Sunday, November 4, 2012

Corrie Verdict, Part II Israel and Palestine, the Narrative

Part II--Israel and Palestine, the Narrative 
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.

A Political Interlude: The Corrie Verdict, Part I--What Happened?

Part I--What Happened?

I have been working on a report on the Rachel Corrie verdict since that verdict was reached in Israel back in August.  My discussion has grown to encompass various approaches, so first I'll start with a journalistic-like overview based on already available information.

In subsequent posts I'll follow with Part II, a discussion of how her death, and now the verdict, fit into the larger narrative of Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East.  In the 3rd part I'm going to try to look at the theology of how her death gets used--what it is for her advocates--holding to the understanding that theology and politics are intertwined.  In Part IV, I will venture into the scriptural underpinnings of that theology and politics--an approach I think can help point us in a good direction.

It is in a sober mood that I get ready to publish my explorations of this topic in my blog.  There has been a lot said already.  What I've seen is very polemical, blaming Israel for an unjust decision, and it gets repeated over and over.  Church members and friends are helping spread it.  Former President Jimmy Carter has supported such opinions, as have The Guardian and even Amnesty International. 

In the face of the oncoming barrage I can sometimes feel overwhelmed before I even start to write.  Yet the truth is I'm not overwhelmed unless I can't speak.

Avoiding being overwhelmed is a good thing when there is so much news on one side of an issue and virtually none on the other, because in that situation the human mind is predisposed to jump to erroneous conclusions.  Flooding the media too easily translates to biasing our minds.

Another problem is that, in our polarized society, it can look like I am a right-wing political conservative if I'm not ratifying the widespread left-wing belief in the all-encompassing evil of Israel and everything that comes out of it.  Yet I'm not writing from a right-wing position.

From still another angle, some people may be disturbed at seeing tragedy discussed in connection with controversy.  I've touched on the death of Rachel Corrie previously, and there I said that, whatever else, her death is a tragedy.  That still holds.  But it's also the case that her advocates and apologists do discuss it to make their points, and so will I.

The views I'm going to be expressing, or at least the way I've put those views together, are not those of any denomination or group, but are my own.  In fact, I have taken the trouble to write because I can't find anybody else making the points I think should be made.  It's possible they have been made, but I just haven't found them.  

Also, I've decided that even though I am not an expert in political or theological matters, it is important for me to articulate what I've been thinking.  If others, experts or not, have feedback, that can help the process along.

With that preface, I'll begin.

In the fall of 2007 I began going to a liberal mainline church with my husband.  I was there because we were exploring each others' faith traditions.  That in itself was not at all a prosaic proposition; in fact, on the personal level, it was cataclysmic.  On top of that, I was soon to learn the extent to which the 1st century of the common era is still with us, not far below the trappings of 21st century America, sometimes as if there were little history and no space since then, sometimes as if modern day Israel were the scene and cause of Jesus' dying all over again, and nearly always as though the Gospels were a literal, historical record of what Jesus did and--especially--what the Jews did.  Finally, a relative of Rachel Corrie went to this church.  All together, it was enough to drive me, a Jew who had avoided organized religion since I was 16 years old, to a new depth of understanding of religion and community.  As to the subject at hand, Rachel Corrie's death, I took a weekend afternoon in 2008 to read up on whatever I could learn, because of what I was hearing at church.

As most readers may know, Rachel Corrie was the young International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist who in 2003 was run over by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, under disputed circumstances.  Her name had recently been in the news again as I began to write, since a lawsuit brought in Israel by her family had just resulted in a decision vindicating the Israeli Ministry of Defense.  The court having just handed down a decision that her death was accidental, not intentional, the usual suspects have lined up to condemn Israel for what they say is an unjust decision.

