Blog: The Politics of Hope

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, 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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The Two State Illusion, Racism in Israel, and Jewish Hubris

On October 16 The Christian Century published my review of Rashid Khalidi’s Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. (Here is the text of the review). The fact that the Century reviewed Khalidi’s book is an indication of the media’s increasing willingness to present viewpoints that challenge the very basis of Israel as a Jewish ethnic nationalist entity. This shift reflects the reality that once you address present-day violations of Palestinian rights, you see that the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was the continuation of the program of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948 and continues to this day with the annexation and carving up of the West Bank and the inhuman siege of Gaza. You begin to understand that the dispossession of the Palestinians was the inevitable outcome of the project to set up a state for the benefit of one people.  It is also becoming frighteningly clear that oppression and frankly racist policies on the part of Israel are not limited to occupied areas, but to the territory within the de facto borders of the State of Israel prior to the 1967 war.

Israel’s new racism

A recently released documentary demonstrates this with horrifying vividness. Ali Abunimah, Palestinian writer and activist and publisher of the Electronic Intifada, has reported on a video entitled “Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land,” produced by Max Blumenthal and David Sheen, a piece solicited — and then rejected — by the New York Times.  According to Blumenthal, it has since gone viral on YouTube, with close to one million views. The ten minute piece documents vicious, racist attacks on African residents of Israel incited by prominent demagogues and several members of the Israeli Parliament. The piece presents voices, not only shrieking in public demonstrations but speaking calmly in office interviews, proclaiming that Israel is the land of the Jews and that non-Jews (especially those with black skin) are not welcome. The video is shocking — but it is not surprising. From our twentieth-century perspective, we understand all too well that ethnic nationalism breeds racism – that it is racism – and that oppression and violence – the bloody as well as the structural, state-sponsored kind – is the inevitable result.  In his recently published Goliath:  Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, Blumenthal documents Israel’s escalating move to the political right, into what many would described as fascism.  The problem, as I pointed out in my 2011 blog post about Peter Beinart and his brand of “progressive Zionism,” (a piece accepted and then rejected by The Nation), is not the occupation, nor is it the religiously-based racism of fundamentalist Jewish settler-colonists — the problem is a state founded on an ethnic nationalist ideology.  “The late and deeply mourned Tony Judt,” I wrote then, “got it exactly right in his NYRB piece back in 2003: ‘The problem with Israel [is that]…it has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place.’”

For over half a century, much of the world, with the U.S. in the lead, has accepted and supported this anachronistic and, by Judt’s definition, illegitimate political entity. A central point of Khalidi’s book is how language has been used to deny the reality of a State of Israel that, by virtue of its founding principle of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine has never been willing to share the territory. Khalidi describes the history of U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a carefully constructed realm of obscurity, a realm in which the misuse of language has thoroughly corrupted both political thought and action.” He documents how U.S. policy since the 1970s has embraced that denial by sponsoring a “peace process” that has advanced Israel’s expansionism, demonstrating how, I wrote, “language functions to obscure the reality of a colonial settler project that has resulted in the dispossession of the indigenous Palestinians…language used to maintain the destructive illusion of a process of negotiation between equal parties, rather than the reality of a powerless, stateless, occupied people at the mercy of a highly militarized state supported by the world’s only superpower.”  Despite the futility of this approach to peacemaking, Khalidi points out, our government has pursued it doggedly, bowing to domestic political pressures and to Israeli stubbornness and persistence.

But things are changing. For an increasing number of Americans, the realization is dawning that the story they have been told is a distortion and that our government’s policies are bad, not only for the Palestinians, but for the citizens of Israel. Mainstream journalism, which, like politics, responds to the wind of public opinion, is reflecting this shift.  Ian Lustick’s September 14 New York Times opinion piece “Two State Illusion” represents a sea change in NYT editorial policy with respect to Israel. Lustick’s piece was followed closely by Yousef Munayyer’s “Thinking outside the two state box” in the New Yorker’s online edition. “The reality now,” wrote Munayyer, “is that there is a single state. The problem is that it takes an apartheid form.”  Rather than solving the problem that it was intended to solve, which is security and freedom from fear for Jews, Israeli policy has condemned the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel to continuing conflict. “It’s time” Munayyer writes, “to start thinking outside the Zionist box and look for solutions that secure the human rights and equality of all involved, not just the political demands of the stronger party.”

On a recent panel, which they shared with Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street (watch it or you access unedited transcripts of the entire panel presentation) Lustick and Munayyer spell out the political danger of clinging to the possibility that negotiations can bring about a fair and sustainable two state solution. The addresses by Lustick and Munayyer are riveting — and an excellent adjunct to Khalidi’s book. A key point made by both of them is that the implausibility of a fair partition at this point not only makes the negotiations pointless, but worse, perpetuates the conditions that make two states impossible, playing into Israel’s hands even more effectively than handing them the entire territory on a silver platter.  In contrast, Ben Ami’s words give us a good look at the arguments that must be mustered to hold on to the “two-state illusion.”  It is pretty much the brand of “progressive Zionism” that Peter Beinart has been offering up to preserve the Zionist dream: nothing is impossible if we wish for it hard enough and believe in it deeply enough. Commitment to the idea of Jewish nationalist homeland trumps reality, and certainly any commitment to equality for Palestinians, despite the language to the contrary — duly served up by those committed to saving Zionism — about full commitment to a state of their own for Palestinians.

Sad Zionists

Recently, Beinart, in his blog Open Zion, has adopted a strategy similar to that demonstrated by J Street in its recent annual conferences:  broaden the tent to competing points of view, in particular to those advocating some version of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  In her recent piece in Open Zion, “If you want two states, support BDS,” Kathleen Peratis freely admits that her commitment to two states has her standing “on very narrow ground…that the current peace process is at best a Hail Mary.”  “Sad Zionists,” is how she describes herself and those who cling to “our liberal Zionist dreams.”  My question to Peratis is this: how sad are you willing to be? Are you willing to tolerate the sadness of letting go of the concept that an ethnic nationalist entity, a concept carried over from the late nineteenth century, is the answer to anti-Semitism?  Are you willing to mourn the understandable mistake of political Zionism as the solution to our historic suffering, a forgivable (if and when we acknowledge the mistake) but all the same catastrophic wrong turn? Are we willing to be sad enough?  And having tolerated that sadness, are we then able to contemplate, as I wrote in my critique of Beinart, that “[t]he end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and some Christians — fear. Rather, it will open the Jewish people to a future where the Other is embraced, rather than back to a past in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in precisely the wrong direction.”

Like other progressive Zionists, Peratis sees commitment to political Zionism as integral to Jewish identity. What I find most unsettling, however, is not Peratis’ sentimental clinging to the “liberal Zionist dream” or the even more dangerous notion that “Fortress Israel,” as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has characterized the state, keeps Jews safe (indeed, it makes not only Jews, but the entire world less safe). As the title of her piece makes very clear, Peratis wants to say yes to (what she calls) BDS because it will help the two state solution. Here is what Peratis does not get:  BDS is a Palestinian project. It is a call from Palestinian civil society, endorsed at the time of its inauguration in 2005 by 108 Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The goal of BDS is Palestinian human rights, not the preservation of the Zionist project. If we, as Jews, choose to support BDS, it has to be as world citizens (and if we are Americans, then in particular U.S. citizens) joining a global, universal human rights movement, a movement to say “No” to apartheid in our time. What hubris — what chutzpah — to attempt to co-opt the Palestinian call for BDS into supporting the failing, fundamentally flawed and, in the present scenario — it must be said — racist and anti-human rights cause that is the two state solution today.  Holding on to two states is holding on to the Jewish state. And holding on to the Jewish state means suffering the consequences of such a project, consequences on such horrific display in the Sheen-Blumenthal video.

