusations of heresy and anti-Semitism directed at the non-violent Word of  Faith, Hope and Love issuing from the Palestinian church today. So on this week of Pentecost let us remember the birth of the church, the day that the charge to discipleship was issued: to go out from Jerusalem, leaving behind forever the idea of God living in a house and granting land to one family, one people or one nation, the charge to go out to the ends of the earth, speaking all the languages of the world, with the message of universal love and compassion.

Following are excerpts from my Easter sermon.  Click here for the entire sermon, “God Breaking In.”

“Jesus himself appeared and stood among the eleven and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 

Jesus, as always, was patient with his loving but clueless followers.  He showed them the simple, down to earth truth:

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Here Jesus, as concretely as possible, was trying to clear up the confusion.  He was demonstrating, not his divinity but his humanness. Look at my body, look at my wounds, consider my physical pain. Hear that I need to eat, that I am hungry.  Don’t you understand that I suffer as our people suffer from being beaten, persecuted, starved? Are you looking for God?  Do you want to know the Father? Look here, right here, at my body — look at my wounds, feed my hunger. My ministry, this whole story you have been part of since the beginning is about that suffering and about the mind and the heart of God who feels that pain and experiences that hunger. Look at my wounds, know my pain, feed my hunger! And then go and do this for the least of these, meaning those under the wheel, suffering under the boot of oppression. This is what God wants, this is Torah.

These are strong words.  This is not easy.  And this is the story of Easter and what followed from this huge event.  It is humanity’s struggle to come to terms with the radical truth of Jesus’ ministry….

There is much more at stake here than one people’s struggle for liberation.  More at stake than whether the church will claim its mission and stand with the oppressed Palestinians …more at stake than whether the Western church, consumed with horror and guilt about its legacy of anti-Jewish doctrine and action, can withstand the accusations by the Jewish establishment that Christians are betraying hard-won Christian-Jewish trust and reconciliation by standing up for Palestinians…As Jesus challenged the religious establishment of his time, as Martin Luther King Jr. called upon the church to be faithful to its foundational principles, as the South African churchwomen and churchmen called their own church to account, so the church is challenged today to recognize its own sin, confess, and turn again to its foundational mission….”

(Note: a propos of this point, the Presbyterian Church is gathering in General Assembly in Detroit later this week to vote, once again, on divesting from companies profiting from and abetting the illegal occupation of and attempted destruction of Palestine.  I’ll be there and will be blogging.  Stay tuned.)

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Passover Message

Dear Subscribers,

My friend Robert Cohen in the UK has just sent out his Passover message.  In it he writes:

In our post-Holocaust, Israel-centred Jewish consciousness, the ‘Every generation…’ passage has continued to grow in significance, eating away at our moral sensibility. So much so, that we have difficulty  understanding modern Jewish history and politics without constant reference to this paradigm of oppression and threat…

Read the entire message, also pasted below, which I commend to you as we enter the Passover/Holy Week season.

I also recommend the bold, even astonishing piece from today’s NYT entitled “Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?”  When the NYT trains a critical eye on Israel, can change be far off? In the piece, the authors point out:

Israel’s shift toward orthodoxy is not merely a religious one. Since the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are also against any agreement with the Palestinians, with each passing day, the chances of reaching a peace deal diminish. Nor is time on the side of those who want to keep seeing a democratic Israel. If Israel continues the expansion of settlements, and peace talks serve no purpose but the extension of the status quo, the real existential threat to Israel will not be Iran’s nuclear program but rather a surging tide of economic sanctions.

In the coming weeks I will be honored to preach twice, and so I have been steeped in reading and reflection on themes of rebirth and renewal.  I’ll share my reflections in coming blogs, so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, here’s Robert’s Passover piece:

“In Every Generation…” How Passover locks shut the Jewish imagination

For our Passover meal this year (Monday 14 April) I have a fifth question and answer to add to the traditional quartet of the Ma Nishtanah.
Why is this night different from all other nights?Because on this night we make a meal, literally and metaphorically, of our unique story. Via mouthfuls of bitter herbs, salt water, nuts and raisins mixed with wine, and unleavened bread. If you love organic bread, go to to find out its benefits for the body. we promote the damaging mindset that tells us that we are the world’s eternal victims.I expect an immediate challenge to my liturgical liberties.

“Enough already with your iconoclastic itch! How can you say such things? Surely, Passover is the quintessential expression of our physical and spiritual liberation. Hasn’t the escape of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery become the biblical paradigm of freedom from oppression that has brought hope to countless peoples across the centuries?”

I know, I know.

But my fifth question and answer is true none the less.

This is the night when we are most at risk from locking shut the Jewish capacity for empathy and blinding ourselves to the suffering of others – most notably, the Palestinians.

