thoughts about the peace train - part four...

NOTE:  For the next week, I am going to post my thoughts, reflections, concerns as well as an alternative action to the current BDS strategy of boycotting, divesting and sanctioning all of Israel in pursuit of Palestinian justice Not only does the BDS shotgun approach denigrate the whole of Israeli society rather than focus upon the ugly actions within the Occupied Territories, I believe the movement's ambiguous goals can all too easily be manipulated to advance genuinely antisemitic objectives.  Further, as a Christian contemplative, I have been persuaded that a bold people-to-people strategy - along with prayer, creative economic incentives and real political pressure directed towards US legislators - introduces effective, albeit costly nonviolent strategies geared towards long-term change rather than symbolic actions that create the illusion of righteousness without significant results. Let me state at the outset, however, that I don't pretend to have a monopoly upon wisdom. I also recognize that people of good will are likely to disagree with my conclusions. I welcome your insights but ask that you share them in the spirit and tone of peace and respect.(This is part four of a six part series.)

At the thirty three years and counting mark of ordination, it has eventually become clear to me
that my call has been to the middle. My attitude and aesthetic may be out of the mainstream, but my ministry has been grounded in being present, compassionate and challenging to the middle class. I remember the Rev. Paul Sherry - not yet President of the United Church of Christ - suggesting to me that I NOT consider serving a local church. "Your whole trajectory has been towards social justice," he smiled, "and that is a hard road to hoe in the parish." My reply: but if the love and discipleship of Jesus can't happen there, why bother? That is, if ordinary, hard-working, goodhearted albeit mostly conservative Americans can't be energized to celebrate the way of God's love made flesh in Jesus, then what is the point of the church?

I still hold this conviction and love the challenge, tension and promise of the local church. As I feared, however, more and more national denominations have come to act like social service agencies of elitists, certain they know better what the Spirit of Christ requires than the living, wounded Body of Christ. I see this often times in the pronouncements and resolutions passed by our regional and national gatherings. Many of the statements are so out of touch with life on the ground in our local churches as to remain irrelevant in their ideological purity. I think Pete Seeger was right: think globally, act locally. Put into action the practical works of justice and mercy that ordinary people can embrace rather than hold-out for purity or perfection.

When it comes to people in the local church, they want honesty, tenderness and actions that matter. If nothing, the local church is incarnational and practical. They can and will embrace the challenge of the Cross, but it first must make some sense. That is why when it comes to supporting the BDS movement (this is part four of a six part series)  I am unable to get on-board. From my perspective - and that of many in our local congregations - too many BDS advocates articulate a narrow and/or incomplete analysis of the root causes of the hatred, fear, violence, religious and political turmoil between Palestine and Israel. Some give the impression that they understand only part of an extensive and nuanced historical narrative. Others are clearly advocates for Palestine alone without serious consideration of Israel’s needs. And there are still those who consciously or otherwise interpret reality from within the dangerous and distorted lens of anti-Semitism. None of these perspectives honor the intricacies of this conflict nor do they advance a long-term solution. 

To be clear, the current suffering of the Palestinian people is neither a natural disaster nor a matter of victimization. This perspective tends to dominate the popular narrative, but popularity does not guarantee veracity. Rather, I would argue that the core reason why 5,493,115 Palestinians are without a homeland and consigned to squalor and despair is more the result of the political miscalculations and hatred put into play by Arab/Palestinian leaders in the past than the early policies of Israel.  Yes, some of the policies and practices of the current Israeli government are destructive and morally bankrupt. Clearly there have been war crimes taking place in this land for 100 plus years (or 4000 years if you like.) Some of the violent acts, like Deir Yassin, have been acknowledged as an Israeli massacre of Palestinians; other allegations against Israeli forces continue to be disputed. And Arab irregulars are known to have murdered Jewish citizens too as the slaughter at Kfar Etzion documents. These facts are rarely disputed by BDS even if they are omitted from public discussions.

What is more distressing, however, is the fact that since the early days of the 20th century, the leadership of the Arab/Palestinian forces has been committed to the annihilation of Jews from the land – and this is missing from most BDS analysis.To obscure the reality of the riots of 1929, the Arab uprising of 1936, the Grand Mufti’s collaboration with the Nazis as allies during WW II, the Farhud of 1941 in Iran as well as the Arab leadership’s rejection of the United Nation’s partition of 1948 that would have implemented a two-state solution strikes me as both mean- spirited and disingenuous. The masses of innocent Palestinian civilians who have paid the price for their political leaders’ decisions – especially their declaration of war on Israel in May 1948 – deserve better than the suffering that continues to this day.