Is that sad enough for you?

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Talking about Israel at the Greenbelt Festival in the UK – a Yom Kippur Meditation

Dear Subscribers,

I’m back.  It’s been a long time.  Where have I been?  Helping found and run Kairos USA, writing a new book, and moving from Washington DC to wonderful Portland OR. Lots of travel, in the US and internationally.  So there is a bit of catching up to do.  I’ll begin by working backwards and posting something from my time last week in the UK at the Greenbelt Festival. How to describe Greenbelt?  How about as a Woodstock for followers of Jesus? — a 4-day gathering of over 20,000 people of all ages that has been held annually for 40 years.  I was honored to have been invited to give some talks and to participate in the launch of Kairos Britain. A future post on the emerging global kairos movement is in store.  For now, I’ll use this this posting to share a bit about the stir that was caused by Greenbelt’s invitation of me and others (including Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust) to speak, and the Festival’s hosting of the Kairos Britain launch.  The Council of Christians and Jews, a UK advocacy group that, in close coordination with the Board of Jewish Deputies — a Jewish advocacy group that bears some resemblance to our Anti-Defamation League — created a lot of critical press in advance of the Greenbelt Festival, claiming that it presented a biased and unbalanced view of Israel.  They also accused me, and by implication the Festival, of fostering anti-Semitic attitudes and speech. The full statement is here.  Very worthwhile reading is the excellent response by Robert Cohen, a British Jew who I had the pleasure to meet and hear speak at Greenbelt and who puts out a very fine blog.

Stay tuned for further postings.  In the meantime, timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, here is my response to the CCJ’s charge that in challenging Zionism I have committed a “sweeping rejection of traditional Jewish teaching” and revived “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism.”

RESPONSE TO CCJ STATEMENT ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE PROGRAMMING BY GREENBELT

In its recent comments on my remarks at the 2013 Greenbelt Festival, Council of Christians and Jews has charged that in asserting that the actions of the State of Israel are immoral, I am laying “collective guilt” upon the Jewish people and as such I am committing “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism (How as a Jew I can do such a thing is an interesting question. Is CCJ suggesting that I am no longer a Jew, the implied question being: can one say the things I am saying about Israel and still be a Jew? — but that is another discussion). The reference to collective guilt is of course an allusion to the historic deicide charge, the assignment to the entire Jewish people, in perpetuity, responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.  The evocation of the deicide charge in this context is something that gets my blood boiling. It’s a particularly ugly bit of Christian-Jewish history, something that caused my people untold suffering over the ages. Furthermore, it is a distortion of history and indeed of Christian theology that is a great Christian sin, not only against the Jews but against the heart of the Gospels. Apologists for the State of Israel’s illegal and immoral acts invoke this particular bit of Jewish-Christian history when they want to bring out the heavy artillery against those who challenge the status quo of unconditional support for Israel. Do they do this cynically, knowing full well the logical absurdity of connecting criticism of Israel with blaming Jews for the crucifixion and choosing to play this card because they know the effect it will have on Christians, or do they actually believe this?  The first option makes me angry. The second makes me deeply sad. The fact that apologists or “defenders” of the State of Israel, and this includes not only professional advocates like those at CCJ but also some Jewish academics and clergy, appear unable to make a distinction between taking responsibility for current Jewish sins and the charge that the Jews killed Jesus – or, by the way, between the Palestinian call for boycott divestment and sanctions and the Nazi anti-Jewish laws — is an indication of how stuck we are in our past suffering and how catastrophic this is for the Jewish people today.

Robert Cohen has done a superb job of responding to CCJ’s charges, speaking for himself and – not officially but in my view very much in spirit – on behalf of the Greenbelt organizers, and I cannot add to or improve on what he has written in his blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.  I will however, point out that I have been misquoted and will offer a few words about that.

CCJ has misquoted me as saying the following at Greenbelt:

“My people behind that wall – and I include Jews outside of Israel as well, because the wall is psychological and it is spiritual – have learned to hate.”

What I said was in the context of a discussion about the effect of the wall on the Jews of Israel.  I said that the Jews living behind the Separation wall (that is what Israel calls it — in Hebrew, hafrada — separation, which can also be translated apartheid) are in a sense the most profound victims of the barrier.  My point — made in the context of my story of the Palestinian child who asks her mother, “Why do they make the Jews live behind that wall?” — is that the wall may be stealing Palestinian land, but what the child sees is that it is really stealing the Jews’ souls. I did not say that the Jews “have learned to hate.”  My words were: “They live behind a wall of soul-killing racism.”

It’s a nuanced difference but it’s key.  My point was not to characterize Jews as hate-filled or acting in a hateful way. It is the wall that is the subject of my words, not the attitudes of Jews about Palestinians.  I am not commenting about Jewish character or beliefs, but about the structure of separation and occupation that creates the conditions under which people learn to hate and fear.  Living behind a wall such as that constructed by Israel effectively makes people into racists.  And the point is that Israelis don’t see themselves that way.  The ugly comments you can hear Israelis making about Palestinians (dirty, thieves, bad parents) and the fear-based beliefs (they want to kill all of us, they hate us, want to push us into the sea) originate because they do not know the Palestinians.  That’s what the wall does, and it does it with chilling and horrible effectiveness. Israelis don’t know that they are racists any more than the Afrikaners identified themselves as such.  I have a friend raised in South Africa, of old Afrikaner stock, who tells me, “I didn’t know about apartheid growing up. In a sense there was no apartheid for me.  It was the air I breathed, the water I swam in.”  The American soldiers who went off to fight in Vietnam, returning shattered psychologically and spiritually because of what they witnessed and in many cases what they did, did not identify the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as human beings – they were “gooks”  — a less-than-human enemy towards whom the American values and even laws governing respect for human life and dignity did not apply. This is what Israel needs to be rescued from, and we only have to look to the Jewish prophets and to the Gospels to find the roadmap for that rescue mission:  speaking truth to power and nonviolent resistance.

So besides my horror and my anger about what Israel is doing, my heart hurts for my people.  And out of that I call for the wall to come down and for Israel to become something that is sustainable (the current course is a fast lane to self destruction — morally, politically, spiritually) and that can provide a decent future for its citizens.

This week begins the holiest season in the Jewish calendar.  In ten days time Jews the world over will stand in the synagogue on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), beat their breasts (literally – we do this) and recite the vidui – the confessional prayer:  We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely… It is a confession recited in the first person plural – and only so. Indeed, unless there is no other option, Jews are required to stand before God as a member of the congregation, of the collective whole of the people.  We pray as a collective, we confess as a people.  We take responsibility for ourselves as a people.  What Israel does in my name is my responsibility and I have the right and the duty to speak to it, not only to my own people but to Christians, who, in following the teachings of that prophetic and fiercely faithful Galilean Jew of 2000 years ago, share the responsibility to seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and above all to put compassion for those who are suffering today – “the least of these my brothers” in Jesus’ words, above all other responsibilities.

Next week Jews will stand before the Ark of the Covenant in countless synagogues and pray for forgiveness.  When I do that I will, like every other Jew in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, have in front of me physically the scrolls of the law, but in reality what I stand before is an 8 meter-high wall of concrete and steel that now stands between me and my maker, between me and my faith, and between me and my sisters and brothers in Palestine who in their call for justice and coexistence are calling me – and my Christian brothers and sisters in the UK and around the world – to faithfulness.  We Jews can be forgiven for our sins – this is without question – but we must begin by acknowledging them.

