Blog: The Politics of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

A church challenged

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Braverman

Stuttgart, Germany

Comments off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments off