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SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER

by Ted Schmidt

In my last essay I suggested that Christians, when addressing the conflict in the Middle East, needed to move beyond the guilt trap and speak some candid truth to power, in this case, Israel. For far too long, Christians in the west have been muted in their criticism of Israel. The main reason I suggested was that we have been psychologically hobbled by the spectre of the Holocaust, and the Christian complicity in same. We often have felt that, since there is some truth in this accusation, we now have no right to be critical of the Jewish state. The Holocaust then acts as a permanent roadblock to Christian criticism.

      Many Jews also reflect on this phenomenon for Jews. Writing in Tikkun, an American Jewish periodical, two Israeli scholars, Azoulay and Ofit reflected thusly: "We are the last place in Europe where the Nazi past is still profitable –because the State has converted the destruction of European Jewry into a national property, symbolic capital." In this view, the children of the Holocaust, modern Jews can use this capital as hereditary victims in a world which is perpetually and irredeemably anti-Semitic. Every act of hostility bolsters this world-view. This "aristocracy of victimhood" (Baumann) which only Jews (and not Rwandans, Armenians, Sudanese, Sri Lankans, Yugoslavians etc.) can claim, gives modern Jews the right by proxy to see themselves as the perpetual victim.

     This thinking, often present in the Diaspora is very troubling. It expressed itself recently in a letter to The Toronto Star where a fifteen year old Jewish teenager finally agreed with his father that the world is implacably hostile to Jews, therefore, we must do what Sharon is doing to defend ourselves. This, of course, greatly hinders the chance for peace and reconciliation. This "haunted house," this "ghost of the Holocaust" militates against Jewish reconciliation with the world.

     Jewish theologian Marc Ellis writes in a similar vein. The memory of suffering, mined and passed on by Jews, asserts the centrality of the
Holocaust as an example of Jewish suffering. This too often functions as warnings against applying the lessons of the Holocaust to the activities of Jews in the present –which should be the ending of atrocity for all people. Ellis writes "that Israel has committed crimes that are warned against by these same memorials –injustice, deprivation of human rights, humiliation, segmenting and ghettoizing a people– is silenced by the very power of the Holocaust narrative."(Practicing Exile, Fortress Press, 2002)

     As we have seen in places other than Israel, the memory of suffering is no guarantee of dedication to the eradication of pain and cruelty. Often it simply acts to divide history into victims and victimizers, and one better be on the winning side. What sadly transpires is "the effacing of the Face" (Levinas) of the Other. In the case of Israel, it is the dehumanized, bureaucratic transformation of the Palestinian into the non-human. In this way of thinking, dehumanization, abstraction and categorization are the universal lessons of the Shoah. These lessons do not belong to Jews alone, but for all, and are part and parcel of the very logic and structure of modernity itself.

     The correct role of the Christian, in my judgment, is a double solidarity. At the same time we affirm our solidarity with the Jewish people, our older family in the Covenant which God has not rescinded. This solidarity historically means that we also affirm the right of Jews in Israel to live in security. At the same time we must affirm, one of the central aspects of our faith, solidarity with suffering people, in this case, the Palestinians. There is no conflict here.

     Since my last article, one of those Christians whom I deeply admire, Bishop Desmond Tutu has publicly come out and condemned Israel as the prime aggressor in the Middle East. Before I quote Bishop Tutu, I would like to resurrect an analytical tool which we can use in
unpacking the conflict. This mode of reasoning I first heard from one of the greatest Christians of the past century, Dom Helder Camara, the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil.

Helder Camara and Primary Violence

Dom Helder posited three types of violence. There is primary violence. In our case, the fundamental oppression in Israel/Palestine is state terror. Because of its overwhelming fire power, its army which is the fourth largest in the world, its nuclear capability, its constant
and stunning backing by the U.S. to the tune of $3 billion per year, the
state of Israel has dominated and humiliated Palestinians since the Six Day war of 1967. That year, Israel captured the Golan heights from Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, The West bank from Jordan and the city of Jerusalem. Since then the UN Security Council resolutions 338 and 242 have demanded Israel’s withdrawal.