Mark Braverman

September 4, 2013

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Will Israel’s tent protesters awaken to the tents that came before theirs?

The following appeared first in Zochrot, was then picked up by Mondoweiss, and I humbly follow in their footsteps.  Take the time to read this piece by a young Jewish Israeli woman — it is the only-just-begun-to-be-spoken unspoken heart of Israel.

Will Israel’s tent protesters awaken to the tents that came before theirs?

by OFRA YESHUA-LYTH on AUGUST 2, 2011

It is the corner of Shenkin and Rothschild Boulevard, Friday afternoon. We and our Palestinian guests – a group of “Illegal Sojourners” in the ugly Occupation Jargon – have had a lovelyday of sightseeing and swimming. Now we are on our way to be entertained lavishly by one of us who is blessed with a flat and a roof in the coveted heart of Tel Aviv. On the way there we pass a new and exciting tourist attraction: the huge tent camp which keeps mushrooming in the boulevard.

Our guests, some in pious head gear, listen attentively to the story about middle class Jewish youngsters with no place to live, to study and to work from. The tents are so many, so small. They nod in amazement, expressing sympathy or perhaps even some pleasure over the new potential for solidarity. The sharp tongued one is quick to come up with a punch line none of us would have thought of: “Hada Muchayem Lajiyin Israeliyin!” – “A refugee camp for Israelis!” she exclaims.

We laugh at this smart crack. No similarity at all, to be sure – or maybe just a little something, after all. The young people of Rothschild (may Allah help them, may their protest yield fruit), are supposedly able to get up any time and move back to the grim life they were accustomed to before settling into the sizzling Boulevard.  However they are condemned to life in the lower end of the Israeli chain of housing – with no property, no land and no roof of their own. Some of the women we have with us this evening –exuberant, full of curiosity and passion for fun – have been living in “real” refugee camps most of their lives. Some were born there, others  got married and moved to share the fate of large families condensed into crumbling homes that were started as temporary tents at the outskirts of towns and villages in the West Bank many years ago.

Next evening, at the great Saturday Night Demonstration of the housing crisis, angry signs and voices point at the many housing perks bestowed on the settler community and the ultra-orthodox. It is not hard to recognize the many billion investments in the settlements all over the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 as assets robbed from the welfare of the next generation of Israelis. Blunt sectarian favoritism is to be blamed for the neglect suffered by every hard working citizen not aligned to one of the “preferred” sectors, who has not been blessed with parents of deep pockets.

It is far more difficult and painful to point at the basic choice of Israel to be a state for only one sector, defined by its religion, as the basic cause of this country’s many malaises, including the housing situation. Undeniably, the cost of this choice is incredibly heavy in financial, military and human resources.  Israel’s present rulers constantly wave its “Jewish State” identity as a concept superior to any pretence it ever had to be a just, democratic and peace seeking society. They incite and radicalize, but they had really not started any new path. They merely carry on a tradition that started when this state started –with blood bath and fire – as an entity unable to tolerate anybody perceived as “Other” according to the rabbinical code.

Most young people in the tents do not wish to hear this but a large part of the most coveted addresses in our non-stop city actually belong to landlords who are unable to overcharge, profiteer, or make any use of their assets. Israelis of all ages dedicate their best years and certainly a major part of their tax payments to our state’s continuous and stubborn effort to prevent these owners from practicing their property rights. Jaffa and its surroundings, Manshia next to the Charles Clore promenade, Sumeil on the corner of Arlozorov and Ibn Gabirol, Jamussin of Bavli and the Akirov Towers and Sheich Moanis of Ramat Aviv and the University, all are real estate under the Israel Land Administration, which have the firm obligation to make them available to Jews only. It is perfectly ridiculous to hear the Prime Minister and his people puffing angrily against the “cartel” (as they currently call this Administration) which Zionism established for the purpose of preserving the “national lands” for one ethnic group. Aspiring for a free real estate market? Fine, let us find whose names are on the deeds and start to negotiate.

Israeli governments irregular housing solutions did not start in Ariel, Ofra, Efrat and their hundreds illegal predator copies. Bibi Nethanyahu did not initiate them. He was born into these solutions just like the rest of us, the parent’s generation of today’s angry young men and women. Israel’s venerated founding fathers chose to house hundreds of thousands of long suffering refugees in the homes from which hundreds and thousands of long suffering refugees escaped or were expelled. Next they flooded the country in transit camps (“maabarot”) of miserable tents and shacks, for the masses that were lured to forsake their homes in Arabic speaking countries in favor of improving the demographic balance for the Jews in Zion. These masses were ground to dust in the social habitat that designated them to the role of farmers and laborers, a substitute the gap left by the Palestinians that could only observe, sad eyed, as they still do, from their refugee camps all over the Middle East. The children and grandchildren of these Arab speaking Jewish immigrants grew into a new incarnation – some as fervent religious nationals who despise all Arabs passionately.

“A Home is a fundamental value, it is the base for  everything”  leaders of the Youth rally shouted last Saturday. Their impressive, just and heart warning demonstration called for social justice, rejected charity, and warned against crafty make-belief solutions. “WE HAVE WOKEN UP”, some black signs read, “AND WE SHALL NOT GO BACK TO SLEEP”. One can only hope that the awakening also included an end to the illusion, that only the continuous violent oppression of part of the people of this land can secure the well being of the other part, defined by the “correct” religion.

Perhaps there are no instant solutions to the housing problem, but great public works are certainly an option. This country, like many others, has great resources that should and could support its needy young. A land that knew how to transfer hundreds of thousands in and out, built development towns, transit camps and a huge region of army camps and settlements should not have any difficulty in performing some model projects.

Here is a suggestion for a really easy one: Last Saturday demonstrators were squeezed to the barb-wire coroneted wall of this camp facing Tel Aviv Museum for the Fine Arts. Behind this eye sore lies a huge and spacious estate, the well guarded, superbly protected shrine of the Middle East’s most powerful army and one of the greatest military forces in the whole world. Why not clear the Kiria IDF headquarters in favor of affordable housing well located for the poor children of Tel Aviv? Its top ranking officers do not really need a workplace so indulgingly urbane for the purpose of planning their next war, during which we shall be instructed to keep quiet (fighting is in progress!) and to stop moaning about the rent. No doubt they will be happy to move somewhere else. It is after all very wrong, they always tell us, to have military facilities in the midst of civilian population. At least we complain bitterly when this is done by Hezbollah and Hamas.

Or maybe the army will not be willing to move so willingly, as it had long ago ceased to be the People’s Army. We, the people, are its submissive subjects, and who are we to deny it the high-rises from which it  looks down on us, all the way from the Azrieli shopping center to Café Dubnov. It is under the hospices of the army that the government is supplies its only generous “housing solutions”:  reaped off Bill’in,  Ni’ilin, Hebron, Beith Ommar, Saffa, Nabi Salach and dozens other hard beaten spots under occupation. It is the army’s unlimited violent might that facilitates the usurping of homes in Siluan and Sheich Jarrach in favor of some chosen members of militant groups with an inclination for affordable homes well located in Jerusalem.

The yellow clouds of tear gas and the unbearable stink of the “skunk” hoses, the armed forces faithful allies, have long ago transcended oceans all the way to the United Nations halls in New York. No longer may transfers, lootings and expulsions be hidden and silenced, as was the fate of the inhabitants of Iraq Manshia (today’s Qiryat-Gat) or Sidna Ali (Herzlia Pituah). But likewise, they are the products of the same tough and hollow ideology we were all educated on. These days this ideology is compulsory by law even for kindergarten toddlers. Its repetitive false message, anchored in ancient and unfriendly religion: it is dangerous and forbidden for Jews to live in the vicinity of other people.

