Weep together

May 8, 2014
A man at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Thinkstock.

The Middle East peace talks appear to be at a dead end. At the last minute Israel reneged on a promise to release Palestinian prisoners and announced the construction of yet more housing in territory claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians responded by applying for membership in United Nations agencies—something both Israel and the United States have requested they not do. Each side blames the other for the failure of the peace process. Yet it does not seem that either side truly wants a resolution, even though the continuation of the status quo will lead to a disaster for both sides. In the meantime, most likely as an expression of frustration and desperation, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel is gaining momentum.

Recently, in the space of a few days, the editorial staff of the Century met with a Palestinian Christian leader and a Chicago rabbi who works for a major national Jewish organization. Both men are friends of mine, as well as distinguished clergy and respected leaders.

After engaging in conversation with them, I was struck once again by the conflicting narratives: how the same events in the same period of time and the same place sound entirely different depending on who’s telling the story. It’s somewhat like the American story—told one way by European settlers and their descendants and another way by Native Americans and their descendants.

One visitor represented the narrative of a people subjected to a millennium and a half of relentless persecution: expelled from homes, confined behind ghetto walls, and nearly obliterated in state-conducted genocide. Finally, with UN approval, they claimed a nation state in a place where their ancestors had lived centuries before. The other visitor’s narrative was about a people who were violently displaced from their land and pushed into camps the size of cities—walled in, denied basic freedoms, and left at the mercy of their oppressors.

Isn’t it possible for both narratives to be true and valid? Yes, Jews were and are victims of racial hatred and anti-Semitism. And yes, Palestinians were and are victims of the emergence of a Jewish state through wars and occupation.

Dialogue ends when each side demands that the other “let go of past suffering” and “get over it.” To ask a Jew to “get over” the systematic slaughter of 6 million fellow Jews is callous. To ask a Palestinian to “get over” his ejection from his family home and the forcible displacement of 700,000 fellow Palestinians is also callous. Both narratives of suffering and oppression are true. Both people have been and are victims.

Is it too much to hope that somehow Jews and Palestinians could weep together? Is it too much to hope that both acknowledge their own culpability? Is it too much to ask the church of Jesus Christ to play an honest and hopeful role in the devilishly difficult and complex challenge of peacemaking?

To that end it would be helpful to declare a moratorium on hateful speech and loaded terms: apartheid, racism, the treatment of Palestinians as “a new crucifixion,” Palestinian activists and patriots as “terrorists.” It would also be helpful if churches, of all places, made every effort to be balanced and fair, recognizing the legitimacy of both narratives and trying not to place blame on one side or the other.

As Christopher Leighton says in his article "False witness," we must resist both “the messianic zealotry that animates Jewish settlers” and the “anti-Zionist ideologues who have jettisoned the role of peacemakers because they believe that Palestinians cannot win unless Israelis lose.”

A few years ago the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said the church should “avoid taking broad stands that simplify a complex situation into a caricature of reality” in which one side is clearly at fault and the other side is clearly a victim. It’s sound advice.


So we may pray

We all turn to theologians who have spoken time and time again to us on many subjects. Ellen F. Davis contributes here with truth and beauty from p. 85 of her classic Getting Involved with God (2001):
"So we may pray that those who share God's love for the land of Israel, especially the Jews and Palestinians who live there, may love it patiently, with unswerving devotion in the absence of exclusive possession. Probably there is no emotional feat more difficult for peoples who know that they belong to the land more fully than it can ever belong to them."

Letter from Cynthia Holder Rich

I  agree with the fundamental assumption of John Buchanan’s “Weep together” (May 14): both Israelis and Palestinians have been victimized time and again, and churches need to recognize and be sensitive to the truth of both narratives of victimization. 

But the parity with which these narratives are presented in the editorial is overly facile. In the context of one group of victims receiving over $3 billion in aid annually, combined with the continuing gift and legacy of over $30 billion in U.S. military aid over the decade that began in 2007, the two narratives do not in any way match up and cannot be understood as equitable. While the military aid was called “an investment in peace,” thinking people, including John Kerry, might be wondering whether the United States has received peace in return for its investment. The investment continues to create a horrific imbalance of power that does much to make a serious movement toward peace nearly impossible to find or construct.

Cynthia Holder Rich
Overland Park, Kan.

Letter from James D. Brown

Buchanan’s call for churches to avoid loaded terms like apart­heid and to be balanced and fair in debates about the Middle East called to mind a passage in My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. A leading Israeli journalist, Shavit makes an honest and compelling case for Israel’s right to exist, acknowledging both the triumph and tragedy in its historical narrative.

Toward the end of the book, Shavit looks to the future with the kind of moral clarity that should permeate all our conversations about Israel and the Palestinians: “Will the Jewish state dismantle the Jewish settlements, or will the Jewish settlements dismantle the Jewish state? There are only four paths from this junction: Israel as a criminal state that carries out ethnic cleansing in 

the occupied territories; Israel as an apartheid state; Israel as a binational state; or Israel as a Jewish-democratic state retreating with much anguish to a border dividing the land.” 

He’s clear that Zionism “is up to its neck in the calamitous reality that it has created on the West Bank.” Retreat Israel must, for its own sake and for justice for the Palestinians. Like Shavit, we may well have to use loaded terms and strategies to help make this happen.

James D. Brown
Santa Fe, N.M.