In 2008, the primary source I found was a lengthy 2003 Mother Jones article by a journalist named Joshua Hammer (  It was from that article I first learned that ISM is a controversial organization that does not limit itself to nonviolent resistance but, at the very least, pursues what it claims is nonviolent direct action.  It reserves the right to advocate for the appropriateness of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens or Jews in circumstances it deems justified.  While its leaders say that ISM activists themselves do not commit violence, even that is murky; the organization does support violence by those it considers to be freedom fighters.
Despite giving the above picture of ISM, the 2003 Mother Jones article is not pro-Israel by any stretch.  In fact, it tends to portray Israeli military activity in the region as oppressive and as taking place for no good reason.  The time period we are focusing on, and when Rachel Corrie died, is the time of the Second Intifada, an extended period of intense Palestinian violence against the Israeli citizenry that followed the disappointing conclusion of former President Bill Clinton’s 2000 Camp David summit.  Some see the Second Intifada as in part the result of Arafat’s being publicly made to take the fall for the failure of the summit—that he revenged himself for the finger pointing and stoked his credibility with Palestinians by riding the crest of the violence and even encouraging it (The Much Too Promised Land, Aaron David Miller).  At any rate, it was a violent period before the wall—the protection barrier—had been built.  There were dozens of suicide bombings at public places such as cafes or synagogues.  At the time, the Israeli military had the aim of controlling weapons smuggling and terrorist activity in that area of Gaza.  In general, the picture painted by the Mother Jones article seems to be as would be expected from a left-leaning magazine.

Despite that slant, when I searched for current updates, I found advocacy groups have made a concerted effort to discredit the article, not by challenging the facts themselves, but by alleging the author plagiarized parts of the text.  I didn’t see accusations of plagiarism from anyone else, and I did see later articles by that author, who apparently remains a working journalist.  Advocacy groups also accused him of smearing Rachel Corrie’s memory.  This looks to me like one of those situations in which a partisan group accuses an author of dastardly bias for not telling the story precisely according to the party line.
ISM is reminiscent of the by-any-means-necessary activist groups of the American Left during the late 1960s and early ‘70s—antiwar groups and post-MLK Jr. black activist groups—or possibly of more recent radical environmental groups we occasionally hear about in the news—groups who do not forswear violence and that, in today’s political climate here in America, any politician, clergyperson, or pillar-of-the-community layperson would be quick to publicly disavow.
Getting back to one central aspect of what I learned: ISM gave the media what turned out to be an erroneous series of pictures after Rachel Corrie’s death.  One picture in particular made it appear she was standing up on level ground using a bullhorn and was run down by a bulldozer.  As one might guess, purported eyewitness accounts vary, but all agree she went toward and into or onto the huge mound of dirt or rubble being pushed by the bulldozer.  I want to specifically mention that mound of rubble because that is simply not the picture a lot of people have in their minds. People think she was standing there in plain sight.  It turned out those questionable pictures had been taken earlier, in different places, with the sun at different points in the sky, and with different shadows, different backgrounds, and different bulldozers.   The Mother Jones article said the media lost trust in ISM because of their apparent attempt at manipulation, while ISM spokespeople claimed the news service had miscaptioned the pictures. 
Rachel Corrie's advocates don’t tell her story as I have described.  In fact, it appears there has been an active program to promote the story as advocates insist it must have occurred.  A play has been written and promoted, and an ongoing media campaign conducted.  In certain quarters, Rachel Corrie is held up as the face of the Palestinian movement and the anti-Israel movement.  With enough time and repetition, some mainstream news sources are reporting the story now as though it had happened as advocates claim--complete with misleading pictures.
In the time since 2008, I came to the conclusion that if the eventual trial failed to result in the desired outcome, advocates would claim the decision was a whitewash—and that is indeed what has happened.

This concludes my description of the events surrounding Rachel Corrie's death and the recent verdict.  In the next section, I'll move on to the context in which those events occurred--Israel and Palestine, and the Mideast in general.

Addendum, November 8:  Since my original post of Part 1 on November 4, 2012, I have found that the English translation of the verdict is available online.  It was difficult to find because the Internet is cluttered with articles criticizing the outcome of the trial.  Such articles dedicate the bulk of their text to the criticism and relatively little if any space to the verdict itself, which they say is over 160 pages long (although the report of the exact page count varies).  The English summary is only a few pages long, which is consistent with all the original news stories stating the judge read it out loud.  I will include here the title of the verdict as well, so that if there is difficulty with the link, the reader will be able to search online as I did.

Here is the title I searched for:

Summary of the Verdict (T.A. 371/05) Estate of the Late Rachel Corrie, etc. v. The State of Israel - Ministry of Defense