The angry residents of Israel’s “refugee camps” all over the country are going these days through an awakening process from the false consciousness that brought them to this tricky junction of the summer of 2011. It is not an easy process, but well worth making the effort to go all the way to the root of our problems. Those of us, who were privileged last weekend to dance, sing and hug on a Tel Aviv rooftop with our friends from the villages and refugee camps of the occupied territories, will never agree to give up the warm human contact with people we once considered enemies. Just think how many good flats could be produced with the assets wasted over the decades on fortifying the dumb concept that all non Jews are a “danger for our demography”.

This piece first appeared at Zochrot. Ofra Yeshua-Lyth’s book “A State of Mind` why Israel should become Secular and Democratic ” is published these days by Maariv publishers. http://mystateofmind.co.il/

See also Jeff’s Halper’s recent piece on the Tent City protests.

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My visit to South Africa, part 2: A Moment of Truth for the U.S. Church

Part 2:  A Moment of Truth for the U.S. Church

The first task of a prophetic theology for our times would be an attempt at social analysis or what Jesus would call “reading the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3) or “interpreting this Kairos” (Lk 12:56). Kairos is actually a moment of truth, of discernment, of discovery. It is a revelation of the reality we live in, of what is at stake and our responsibility in that moment.

Allan Boesak, “Kairos Consciousness,” 2011

A moment of truth

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the shameful behavior of the members of Congress in rising to their feet 29 times to applaud his radical, intransigent positions should shatter any remaining illusions that peace will come through negotiations under current conditions. Politics has failed to bring about a just peace in Israel-Palestine. In fact, the political/diplomatic process, based on false assumptions (Israel will accept a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state on its borders; the U.S. is an honest broker to the negotiation process) is itself actively advancing the building of Israeli Apartheid.  There is an urgent need to continue to build the international grassroots movement to delegitimize Israeli Apartheid and to exert economic, social and diplomatic pressure on Israel and on the countries supporting its policies, especially the U.S. Historically, the churches have played a significant role in creating political and social change through movements of nonviolent resistance. Examples of this in recent history are the U.S. Civil Rights movement, organized opposition to the Vietnam War, and the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Our situation today is strikingly similar to that faced by a group of South African pastors and theologians confronting the intransigence of the South African government in ending Apartheid. In 1985, they sat down to compose a historic, prophetic document. It had been a long journey to reach that point — the result of a struggle of the churches in South Africa to come to terms with their silence and their sometimes active complicity with the system that had poisoned and brutalized their society. By 1985 the church had finally arrived at a place from which there was no escape, no compromise, and no way back.  The authors of the South Africa Kairos document articulate this in their preamble (passages from the document appear in italics):

We as a group of theologians have been trying to understand the theological significance of this moment in our history. It is serious, very serious. For very many Christians in South Africa this is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action… A crisis is a judgment that brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. A crisis is a moment of truth that shows us up for what we really are. There will be no place to hide and no way of pretending to be what we are not in fact. At this moment in South Africa the Church is about to be shown up for what it really is and no cover-up will be possible… It is the KAIROS or moment of truth not only for apartheid but also for the Church.

Like South Africa in the 1980s, suffering under four decades under the Apartheid regime, the situation in the Palestinian territories after over 40 years under military occupation is serious, very serious. For Israel and the entire civilized world, entering the seventh decade of refugee status for the now five million descendants of the Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the State of Israel, there is no longer any place to hide.

The American context

The situation in Palestine has created this moment of truth for the church on a global level, but churches in different geographical regions face differing contexts, necessitating different Kairos agendas. The context for the Palestine Kairos document is military occupation and the implementation of an apartheid system of dispossession, discrimination and control over all aspects of Palestinian civil society. The context for the Southern Africa Kairos is (1) solidarity with Palestinians living under this apartheid system and (2) the need to unify and energize the church in South Africa by taking on the Palestinian cause. The U.S. context is multifaceted and compelling.  It includes: (1) U.S. responsibility for financing the building of Israeli Apartheid and for shielding Israel from accountability in the international arena, (2) the American church’s acquiescence with our government’s support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, (3) theological support (along a spectrum of conservative, mainstream and progressive theologies) for a superior Jewish claim to the land and the right to expel and/or exert political dominance over non-Jewish inhabitants, and (4) the American church’s renewal movement — its quest to return to the fundamental principles of Christianity.

“The favorable time” is now. The Palestinian Spring has arrived in the form of the Nakba Day protests, the Fatah-Hamas unity deal in Cairo and the upcoming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. These events unfold against the backdrop of the 2005 Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, the Palestine Kairos document of 2009, the 2011 Kairos Southern Africa endorsement of Kairos Palestine, the recent popular uprisings throughout the Arab world, and the growing awareness throughout the U.S. churches of the need for education and direct action to bring about a peace based on justice. The Palestinian and South African Kairos documents provide examples for the American church of what it means to take a clear stance on the theological unacceptability of any ideology, theology, or legal system that that grants the members of one group dominance over another. The parallel to our situation is the sham of the U.S.-sponsored “peace process” and the myths that support it, such as the picture of an Israel that makes “generous” offers – offers that serve only to further its colonialist aims. The implications of this are as clear and inescapable for the U.S. church as they are for Palestinians living under occupation today and as they were for the South Africans three decades ago. Any theology and course of action (or inaction) that supports the oppression of an illegitimate regime has to be replaced with an alternative theology and course of action.

Activity within the American church in support of the Palestinian cause is not new. It has been going on for decades, at local and denominational levels, through educational programs, peace pilgrimages, connections with Palestinian and Israeli civil society organizations, and most recently through boycott and divestment initiatives. However, apart from the work of local taskforces and denominationally-based groups devoted to the cause of Middle East peace, a coordinated, ecumenical effort by the American church as a whole has been lacking. Churches for Middle East Peace is an ecumenical organization dedicated exclusively to this issue, but there is a growing awareness that CMEP’s cautious agenda, limited to legislative advocacy, falls short of the activism needed to meet this Kairos moment. It is time for the U.S. church to takes its place alongside the Palestinian, Southern African, and nascent European and Asian Kairos movements.

Lessons from 1985:  A primer in “Church theology”

Although both the Palestinian and South African documents need to be studied by American Christians, the 1985 South African document, with its focus on church complicity, provides a particularly useful set of guideposts for the U.S. church. To be sure, there are differences in the historical situation and in the particular configuration of the challenges – indeed, South African colleagues tell me that what we are facing now makes their past struggle look like child’s play. But the core issues of complicity and responsibility, and the perfect storm of theology, ideology and civil religion that support the continuation of an oppressive system are startlingly similar.

The heart of  the South African document is its analysis of what it calls “Church Theology:” that is, a theology and set of attitudes, opinions and assumptions that are employed by the church to maintain the status quo and to directly and indirectly support immoral government policies. Church theology tries to create the appearance of opposing injustice and oppression. In reality, however, it is devoted to shoring up the very system that perpetrates the evil:

‘Church Theology’ tends to make use of absolute principles like reconciliation and non-violence and applies them indiscriminately and uncritically to all situations. Very little attempt is made to analyze what is actually happening it our society and why it is happening…Closely linked to this is the lack of an adequate understanding of politics and political strategy.

The document identifies three such “church opinions” or assumptions: reconciliation, justice, and non-violence.