     In the interim, the original refugees, about 600,000, driven out largely by Israeli terror, have grown to 3.8 million and have lived in squalor in the region’s awful camps. These holding pens should be compared to the American styled suburbs which have sprouted in the same occupied territories. 200,000 settlers have moved in ("facts on the ground," hard to dislodge) since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. This, along with deeply hostile Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu, Menachem Begin and latterly Ariel Sharon, have made life very difficult for the Palestinian population. A less than subtle racism pervades Israeli society. This has been brilliantly documented by Israeli writer Yoram Binur in his 1989 book My Enemy, My Self (Doubleday).

     Binur, who spoke fluent Arabic, passed himself off as a Palestinian "day worker" and described his brutal racist treatment. The book caused a sensation in Israel, similar to the American response 40 years earlier when white man John Howard Griffin passed himself off as black in
the southern U.S.

     Here is violence one. Unrelenting squalor, second class citizenship, humiliating treatment at checkpoints, in applications for water, ripped up olive groves, house demolitions. These are the abominable living conditions Christian pilgrims never see (falling more in love with the Via Dolorosa and Garden of Gethsemani, than with the marginalized Christ in Palestinian faces, but that’s another story) and Diaspora Jews are blind to. As we know, in 1987 the pot finally boiled over in the First Intifada. This was also exacerbated by another provocative act of Ariel Sharon. Then Minister of Industry, and always known for his extremist Anti-Arab views, Sharon, as a provocation moved into a home in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. The resistance continued Palestinian boycotts, stone throwing, rioting, burning tires and raising the forbidden Palestinian flag.

     This is violence two. A response to the ongoing, silent, but harsh Israeli treatment and it must be said, the silence also of the Arab world.

     Then, we saw violence three: the ever harsher repression of the Israeli Defence Force, severe beatings, the crushing of hands of the stone throwers, clubbing shoulders, using tear gas and rubber bullets, night raids on homes, curfews, sieges and deportations. This time the world woke up and many Diaspora Jews were ashamed. The Palestinians were now on the world map. Ordinary people began to pay attention to their plight. Brave leaders like Nelson Mandela saw the similarities with apartheid –particularly in the supposedly generous offer of Prime Minister Barak, which de facto turned Palestine into cantons or bantustans’ separated by roads on which Israelis could drive.

     And now, we have just seen violence three in spades; this time with Apache helicopters, F-16 gun ships and the bulldozing of Jenin, and never missing a chance at national humiliation, Ariel Sharon confining Arafat to Ramallah, but not before provoking the Arab world by walking with1,000 guards onto the Al Aksa holy site.

The witness of Desmond Tutu-Christian Freedom

This brings me back to Desmond Tutu. The brave Nobel laureate of 1984 spoke at a church meeting in Boston (April 14) and laid it all out. Exercising the Christian freedom I have referred to in my first article (Galatians 5), Tutu excoriated the Bush administration for being too soft on Israel, and he drew a parallel between South African apartheid and Palestinian suffering. He issued a challenge to the people and government of Israel to end the injustice and the occupation. "No matter how powerful and unjust government is, it will fall." Tutu totally rejected the prevailing state myth that, somehow Israel with all its firepower and the US behind it, is in a fight for survival.

     Like any serious Christian, Tutu also rejected the suicide bombings as right and just, but maintained that it is primarily incumbent on the powerful (Israel) to end the injustice. "I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at roadblocks. It reminded me of what happened to us in South Africa where they battered us and heckled us. My heart aches. Have my Jewish friends forgotten their history? Have they turned their backs on their own religious traditions?"

     Like all prophets, Tutu has realized that a story may be used to maintain power or to shake the world again, to wake it up and turn it in the direction of God’s justice. The powerful Exodus story, given to us in the Hebrew scriptures, is the paradigmatic story of Scripture and it looks
forward to the end of all domination systems. In this case the Palestinian people. To use it in any other way is to turn scripture on its head and God into a chauvinist defender of a particular people and not the universal liberator of all.

     As Tutu reminds us, "this is God’s world" and Christians should never worry too much about speaking truth to power.

Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times.

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