In the previous section I recounted the events of Rachel Corrie's death and the recent (August) verdict in her wrongful death trial. Next, I'm going to be talking about Israel and Palestine, and the Mideast in general, because that's the context in which those events took place.Before the Arab Spring of 2011, Israel/Palestine was the Mideast for many people. The rest of the region was seen through that lens, so, for example, Israel/Palestine was often characterized as "the key to peace in the Middle East." It's not that there wasn't disagreement; there was, and some voices said, for example, that the road to peace went through Iran and not Israel. But the absolute centrality of the Israel/Palestine narrative is hard to shake, and for many people, seemingly impossible. Moreover, some players may perceive it to be in their interests to keep the focus locked on it.
It's not so easy, though, to keep quite that same focus on Israel and Palestine since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the subsequent unfolding of history, whereby it became clear that Middle East strongmen had kept control of their populaces in part by keeping their attention focused on Israel- and Jew-hatred. The revolutionaries, in contrast, were secular reformers who saw through that strategy and, turning their gaze away from Israel, trained it on the despots themselves. Nevertheless, it seems that forcibly returning the focus to Israel is of great importance to some groups. For example, right now, while we are in the throes of the 2012 US presidential election, and after violence occurred on the pretext of an amateurish anti-Muslim film, President Morsi of Egypt is accusing the US of being one-sided against the Palestinians in their cause of gaining a state and of trying to dictate what's right for Egypt. By keeping the attention on claims of how the US has wronged Arabs in general and Egypt in particular, he stays on the offensive, distracts attention from intolerance being perpetrated in Egypt itself (and from other societal problems), and in fact can sound like he is demanding that intolerance be tolerated as "right for Egypt." In the broader context, then, what are we to make of advocacy groups' using Rachel Corrie's death to keep the focus on Israel?
The reader should notice that Israel-hatred is not a liberal value. The Mideast dictators who have been overthrown as a consequence of Arab Spring revolts were not liberals; the strongmen and other rulers were (or are) despots. That seems consistent with the usage of Jew- and (lately) Israel-hatred historically, at least up to modern times. I think Jew-hatred has been the prerogative of reactionary vested interests or grass-roots populist movements who used it to establish, consolidate or maintain power. And that is one of the first brain-teasers I have wrestled with since 2007, when I first got up-close and personal with liberal--not conservative--Christians who are one-sided in their condemnation of Israel.
It may not strike some readers that there is anything very complicated about being anti-Israel. They may say they are against what Israel is doing to the Palestinians because it is just wrong, and those who disagree with their position are wrong, too. That begs the question of how they have come to their conclusion, since people with other opinions also think they are right and their opponents are wrong. The people who condemn Israel out of hand don't usually consider why they think Israel is the pariah state of our times, the very epitome of evil, when, for example, right next door and even as I write, Syria is slaughtering its own people, and, to the south, Coptic Christians remain endangered and second-class citizens in Egypt. The problem is not that there is injustice in Israel that cries out for correction. On that, we can agree. On that score, Israel is not unique. The problem is a narrative that proclaims Israel as the prototypical injustice.
Parenthetically, I do know that the latest rationalization for the American left-wing condemnation of Israel is that it represents "European neo-colonialism." That is a fallacious projection of American racial preoccupation with black and white onto the Jews in Europe. Although the Jews of Europe in the late 1800s wanted to be considered European, European society in the areas from which Jews first began to emigrate by and large considered them "other;" an alien race outside the community of faith, which entitled Europeans ("Caucasians," "Aryans") to malign or persecute them. To today's Americans, "white" equals "European," and "black" equals "African," but that dichotomy did not apply in 19th and early 20th century Europe. Suffice it to say at this point that it is a rationalization.
After WWII, the Holocaust forced on mainline Christianity a prolonged and unaccustomed look at itself. It was a period characterized by humility. It may also have been a period of relative quietism. If so, Israel provided both the occasion to remove the gag and an opportunity to use the restored voice. It so happened that, over in Israel, the protection barrier ("the wall") was built; Jimmy Carter wrote his Peace, Not Apartheid; and all of a sudden, here was something regarding Israel post-Holocaust that some liberal Christians could feel okay about condemning--something they could preach deserved condemnation, all the while distracting from the fact that the target was the same old target--Jews. Striking two with one blow, liberal mainline Christianity could in some measure simultaneously be reprimanding their cultural competitors--conservative Christians and the evangelical movement--for their pro-Israel stance and (according to the liberal view) their bad theology. What a relief it must have been for many in the liberal church to break out of a seemingly meek and contrite silence and engage in righteous condemnation (which modern cognitive science tells us is indeed something people enjoy). What a boon it may have been, also, for certain leaders and theologians, as a cause that might strengthen what some see as a branch of the church that is dying back.
Further, it should be noted that once segments of mainline Christianity embarked on that course, not only did it become necessary to distract from who the target is (Jews), but, also, imputing ever more evil to that target became essential to justify attitudes that are not loving and at some level feel wrong. Thus does a vicious circle develop.
As the reader can see, I am talking about strong stuff. I'm talking about this material because that's what I've heard and these are my perceptions of what is going on--in fact that there is a movement in some mainline churches to promote the very attitudes I'm describing. People may wish I would not talk about these things--various groups of people. It may make people uncomfortable. To some Jews it may seem I'm stirring up trouble, seeing an antisemite behind every tree, or picking on Christians. I have had a couple of those reactions before. Some Christians (or those originally hailing from that tradition), being in the majority and unused to a view from outside the faith, may not want to acknowledge that such observations are even allowable. But, as the children's story goes, I can't go over it, I can't go under it, I can only go through it.
The question will arise as to whether I am calling some Christians antisemites for their views on Israel.
If I hear people talking about some Jews--the ones they don't like--deserving to be in concentration camps or the like, I'll call that antisemitism, because that is "classical antisemitism." It is already the consensus that that's what it is. Otherwise, for the most part, I'm not using the term. For one thing, it is an over-used term. For another, it is controversial. For yet another, some will muster arguments that Jews were persecuted in the past but now are privileged. Finally, I have met some individuals in the liberal camp who seem to take accusations of antisemitism positively, as an indication they are on the right track. Therefore, I don't think using that terminology will help me with the present discussion. Instead, I'll just be explaining what I've perceived.
Considering my subject matter, though, it may appear to some readers that I am "playing the antisemitism card" even if I'm calling it something else. Aren't we all just Americans? They may also question the need today to focus on historical ethnic issues. People can tout their pluralism. They can quote George Washington's 1790 letter as a testament that Jews have been accepted in America. Just as conservatives sometimes accuse African Americans who are raising questions of playing the "race card," the Christian Left can also try to deflect attention from difficult issues. Facing up to such issues is hard; trying to avoid them is almost automatic. Amy-Jill Levine talks about a "false multiculturalism" among the Christian left, such that they celebrate just about every other ethnic and cultural group and champion their rights--except Israelis and Jews. For some people, Jews, wherever they are in the world, are just a proxy for Israel. Given the testimony of history, Jews have legitimate concerns regarding anti-Israel attitudes and the associated anti-Judaism--and regarding those who are spreading them.
I will say that I understand how well-intentioned Christians (and post-Christians) could feel insulted by being criticized for their efforts, which they themselves deem to be on the side of justice. Yet they appear to be quite blind to the reality that they are making human judgments that fall on human beings with feelings as tender as their own.
As an aside, I've come up against certain Christian reactions that seem dynamically equivalent to accusations of antisemitism. One is, "Are you calling the Church a liar?" Another is, "You are undermining the foundations of Christianity!" A third is, "You are trying to take my faith!" A final one that I've heard is that the speaker is an "enemy of Christ," an "enemy of the Church," or, in a final variation, an "Israeli agent." All of these, like the charge of antisemitism, function as a warning or accusation that the speaker has crossed a line, is trespassing, is out of order, and should retreat, and also that he or she is being bad or is bad. There are also many secular charges that serve similar functions, for example, the charge that one is a cynic. The immediate intent of all of the above seems to be to silence the speaker.
But despite all, my goal is to find the words and a way to speak.
Next, in Part III, having rehashed the events of Rachel Corrie's death and having touched on the Mideast brouhaha and the over-simplification of reducing "the Mideast" to Israel and Palestine, I will have to go even deeper, exploring some underlying theological ramifications.