Monday, May 16, 2011

A Double-Edged Sword, Part 1a

An Emory student organization erected an anti-Israel display during Hanukkah last year in early December. I didn't see it on campus but some members of the church I attend with my husband posted the accompanying Emory Wheel article on Facebook. I thought they posted it to celebrate the display and notify friends it was there.

These occurrences feel like slaps in the face. The best way I could figure out to respond at the time was observing that they had chosen our holiday time for the attack. Although Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, in America some people think it is (or it's the only one they know about), which probably figured in the timing of the display.

Finally I sat down and began to write a full response. Part 1 was the result, after more than a month and deleting one draft, then taking the second down for a rewrite after the first time I posted it. Writing it seemed to be my job.

The claim that the Emory display was "political" and not "against Judaism" (or that it was "against Zionism," not against the religion of Judaism) is ludicrous, since it would mean the demonstrators know what Judaism is and could make such distinctions.

Since then, a lot has happened--revolution in Tunisia and Egypt and demonstrations and unrest in other Arab countries. I even wondered if Malcolm Gladwell's conclusion that "the revolution will not be tweeted," which I discussed in Part 1, was correct. Was this revolution tweeted? Yes and no. Yes, in that Twitter and social media may have been the proximate cause. No, because preparation and study and inspiration and organization had been developing for years. I still think Malcolm Gladwell has a point.

What does all this revolution have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with anti-Israeli fervor, or with anti-Judaism? For a moment at least the people of these Arab countries stopped looking at Israel, or the West, and started looking at what they themselves wanted and at their actual oppressors--their own despotic leaders. The rulers had been playing people against each other and specifically used Israel-hatred to distract attention from themselves. I don't believe that this one dynamic is the only dynamic in play. Be that as it may, anti-Israeli sentiment has been a tool of despotic Muslim rulers, who therefore have an interest in keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going. From that vantage point, Israel-hatred is no peace movement. It is not a liberal value. It should be seen in its guise as a reactionary tool used in support of authoritarian power.

There was no state of Israel until 1948, but historically Jew-hatred has been useful in power politics. Manipulation of hatred of other groups has certainly occurred as well, but in Europe, it was the Jewish people who played a role similar to that played by race in the U.S.

Currently, one narrative about the backlash against the Copts in Egypt is that it is a reactionary effort instigated by Mubarak's supporters to regain power by playing people against each other. Those preferring that narrative should be able to comprehend the uses of hatred in the pursuit of power.

It seems to me that the usage of Jew-hatred has historically been the prerogative of the right wing--the conservatives, the powerful, the "haves." That's the case in the Middle East right now. Then how is it that over here it's the Left that's carrying that torch today? They are having to bend over backward to argue that they are not antisemitic. They insist they must tell their truth even if they sound antisemitic and no matter how strange their bedfellows. Why has hatred of Israel become so important to them?

One answer for today may simply be confusion fatigue--the desire to escape back into a theologically familiar place. Today the situation in the revolutionary countries--Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, even Syria--is growing more and more complicated, sometimes violent, not always clearly aiming toward democracy, unkind to women and minorities, not clearly prepared for democracy. Liberal American Christianity and its so-called peace movement is showing signs of wanting to resume anti-Israel business as usual and is agitating for "revolution" in Palestine. They want to round up the usual suspects and get things back in the usual boxes. On March 29, the Rev. John Calhoun, in an article entitled "It's Time for Palestine" on the website of The General Board of Church and Society of the Methodist Church, bemoaned the fact that with all the despotic governments falling, no successful revolt had taken place against Israel's "undemocratic, militaristic rule over millions of civilians suffering under its administration." The Rev. Alex Awad, who serves families in the West Bank and pastors an East Jerusalem interdenominational church, writing on April 5 for God's Politics, the Sojourners blog, called for rebellion, first, each person in his own heart, then, "to get rid of the old regimes and replace them with regimes under the control of the Spirit of God."

Now, with Palestinians marching against Israel's borders, in some cases (e.g., Syria) with official government support, I can imagine the Revs. Calhoun and Awad and others cheering. But by all accounts those marches are not non-violent.

What we have here is corruption by politics, known by some as "Constantinianism." Are voices such as those just quoted speaking out for what is right? If you are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, you may want to say yes. But do they speak out against violence when committed by their own proponents? Or when Muslims commit violence against Christians or other Muslims? If they are not speaking out in those and similar cases, but only against Israel, then they are confusing what is right with whose side they are on and with personal vindication. This is not the pursuit of justice. This is the pursuit of power.

What this all boils down to is that the constant pressure from the Left is putting Israel on the defensive and driving it to the right. There is consensus that Israel has moved much further rightward in the past decade--predictable in the face of the constant antagonism. The support of Israel by the Religious Right in the U.S. also has been greasing that rightward slide in Israel. It is almost as though American liberal and conservative forces have been working together to move Israel further to the right. The American Left and Right bash each other over the head with Israel, and to the extent they are pursuing, not justice, but power for themselves, no clear moral voice rings out from either.

What needs to happen is not the revolt against Israel the Revs. Calhoun and Awad are agitating for. The revolt they want will help keep despots in power. Moreover, hate (like love) is not divisible. If they sow hate against Jews, they will reap hate against Christians, too.

Instead, there need to be two revolutions. The Israeli Left within Israel needs to be enlivened and expanded by people with a vision who care about Israel and its founding goal of justice. And the Palestinian people need to revolt against leadership that keeps it focused on enmity. They need to revolt against leadership that demands a constant militancy. They need to demand peace, too. They need to ask themselves what they as Palestinians want, and build it. That is the message of Izzeldin Abuelaish, whom I've heard speak twice. He is pointing us in the right direction. He is the Palestinian doctor who had been working in Israel and who lost three daughters in Operation Cast Lead. Yet he has not used them in a crusade for hate. Rather he is continuing the peace work he already was championing. He is determined his children will not have died for nothing and that their deaths will promote peace. His book is I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.

Right now, from the news about Hamas and Fatah's reconciliation, it is sounding from some quarters as though the purpose of that reconciliation is to have a common enemy. If that is the goal, and if that is the direction Egypt is moving, then how disappointing it will be if enmity absorbs all the energy of the Arab Spring.

How does Dr. Abuelaish not hate? I think it is something to do with being able to think outside the box and that it is the only way to peace. We are learning that people have their passions and prejudices first, and only later spin their rationalizations and justifications. Research from several disciplines is showing the passions come before the reasons people give for their behavior. If the passion is hate, the rationales justify it and the actions based on it. Dr. Abuelaish may be on to something. He seems to be building on something else beside hate. I think that is worth investigating.

I have a button that reads PEACE HAS BEGUN WITH ME. That must mean not to demonize anybody. It must mean to associate with people who are not just like me and who are not in my group. It must mean to understand that each and every person is a mixture of bad and good. It must mean to seek them for the good in them and not to reject or condemn them for the bad that is in them. It must mean to show mercy.