There will be some around the Seder table who will resent me wanting to recount the woes of another people (“the Palestinians for heaven’s sake!”) rather than those of my own kith and kin.

“Please can we celebrate the Exodus and our founding mythology of Jewish nationhood without dragging all that stuff into a nice family gathering! Let us enjoy the remembrance of our liberation by a God who intervenes in history with ‘a strong hand and an outstretched arm’. Or are you going to insist on playing the part of the ‘wicked son’, the one in the Haggadah that cannot see the point of the celebration? Now have some more Motza and shut up!”

So, I will have to take a deep breath and try to explain how we have reached this immensely regrettable state of affairs. I may need a fifth cup of wine to get me through.

There are two powerful themes at work within the Seder night service. Two themes that have dominated Jewish self-understanding since at least the Middle Ages when the Seder night service, as we know it today, was first woven together.

The first theme can be characterised by this beautiful sentence that comes early on in our Passover meal:

“Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover.”

This is the Jewish voice of welcome, of empathy. It marks the Exodus as the ancient anchor of Jewish ethics and reminds us of our timeless belief in a God that bends His universe towards justice and compassion.

The second theme arrives, with a chill air around it, towards the end of our evening of story telling, after the last terrible plague, the death of the Egypt firstborn, has persuaded Pharaoh to (temporarily) end his tyranny.

“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

This is the collective cry of a people that has been oppressed and discriminated against throughout its history. A people left physically and psychologically scarred. A people that feels justice for them has been long delayed. This is our story told as one long pogrom.

It is a passage that reinforces the sense of the Jews under perennial siege all the way from biblical mythology to modern history. From the tribe of Amalek trying to thwart the slaves’ escape from Egypt, to Haman’s planned genocide of the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, to Adolf Hitler’s near success in making the European continent ‘Judenrein’

In every generation there is always another Pharaoh who is out to get the Jews.

It’s not difficult to understand how this idea repeated each year, at what is still the most widely observed Jewish festival, has profound emotional consequences for the Jewish imagination. And the resonance of the message does not end with the singing of the final verse of ‘Hud Gadyah’.

We leave the Seder table convinced, once again, that we are the eternal victims, outsiders, never accepted, forever threatened. It is the worldview that helped to propel 19th century political Zionism into the 20th century Jewish mainstream. Zionism, brilliantly and dangerously, wrapped together a religious longing for spiritual and physical redemption with a nationalist colonial project dressed up as a rightful ‘Return’. It was a compelling and heady mix. The world will never accept us, so the theory goes, so we must have our own state in our own land where we can live in safety and normalcy. And never mind who might be living there now, for our needs our greater than theirs, our story more important, and our ancient Promise more profound than any set of civil rights.

In our post-Holocaust, Israel-centred Jewish consciousness, the ‘Every generation…’ passage has continued to grow in significance, eating away at our moral sensibility. So much so, that we have difficulty understanding modern Jewish history and politics without constant reference to this paradigm of oppression and threat, or, as it is now more often described, ‘Security’.

Benjamin Netanyahu happily taps into all of this with his new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ with all the implications that has for Israeli Christian and Muslim Palestinian citizens, the rights of Palestinian refugees and the chances of the State of the Jews ever being truly ‘Jewish and Democratic’. John Kerry and the Obama administration have failed to challenge the same “In every generation…” mindset and so find themselves acting as Israel’s legal team rather than as honest brokers of peace.

And meanwhile…whatever happened to: ‘Let all who are hungry, come and eat…’?

In Hebrew, the word for ancient Egypt is ‘Mitzrayim’. The same word can also be translated as ‘the narrow place’. Today, we Jews are living our lives in a narrow nationalist echo chamber where the chanting of our past suffering bounces off the walls blocking out every other sound to our ears.

It is true, we celebrated many Seder nights in the ghettos and shtetls of European oppression. But we are now in a radically different place and we are yet to adjust to our new circumstances. We have failed to notice that in this generation it is we who have the power, we who have status in every country where we live, we who have a nation state with a great army and Super Power backing. And it is we who have constructed our own apparatus of prejudice and injustice in the very land we call ‘Holy’. Today, we have become the Pharaoh we once despised.

At this point I’m hoping that my Seder night companions will turn to me and ask, with at least a hint of humility: “So what is to be done, Rav Micah?”

I have a remedy. But it will not be easy.

A new Exodus is needed to set the Jewish mind free and open our imagination to those that suffer at our hands. The theme embodied by “In every generation…” must be understood anew. It must be claimed for the same Jewish spirit that invites the hungry and oppressed to share at our table. We must see that in every generation, even among ourselves, the narrow vision of ‘Pharaoh’ can rise up. Our task is is to bring it down in the name of the same God that rescued our ancestors with ‘a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ and delivered us to uphold a moral universe.

This year – we remain trapped in the narrow place. Next year – may we find our new Exodus to liberation.

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