Reconciliation

‘Church Theology’ often describes the Christian stance in the following way: “We must be fair. We must listen to both sides of the story. If the two sides can only meet to talk and negotiate they will sort out their differences and misunderstandings, and the conflict will be resolved.

The fallacy here is that ‘Reconciliation’ has been made into an absolute principle. But there are conflicts where one side is a fully armed and violent oppressor while the other side is defenseless and oppressed. To speak of reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian idea of reconciliation, it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has ever meant.

In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally unchristian to plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustices have been removed…No reconciliation is possible in South Africa without justice …

This analysis goes to the heart of the problem when applied to the Israel/Palestine conflict. One of the most striking features of the discourse about Israel/Palestine in the United States is the preoccupation with the need for a “balanced” perspective. Here is how this typically plays out:  you may not talk about house demolitions, humiliation at checkpoints, restrictions on movement, the death of innocent civilians, targeted assassinations, or any other examples of Palestinian suffering, without presenting what is usually termed the “other side.” The “other side” is the recognition of the suffering of the Israelis, who have endured five wars, terrorist attacks, and the sense that they are surrounded by implacable enemies. (The fact of Israelis’ fear of annihilation is not in dispute. The question of the reality of the threat, however, is relevant.  Ira Chernus takes up this issue in his recent piece in The Nation, “The myth of Israeli vulnerability”). You may not talk about the dispossession of the Palestinians to make way for the Jewish state without noting historic Jewish suffering or the displacement of Jews from Arab countries. On its face, this seems fair. But in the current discourse, the demand for “balance” is not about being fair. Rather, it is used to blunt scrutiny of those actions of Israel that are the root cause of the conflict. As the South African document so effectively sets out, appeals here to principles of “reconciliation,” “dialogue” and “balance” serve not to advance but to obscure the issue of justice. The example of South Africa clearly demonstrates that it is only when the structures of inequality and discrimination have been removed that activities devoted to reconciliation between the parties can be undertaken.

Justice

The very serious theological question is: What kind of justice? An examination of Church statements and pronouncements gives the distinct impression that the justice that is envisaged is the justice of reform, that is to say, a justice that is determined by the oppressor, by the white minority and that is offered to the people as a kind of concession. It does not appear to be the more radical justice that comes from below and is determined by the people of South Africa.

There have been reforms and, no doubt, there will be further reforms in the near future. And it may well be that the Church’s appeal to the consciences of whites has contributed marginally to the introduction of some of these reforms. But can such reforms ever be regarded as real change, as the introduction of a true and lasting justice.

True justice, God’s justice, demands a radical change of structures.

Reform was a major issue for the anti-Apartheid struggle. The offers of reform by the Pretoria government, coming too little and too late, mirrored for the authors of Kairos South Africa the attempts of some of the churches to enact superficial changes that did not address the underlying racial inequalities built into church practice and by which the churches continued to support racist government policies. In similar fashion, “progressive” thinkers among Jews disturbed by Israel’s behavior attempt to find ways to remove or remediate the most egregious and blatant aspects of Israeli policy. These efforts, however, do not address the root cause of the abuses, which arise inevitably from the attempt of Israel to maintain a Jewish majority and to continue Jewish rule over a diverse population. In similar fashion, church bodies attempt to find ways to “balance” or soften the prophetic witness to Palestinian suffering in order to deflect or avoid opposition by Jewish groups and groups within the churches who brand any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.

Non-Violence

The problem for the Church here is the way the word violence is being used in the propaganda of the State. The State and the media have chosen to call violence what some people do in the townships as they struggle for their liberation i.e. throwing stones, burning cars and buildings and sometimes killing collaborators. But this excludes the structural, institutional and unrepentant violence of the State and especially the oppressive and naked violence of the police and the army. These things are not counted as violence… Thus the phrase ‘Violence in the townships’ comes to mean what the young people are doing and not what the police are doing or what apartheid in general is doing to people.

In practice what one calls ‘violence’ and what one calls ‘self-defense’ seems to depend upon which side one is on. To call all physical force ‘violence’ is to try to be neutral and to refuse to make a judgment about who is right and who is wrong. The attempt to remain neutral in this kind of conflict is futile. Neutrality enables the status quo of oppression (and therefore violence) to continue. It is a way of giving tacit support to the oppressor.

The parallels are obvious. Israeli state terrorism is contextualized as self-defense.  Palestinian resistance is framed as terrorism.  Again, Ira Chernus’ recent piece in The Nation is instructive.

The challenge to the American church

The South African document arose from a context of a church – black and white, theologians, pastors and lay leaders – acknowledging its complicity with a tyrannical regime. The document points out that the Bible is very clear about regimes that violate fundamental principles of justice and equality. “A tyrannical regime,” it states, “has no moral legitimacy. It may be the de facto government and it may even be recognized by other governments and therefore be the de jure or legal government. But if it is a tyrannical regime, it is, from a moral and theological point of view, illegitimate.” Thus the church saw no alternative but to oppose the regime itself as unreformable, and to challenge the “church theology” that supported the illegitimate system.

This is where the U.S. church finds itself as it witnesses Israel’s ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. It has become increasingly clear that Israel’s goal is not a sovereign and independent Palestine, but the continued colonization of Palestinian lands, the subjugation of its people, and the blocking of any prospect of return for refugees. Like the South Africans in 1985, we are looking today at an Israeli government that has shown itself to be illegitimate according to fundamental religious and humanitarian principles as well as standards of international law. It is the policies themselves, and the government that implements them, that must become the focus of church activity. In the South African case, an appeal to the governments of the world to employ sanctions against the South African government became an increasingly important component of the anti-Apartheid movement. In our U.S. case, it is particularly clear that besides holding Israel itself accountable, we must confront directly our own government’s key role as a supporter of Israel’s illegal, self-destructive and dangerous policies. As was true in the South Africa case, the stakes are very high. The moral imperative for Christians and for all people committed to peace and to social justice is powerful and increasingly urgent:

A tyrannical regime cannot continue to rule for very long without becoming more and more violent. As the majority of the people begin to demand their rights and to put pressure on the tyrant, so will the tyrant resort more and more to desperate, cruel, gross and ruthless forms of tyranny and repression. The reign of a tyrant always ends up as a reign of terror.

The South Africa Kairos document was the product of decades of a church struggle to claim its prophetic heart. The U.S. church is now engaged in a process to remain faithful to its core principles. The time has come to name the struggle and to take sides. It is the choice between conservative theologies that hew to exceptionalist doctrines that pervert the words of scripture into supporting oppression, land taking, and even genocide, and a movement of renewal and return to core values of universalism, social justice, and human dignity — the building of the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is the choice between following denominational hierarchies and cautious clergy more concerned with maintaining church structures, protecting funding sources and preserving relationships with the American Jewish establishment, and following the example of the early church in taking a prophetic stance against injustice. The challenge to the U.S. church is as clear as that faced by the South African church three decades ago. Contemporary theologians, historians and social critics have observed that the religious exceptionalism that is the legacy of our Puritan past is being enacted in our support of Israel. They point to how the current dominant American metanarrative driving the “war on terror” interlocks with the metanarrative of a democratic Israel defending itself (and us) from the implacable hatred of an enemy who embraces a false religion committed to hatred and destruction. They point out the parallels to the first century, when a visionary and iconoclastic Palestinian Jew challenged the oppressive political order of his time (represented by the Temple in Jerusalem), calling instead for a Kingdom based on compassion and social justice.

