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Jewish peaceniks, Christian visitors, and the Israel-Palestine problem

11/22/2006

The cabdriver tells me he hasn't set foot in Jerusalem's Old City in 18 years. Before the first intifada, he used to eat there three times a week, he says, but now he is afraid.

"It's too bad," he says, adding that when he was growing up, between the Yom Kippur war and the first Lebanon war, Arab friends used to visit his parents on the Jewish side of Jerusalem, and they would cook lamb over a fire. Later, as an adult, he used to drive to Ramallah or Tulkarem to shop or repair his car. Israelis were kidnapped and murdered in both places early in the second intifada, and Israel now forbids its citizens to visit there.

It's too bad, we agree.

The driver wants to know what business brings me to the Old City this evening. It's not business, I tell him. I am going there as a volunteer of MidEastWeb for Coexistence, to make a brief presentation to some foreign activists who have come here under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. They have invited speakers from some peace organizations working in Israel.

Peace is an illusion, the driver says. But at least we should be entitled to some quiet, he adds as he drops me inside the Jaffa Gate.

At the meeting we sit in a circle --- some two dozen church-affiliated volunteers and staff from abroad, plus five local guests who have been invited to tell about their peace activities in Israel.

We go around the circle, the foreign visitors introducing themselves by their first names and countries only, the locals explaining what their groups do. The locals represent Combatants for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Bat Shalom and Women in Black, Peace Now, and MidEastWeb.
http://combatantsforpeace.org/default.asp?lng=eng
http://www.rhr.israel.net/
http://www.batshalom.org/
http://www.peacenow.org.il/site/en/peace.asp?pi=43
http://mideastweb.org/

What the various people say in the meeting is not part of this report, as I have not asked for nor obtained their agreement to be quoted.

I can tell you what they don't say, though.

No one asks inflammatory questions. No one gives incendiary answers. An absence of sharp words characterizes the evening.

No one accuses Israel of doing anything "illegal." The word "brutality" is not heard.

That is noteworthy, since accusations of "illegal" and "brutality" are central to the program which brings these activists to the Holy Land. The visitors are part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, whose stated aims include, "reduce the brutality of the Occupation" and "End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine." (see eappi.org/eappiweb.nsf/list/background-e.html)

These ecumenical accompaniers, who serve for at least three months, are assigned among five Palestianian Authority towns --- Bethlehem, Hebron, Jayyous, Tulkarem and Yanoun --- or to Jerusalem. The newest group of 25 activists came from eight countries --- Germany, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, and the United States. The group includes the program's first Hindu and its second Muslim.

In all, more than 300 volunteers have taken part since the World Council of Churches started the program in 2002 under the banner "Ecumenical Campaign to End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just Peace in the Middle East."

The atmosphere at our meeting is cordial. It is as if people in the room are on their best behavior.

In the question period, I comment that almost everyone at the meeting is too young to have any direct experience of conditions before the occupation began 39 years ago. I assure them that if they could make the occupation go away overnight, they would find underlying problems which remain unsolved, problems that led not only to the occupation but to the three wars that preceded it. No one asks what I think the problems are.

I urge them to visit Israel outside Jerusalem and learn something firsthand about the country and its unique society. No one asks what there might be to learn in Israel.

During a break I tell one of the organizers that material on their website makes it hard to sell their program to politically progressive Israelis. I refer to a page that gives an overview of the project's aims. (See eappi.org/eappiweb.nsf/list/background-e.html.)

This page targets "the violence of the occupation" without mentioning the violence of suicide bombings directed against civilians in Israel. This page asserts an aim "to end the occupation and create a viable Palestinian State" without mentioning Israel's right to exist.

These look like matters of presentation, not policy, because the ecumenical body advocates non-violence and is on record elsewhere on the site as supporting Israel's existence within a two-state solution.

Whatever the intent, this page can come across as a condemnation of Israel's government and society. It has elements of a bill of particulars. Its use of the term "illegal" to characterize the occupation is provocative, not judicial or informative.