This is why the suffering of Palestine must never be defined as a disaster. It is tragic, sad, ugly and brutal, but it was and is the direct result of political, religious and military decisions born of calculations set in motion by the Arab/Palestinian leaders.  The historic record is clear:  after WW II, Israel accepted the mandate established by the UN while the united Arab nations chose war.

This is not to say that the Israelis are without fault. Nor is it to deny the dreadful reality of the Nakba – the “disaster” in Palestinian history – wherein 750,000 Palestinians were violently displaced from their homes by the Israeli army during the war of 1948. Two-thirds of the Arab population lost their homes, jobs and histories. In some instances there is evidence that Israel engaged in what we now call ethnic cleansing: civilians were massacred, villages were decimated and cultures were destroyed.  But there was an equally terrifying forced relocation of nearly 700,000 Sephardic Jews from Arab lands at this time that is either universally forgotten or else conveniently omitted when the narrative of modern Israel is discussed. Further, there is conflicting evidence about the widespread intentionality of Israel’s policies at this time. Plan Dalet of June 1948 is often cited as proof that the Israeli military was committed to the destruction and depopulation of Palestinian centers; but there is equally compelling evidence that documents that the ethnic cleansing goal of this plan was not the driving focus of the Israeli military. Indeed, there is growing confirmation of acts of heroic and sustained Israeli resistance to the destruction of Palestinian communities, too.

I came of age during America’s war in Vietnam. I know from history – and from my work as a pastor – that horrible things happened during that war. I recall vividly the My Lai massacre when young American soldiers went berserk and killed 500 Vietnamese civilians. I know from confidential conversations with other vets that countless rapes, murders and atrocities became commonplace in the hell of that war. I am not so naive as to think that this didn’t happen among Israeli soldiers, too. I have no doubt that it was also a reality within the ranks of both Palestinian and Arab soldiers as well. Remember: from the Arab position, the Israelis were urban, socialist invaders from Europe who had successfully usurped their historic lands.  For Israel, their opponents were ignorant, rural, tribal people who had fomented acts of violent anti-Semitism for millennia. One writer put it like this in the Israeli paper Haaretz:

One can certainly understand, but not justify, the general Palestinian and Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. That is the nature of national conflicts, although this opposition had more aspects of murder and terrorism than other national movements did. Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians is not the result of the post-1967 years of occupation. It was part of the 1929 riots and the Arab uprising of 1936. It is true that on the one hand, we cannot conclude from the grand mufti’s presence in Berlin during World War II that Arab opposition to Zionism was identical to Nazism. But on the other hand, to ignore this fact and leave it to historians is a distortion of history. It is part of the concrete historical consciousness of both Jews and Arabs.

Many advocates of BDS seem to be unaware that in 1936-37 the Peel Commission of Britain offered a two-state solution for the region that was rejected by the Arab and Palestinian political leadership.  In 1947, a more equitable partition was articulated by the United Nations – accepted by Israel but rejected by the Arab realm – the result being a united Arab war against the new nation state of Israel.  By 1948 the Arab forces were defeated and lost face. Much of the ensuing violence over the past 60 years is rooted in this shame.

In time, Israel worked out a cease fire with Jordan and Egypt but a peace treaty with other Arab nations remained elusive. In 1967, another united Arab front declared war on Israel. This restored Arab face although in the end Israel’s superior armed forces and equipment conquered the Sinai Peninsula and other strategic areas including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights.  In exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt, the Sinai was restored with the assurance of safe passage for Israeli commerce through the Suez Canal.

Further review of the history of this conflict is beyond the scope of my reflection. It would, of necessity, include:  the rise of the PLO and its terrorist violence, their expulsion from Jordan in 1970, Israel’s aggressive role against the PLO in Lebanon, the war with Hezbollah in the 1980s as well as the continued armed struggles in the next two decades, the promise of the Oslo Accords, the calculated acts to derail the promise of peace, the Intifadas, the political shift towards peace within the Palestinian Authority, the political dysfunction between the West Bank and Gaza, the construction of the security wall in Jerusalem, the recent violent invasion of Gaza in 2014 and a new wave of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli citizens. The Israeli elections of 2015, the activity of ISIS, the civil war in Lebanon, the possibility of a US/Iranian nuclear treaty and Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen are also part of the quickly changing reality.

This conflict is complex and requires time and patience for local churches to comprehend. I support taking the time necessary to study, discuss, debate and pray before passing resolutions. I value the importance of a true educational process that does not already suppose the desired conclusions. And I trust the still small voice of God more than the shrill ideology of those who would divide the world into obvious good guys and bad guys. Duality has its place, to be sure, but when it comes to reality, St. Paul was right:  all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. 


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