The argument is made that the situation is complex, the relationships multifaceted and fraught with history, and that the conflicts between equally justifiable “claims” or “rights” create ambiguities and conflicting courses of action. Kairos –a moment of truth, of discernment, of discovery” — cuts through these intellectual confusions and moral snares. Status confessionis, as American theologian Robert McAfee Brown has written — a confessional situation — is a time when “the issues are so clear, and the stakes are so high, that the privilege of amiable disagreement must be superseded by clear-cut decisions, and the choice must move from ‘both/and’ to ‘either or.’” The Palestinian document is a cry of pain and a call to action. The South African document holds up a mirror to our complicity and to our responsibility to core principles of faith and humanity.  The church is called – along with those from other faith traditions and the peace community who join it in this struggle.

Here we stand.

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My visit to South Africa Part 1: A confessing church,1985-2011

Part 1:  A Confessing Church, circa 1985

This is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action.
Challenge to the Church (“Kairos Document”), Johannesburg, South Africa, 1985

The mission of the Church is prophetic, to speak the Word of God courageously, honestly and lovingly in the local context and in the midst of daily events.
Kairos Palestine Document, Bethlehem, 2009

Johannesburg, South Africa, April 2011.

Why?  I kept asking them.  Why are you so wholeheartedly and passionately committed to this cause?  Why little Palestine?  You have massive problems here. The post-Apartheid era is proving more challenging in some ways than the struggle to end it, as you endeavor to find a way out of deep structural inequality and seemingly intractable economic divisions along racial lines.

The answers came without hesitation. First: The world was here for us during our struggle. Second: We know what Apartheid is. We cannot stand idly by. This must be our struggle as well.

I was in South Africa for the Kairos Southern Africa –Kairos Palestine encounter. Pastors, theologians and society leaders from Southern Africa, including many of the great – and outside of Africa, unsung – heroes of the anti-Apartheid movement, in addition to younger church people, had organized under the name Kairos Southern Africa. They had invited a delegation of Palestinian Christians, including many of the authors of the Kairos Palestine document, for a conference and a series of meetings with church, civil society and government leaders to launch Kairos Palestine in Southern Africa. But this meeting was more than a simple expression of solidarity with Palestinians struggling for freedom and self-determination. It was an affirmation of the overall mission of the church in Southern Africa. As one of the several non-African/ non-Palestinians and the only North American in attendance, I realized that this extraordinary gathering carried a critically important message for the church globally and in particular the church in the United States. In order to understand that message, we need to understand a bit about the history of the struggle with South African Apartheid.

As early as the late 1950s, statements began to emerge from South African church bodies expressing the fundamental conflict between Apartheid and Christian beliefs and principles. The church was beginning to confront, not only its silence in the face of racist laws, but the fact that it was practicing racial separation and discrimination within its own walls. Most important, the church was calling into question ways in which Christian doctrine had been employed and was continuing to be used to justify policies of separation and discrimination. By the 1980s, uprisings in the townships and brutal suppression by the government of all forms of resistance had brought the country to a boiling point. Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu had assumed leadership of the South African Council of Churches and was taking an increasingly vocal stance against Apartheid.

In 1982 a watershed event occurred. The leaders of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) met in Ottawa Canada. Nine black and coloured pastors from South Africa refused to partake of the Lord’s supper with their white colleagues because they could not do so at home in Apartheid South Africa. The World Alliance got the message: the WARC declared the church to be in status confessionis. Nothing moves, they declared, all other church business takes a back seat, until this betrayal of the core values of our faith is addressed. They then suspended the South African white Dutch Reformed Church member churches from the worldwide church body. These church leaders knew that not only was the church complicit in its silence, but that it had a responsibility for having helped create the very structures of separation and discrimination upon which the current state structures were built, and for having developed the original theological support for racist policies. They realized that this meant that the church was in violation of the fundamental principle of equality under God, the unity of all creation, and the dignity of all living things. In the words of the “Confession of Faith” of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa (the “Belhar Confession”), written in 1982 and officially adopted in 1986, “we reject any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people…or breaks the visible and active unity of the church…”

The Belhar Confession was followed in 1985 by a towering statement of theological courage, titled “Challenge to the Church” and signed by 150 South African theologians.  Also known as the “The Kairos Document,” it was, in the words of South African journalist and biographer of Desmond Tutu John Allen “soon seen as one of the most important theological documents of its time.” The 1985 Kairos Document signaled the final stage of the struggle that culminated in the end of Apartheid in 1994. South African theologian and church historian John De Gruchy, the author of The Church Struggle in South Africa, has pointed out to me that church struggle has two meanings – the struggle was not only of the church with Apartheid, but with itself. This same observation was made to me by two other central figures in the anti-Apartheid struggle, theologian Albert Nolan and pastor and activist Frank Chikane. From the beginnings of the anti-Apartheid struggle and to its very end, the church was never totally united in principle and in action. But through the efforts of an increasing number of courageous individuals, and as the struggle intensified and the fundamental issues became more and more clear, the church found its prophetic voice, its feet squarely planted on the ground it knew it had to claim.

This is an example of theology in action – theology in response to history. In some circles, and at times when this kind of theology has threatened the church establishment itself, such theology has been dismissed as “contextual,” as if the doing of theology in direct response social conditions somehow diminishes faith or reduces faith to something less elevated than itself. Ulrich Duchrow, theologian and co-founder of Kairos Europa, has this to say about this claim: “Working sociologically does not mean restricting the meaning of biblical texts to so-called sociological questions but rather recognizing that socio-economic and political structures and ways of acting are, according to the insights of the Bible, to be addressed as a decision for or against God. It is the social questions that are theologized, and not the God question that is secularized” (Duchrow, U. Alternatives to Global Capitalism, International Books with Kairos Europa, the Hague, 1995, 142).

During my time in South Africa, this same point was driven home repeatedly in conversations with people and in encounters across South African society. In the words of Edwin Arrison, an Anglican priest and coordinator of Kairos Southern Africa, “Kairos Palestine is a blessing for us.”  Solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, he was saying, puts our South African church in touch with our prophetic, faithful heart. It sets us more surely on the ground on which we as a church live spiritually, ground we have been in danger of losing since the end of Apartheid in our own country. The energy we put into Palestine, he said, does not diminish our energy to deal with our own issues, it augments it. I was told by a pastor from Swaziland that knowing about someone else’s troubles and struggle helps you understand your own — you don’t feel so isolated. For a Southern African, I learned, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is not about taking on another burden or cause on top of the issues at home. It is not a net gain in responsibility – rather, especially in the context of the monumental challenges facing South Africa today, it makes the load lighter.

I heard Ronnie Kasrils, Jewish South African anti-Apartheid activist and politician, speak to a large group of young people from the black township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town one evening in the presence of the Palestinian and Southern African Kairos delegations. Rousing these black teenagers and young mothers and fathers living under conditions of extreme poverty to the cause of their Palestinian brothers and sisters, Kasrils spoke to the Palestinians on behalf all South Africans: “You are not alone,” he said, “we are with you!  When we were fighting the Boers and were being mowed down in the townships, the world stood with us. When we heard that the people in the USA and the UK were supporting us and standing with us in boycotting South Africa, that meant everything to us. From up there to down here, the love is here for truth and justice and to stand for all people!” And the young people, some wearing “Free Shuhada Street” t-shirts (Shuhada is the main market street in Hebron in the West Bank, closed off to Palestinians to “protect” illegal Jewish settlers), rose to their feet and sang and danced to the hymn “We are Marching over to Jerusalem.”

We were hosted by the Muslim Judicial Council in Cape Town and were told by the Imam that the South African commitment to this struggle this is not only for Palestinians, or for Muslims, but for all of humanity. Officially endorsing the Palestine Kairos document, the leaders of the Council affirmed the need for Christians, Jews and Muslims to live together in peace in the Holy Land, as they had done for centuries.