The next day I send the meeting organizer an e-mail message containing some of these points and concluding, "I offer these comments not in the spirit of argument, but to call your attention to wording that is likely to turn off many peace-seeking Israelis."

One problem that can interfere with mutual understanding is that the World Council of Churches has already chosen a policy that no Israeli in their right mind should be expected to regard as helpful or even friendly. This is its 2005 recommendation encouraging economic pressure on the Jewish state by the ecumenical body's more than 340 member churches and denominations representing some 550 million Christians. It commends as an example the divestment program adopted in 2004 by the Presbyterian Church (USA). (After much criticism and discussion, the Presbyterian leadership has since blurred the language, replacing the term "disinvestment" with "corporate engagement" in June 2006.)
http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000125.html

One Christian opponent of divestment has written that "the goals of the divestment campaign have little to do with changing Israeli policy or promoting peace, but with the economic and political isolation of Israel."
http://www.christianfairwitness.com/dev/writings/What%20Fair%20Witness%20Requires.htm

In any case, the divestment issue goes unexplored in our group discussion.

Before the meeting breaks up, a pleasant Christian activist in his 30s comes up to chat with me. He mentions the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, so I introduce him to an axiom attributed to Eldridge Cleaver, a black revolutionary. It states that if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. Cleaver was referring to racial politics in the United States, but he gave us a rule that can be applied widely to other crises and disputes, especially our problem in the Middle East. All of us, I suggest, should be constantly examining ourselves in this light, asking whether we are part of the solution or part of the problem.

The meeting ends with polite goodnights and no sign whether any eyes have been opened or any minds have changed. The hope, of course, is that your words get through to the people with whom you're talking, regardless of where their organizations stand.

--- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

Cross-posted at ZioNation progressive Zionism weblog
http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000295.html

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000537.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Joseph M. Hochstein @ 05:15 PM CST [Link]

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Replies: 4 comments

Economic pressure on both Palestinians and Israelis is a way to bring about peace. I feel economic and diplomatic pressure if applied to both would help push things foward but then again economic pressure on Hamas hasn't done much.
Economic pressure help end South African aparthied.

I agree that not using inflamatory words helps in making peace. Also making all sides feel secure would gto a long way to bringing a just solution.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 12/06/2006 12:23 AM CST

I looked at a map of how the expansion of Israel has grown since 1948,that says it all about taking over land and hurting people to get it. Thou shall not covet, kill, bare false witness my friends, even if you think God said you should...........He never would promise one race or group a piece of land over another. I know it means you have to face it, you may be chosen but we all are...no one group should claim God loves them more or gives them more rights than any other. So its time to back down, leave the land that was seized, and make amends. this means that you must share, and get along with your brothers. Do I need to repeat myself?

Posted by MD @ 12/13/2006 05:22 AM CST

MD,

I don't think that Hochstein indicated anywhere that the occupation should not end. Rather, the point of the article seems to be that some of the inflamatory language that is used by the critics of Israel tends to alienate the very people who can help end the occupation: left wing Israelis.
BTW, a quick comparison of a contemporary map of Israel and a 1967 map will indicate that Israeli territory has contracted rather than expanded.

Posted by Douglas @ 12/13/2006 04:58 PM CST

Many here, like MD, conveniently choose to ignore the reality that Israel has been under constant attack by its Arab neighbors since 1948. The map of Israeli expansion since 1948 says nothing about the continuous aggression Israel has endured. This aggression started well before the so called Israeli occupation in 1967 and even before the establishment of the state in 1948.

Israel won the "occupied" territories fair and square during battle with enemies set to destroy it. Therefore the occupation is not illegal by any stretch of the imagination. The Palestinians are not in their present predicament because of the evils of Israeli occupation. They are there because they have a certain set of priorities. Instead of wanting a better life for themselves, they first and foremost wish is the complete annihilation of Israel.

Posted by YA @ 12/29/2006 08:08 AM CST


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