We met with the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba. Fresh from his recent visit to Bethlehem to address the international meeting of Sabeel, he had been to Palestine, he had seen the occupation, and he offered his full support. We met with the Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, who had been there, and, fully understanding the importance of working for justice in Palestine, he offered his support in educating South African Catholics about the situation. But the congregation at the Cape Town Cathedral on the Sunday morning following the Kairos meeting had not been there, had not seen the oppression of the Palestinians first hand. And yet when Canon Naim Ateek of Sabeel preached that morning, speaking about the Palestinian plight, the similarities to Apartheid, and of the moral and theological imperative to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign, he received enthusiastic applause – not a normal occurrence after a sermon in an Anglican cathedral! The worshipers that morning understood Apartheid because they had lived it. When the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches met with the Palestinian delegation he was ready with concrete offers to distribute the Palestine Kairos document for study throughout the South African churches, and to work to ensure that pilgrimages to the Holy Land include exposure to the occupation and meetings with peace activists. Like the worshippers in the Cathedral that Sunday, he had not been to Palestine. But he could not fail to feel the pain of the Palestinians and to understand their suffering. And he knew what had to be done.

Kairos Consciousness

Liberation theologian, Uniting Dutch Reformed pastor and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Allan Boesak recently described Kairos consciousness in this way:

A Kairos consciousness is a critical consciousness. It discerns and critiques the situation in which we live. It understands that it is a situation of life and death. There is a conflict – between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, powerful and powerless, beneficiaries and victims, those who are included and those who are excluded. In that critique there is no room for sentiment and romanticism – peoples’ lives are at stake. The crisis we are facing is not just economic, social and political, it is a moral crisis…

The situation is one of extreme urgency precisely because the stakes are so very high. This calls for action and we respond with prophetic faithfulness and prophetic daring.

This movement is not simply a campaign in support of one popular struggle.  It is not simply a movement to bring racial equality to one group of oppressed people. It is a global movement to delegitimize an Apartheid system that rivals the one that burned into the soul and the soil of South Africa until only two short decades ago. That regime was brought to an end, as it had to be, by the irresistible pressure of the oppressed people of South Africa and their allies among white South Africans, the global church, foreign governments called to account, and the enduring, persistent and spirit-infused human commitment to justice.

This is not only about Palestine. South African theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio, one of the authors of the 1985 Kairos document, had this to say to me when we met in Cape Town:  “This is bigger than Palestine. It’s the fault line running through western civilization, the point of split in the first century between the followers of Jesus and those who clung to their Rome-granted power base in Jerusalem.”  In other words, it’s about whether religion is used to separate groups from one another and to grant one group the right to dominate another, or whether it is about bringing humankind to a realization of our unity and connectedness.  So the church was born to this. Indeed, the church was born in this. And the church is taking this on, in South Africa, in the U.S., in growing number of centers in Europe.  And it is the church, globally, that will be crucial in ending the system that is destroying Israeli society, has hijacked the Jewish faith, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today. What I experienced in South Africa a few short weeks ago convinced me that the energized South African church will be the leading edge of the global movement to end Apartheid in Palestine.

The other leading edge will be church in the United States.

To be continued in Part 2,  “A moment of truth for the American church”

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Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Dear Subscribers,

When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” came out in the New York Review of Books last June, I was out of the country and missed the excitement.  I was bombarded with it from a number of listserves, but began to notice that I was avoiding reading it.  And I know why:  I didn’t feel like getting heated up about what I suspected was in the piece.  Well, I finally read it last December, and I did get heated up, and I wrote this essay.  I submitted it to several left-wing print and internet periodicals, received acceptances, and then, for some reason, it never ran. Added a “Palestine Papers” lead, and then a lead about Egypt.  Still no luck.  No matter — here it is:

Peter Beinart and The Failure of American Jewish Progressivism:

Bursting the Bubble of “Liberal Zionism”

Mark Braverman

The popular uprising in Egypt that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, together with Aljazeera’s January 23rd release of the “Palestine Papers,” have produced if not a an earthquake, then certainly seismic rumblings in the ground supporting Israel’s control of the West Bank (from within) and Gaza (from without). The plight of the Palestinians is not what motivated Egyptians to take to the streets – yet the complicity of the Mubarak government with the siege of Gaza certainly stuck in the craw of the Egyptian people. Similarly, the Aljezeera revelations that negotiators for the Palestinian Authority had effectively ceded East Jerusalem to Israel and relinquished the right of return for Palestinian refugees would have only reinforced Egyptians’ conviction that the  promised Palestinian State  a has been a snare and a delusion perpetrated by the U.S.-Israel-Jordan-Egypt alliance.

It is a sure bet that any spillover from Tahrir Square into the streets of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus or Bethlehem will be quickly repressed by the Palestinian Authority. But the future of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the millions of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and throughout the world does not rest with the actions of the client government installed in Ramallah. Rather, the fate of these people –as well of the close to eight million citizens of Israel, is been held hostage to the assumptions and requirements of political Zionism. More than territory and borders, the issue of demography is the key to this conflict. The question of return of refugees has been a red line for Israelis because the introduction of so many non-Jews would spell “the end of Israel.” And so it would, as long as its future is tied to the Zionist idea of a Jewish state. But recognition is dawning that a just and equitable sharing of the territory will mean, not the end of Israel, but its only hope for a future. The release of the Palestinian Authority documents is a further sign that the path to peace requires a confrontation with Zionism itself as a political enterprise. But even within the progressive camp, this realization has been slow in coming. When Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” appeared in the New York Review of Books in June 2010, it caused a considerable stir:  here was a young Jewish intellectual boldly challenging the human rights record of the State of Israel. But Beinart’s subject was not Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Rather, he was addressing the failure of the American Jewish establishment to successfully promote Zionism as a viable political program. The piece opens with this declaration:  “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”  To this Jewish American, this is an astonishing statement, and it is tragically off the mark.

Born in the heady years after the establishment of the state, I grew up believing that Israel was the key to Jewish survival. But I would suggest that preserving Zionism is not the challenge facing Jews today. Rather, our task is to rescue Judaism from an ideology that has hijacked the faith, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today. Despite its romantic attachment to the idea of the “new Jew” — a Jew liberated from the powerlessness and humiliation of the ghetto — in reality Zionism has served to keep Jews trapped in an isolationist, exclusivist past. We must challenge a historical narrative that has yoked us to a theology of territoriality and tribal privilege. We must acknowledge how deep is the hole we have dug for ourselves in the pursuit of our national homeland project.

But it is not for the Jews alone to resolve this crisis. Rather, the prospect of Israel spinning rapidly into rogue state status challenges people from all faiths and nationalities to confront sectarian and particularistic strivings wherever they hold the political process hostage. This is not the challenge that being thrown down by Beinart, however. Instead, he is proposing that rather than questioning the legitimacy of Zionism, we shore it up. Beinart never considers the possibility that Zionism itself is a flawed ideology. Instead, he operates on the assumption that if only Zionism could be implemented in its true democratic and liberal spirit, meaningful change could be created and things would work out. “Yes, we have erred, we have strayed,” — so goes the argument – “but because we are heirs to a liberal, humanistic tradition, we can make this work — and our work deserves to be crowned with success.”

According to Beinart, bad actors have sabotaged the noble enterprise.  The problem, he maintains, lies with overtly racist politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who proposes transfer of non-Jews (and who recently pushed through the Knesset the targeting of Israeli human rights organizations for special investigations), and ex-cabinet minister Effi Eitam, who wants Arabs out of Israeli politics. Here we have the classic straw man maneuver – very much like progressive Israeli and non-Israeli Jews blaming the “radical fringe” of the settler movement for Israel’s human rights abuses and the “mistake” of the occupation. But settler depredations, permanent occupation of Palestinian lands, brutal suppression of popular resistance, racial laws governing loyalty and land ownership, and de facto second class citizenship for Arabs in Israel are not accidents or unfortunate deviations from Israel’s democratic agenda. The government of Israel is doing precisely what a Jewish state has to do to maintain its Jewish character. Ethnic cleansing and military control of a subject population (also known as Apartheid) have emerged as the only means to address the threat to Israel’s continued existence as a sovereign Jewish state. The abhorrent concept of the Arab “demographic threat” is embraced in Israel by racist demagogues and centrist politicians alike. The sobering truth is that for Israel the line between racist demagoguery and government policy has all but disappeared.

But for the Jewish progressive, the idea that Zionism itself is the problem is unacceptable. A different enemy must be found — and Israel’s fundamentalist Jewish establishment presents itself as the most convenient. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party is the poster child for those who bemoan Israel’s threatened descent into fascism. Last October Jewish voices the world over issued horrified condemnations when a group of Israeli rabbis, backed by Yosef, issued rulings against renting to non-Jews. Even the Anti-Defamation League’s arch-conservative Director Abraham Foxman weighed in against the “hateful and divisive ideas” of these religious leaders. Lamenting Shas’ growing boldness and influence, Beinart warns against this threat to Israel’s “liberal and democratic order.” The point, however, bears repeating: Shas and Israel’s other religious parties are not unfortunate byproducts of democracy – rather, they are firmly entrenched in Israel’s political structure. Despite its initial conflict with political Zionism, Jewish fundamentalism has shown itself to be frighteningly compatible with the goal of building a Jewish state.

Quoted in a recent article in New York Jewish Week, Beinart expresses concern that his children may have to choose between “blind support” of Israel and their liberal values. But as Jews – and Americans — we do have to choose. Accepting Zionism as a workable, sustainable political program is a kind of blindness. It calls for a striking lapse in critical thinking and the jettisoning of fundamental humanistic principles, and it leads to the political dead end in which we find ourselves today. Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” (“The Hope”) embodies the Zionist dream and ethos: “The hope of two thousand years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” This yearning is understandable and it is powerful. But I would propose to Beinart and those progressive Jews who cling to this dream that they replace it with one more in tune with the trajectory of history, which points away from nationalism, and certainly from ethnic nationalism. Zionism held a kind of desperate logic for the Jews of 19th century Europe, and seemed valid in the historical and ideological context of the time – but it is wrong and unsustainable today. Only when Israel itself, and the Jewish community that supports it, can begin to let go of these anachronistic strivings can we turn ourselves to the task of recreating Israel as a political entity truly committed to democratic and liberal principles. The late and deeply mourned Tony Judt got it exactly right in his NYRB piece back in 2003: “The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place.”

In his recent book, The Icarus Syndrome, A History of American Hubris, Beinart warns against “pushing ideas further and further, until, like a swelled balloon, they burst.” We have arrived at that bursting point. The end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and some Christians — fear. Rather, it will open the Jewish people to a future where the Other is embraced, rather than back to a past in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in precisely the wrong direction.

Mark Braverman is author of Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land, Synergy Press, 2010. Writing and his blog can be found at http://www.markbraverman.org

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Two Voices from Israel

Dear Subscribers,

It’s been months since you’ve heard from me. This has not been for want of things to write about. In fact I have been writing quite a bit, and it’s been the demands of these projects and time on the road lecturing that have kept me from the blog. These two pieces just came my way, and have broken through the block.

I am bringing you two Jewish voices from Israel. One is a cry of despair and pain. The other is the story of a man who years ago woke up and set out to do something. I am not saying that in the writing of the first piece the author has not done something. Amnon Dankner, a veteran Israeli journalist, a man of my generation, born in the heady years just before the birth of the state and  part of the mainstream political and journalistic life of Israel, is now crushingly disillusioned, horrified, and in mourning. I am very moved by this piece. There is no light here, no sense from Dankner that he can even turn it around. It is a cry of despair, sadness, anger, and fear. What is striking also is his description of Israeli’s existential terror – the sense of being surrounded, isolated, threatened.  In the political ferment in which we engage around this conflict, we rarely hear this expressed by Israelis themselves, rarely hear about this sense of vulnerability outside the context of a Zionist polemic. Here is an Israeli expressing the desperate feeling of being at the mercy of a government not only unable to protect its citizens, but leading them at breakneck speed toward the edge of the cliff. We are not safe, he is saying — and, what is more, there is a way to safety, but it is in the opposite direction than the one in which we are travelling. Dankner goes on to voice the pain of a man living in a society that is morally bankrupt and descending rapidly into racism. This man was born in Palestine in 1946. He grew up immersed in the dream of redemption, of a talented, brave, suffering people creating something new and wonderful. It is a profound, tragic downfall. And so very sad. I will not choose to use this opportunity to preach about how such a downfall was inevitable because of the nature of Zionism itself  (this will be reserved for the next posting, in preparation). I simply give you Dankner’s profound unburdening.

Eitan Bronstein, born almost a generation after Dankner, is in my view one of the most courageous voices in Israel today. In founding Zochrot, he, along with Israeli historians such as Ilan Pappe, is calling on Jews to wake up to an essential facet of our history – the historical and ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people to make way for the Jewish state. In this piece, Eitan makes his farewell as Director of Zochrot and tells the story of its founding.

Here are the two pieces:

“Decline to brutality — I am ashamed”  Amnon Dankner, January 7, 2011

“…I am daring to stand up and voice an opinion and even voice it loudly and pound on the table once or twice—this is because I have felt lately that it has become shameful to be an Israeli, and a decent person must feel this shame and blush deeply and clear his throat and whisper to himself the question, what should we do, what should we do, for heaven’s sake, and perhaps even reach far-reaching conclusions.

Because it is fairly clear already that if our life here continues as it has been developing, then decent, moderate, balanced and humane people will not be able to live here. Before our eyes, with growing speed, Israeli society is changing, the political culture is changing, balances are disrupted and checks are tossed to the blazes, in the terrible wind that is blowing in our lives and quickly colouring them in darkening shades of black….” (click for entire piece)

Eitan’s Farewell — January, 2011

“…I started Zochrot more than nine years ago, after leading tours to the site known in Israrel as “Canada Park.” The JNF, with the generous assistance of Canadian Zionists, planted thousands of trees to create a forest that looked as if it were European, and in doing so covered the remains of the villages of Yalu, ‘Imwas and Beit Nuba. The JNF erected many signs in the park, describing the many histories of the location, but for some reason forget to mention the lives that Palestinians led here for hundreds of years, until the 1967 war, during which Israel completed the conquest of the country which it had begun in 1948. At the end of one of those tours, I had the idea to erect in the park the signs that were missing. For example, “’Imwas cemetery,” or “Yalu cemetery.”

The idea of erecting signs wherever Palestinian villages had been demolished by Israel attracted and interested people, and two publications referred to it even before we’d actually done anything: HaKibbutz and Ha’aretz. The many responses from readers – most of them irate – made clear to me that this was a clearly-focused activity whose time had come…

I carried out my first symbolic actions, erecting Hebrew signs alongside the remains of Palestinian villages, during that day trip. I still remember how I had physically to overcome my body’s resistance to making that modest gesture. Here are those photographs, which haven’t been published before.  (click for entire piece)

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